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Rosenberg spy-case transcripts deepen insight

The transcript shows that Ethel Rosenberg was willing to tell the grand jury that she was 34 years old and that she lived at 10 Monroe St. in New York City with her husband, Julius.

The transcript shows that Ethel Rosenberg was willing to tell the grand jury that she was 34 years old and that she lived at 10 Monroe St. in New York City with her husband, Julius.

She was willing to tell the jurors, in words made poignant by the knowledge of what came later, that she had two children, ages 7 and 3. But beyond that she would say nothing, even as the questions flew at her.

"Are you a member of the Communist Party?" prosecutor Myles Lane pressed.

"I decline to answer that question on the ground that this might tend to incriminate me," Rosenberg answered.

"Are you a member of the Young Communist League?"

"Again I decline to answer. . . ."

"Were you ever a member of the Communist Party?"

"I decline to answer. . . ."

She was arrested as she left the grand-jury hearing that day, Aug. 11, 1950.

Yesterday, the voices of an earlier American age emerged fresh and harsh as the government released more than 900 pages of secret grand-jury testimony from the defining espionage case of the Cold War. Historians started digging into the nearly 60-year-old records, seeking new details about the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose conviction and executions transfixed the nation in the 1950s.

"It's really incredible stuff," said Temple University historian Allen Hornblum, excited as he read the transcript. "Some things confirm what we know. Other things are totally new. It's not 'guilt or innocence,' but it totally fleshes out the characters."

The Rosenbergs were accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II, when the Soviets were America's allies, and were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage during a sensational 1951 trial. Two years later, they became the first, and so far only, American civilians to be executed for spying, put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing.

Hornblum and Katherine Sibley, a St. Joseph's University historian, were among those who sought the records. They joined the National Security Archive, an independent research group at George Washington University, in asking a federal judge to open the testimony of about 50 witnesses who appeared before the grand jury from August 1950 through March 1951.

Government lawyers mostly consented, agreeing that the case's historic importance merited a legal exception to the rule that seals grand-jury records forever.

At noon yesterday, the National Archives and Records Administration posted the transcript on its Web site, making the once-secret words of figures such as Harry Gold and Ruth Greenglass instantly accessible.

"It's fascinating to see this stuff in the flesh," Sibley said.

She immediately went to the Aug. 11, 1950, testimony of Ethel Rosenberg - surprised at how the woman portrayed as a meek housewife stood up to tough questioning.

At one point, Rosenberg insisted on speaking with her lawyer.

"What do you need counsel for?" prosecutor Lane asked.

"I feel I need legal counsel," Rosenberg answered.

"For what reason?"

"Whatever the reason might be."

"No, you have to give a reason . . ."

Historians at the National Security Archive said the most striking new evidence came from the testimony of Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's sister-in-law, who died this year. Contrary to her later trial testimony, Greenglass did not say that Ethel typed any of the information that was passed to the Soviets.

In fact, she said the information had been passed on in her own longhand.

At the trial, the prosector told the jury that Ethel Rosenberg had sat at a typewriter and "struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country."

The documents "cast significant doubt on the key prosecution charge used to convict Ethel Rosenberg at the trial and sentence her to death," said Ronald Radosh, coauthor of The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth.

That revelation was surprising partly because of the importance long accorded to the testimony of Ruth's husband, David Greenglass, Ethel's brother and a main witness against the couple at trial.

He allegedly gave the Rosenbergs secrets he stole from his job at the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory where scientists were creating the atomic bomb. At the trial, he said he had passed notes and sketches of the bomb to Julius Rosenberg. His testimony tying Ethel to espionage - that she typed his notes - was recanted decades later.

Greenglass, freed from prison in 1960, now lives under an assumed name. His grand-jury testimony was withheld because he objected to its release. The testimony of two lesser figures was also withheld, and the testimony of 10 other witnesses is being withheld for 60 days while the government decides whether to appeal its release.

Since the days leading to the couple's 1953 executions, the case has been dogged by questions about changed testimony, the nature of the information provided to the Soviets, and the government's insistence on the death penalty.

For many, the Rosenberg case represents Cold War paranoia run amok, two people executed on uncertain evidence after a prosecution that critics say was tinged with anti-Semitism. Others say that the Rosenbergs were guilty but that death was too harsh a penalty. And others see the conviction and executions as justice well served.

Hornblum, the Temple historian, is writing a book about Harry Gold, a central figure in the case who has been largely overlooked. The Philadelphia chemist helped the British turncoat Klaus Fuchs pass information to the Soviets. It was Gold's confession that led to the arrests of David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs.

"He was this little nebbish of a guy," Hornblum said. "The complete antithesis of James Bond."

Yesterday, Hornblum was amazed to read his subject's long-buried testimony.

"He is absolutely guilt-ridden. He's destroyed by what he has done," he marveled. "There are things in there we've never seen before."