A judge on Tuesday ordered the release of key secret grand jury testimony in the atomic spy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, citing its value to historians in the debate over national security versus freedom.
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The ruling from U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein pertained to witnesses whose sealed testimony was taken in 1950 and 1952. The witnesses are still alive but have not consented to the release or could not be located.
The Rosenbergs were convicted of passing nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union and were executed in 1953. Since then, decoded Soviet cables have appeared to confirm that Julius Rosenberg was a spy, but doubts have remained about Ethel Rosenberg's involvement.
The judge gave the government two months to appeal.
In his ruling, Hellerstein cited the importance of history in resolving tension between U.S. security and the vigorous expression of the freedoms that make our society great.
"Each generation has defined its own answer," he said. "And each generation needs to explore the history of the past to understand fully the context in which these polar extremes come into clashes with one another. ... So history of how we dealt with these problems in the 1940s and 1950s is a current history, and a history that is very important for us to understand."
Federal prosecutors had already agreed to release the records of 35 of the 45 witnesses. Hellerstein's ruling means testimony from all but three witnesses can be public.
Georgetown University law professor David C. Vladeck, representing several historical groups, said the testimony will help reveal how the U.S. government responded to perceptions that its own citizens could be corrupted by the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War.
"This is terrific," he said. "This was a huge deal for us."
He said Hellerstein's ruling also would help Americans understand how their government acted in the past in very similar times to the present.
Vladeck said he was also pleased that the judge ordered the release of secret grand jury testimony in another Cold War spy case, that of Abraham Brothman and Miriam Moskowitz.
The engineers were accused of spying and prosecuted for obstruction of justice. Brothman received a seven-year prison sentence; Moskowitz received a two-year sentence.
A prosecutor told Hellerstein that Moskowitz called him Monday night to say she no longer opposed the release of her grand jury testimony.
Vladeck said that it was well known that Moskowitz refused to answer questions during her grand jury testimony but that the questions posed by prosecutors would give insight into the U.S. government's approach in the case.
"You learn as much, sometimes more, from prosecutor's questions," he said.
Vladeck said the 92-year-old Moskowitz does not believe she has been treated fairly in historical accounts of the era.
Among those seeking release of the material in the Rosenberg and Brothman/Moskowitz cases were the National Security Archive based at George Washington University, the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Archivists.