by Dennis Bernstein
The U.S. Justice Department is now considering charging WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange with espionage under the 1917 Espionage Act. In a recent interview, syndicated on PacificaRadio’s Flashpoints show, I spoke to Robert Meeropol, founder of the Rosenberg Fund For Children. Meeropol is the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the only U.S. citizens to be executed under the 1917 Espionage Act. In a strong defense of Wikileaks, Assange and Bradley Manning, Meeropol released a statement stating:
My parents were executed under the unconstitutional Espionage Act, here’s why we must fight to protect Julian Assange.
In the following interview he talks about the history of the 1917 espionage Act, the execution of his parents and some of the political “Echoes” from the 1950’s red scare days that are reverberating today. Meeropol also talks movingly about how his parents’ unwillingness to cave in the face of government intimidation, even at the cost of their lives.
I think that resistance is inspirational. When people resist, they inspire others and if you combined the resistance with the inspiration you end up building a movement of support.
DB: Let’s begin this way, Robert Meeropol. The U.S. Congress is back in session, the Republicans are in charge of the House, and today they read the Constitution. Would that be relevant in your defense of Julian Assange?
RM: Well, I think that I would hope that in reading the Constitution they paid special attention to Article 3, Section 3, which is the treason clause which states that the only treason that can be…where someone can be convicted of treason against the United States, the only act they can do is to make war against the United States and give aid and comfort to its enemies. In other words, nothing else is treason.
And I hope the readers of the Constitution understand the implications of this; that the founders, those who wrote the Constitution, were very concerned that the term treason not include political dissenters, not be used as they called it an instrument of a political faction against another faction. And that is exactly what the Espionage Act does.
Let me step back for a minute. I support Julian Assange, ….I support him because I am in favor of freedom of information. I am against the idea that he would be prosecuted for releasing the truth to people all over the world. And that’s really what this case is all about.
But we have to step back historically to understand the context of the Espionage Act. The first context is to understand it as an effort to do an end run around the Treason Clause. How do we keep…how do we transform dissent into illegal activity if treason which is essentially illegal dissent, can only be taking up arms against the country and giving aid and comfort to the enemy? The way to do that is to call it by another name and that’s what the Congress did in the wake of the start of World War I. In 1917, the war was very unpopular so they made it illegal for people to speak publicly to the detriment of the United States.
And that resulted in hundreds of people being arrested and imprisoned purely for speaking out against that war. And that’s sort of the genesis of this. Now as time has gone on the act has been amended and it has also been criticized. It hasn’t been used that much. But it was used in my parents’ case. They were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage under the act. Course they weren’t prosecuted for their speech they were actually charged with committing espionage. So it’s a slightly different case, but they were also charged with conspiracy and that’s another aspect of this problem, which perhaps we can go into.
DB: Well, I would like to do that. But first just a clarification, Assange isn’t a U.S. citizen, so does it apply to him, in any way, shape or form?
RM: Well, you know there seems to be this idea, people believe that because you’re not a U.S. citizen you can’t be prosecuted under U.S. law. Well, perhaps we’ve forgotten the case of Manuel Noriega and various others. The United States is the world’s empire. There is nothing that prevents the United States, other than public opinion, from snatching anybody up anywhere in the world and charging them with breaking the law under our set of laws.
Now, of course, we’d be outraged if some other country came into the United States and took somebody else away, or sought to extradite someone to another country to be charged under their laws. But this is the prerogative of empire, I’m not saying I approve of it. But it’s the reality that we face today.
DB: Now could you talk a little bit for the new generations, who perhaps aren’t at all familiar with what happened to your mother and father. You were a young child at the time. This was a horrifying situation for you and those around you. Talk about what happened and how the government was willing to treat you, your family, the actions they took in the context of an alleged anti-government conspiracy. Please say a little bit more about how that plays in to what’s going on today and the atmospheric pressure around what’s going on today.
RM: Well, I think I want to focus there, in response to your question, on the question of conspiracy. I think it’s no accident that Assange is being threatened with a conspiracy prosecution, and that my parents were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. Under our law you can be guilty of conspiracy, all it takes for the government to prove a conspiracy is to have two or more people get together and take one act in furthering of an illegal plan. And that act can be as simple as a phone conversation or a person to person conversation. That’s it.
