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Ex-Soviet spy details Rosenbergs’ roles in Cold War espionage

March 16, 1997 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Breaking decades of silence on perhaps the most sensational espionage case of the Cold War, a retired Soviet spy says Julius Rosenberg helped organize a 1940s espionage ring for Moscow but was not directly involved in stealing U.S. secrets about the atomic bomb.

Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were executed in the Sing Sing electric chair in 1953 for what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the ``crime of the century″ _ helping the Soviet Union get their hands on blueprints for the atomic bomb in World War II. The Rosenbergs went to their deaths, the only Americans ever executed for spying, insisting they were innocent.


The new twist in the long-argued story of treachery comes from Alexander Feklisov, 83, a retired KGB officer who has stepped forward with a detailed account of the Rosenbergs’ role.

Feklisov said he held clandestine meetings with Julius Rosenberg in New York from 1943 to 1946 and claims to be the only Soviet intelligence officer still alive with firsthand knowledge of the Rosenberg case.

He told The Washington Post, Cox News Service and The New York Times that Rosenberg passed valuable secrets about U.S. military electronics but played only a peripheral role in Soviet atomic espionage. And he said Ethel Rosenberg did not actively spy but probably was aware that her husband was involved.

``Julius was a great sympathizer of the Soviet Union,″ Feklisov said. ``Julius was a true revolutionary who was willing to sacrifice himself for his beliefs.″

He said neither he nor any other Soviet intelligence agent met Ethel Rosenberg.

``She had nothing to do with this. She was completely innocent,″ Feklisov said in an interview with The New York Times in Moscow. The retired KGB officer also told his story to The Washington Post, Cox News Service and the cable television network Discovery Channel, airing a documentary on the case next Sunday.

The Rosenbergs were convicted of spying and conspiracy mainly on the testimony of Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, and his wife, Ruth, who were arrested for conspiracy and confessed. Greenglass named Julius Rosenberg as his recruiter and also implicated Rosenberg’s wife, saying she had typed espionage material.

Feklisov said Julius Rosenberg recommended David Greenglass to him as a possible recruit in 1944. Greenglass worked as a mechanic at Los Alamos, N.M., where the first atomic bombs were assembled. Feklisov insists the Greenglass provided little of use to Moscow, which had other valuable spies at Los Alamos.

Feklisov says the principal contributions by Rosenberg were secrets about U.S. military electronics. He cited Rosenberg’s passing of a fully functioning proximity fuse, a secret World War II U.S. innovation that enables an anti-aircraft missile to bring down its target without hitting it.

Rosenberg assembled a duplicate proximity fuse from discarded spare parts and smuggled it out of the Emerson Radio Factory in New York City in December 1944.

``I have a Christmas present for the Red Army,″ Feklisov quotes Rosenberg as telling him at their next meeting. The Soviet had arranged the meeting to give Rosenberg Christmas presents from the KGB, including an alligator handbag for Ethel.

Feklisov said Rosenberg took great risks to help the Soviets, often comparing his espionage exploits to those of the Soviet guerrilla fighters behind Nazi lines in World War II. This mindset, Feklisov said, explains Rosenberg’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI after his arrest in June 1950.

Feklisov’s claim that Rosenberg helped set up a military-industrial espionage ring but played only a peripheral role in atomic espionage is consistent with recently declassified U.S. intercepts of Soviet spy communications from the early 1940s. The so-called Venona intercepts found the first clues that the Soviets tried to steal blueprints for the atomic bomb.

Feklisov was a behind-the-scenes intermediary between the KGB and the White House during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The Rosenberg’s children, Michael and Robert Meeropol, have worked for years to clear their parents’ names. Efforts to contact them Sunday were unsuccessful. Michael Meeropol told the Post the family would reserve judgment about Feklisov’s assertions until they watch the Discovery Channel documentary.