Seventy years ago, on June 19, 1953, our parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed after being convicted of federal charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. They were in their 30’s, and we were 10 (Michael) and 6 (Robert) when we last visited them at Sing Sing, the prison north of New York City where they were electrocuted. Today, compelling doubts about our mother’s guilt persist, and we call on the U.S. government to immediately release all documents related to her prosecution and execution, so that we and all Americans can finally know the truth about her case.
Though we grew up believing in our parents’ innocence, as adults we adjusted our views as we learned more about the case. We came of age in the post-Watergate climate of the 1970’s, when, like today, there was great concern about government secrecy and the over-classification of government documents. In 1975, we rode the wave of the strengthened Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to file a precedent-setting FOIA request for files related to our parents’ case.
Some questioned our demand to open the files. They queried, “You are asking for the government’s documents — what if they show your parents were guilty?” We responded that the truth was more important than our beliefs. Our slogan was “Open the files,” and our approach was “to let the chips fall where they may.”
And they did. Some files bolstered our claims that our parents were framed. For instance, we learned that the trial Judge, Irving R. Kaufman, secretly communicated with the prosecution team, including the infamous late Roy Cohn, an assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute our parents and played a crucial role in convicting our mother by orchestrating what may have been perjurious testimony. After his victory in the Rosenberg trial, Cohn went on to advance the anti-democratic Cold War excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), consort with organized crime figures and serve as an attorney for and mentor to the young Donald Trump. Before his death in 1986, Cohn, was disbarred in New York State for “unethical” legal behavior.
Conversely, the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) release in 1995 of the VENONA transcripts of secret Soviet communications demonstrated that our father engaged in military-industrial espionage for the Soviet Union in the 1940’s. This revelation was disturbing, but we’re our parents’ children, not their attorneys, and knowing what happened was more important than our initial belief. We have never regretted our commitment to freedom of information, and it still guides us today.
But while the VENONA transcriptions incriminated our father, they also contained exculpatory evidence related to our mother. For instance, we learned that the KGB gave all its agents code names, but our mother was not given one. We have since had to grapple with the possibility that the U.S. government knew our mother was not a spy but charged, convicted, and executed her in a failed effort to pressure our father to cooperate.
Although our detailed 1975 FOIA request covered 18 federal agencies, we did not include the NSA in it, because we did not know at that time that the agency was involved. Moreover, the government did not offer any hint in response to our FOIA request of a role for the NSA. After the NSA’s 1995 release of the VENONA files, we thought it had made public everything it possessed, including a memo from the chief decrypter of secret Soviet communications, which indicated that he did not believe our mother was a spy. It took us more than 20 years to realize that the NSA may not have released all accompanying materials to the transcripts of secret Soviet communications. That realization prompted us last July to file two FOIA requests with the NSA and the National Archives to release all files related to our mother.
The response to our requests has been slow. In December, the National Archives informed us that they had as many as 500,000 pages in more than 200 classified boxes that could be relevant to our request. The NSA responded that they had other boxes as well. We were told that it will take years just to review the documents, let alone declassify them and make them public.
While this information is powerfully personal to us, it is also crucial to our nation and to the rule of law that the truth about this historic case be known. We agree with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who said in January 2023, “Over-classification undermines critical democratic objectives, such as increasing transparency to promote an informed citizenry and greater accountability.” We also agree with Republican U.S. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, who recently described the declassification process as “about as effective as using an eye dropper to drain a flood.”
As we requested in writing in our 2022 FOIA request, we now publicly call on Haines to instruct the NSA and the National Archives, as allowed by an Obama executive order on national security information, to release all records related to our mother’s case. We applaud the recent bipartisan effort to reform the classification system, but it will do little to address the current backlog of millions of documents unless intelligence agencies dramatically alter their methods of releasing decades-old papers languishing in innumerable files. What better way to get the ball rolling than to make a wholesale release, without further delay or review, of materials related to the 70-year-old case of our mother, Ethel Rosenberg. Doing this would make clear that the same principle of transparency driving reformers such as Haines today must apply to the past.
Just as justice delayed is justice denied, so information delayed is information denied. We are now 80 and 76, and we would like to know the full truth about our mother’s case before we die. On the 70th anniversary of our parents’ execution, we call on Haines to follow her own wise counsel and direct the NSA and the National Archives to open these files to us and to every American. Let the chips fall where they may.