Forty-two years after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason, government documents released Tuesday detailed the couple’s espionage activities for the Soviet Union during World War II.
“This may lay to rest a major controversy of the post-World War II era: Were the Rosenbergs spies?” said David Kahn, an assistant opinion-page editor for Newsday who is on a year’s leave to serve as historian-in-residence at the National Security Agency.
Speaking during a declassification ceremony at CIA headquarters Tuesday, Kahn, an expert on cryptography, concluded, “The Rosenbergs spied for the Soviet Union against the United States.”
The newly revealed documents - decoded transcripts of secret Soviet communications from the 1940s, known as the “Venona” project - mention money, including a $4,000 “bonus” for Julius Rosenberg in 1945, cameras and film given to him.
A transmission from Sept. 15, 1944, indicates that Julius Rosenberg told the Soviets that the United States was trying to perfect a system to drop an atomic bomb on Japan.
Throughout the messages, Julius Rosenberg is referred to only by his code names, first “Antenna” and later “Liberal.” In one of the few transmissions that cites Ethel Rosenberg, she is called “Liberal’s wife … first name Ethel.”
The Rosenbergs were convicted of selling American atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets and sentenced to death in 1951. They were executed two years later.
“This is the stuff of spy novels,” CIA Director John Deutch said of the Venona project, hailed Tuesday as one of the greatest triumphs in American spybusting history.
Deutch said U.S. cryptologists were able to break the encryption because Soviet agents slipped up, repeating the patterns of old messages.
Decoding the intercepted communications between KGB intelligence agents and Soviet attaches allowed the FBI to pursue and prosecute the Rosenbergs and others who were seeking to steal secrets of the fledgling American atomic program.
Just 49 of the more than 2,200 Venona transcripts were released Tuesday; the rest will be unveiled during the next year.
Taken all together, the Venona materials present a “clear” picture of a massive Soviet espionage ring in America during World War II, said William Crowell, deputy director of the National Security Agency.