As the U.S. Department of Justice considers charging WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917, we speak with Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — the only U.S. citizens to be executed under the Espionage Act, in what’s been described as the most controversial death sentence in U.S. history. This week, Meeropol released a widely read statement in support of WikiLeaks called, “My Parents Were Executed Under the Unconstitutional Espionage Act—Here’s Why We Must Fight to Protect Julian Assange.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to another story. One of the top stories of the year, of course, has been WikiLeaks. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was released from a British jail this month, he downplayed the prospect of an extradition to Sweden, where he’s wanted for questioning on allegations of sex crimes. Speaking outside the courthouse, Assange said he is most concerned about extradition to the United States.
JULIAN ASSANGE: I don’t have too many fears about being extradited to Sweden. There are much bigger concerns about being extradited to the United States. We have a rumor today from my lawyers in the United States. We have not confirmed yet that there has been an indictment made against me in the United States.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Although Assange hasn’t been charged, there are reports the Justice Department has convened a grand jury in Virginia to indict him for WikiLeaks’ release of tens of thousands of secret government documents.
Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden confirmed the U.S. is looking at ways to pursue Assange while he remains under house arrest in Britain. In an interview on Meet the Press, Biden said he thinks Assange could be a, quote, “high-tech terrorist.”
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I would argue that it’s closer to being a high-tech terrorist than the Pentagon Papers. But look, this guy has done things that have damaged and put in jeopardy the lives and occupations of people in other parts of the world. He has made it more difficult for us to conduct our business with our allies and our friends.
AMY GOODMAN: U.S. officials have said Julian Assange could be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 and suggested laws could be amended to overcome any legal obstacles to his prosecution.
Well, the potential use of the Espionage Act has special significance for our next guest. In a moment we’ll speak with Robert Meeropol. He’s the younger son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They’re the only U.S. citizens to be executed for conspiracy to commit espionage, described as the most controversial death sentence in U.S. history.
The government alleged the couple, along with Morton Sobell, helped the Soviet Union acquire the secret of the atomic bomb. But supporters say there’s no evidence Ethel Rosenberg took part in espionage. And the Rosenbergs’ family has admitted that while Julius Rosenberg did pass on information to the Soviet Union, none of it aided development of the atomic bomb.
This is a clip of a newscast after the Rosenbergs’ execution.
NEWSREEL: Dateline: Sing Sing, June 19th, 1953. Someone had passed America’s atomic bomb secrets to Russia. This was an undisputed fact that the whole world knew. The federal government had laid the crime at the doorstep of two native New Yorkers, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But to the end, they both protested their innocence of the theft. In April of 1951, the federal court of Judge Irving R. Kaufman found the pair guilty as charged and sentenced them to death in the electric chair to pay for their crime of treason.
AMY GOODMAN: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were killed on June 19, 1953, after being sent to the electric chair at New York’s Sing Sing Prison. The Rosenbergs’ younger son, Robert Meeropol, was six years old at the time. He’s author of the autobiography An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey. He’s the founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. This week, he released a widely read statement in support of WikiLeaks called “My Parents Were Executed Under the Unconstitutional Espionage Act — Here’s Why We Must Fight to Protect Julian Assange.” Robert Meeropol joins us now from Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Why do feel people must fight to support Julian Assange?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, thank you for having me.
Well, there’s several layers that we should get into here. Perhaps the start is to understand what he may be indicted for — that is, conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act of 1917. A lot of people in the United States have been saying, since post-9/11 America — in post-9/11 America, that we feel we have echoes of the McCarthy period. But in the McCarthy period itself, we really had the echoes of the aftermath of our entry into World War I, that period between 1917 and the early 1920s. And World War I was very unpopular in the United States, and there was an effort to convince the public about this war, and that was a two-pronged effort. One was propaganda was put in place to drum up support for the war, but the other was the Espionage Act of 1917 was passed, basically to criminalize dissent. And this criminalization of criticism of government policy landed hundreds of people in jail, perhaps most famously Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president who ran from a jail cell and got almost a million votes in 1920. That whole panoply of repressive activity, that quieted down after a while. But in the McCarthy period, it was reinstituted.
And the act, the Espionage Act, has been criticized as an attempt to do an end run around the constitutional definition of “treason.” You see, the founders of our nation were very anxious to make sure that the term “treason” wasn’t thrown around to attack people who were dissenters. So they put, within the Constitution, a very narrow definition — giving aid and comfort to the enemy — in as the only way you could be convicted of treason. But as you saw in that television clip of the 1950s, my parents charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, here’s the press reporting “executed for their crime of treason.” So this was an effort to do an end run around the treason clause of the Constitution and turn dissent into treason.