And so in my parents’ case, the evidence presented against my mother, and this was all in the context, they were charged with conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb at the height of the McCarthy period, the anti-communist hysteria of the early 1950’s. And my mother was involved in this conspiracy charge, the evidence presented against her was that she attended a key espionage meeting, which took place, the government said, between my parents and David and Ruth Greenglass. And David and Ruth Greenglass both testified that my mother was present at this meeting. And that she typed up David’s hand written notes of what took place at the meeting and a sketch that he…something that described a sketch that he gave to my father at that meeting.
Now this testimony was later shown to be false. But even if it had been true, it would mean that the government of the United States executed my mother for typing. But as I say it wasn’t true. Well how does this apply to the circumstances of today? Well, Julian Assange is being…well, they’re talking about charging him with conspiracy. What that means is that anybody who he associated with, who had a conversation with him about the WikiLeaks, who was involved in any way, could be swept up in the same drag net as long as the government could get one bit of testimony from someone that this conversation took place.
DB: Just to be clear would that include all those representatives of those big media outfits that have published material, and considered the material would they be implicated here?
RM: Well, that’s an interesting question. And that actually goes back to one of the other key espionage cases under the 1917 Act. Daniel Ellsberg was charged in the release of the Pentagon Papers case. Back in the 19…I guess it was early 1970’s with this same activity. His case was thrown out of court because the evidence was obtained by illegal means. But there were some, the court did indicate that those who were involved in publishing this material, The New York Times, The Washington Post, you know, might have been guilty of violating this law. So that’s a grey area that you have entered into.
And so it could go beyond the actual WikiLeaks community, however, even if it doesn’t what this can be done, is it can be used to, you know, put pressure on one individual to rat out someone else in exchange for leniency and than it turns people within the community against each other. It raises fear within the community. It silences other people who are scared that they too would be prosecuted. And it becomes very, very destructive.
And in my parents’ case they were rank and file members of the American Communist Party and many of their friends who were also rank and file members felt this was an attack against all of them; that they all could be swept up. And in fact, I think that their feelings about this was correct and that was part of the government’s intent to destroy political community.
DB: And say something about that. Because that notion of creating an unbelievable fear that includes being executed really made a lot of people, who perhaps loved your parents, willing to mislead or even lie about what happened.
RM: Well, it made some but mostly what it made people do was shut up, it made them become inactive, it squelched activism. There were people who testified, there were a couple of people who testified against my parents for fear of their own, what could happen to them. But what was much more widespread was this sense of fear. And it’s used to squelched activism. And so that is the kind of circumstance that we face.
And I want to make it plain. I don’t know Julian Assange personally. I don’t know what kind of person he is. And I can’t comment on the charges that have been laid against him in Sweden. But that’s another matter. That matter has to be fully and fairly explored. But if he is, regardless of that situation, if he is charged under the Espionage Act I feel it is the duty of all progressive people to raise as much of a stink as we can about this because this is really a threat to us all.
And in the process of understanding this I feel also that we shouldn’t forget Bradley Manning, the Army private who has been locked up in solitary confinement for seven months under conditions that really amount to torture under the Geneva Convention, and other conventions as well. Who is, the government says, is the person who supplied at least some of this material to WikiLeaks. And we should be appalled by that, and we should be protesting against that.
DB: Why should we be appalled by that?
RM: Because torture is never acceptable. You know, locking someone up, putting them away. He’s not even been charged with anything. And leaving them in solitary confinement for months at a time, that is an effort to destroy somebody’s mind. And what it’s saying to people, first of all, it’s saying to people, “Hey, you mess with us, this is the kind of thing that can happen to you.” But it’s also, without any legal charge whatsoever, and who know that they aren’t trying to coerce him into saying “Oh, yes I talked with Julian Assange. Oh, yes we conspired together.” Even though it wasn’t true.
If you get somebody in your power, and you do this to them long enough you can get them to say almost anything you want. But it’s also just depravity. It’s just, we don’t want to be associated in our country with torture. It’s just plain wrong. And the fact that this poor private hasn’t gotten as much publicity as Julian Assange, I don’t want to blame that on Julian Assange. It’s not his fault. It’s not that Assange has gotten too much publicity, it’s that this private hasn’t gotten enough. So that’s another thing that we have to be aware of.
