For 47 years, Russia has depicted Julius Rosenberg as a victim of a communist witch hunt, but now his one-time Soviet spy controller has revealed that Rosenberg handed him dozens of military secrets.
Retired KGB Col. Alexander Feklisov said that among the secret material turned over by Rosenberg was an early smart bomb mechanism and a hand-drawn diagram of a lens mold used in making the U.S. atomic bomb.
Feklisov insisted that the atomic information the Russians obtained from Rosenberg was insignificant. But his account _ the only first-hand confirmation to date from a Russian intelligence veteran of Rosenberg's spying activity _ lends new weight to the U.S. prosecution case that sent the 34-year-old Rosenberg to the electric chair. And it flatly contradicts Rosenberg's sworn account at his trial that he had not been involved in espionage.
However, Feklisov's recollections cast fresh doubts about the fate of Ethel Rosenberg. His portrayal of her as an innocent who never met with a Soviet agent adds credence to those who have long insisted that she was wrongly put to death at the age of 37.
Speaking in an interview in the Cox Newspapers Moscow Bureau, Feklisov told of dozens of furtive meetings with his "very true friend" Julius Rosenberg in the 1940s, including an extraordinary exchange of wrapped gifts at a Manhattan cafeteria on Christmas Eve morning 1944.
Feklisov said Rosenberg's gift turned out to be a radar-controlled proximity fuse, one of the world's first "smart" weapons, that Soviet engineers replicated and put to deadly use against U.S. forces in the years ahead. The Russian spy veteran said one such fuse was used to shoot down U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union in 1960.
"I first met Julius Rosenberg in the second half of 1943," remembered Feklisov, who was then a junior spy-handler based at the Soviet consulate-general in Manhattan. "I had maybe 50 meetings with him."
Now 83 and one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of Russian intelligence, Feklisov, speaking in clear but accented English, confirmed the still-controversial 1951 allegation by U.S. prosecutors that Rosenberg passed Russian agents a sketch of a so-called "lens mold" used in making the U.S. atomic bomb.
But he downplayed its significance, saying Soviet experts "couldn't get a fraction of useful information" from the drawing and supporting material, which he said Rosenberg handed him in early January 1945.
"Julius practically didn't give any atomic information," Feklisov maintained, adding it was a minor sidelight to Rosenberg's achievements as the ideologically motivated organizer of a ring of a half-dozen wartime Soviet spies in American electronics and aircraft-making plants.
Feklisov first told about his role as Julius Rosenberg's case officer four years ago to Svetlana Chervonnaya, a historian at Russia's Institute of USA and Canada, with a view toward collaborating on a book. The book has yet to be written.
The first foreign journalist to record Feklisov's story was American television producer Edward Wierzbowski for the Discovery Channel, which plans to broadcast a documentary on the Rosenbergs on March 23.
Testimony about the Manhattan Project's lens mold _ used in manufacturing the part of the atomic bomb that focuses its explosive force inward _ was among the central accusations that resulted in the conviction of the Rosenbergs in 1951 on a charge of conspiracy to commit espionage.
Denied clemency by President Dwight Eisenhower despite a worldwide clamor that they were victims of the anti-communist hysteria of the time, the Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at New York's Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953. They maintained their innocence to their death.
"Julius and Ethel are heroes, real heroes," said Feklisov, a white-haired pensioner who is hard of hearing but mentally alert. "They died young. Some people say that heroes have to be young."
Feklisov, who remains a dedicated communist, would go on to become the Soviet control officer of the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs in England during the late 1940s and then a key KGB intermediary in Washington in resolving the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. He said he is telling his story now out of conviction that the Rosenbergs' execution had been unjust.
"I don't want to take this story to my grave," Feklisov said, although he noted he was speaking without the acquiescence of his former spy agency, which continues to deny him permission to publish his reminiscences.
Gen. Yuri Kobaladze, chief spokesman of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, said in an interview Friday that Feklisov had been refused permission to publish certain details of his espionage career. He expressed surprise and exasperation at learning Feklisov was telling this story.
"He is upset. He wants to do his best to defend the Rosenbergs. And he thinks this is the best way to do it," Kobaladze said, refusing to say whether the Rosenbergs were Soviet agents. "We can't stop him. We can't say he is right or wrong. Simply we don't comment."
Until now, the strongest confirmation of Julius Rosenberg's role on the Russian side was a bit of hearsay in Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs, in which the deposed Soviet leader recalled hearing from dictator Josef Stalin that western spies, including the Rosenbergs, "provided significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb."
While Feklisov portrayed Rosenberg as having procured even more secrets than the FBI could ever prove, he cast Ethel Rosenberg as a homebody in frail health, tending her toddler son. She "wasn't doing anything for us," Feklisov said.
He acknowledged that, like her husband, she was sympathetic to communist ideology and "she knew about his (Julius') work." But, Feklisov insisted, Ethel Rosenberg never even met a Soviet agent, directly contradicting the reasons cited by President Eisenhower in refusing to grant her clemency.
Ethel Rosenberg "has obviously been the leader in everything they did in the spy ring," Eisenhower said in a letter to his son, John.
By Feklisov's account, Rosenberg's most crucial contribution to Soviet intelligence was as a recruiter and information-forwarder for a ring of wartime spies mainly made up of a half-dozen of his leftist-minded male friends from engineering classes at City College of New York.
Feklisov named four such friends, whom he said Rosenberg recruited to supply military secrets from their wartime jobs. Each has been the target of lengthy and inclusive FBI espionage investigation, but none has ever acknowledged spying. They were Morton Sobell, William Perl, Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr.
Only occasionally, said Feklisov, was Rosenberg able to use his own wartime position as a civilian inspector for the U.S. Signal Corps to come up with intelligence trophies of his own.
One such instance occurred in 1943, Feklisov recalled. He said that was when Rosenberg passed the Russians a description of a secret new radio beacon that allowed allied warplanes to avoid shooting down other allied pilots. Called Identification of Friend or Foe technology, it was the forerunner of a fratricide-avoidance system that has become standard throughout the world.
On Dec. 24, 1944, according to Feklisov, Rosenberg made a far greater contribution: delivery of a proximity fuse.
Feklisov recalled how he and Rosenberg met that Christmas Eve morning at the Horn & Hardart's automat.
They separately entered the New York cafeteria carrying Christmas packages, and each bought coffee, not acknowledging the other, according to Feklisov.
"I saw he was sitting at a table alone," Feklisov remembered. "I sat in front of him. In a quiet voice I said to him, "Evidently you saw I brought a present to you.' He just nodded. And I said, "I saw you brought a present, too.' And just after that we parted. He drank his coffee, took my present and went out."
Rosenberg left, carrying presents that Feklisov and his wife had bought at Gimbel Brothers department store.
After Rosenberg departed, Feklisov said he picked up the heavy box Rosenberg left for him near a coat rack, wrapped in yellowish-brown paper to look like a Christmas present.
After lugging the box across town in a taxi to the Soviet consulate-general, Feklisov opened the package inside the metal-shuttered safe room in the field station of Soviet intelligence.
"I understood at once that it was a proximity fuse," Feklisov said.
The proximity fuse was one of the four most important secret breakthroughs by American physicists that helped turn the tide of World War II, Daniel Kevles, a scientific historian at the California Institute of Technology, said in a book published in 1971.
Soviet SA-2 missiles equipped with proximity fuses shot down six U-2s _ the Powers plane over the Soviet Union in 1960, another in 1962 over Cuba and four over China, according to David Isby, an expert on Russian weaponry.