Well, now we fast-forward to today, and we have the possibility that Julian Assange will be charged under that act. That act, by the way, is — it’s pages and pages and pages of things that you can’t do, and if you do it, if you disseminate, publicize, information that the government today declares secret, then you could be subject to massive prison sentences. And again, we have to place this in a broad context. A functioning democracy needs a free flow of information. But what we have in post-9/11 America is a vast expansion of the secrecy complex. So, vast amounts of material can be declared secret. And then, if you reveal those secrets, you could be sent to jail. And, of course, this — well, this undermines the basis for democracy. And that’s what’s going on here. And that doesn’t even get into the question of conspiracy.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Meeropol, younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. And he’ll stay with us after break. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, the adoptive father of the young sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Robert and Michael Meeropol. Robert Meeropol joins us now from Massachusetts, who put out a piece in call of support for Julian Assange, because his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the most famous case, the only people to be executed under the Espionage Act, that possibly the U.S. government is looking to charge Julian Assange with. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Robert, I’d like to ask you — this whole issue, as you were saying, about the government possibly trying to look at being able to charge Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, even if you get past — or those who believe that the Espionage Act is constitutional — the mere idea of charging someone who is not a U.S. citizen, who wasn’t even in the country, with a violation of the U.S. Espionage Act really begins to take the American legal system to whole new realms of arrogance, I would — it seems to me, in terms of its power around the world.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, yes, that’s true, but we shouldn’t forget the case of Manuel Noriega. The United States — and, of course, we have Guantánamo and black site prisons all over the world. Our government rejects the universal jurisdiction of other nations or of the World Court. But as far as we’re concerned, we are free to indict, and if we can get our hands on anyone anywhere all over the world. And that is, I would say, a prerogative of empire. It’s a reality we face. It’s not one that I approve of, but I think it’s the reality of today.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to some more news footage from June 1953. These reports are right before the Rosenbergs were executed, after their final appeals were rejected. One newscaster here lampoons the protesters who demonstrated in support of the Rosenbergs.
NEWSCASTER: Inside the stone walls of Sing Sing Prison, the Rosenbergs wait all day for word of their fate. It’s now more than two years since they were first sentenced to die for organizing atomic espionage for Russia. Rabbi Irving Koslowe, a prison chaplain, goes in. He will not leave until after the execution, which is being held before sundown, because the setting of the sun this Friday marks the beginning of the Holy Sabbath in the Jewish calendar. A matron, Mamie Crayton, comes out after seeing Ethel Rosenberg. She says the woman refuses to believe she’s going to die, insists she is innocent. State troopers surround the prison to prevent demonstrations. Again, there are none. The hours pass slowly. Julius Rosenberg, now 35, his wife Ethel, now 37, married 14 years and one day, parents of two boys, tonight dined on hard-boiled eggs, macaroni salad and tea. There was no time for the usual last meal. Their fate is decided in Washington. And here is that story from David Brinkley.
DAVID BRINKLEY: In these last minutes before the Rosenbergs are electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison, here’s how in Washington today their attorneys went through the last possible legal maneuvers to save them. It began at noon at the Supreme Court, normally quiet, but today surrounded by groups of the curious. The Court met at noon. At 12:06, it announced the decision to end the Rosenbergs’ stay of execution. That was a stay granted two days ago by Justice Douglas. That seemed to be the end, but it wasn’t. Their attorneys promptly asked for another stay while they appeal to President Eisenhower again for clemency. The Court said it would consider it.
Meanwhile, a lobbyist who came to Washington to work for the Rosenbergs kept up their parade in front of the White House. People riding by in automobiles shouted and asked why they didn’t go to Russia. But there was no other disorder, so the police left them alone. They even sang a little song somebody wrote especially for this occasion. But the picketing and singing did them no good, because at the Supreme Court, by this time, the government’s lawyers, having won their case, were leaving. The Court had refused again to delay the execution. A few minutes later, Emanuel Bloch, chief counsel, came out, read us a telegram he had sent to the President.
EMANUEL BLOCH: For sake of American tradition, prestige and influence, urge redress for Rosenbergs, demand you be afforded sufficient time to consider this serious matter.
DAVID BRINKLEY: The President’s answer came quickly. Here it is, read by a White House press officer.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS OFFICER: The following is part of a statement just issued by the President of the United States. “I am convinced that the only conclusion to be drawn from the history of this case is that the Rosenbergs have received the benefit of every safeguard which American justice can provide. There is no question in my mind that their original trial and the long series of appeals constitute the fullest measure of justice and due process of law. Throughout the innumerable complications and technicalities of this case no judge has ever expressed any doubt that they committed most serious acts of espionage. Accordingly, only most extraordinary circumstances could warrant executive intervention in the case.
