The Coalition Column

Federal Court Orders Release of Rosenberg Trial Grand Jury Records

Lee White, September 2008

On July 22, 2008, a federal court in New York ruled that the government must release most of the sealed grand jury records from the 1951 indictment of alleged Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The lead petitioner in the case was the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The lawsuit was joined by the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, and New York Times reporter Sam Roberts.

In response to a petition filed by the plaintiffs, the government conceded in a June filing that the Rosenberg case is of "significant historical importance," and therefore said it would not contest the release of testimony of witnesses who have passed away or consented to the disclosure. On the basis of the government's concession, Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York said he would order release of the testimony of 36 witnesses. Judge Hellerstein has scheduled a follow-up hearing on August 26 to consider unresolved issues and to set a time frame for the release of the materials.

Judge Hellerstein reserved ruling on three additional witnesses that appear to be deceased and four witnesses that the government said it could not locate, and ordered the government to make greater efforts to confirm the status of these witnesses.

With regard to several living witnesses that objected to release of their testimony, including David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, Judge Hellerstein said he would deny the petition for release and allow these materials to remain secret. Finally, he suggested that grand jury materials from the related proceeding against Abraham Brothman and Miriam Moskowitz should be released, but said he will wait to rule until the government determines whether the witnesses are dead or consent to release.

In a subsequent brief, the petitioners argued that David Greenglass's testimony should be released, despite the fact that Greenglass did not consent, because he has waived his privacy interest by discussing the case with numerous historians and journalists and has admitted to giving false testimony about the role of Ethel Rosenberg in the alleged spy ring.

The petitioners' brief and supporting declarations also presented evidence that several of the witnesses that the government could not locate—including Perry Alexander Seay, William Perl, and Michael Sidorovich—had passed away, and therefore argued that their testimony should be released. Petitioners further challenged the government's assertion that the material from the Brothman-Moskowitz grand jury should not be released, arguing that that prosecution "is especially significant to understanding the Rosenberg-Sobell case because of the interlocking nature of the two prosecutions" and because of the critical testimony of two high-profile witnesses, Harry Gold and Elizabeth Bentley, who did not appear before the Rosenberg grand jury but whose testimony was important in both trials.

"For historians, the Rosenberg grand jury records represent the last piece in the puzzle of what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called ‘the case of the century,'" explained the National Security Archive's director, Tom Blanton. "The government's concessions establish a strong precedent that even in traditionally secret areas of government activity, like a grand jury, the public still has an interest and the records still belong to the public." According to Bruce Craig, whose landmark case, In re Craig, 10 years ago paved the way for grand jury records of historic interest to be unsealed, "the opening of the Rosenberg grand jury records is a milestone event for historians. For the first time the government has not objected to historians' contention that grand jury records of notable historic cases can and should be opened when appropriately justified."

The original petition filed last January extensively relied on the supporting declarations of historical and legal experts. These included historian John W. Berresford, National Security Archive director Thomas Blanton, University of Prince Edward Island professor and former executive director of the National Coalition for History Bruce Craig, law student Jennifer Dillard, Yale University professor John Lewis Gaddis, Library of Congress manuscript historian John Earl Haynes, Temple University professor Allen M. Hornblum, Professor Ronald Radosh, New York Times reporter and historian Sam Roberts, Yeshiva University professor Ellen W. Schrecker, George Mason University professor Martin J. Sherwin, St. Joseph's University professor Katherine A.S. Sibley, Marquette University professor emeritus Athan G. Theoharis, and historian Steven Usdin. In addition, Robert Meeropol, on behalf of the families of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, submitted a declaration in support of the release of the grand jury records.

—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.