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The Sobell Confession

Four men with Leica cameras, 1,885 pages of classified documents: the other secrets passed to Stalin by the Rosenberg ring.

Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By RONALD RADOSH and STEVEN T. USDIN
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FBI files reveal that the material was removed from von Karman’s safe between June 26 and July 9, 1948, most likely over the July 4 holiday weekend. The job was done by a NACA (predecessor of NASA) scientist named William Perl, who had traveled from the government agency’s offices in Cleveland to Columbia University, where von Karman worked. Perl, himself a brilliant aeronautical engineer, had been a trusted aide and friend of von Karman’s. Perl had the combination of his mentor’s personal safe, which contained classified material connected with von Karman’s role as chairman of the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board.

In 1951, a government informant, Jerome Eugene Tartakow, who shared Julius Rosenberg’s cell at Rikers Island while he was awaiting trial, told the FBI that Julius had bragged about the data Perl had taken from von Karman’s safe. Tartakow told the bureau that copying the documents had kept four men using Leica cameras busy for 17 hours, working against the clock so Perl could return the documents before they were missed. 

The FBI learned that during his visit to von Karman’s office, Perl had signed a receipt for a huge amount of classified material—35 test reports, a total of 1,885 pages—on such aerodynamics problems as a “comparison of hovering performance of helicopters powered by jet-propulsion and reciprocating engines, high speed wind tunnel tests .  .  . of the D-558 research airplane; and preliminary tests of the NACA 66-006 airfoil.” 

The files that Perl borrowed were of major value to the Soviet Union. In addition to the tests and diagrams of a plane, they included virtually everything that von Karman was working on for the U.S. government. Some of the data pertained to the Lexington report, a detailed study of the feasibility of nuclear-powered aircraft. 

Sitting in his apartment under a framed poster of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Sobell told Usdin how he, Rosenberg, Perl, and a fourth man he refused to identify had worked night and day over a weekend at an apartment used by the network. They had used Leica cameras to copy all von Karman’s files. On Monday morning, Sobell recalled, he and Rosenberg packed canisters of undeveloped 35 mm film in a box that was so big one man could barely carry it, took a train to Long Island, “and gave it to the Russians on the platform.” Sobell’s recollection dovetails perfectly with Rosenberg’s boast to Tartakow. 

As far as the KGB was concerned, the delivery couldn’t have come at a better time. Stalin had ordered a massive crash program to improve Soviet military aviation, and Cold War tensions had long since put an end to all technological collaboration between the Red Army and the West. 

Sobell didn’t miss a beat when asked about his motives: “I did it for the Soviet Union.” He explained that his support for the USSR was not the result of deep reading of Marx or Lenin, nor was it sparked by the economic meltdown he and his peers experienced during the Depression. Sobell was a Red Diaper Baby. His parents were both Communists; his mother led party meetings in the family’s apartment when Morton was a toddler. When Morton was a college student, his father, a pharmacist, was happy to supply condoms for his Communist friends. One of Morton’s uncles ran a Communist summer camp in the Catskills, and another worked as a secret courier, carrying messages between party officials in New York and their superiors in Moscow. It never occurred to Sobell to be anything other than a devoted Communist. In the ’30s and ’40s, that meant dedicating oneself to Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Sobell’s story about the Columbia safe caper succinctly encapsulates some of the most significant conclusions historians have drawn from the flood of documentation about the Rosenberg case released over the last 20 years. The evidence indicates that Rosenberg and his comrades were motivated by loyalty to the Soviet Union, not opposition to fascism as their defenders claim, and that the Rosenberg ring provided vast quantities of technical data to the Soviet Union that helped it achieve near parity with the United States in the skies over Korea and Vietnam.

Ironically, the Rosenbergs’ defenders have long argued that it was a slander on the memory of the late William Perl to imply that because he removed from a safe material he was authorized to see he had committed espionage. Indeed, the claim advanced by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in their 1983 book The Rosenberg File that Perl had removed the contents in order to photograph them for the Soviet Union was met with derision. Michael Meeropol, for example, referred to the incident sarcastically as “one of [Tartakow’s] most dramatic tales.” 

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