“When democracy’s enemies have been judged guilty of a crime as horrible as that of which the Rosenbergs were convicted, when the legal processes of democracy have been marshaled to their maximum strength to protect the lives of convicted spies, when in their most solemn judgment the tribunals of the United States has adjudged them guilty and the sentence just, I will not intervene in this matter.”
DAVID BRINKLEY: The President and the Attorney General were standing by to the last, in case the Rosenbergs decided at the last minute they wanted to talk.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, in this news clip from the Sing Sing Prison, a reporter who witnessed the executions describes Ethel Rosenberg’s death in the electric chair. Like many in the news media at the time, the reporter, Bob Considine of the International News Service, indicates that he supports the executions.
BOB CONSIDINE: She died a lot harder. When it appeared that she had received enough electricity to kill an ordinary person and had received the exact amount that had killed her husband, the doctors went over and pulled down the cheap prison dress, a little dark green printed job, and placed the stethoscope — I can’t say it — placed the stethoscopes to her and then looked around and looked at each other, rather dumbfounded, and seemed surprised that she was not dead. Believing she was dead, the attendants had taken off the ghastly strappings and electrodes and the black belts and so forth. These had to be readjusted again, and she was given more electricity, which started again a kind of a ghastly plume of smoke that rose from her head and went up against the skylight overhead. After two more of those jolts, Ethel Rosenberg had met a maker she’ll have a lot of explaining to do to.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bob Considine of the International News Service describing the execution of Ethel Rosenberg. Our guest is Robert Meeropol in Massachusetts, her younger son. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Robert Meeropol, you were just a young boy at the time of this ghastly description. I’m wondering, your response? And also, as new evidence has emerged of — indicating that your parents were not involved in — certainly in espionage toward — of sending atomic secrets to the Russians, and that your mother was completely innocent. Your sense?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, first of all, you know, I’m sure it’s — it’s always hard for me to hear Bob Considine’s description, to relive the last day of my parents’ lives. And people may wonder, you know, how I can react in such a cool and calm manner. I mean, part of it is, is I’ve dedicated my life, through the Rosenberg Fund for Children, to providing for the educational and emotional needs of the children of targeted activists in the United States, my people who I consider kindred spirits, people suffering what I’ve suffered. And that, finding that positive outlet for my grief and rage and anger, has really enabled me, again, to respond in a positive manner.
That said, I think it’s very fitting that you focused on my mother, particularly in the context of the charges that Julian Assange may face, and that is conspiracy. My mother was involved in this case because she was deemed or dubbed a conspirator. She was convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. All that means is that — all that “conspiracy” means is that two for more people got together and planned to commit an illegal act and took one step in furtherance of that plan — could be a phone call, could be a conversation. Well, that was used in my parents’ case. My parents’ chief accusers, David and Ruth Greenglass, testified that my mother was present during the critical espionage meeting, and she typed up David Greenglass’s handwritten notes, descriptions of a sketch, that supposedly gave away the secret of the atomic bomb. Well, it’s come out since that this testimony was false and that David Greenglass himself has even admitted that. But even if it were true, that would mean that the United States government executed someone for typing.
Now, but it’s not surprising that the government would use conspiracy, whether it’s against my parents or whether it’s against the WikiLeaks people, because if you’re anybody who engages in conversation or discussion, and the government can get one person to testify that that discussion was to leak classified material, or to transmit information to the Soviet Union, in my parents case, they could be swept up in the dragnet. And you could get people to rat out their friends in order to get more lenient sentences. It sows distrust among the community of support. It scares other people into silence.
And so, what we see here is, if there is a criminal indictment for conspiracy, not an attack on just Julian Assange himself, but on the entire community of support that is seeking to promote the very revolutionary idea that the people have the right to know what their government is doing, that’s what this ultimately is all about. And every left-wing, every progressive organizer, every organizer, in general —- how can you engage in organizing, in getting groups of people to protest and coordinating activities, without engaging in what the government would term a conspiracy? And so, it is a threat to all of us. And that is really why I issued my call for us to recognize this. This Espionage Act of 1917 has been the sword of Damocles, sitting quietly, mostly unused, ready to spring out and attack dissenters. And when you have it in the context of the growing secrecy that we face today -—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: — and an authoritarian-oriented Supreme Court, it is a danger to us all.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Meeropol, we want to thank you very much for being with us, younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.