The Magazine

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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Writing in the second edition of We Are Your Sons, a book he coauthored with his brother Robert, Michael Meeropol described his reaction to Tartakow’s account of what Julius had told him. The Perl story at first made him “concerned” since it was “the closest that they come in the entire book to a real live incident of espionage.” But Meeropol goes on to explain that the late Walter Schneir told him that “there was no system for checking out anything at that lab.” Meeropol also emphasized that no one had seen or known of Perl’s removing any documents from the building. 

The absence of a witness led Meeropol to claim that Perl had removed nothing from von Karman’s safe and that the entire incident had been fabricated by the bureau in order to build a case against Perl for the purpose of pressing him to confess to being part of Rosenberg’s ring.

Now, with Sobell’s new confession, it is clear that Perl did remove documents from the safe and give them to Sobell and others to photograph, documents that proved to be of immense help to the Soviet Union early in the Cold War. 

Sobell still refuses to identify the fourth photographer. The material was copied at 65 Morton Street in Greenwich Village in an apartment leased to Alfred Sarant. During the war, Sarant lived there with Joel Barr, both active members of the Rosenberg ring. When Rosenberg was arrested, Sarant and Barr fled, first to Czechoslovakia and later to the Soviet Union.

After the war, and before the FBI closed in on Rosenberg and company, Sarant sublet the apartment to several friends. During this period a man named Max Finestone moved in. FBI files refer to him as Rosenberg’s last recruit, an assertion supported by recent leaks from the KGB archives. Finestone stonewalled the FBI, refusing to discuss his relationship with Rosenberg or admit to any connection with espionage. When Sol Stern and Ronald Radosh interviewed Finestone in 1978, he firmly denied knowing anything about espionage and complained about the direction of the questions he was asked. 

But in February 2011, interviewed on the phone by Steve Usdin, Finestone admitted, “I was aware that something was happening.” More specifically, he told Usdin, “At the time, I knew they were providing information to the Soviets.” Even so, Finestone hedged, stating that he’d been only dimly aware of what his roommates were doing and had no idea of what kind of information they were giving the KGB. 

This doesn’t seem credible. Finestone knew that Sarant, Barr, Rosenberg, and their friends were engineers working on military technologies. Did he think they were giving the Russians copies of Chinese takeout menus? 

Finestone must have at least guessed what was going on, and it is likely he was an active accomplice. The late James Weinstein, a well-known socialist publisher and editor in the 1970s and ’80s, had been Finestone’s roommate at Cornell University. After graduation, when both men were living in New York, Finestone suddenly told Weinstein he had to move out of his apartment quickly, and the two became roommates again. Weinstein remembered going to see Finestone at the Morton Street apartment and finding a table set up with photographic lights and Leica cameras. When he asked what it was for, Finestone told him it was for photographing “sheet music.” 

Another point must be made about the photography party Sobell remembers so fondly. The incident occurred long after anyone could argue that the Soviet Union was under threat from the Nazis or that the USSR was an American ally. In his memoir, On Doing Time, Sobell wrote that after World War II he was convinced that war between the United States and the Soviet Union was inevitable, and that it would be the fault of the United States. Sobell’s actions make it clear that in the event of this conflict, he would stand with the Soviet Union.

Asked in December when he stopped spying, Sobell replied: “I didn’t.” He explained that he’d continued to funnel secrets to the KGB up until shortly before he fled to Mexico in June 1950. That escapade ended when the Mexican police tracked Sobell down, whacked him on the head with a pistol butt, drove him to the Texas border, and turned him over to the FBI.

Sobell was tried along with the Rosenbergs. Following their execution, idealistic men and women around the world organized passionate protests and campaigns in a futile effort to get their codefendant liberated from Alcatraz. Having served 18 years in federal prisons, Sobell was finally released in 1969, still asserting his innocence. 

For decades, Sobell’s response to mounting evidence against him and Julius Rosenberg was to hurl invective at anyone who questioned their loyalty. Max Elitcher’s sworn testimony that Sobell and Rosenberg had openly discussed their espionage activities was perjury, Sobell said. Decrypted KGB cables implicating Sobell and his comrades he insisted had been forged and/or grossly misinterpreted. A sentimental former KGB officer’s efforts to rehabilitate Sobell and the Rosenbergs as Soviet patriots were, Sobell maintained, slanderous senile ravings. 

The vehemence of Sobell’s denials over so many years made his confession in 2008 all the more remarkable. Still, the Times story was less of a bombshell than it might have been because it provided a forum for Sobell to justify and minimize his spying. It reiterated lies that have long comforted the Rosenbergs’ supporters and muddied the historical record. 

In fact, there is no evidence that Sobell or other members of the Rosenberg ring ever withheld any information they thought could be useful to Stalin and the USSR. In the five years between the end of the war and the unraveling of the Rosenberg spy ring, Sobell had access to a wealth of classified military material, including detailed information about the characteristics and capabilities of every American bomber, designs for analogue and digital computers used to automate antiaircraft weapons, and specifications for land-based and airborne radars that were later deployed in Korea. 

When the Cold War turned hot in Korea, this technology was used to kill American soldiers. High Air Force and NACA officials told the New York World-Telegram on July 9, 1953, that data stolen by Perl were probably used in the design of the Russian high-tailed MiG fighter jet that was deployed in Korea against American airmen. One unnamed source, described as a “top Air Force expert on aero-dynamics,” told these officials that “the unusual tail of the  MiG was specifically a NACA development, as was another antiturbulence design feature which showed up on the  MiG a surprisingly short time after the Air Force, with NACA help, had perfected it.” The World-Telegram quoted NACA director Hugh Dryden as saying that “Perl was in a position to supply information which could fill out a bigger picture of a whole field of information.”

Sobell’s recent second confession finally clears up some of the few remaining points of contention about the Rosenberg case—what exactly Sobell contributed, whether he and his comrades gave the Soviets valuable information, and whether it is appropriate to dismiss their actions as youthful indiscretions in aid of a wartime ally. By confirming that he was one of the group who photographed material filched by Perl, Sobell demolished the lie that the Rosenberg ring stole only inconsequential data and engaged in mere “industrial espionage.” He also revealed that, while there is no evidence he engaged in atomic espionage—with which he is associated in the public mind because of his coconspirators—he was guilty of giving the Soviet Union secret data that advanced the capabilities of the Soviet military machine. He has thus put the last nail in the coffin of the arguments of the Rosenbergs’ apologists, who continue to insist that the couple were framed and executed by the U.S. government for their political ideas.

Ronald Radosh, coauthor of The Rosenberg File, is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a blogger for Pajamas Media. Steven T. Usdin is the author of Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley and “The Rosenberg Archive,” a historical timeline at www.wilsoncenter.org/cwihp/rosenberg


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