DB: You are listening to Flashpoints on Pacifica radio. We’re speaking with Robert Meeropol, the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only U.S. citizens to be prosecuted and executed under the Espionage Act. The U.S. government is considering some kind of prosecution, arresting him and this is being thrown around that it might be the 1917 Espionage Act that they use.
I would like it, Robert Meeropol, if you spent a little bit more time, sort of on that parallel structure as you point out in the creation of the Espionage Act it was atmosphere then you go, zoom forward to the McCarthy period and your parents were swept up in this anti-Communist operation that was going on, coming out of the Congress. Now it is post Patriot Act time. Everyone is a terrorist, We are being willing to give up one freedom after another. There is sort of a parallel of what was going on in the 50’s and what’s happening now.
RM: Well, I don’t think that history repeats itself. But it’s kind of like you’re in an echo chamber, that we have echoes of the McCarthy period today. You know during the McCarthy period the American public was convinced that there was an international Communist conspiracy that was out to destroy our way of life, and therefore, civil liberties and human rights had to take a back seat to national security. And that, you know, if you were to remove the words international Communist conspiracy and replace them with international terrorist conspiracy you would have the exact same equation that was put forward after September 11th.
So we are living in a very similar time and, of course, another parallel is that its fear. We are all terrified. The idea, there is so much hyperbole about “Oh, this material is going to come out and it’s going to destroy this and destroy that…” you know, none of that has happened. The only thing that has come out is the truth. And given the state of the world, and what a bad state it’s in, instead of going back to business as normal we might do a lot better if all of this truth came out and we started operating under an entirely different paradigm.
Now that said, it’s not just an echo of the McCarthy period because the McCarthy period itself, as my parents’ prosecution for… under the Espionage Act of 1917 demonstrates was really an echo of that post, entry into World War I period of repression. That occurred starting in 1917 and really culminated with the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the mid-1920’s. That was a period where there were very similar fears. Fears of anarchism, fears of Bolshevism, that we’re going to destroy our way of life and also we were at war to begin with, World War I. And those were used to gather the same kind of forces, repressive forces against dissenters.
So we have this repeated process, and right now it’s particularly dangerous because we have an authoritarian oriented Supreme Court which is going to uphold the constitutionality of these laws and probably accept whatever prison sentence is ultimately handed down, if there is one in this case.
And I must say that it’s also worst than that, and that is because Congress is actually considering right now something called the SHIELD Act. That’s S H I E L D all in capital letters so it probably stands for something. That would amend the Espionage Act of 1917 to make it a crime for any person knowingly and willfully to disseminate in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States, any classified information concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States.
In other words, they are thinking of broadening the law and they are thinking of creating this new law in a way that would specifically target people who do things like WikiLeaks. And of course, if you think about John Roberts and his Supreme Court interpreting what kind of actions would be prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States, well, I’m sure that I would sharply disagree with any determination the majority of the current justices of the Supreme Court would consider, would do that to the United States. And you can see how vague that is. And that means any dissenter who is spreading the word about these things could be charged under this act. So as bad as it is, it could actually get worse.
DB: And back to, just to be clear in terms of the relationship between Julian Assange and the press. I had to laugh to see Judith Miller, former New York Times reporter, on Fox News calling Assange a bad journalist because he didn’t confirm his sources. On the other hand, she was calling him a journalist. I guess, is he a journalist amongst journalists, do we all need to be prosecuted together?
RM: I think he could be viewed as a journalist. I think we are in this modern digital age where things are evolving so rapidly it’s sometimes hard to draw clear lines about who is and who isn’t. But he certainly could come under that umbrella, and he certainly seems to be in the business of disseminating information that’s of value to the public; that the public should know or at least arguably should know. And that is at least in theory, I mean Judith Miller didn’t generate much truth in what she wrote, but I think Julian Assange is spreading, by and large, accurate information to the public and that seems to be a journalistic role. So you know Dennis, you outta watch your back.
