Three years ago, Morton Sobell gave an interview to Sam Roberts of the New York Times that surprised readers and stunned many who continued to believe that Sobell and his more famous codefendants, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were innocent victims of political persecution who had never spied for the Soviet Union.
Roberts’s piece was published on September 12, 2008. It reported that Sobell had “dramatically reversed himself” and “admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.” Sobell had also implicated Julius Rosenberg. Roberts asked “whether, as an electrical engineer, [Rosenberg] turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II when they were considered allies of the United States,” and “was he, in fact, a spy?” Sobell answered: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that. I never thought of it as that in those terms.”
But Roberts reported no specifics about the Rosenberg ring’s espionage activities, stating that Sobell had downplayed the significance of anything Rosenberg may have given to the Soviet Union. “What I did was simply defensive,” he told the Times. “There’s a big difference between giving that and stuff that could be used to attack our country.” As for anything Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, had given to the Soviets through Julius’s network, Sobell claimed, “What he gave them was junk.”
In effect, Sobell confessed to an ethical misdemeanor: passing along data of no consequence to an ally. This fits the current narrative of the Rosenbergs’ two sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol. They, too, recently conceded that their father was a Soviet agent, but argued his activities were honorable because he only was helping an ally. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, the Meeropols contend that their father was not responsible for any atomic espionage.
Julius Rosenberg was convicted on the basis of evidence that his ring had stolen atomic secrets, but the jury heard nothing to indicate what kind of information Sobell had given to the Soviets. He was convicted on largely circumstantial evidence. The most compelling testimony came from Max Elitcher, who told of driving to Sobell’s home on Long Island in 1948, shaking an FBI tail on the way, and then accompanying his friend on a late night drive to Manhattan. Elitcher testified that the two friends, former roommates, drove to East River Drive in New York City and parked on a deserted waterfront street named Catherine Slip. Sobell took a 35 mm film canister out of the glove compartment. Elitcher told the jury he waited in the car while Sobell delivered the film to Rosenberg, a few blocks away.
The jury also must have been impressed by the fact that Sobell, who had never traveled outside the United States, bolted to Mexico with his family soon after Julius’s arrest and immediately started inquiring about booking passage on a Soviet bloc freighter. The jurors saw through Sobell’s claim that he’d suddenly taken his family on a Mexican vacation.
Although the evidence clearly indicated that Sobell had been a member of the Rosenberg ring, neither the jury nor the public ever learned whether he’d been an important spy or a minor player. Above all, there was no information in the public domain indicating whether what he gave the KGB had put American lives at risk. When he finally admitted his guilt to Roberts, Sobell was adamant that he’d never harmed American national security.
Only in December 2010, in an interview with Steven Usdin, did Sobell reveal that he had indeed been a key participant in an espionage operation that provided an enormous amount of classified data to the KGB, information that was extremely useful to the Soviet military.
At 93, Morton Sobell is frail, and his mind comes and goes, but when Usdin asked if he could recall any specific incidents from his career as a Soviet spy, Sobell grinned from ear to ear and told a story from six decades ago as if it had occurred a month before. “Sure, I remember that time we got all the manuals and secrets from Langley Field from a safe at Columbia.” It was 1948 or 1949, he said, and the safe belonged to Theodore von Karman, at the time the world’s most prominent aerospace engineer, a man who shaped much of America’s postwar military strategy and who was trusted with some of the Pentagon’s most closely guarded secrets. Langley Field, near Hampton, Virginia, was one of the nation’s preeminent centers for military aviation design.