Julius and Jonathan

Editorial - New Jersey Jewish News - December 20, 2001

In 1951, Julius Rosenberg advised his brother-in-law and fellow spy to flee beyond the reach of United States federal authorities. So David Greenglass "got on a bus and went to the Catskills."

In 1985, Jonathan Pollard felt the federal net tightening around him and fled to the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC.

It took two years until Greenglass turned on Julius and his wife - Greenglass' own sister - Ethel Rosenberg.

It took only a few moments for the Israeli embassy to turn Pollard out and leave him to his fate.

Julius Rosenberg was guilty of atomic espionage for the Soviet Union.

Pollard was guilty of espionage for Israel.

Today, few recall the immense (though unjustified) appeal of the USSR to an American-Jewish public fearful of the rise of the Nazis, the apparent collapse of capitalism, and the powerful sway of isolationist and appeasement policies in the Western democracies. By the time Rosenberg and Greenglass were spying, "Uncle Joe" Stalin also had been a critical part of the Allied success over the Nazis.

"I didn't really see why" spying for Moscow was wrong, Greenglass told CBS's 60 Minutes II earlier this month, "because I didn't think the Russians were an enemy."

Today, few recall the atmosphere in which Israel was cut off from the flow of vital intelligence following its destruction of the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osiraq.

Israel, Pollard has said many times, was a vital American ally, so he was not guilty of spying for an enemy.

Neither context justifies the espionage; and in any event, the two contexts are hardly morally equivalent. Israel is a democratic state whose existence is justified by circumstance and history both ancient and contemporary. The USSR was a totalitarian dictatorship, the existence of which as a communist regime could not be justified.

Greenglass now admits he perjured himself as part of a deal with prosecutor Roy Cohn, in the hope of receiving less prison time and in order to protect his wife. On the basis of that perjured testimony, his sister was found guilty and electrocuted. The story is told in greater detail in a new book, The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair, by Sam Roberts.

Since Ronald Radosh's breakthrough 1983 study of the case, The Rosenberg File, we have known that Julius was guilty and Ethel was not. We know further that, in highly unusual ex parte conversations with the presiding Judge Irving Kaufman, Cohn pushed to find Ethel guilty and conspired to have death sentences imposed on both Rosenbergs. (J. Edgar Hoover opposed sentencing Ethel to death, not on the grounds that it would be unethical to send an innocent woman to the electric chair, but because dead, Ethel Rosenberg would become a martyr for the Left.)

We also know that the government's purpose was to use the prospect of sending Ethel to the electric chair to force her to testify against Julius, or, failing that, to leverage Julius into rolling over on the larger network of communist spies the government was sure he was protecting. It is deeply troubling to think that the U.S. government would play a game of chicken, trying to force Julius Rosenberg to blink first, and then knowingly send an innocent woman to her death.

It is equally troubling to try to imagine why successive U.S. administrations have refused to release Pollard, or even to spell out what an appropriate duration of his sentence might be. None of the explanations publicly offered rings true. After all, whatever the severity of his transgression (which is often inflated), at some point Pollard should be eligible for sentence commutation, parole, or presidential pardon. Otherwise, the anti-Pollard argument is that he must remain in prison until he dies.

When Bill Clinton tried to make Wye River concessions less unpalatable to Benjamin Netanyahu by offering him Pollard, George Tenet rushed to Wye and told the president he would resign as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency if Pollard were set free. Clinton backed down, and the Wye agreement was almost scuttled. A few days later, "sources" took the extraordinary step of leaking Tenet's resignation threat to The New York Times.

Just as the government wanted Ethel to testify against Julius and Julius to name names, the government wants Pollard to finger "Mr. X," an alleged Israeli super-mole who prosecutors believe provided Pollard with the reference numbers for the pilfered files.

The search for Mr. X first broke through the intelligence community veil in May 18, 1997, when the National Security Agency intercepted an encrypted transmission from the Mossad station chief in the Israeli embassy in Washington to his superior in Israel. The message concerned a request that the Mossad procure a copy of the version of a letter detailing U.S. commitments that were part of a U.S.-brokered deal to withdraw Israeli forces from Hebron.

"The ambassador wants me to use Mega to get the letter," the station chief said. His superior replied: "We do not use Mega for this." The National Security Agency shared the information with FBI counterintelligence agents, who thought "Mega" referred to Mr. X. The story was then leaked to The Washington Post.

This was doubly damaging - first, because it sent a shot across the bow warning Netanyahu that elements in Washington could still cause serious damage to United States-Israel ties. And second, because any other embassy that routinely intercepted Israeli transmissions could now compare those sentences published in the Post to the transmissions from the same day and break the code.

Mega resurfaced in March 1999 when a new book alleged that the Mossad had threatened Clinton with the release of wiretaps of Monica Lewinsky's phone conversations with him unless he dropped the hunt for Mr. X (aka Mega).

Both Julius and Jonathan were guilty of the crimes for which they were charged. At the same time, both Julius and Jonathan were treated in ways that discredit the spirit, and letter, of American justice. In one respect, however, there is a major difference between the two cases. It is too late to protest the death penalty for the Rosenbergs and the terrible injustice done to Ethel Rosenberg. But it is not too late to insist that justice be done in the matter of Jonathan Pollard, that he should not be punished for a crime for which he was not indicted, tried, or convicted - failure to name Mr. X, who may or may not be a figment of the fervid imagination sometimes at work in intelligence communities, including America's, that have internalized Delmore Schwartz's great line, "Even paranoids have enemies."


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