DB: And I’m sure that I’ll have great help from people such as yourself Robert Meeropol on the front lines fighting to preserve and protect people’s rights under various of these amendments that, as we noted, are being read in the Congress today. I think, and this is how I’d like to conclude the interview with you, in the context of your parents and Julian Assange. In the case of your parents, one of the things that they did and this part of it I studied very carefully having read the beautiful letters that your mom wrote and the way they took this on nobly and respect, never relenting to the system. Never trying to cop a plea, you know the judges are waiting up there at the Supreme Court or whatever court that was and that certainly sets an example and gives us a way to live.
And generally, Assange responding to the pressure of WikiLeaks, the journalist side, he has been rather noble about this, keeping the high end, the high principles. How important was that in terms of your mom’s and dad’s resistance, and in this case, now how important is that strong, positive response to these attacks. How important is that?
RM: Well, I think that resistance is inspirational. When people resist, they inspire others and if you combined the resistance with the inspiration you end up building a movement of support. And you know, the way I would summarize it is that if you can bring those three things together resistance, inspiration and community you can suffer a defeat, but no movement can ever totally be defeated.
So my parents were executed but the inspiration that survived them, it survived them in the community of support, and it survived them also through me and my brother and the Rosenberg Fund for Children. The work that I do helping hundreds of children of targeted activists of various sort, including ones who may be swept up in this latest round of repression. That’s a testament to their resistance by acting in this principled manner, they set this example that has persisted until this day.
DB: And just, if you could, I don’t mean to put you through all this again, but for people hearing about them for the first time. When we are talking about a certain kind of resistance it was a…just say a little bit about your mom’s response to all this.
RM: Well, they were…the head of the bureau of prisons visited my parents in prison and said “You know, if you would just cooperate, if you would just name names, if you would just say who were the people who were involved with you in stealing the secret of the atomic bomb.” And I must say to make things clear, it is now apparent to me that my father was involved in aiding the Soviet Union during World War II and perhaps later than that. But it had nothing to do with the secret of the atomic bomb. And my mother was not involved at all, she was… she knew about his activities and agreed with him but she was not an active participant.
And so they, but what the government wasn’t willing to have them say that they actually did something. They wanted them to say that they stole the secret of the atomic bomb, that they gave Russia the means to destroy us. That essentially they had committed the worst possible treason. And that’s, you know. what the jurors who were convicting them thought of the this cases as. It is one more proof that the Espionage Act of 1917 really is an effort to do an end run around the treason clause of the Constitution and inflict punishment for treason on people who actually aren’t charged with treason and can’t be charged with treason. But my mother refused, my father refused; they would not put other people in the position that they were put in. And so they were given the choice, talk or die. And who knows how anybody is going to react in that situation.
I think they did their best to, through their letters, to organize whatever support they could in the hope that they would come through this. And I think actually they came pretty close but they didn’t succeed.
DB: Do those letters still exist as a book?
RM: Oh yeah. Well, my brother published a…you can probably pick it up at a library, a compilation of every single letter they ever wrote, over 500 of them. It’s called The Rosenberg Letters and that, so they still exist. But that, and you can, if you go to the Rosenberg Fund for Children web site you can actually follow links to find some of the letters. So I should probably give that as well it’s www.rfc.org.
But, yes, they wrote each other and part of their writing their letters was for public consumption but part of it was just to reinforce each other. I think that you know, being in this together is one of the things that helped them survive. It is one of the things that, you know, I fear most about this private Bradley Manning sitting in solitary confinement for months on end, isolating people is a way to break them. Building community and expressing solidarity and working together is a way to survive the onslaught of repression.
DB: If I remember correctly wasn’t it possible at one point for your dad to hear your mother singing inside Sing Sing Prison?
RM: Yes, it was, it was. My mother was essentially in solitary confinement because there was no other woman on death row in Sing Sing. And for those people who know the prison system Sing Sing is a New York state prison and my parents were convicted in federal court, so why were they in a state prison? Well, that’s because Sing Sing was, the federal government didn’t have any execution chambers in those days. And so Sing Sing was the nearest place and that’s why they were there. But, yes, they were housed on separate floors and my father could hear her, at least on occasion, in the distance.