The Rosenberg Case

Sunday, March 9, 2008

DEBATE OVER the guilt or innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg has raged since they were tried (in 1951) and executed (1953) for being part of a communist spy ring for the former Soviet Union. While the transcript of the trial and other materials have been thoroughly scoured for information for books, monographs and the like, there is something that scholars of the Cold War espionage case would love to get their hands on: the transcripts of federal grand jury testimony. In the interest of history they should be released.

The closest most of us will come to hearing grand jury testimony is by watching an episode of "Law & Order." That's because almost all aspects of the process are kept secret. Some bits of testimony from the Rosenbergs' grand jury proceeding were quoted at the 1951 trial. But that's all. Thousands of pages remain under seal by the federal government, never to see the light of day -- unless someone sues for their release. Enter the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

In a filing with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in January, the archive joined with the Rosenberg family, scholars and historians to petition for the release of all grand jury records related to the indictment, conviction and execution of the Rosenbergs. A supporting memo to the petition argues, "None of the conventional justifications for grand jury secrecy applies to the Rosenberg records. The grand jury investigation was completed fifty-six years ago. Most of the grand jury participants are deceased, and any secrecy interests that may have attached to the grand jury records have eroded or evaporated completely."

It's not as if historically significant grand jury testimony hasn't been unsealed before. In 1999, the same federal court cited historical interest as a reason to release such records pertaining to the case of Alger Hiss, who was convicted of perjury in 1950 for lying about passing secrets to a communist spy. We urge the court to follow this precedent. Maybe then a puzzle that has fascinated generations of scholars will finally be complete.

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