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The Rosenbergs, Edward Snowden, and Treason

On the 60th anniversary of their execution, the Rosenbergs’ legacy persists

Adam Chandler
June 19, 2013

If you haven’t caught Liel Leibovitz’s journalistic act of civic duty today, then I recommend you check out his piece on Glenn Greenwald’s bombast, Israel, and the NSA leaks. As Liel points out, many comparisons have been made in recent weeks to leaker-on-the-lam Edward Snowden and the likes of Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg, whose names straddle an odd American divide between worship and condemnation. But for others yet, the Snowden ordeal is evocative of another historical throwback, the espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which technically ended in their 1951 conviction, but more accurately ended on this day, sixty years ago, when the two were executed at Sing Sing despite furious and widespread protest.

June 19, 1953 was a Friday and the execution, which had already been postponed a day after a stay of execution was granted, was set for 11 PM. When their lawyer, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, was said to have protested on the grounds that it was offensive to execute the Rosenbergs on the Sabbath, the execution wasn’t postponed, but rather moved up earlier to 8 PM, just before the summer sundown.

The reasons why we still hear about the Rosenbergs are innumerable, even before the Snowden Affair enthralled and disgusted. Despite their guilt, the trial was riddled with questionable moments and courted conspiracy theorists and ideologues alike. Throughout the decades, many have maintained that the couple was innocent, including the Rosenbergs’ sons, one of whom admitted (albeit very defiantly in 2011) that he believed his father had spied, but not in the service of the Soviet atomic project. Robert Meeropol, who was adopted along with his brother by the author of the song “Strange Fruit” after the death of his parents, still believes his mother was innocent.

(For a thorough historical look, read Ron Radosh, who was in the courtroom when the verdict was handed down in 1951, and wrote a piece about the trial and the different sects of Rosenberg supporters for Tablet here.)

How the legacy of the Rosenbergs feeds into the public view of Snowden isn’t cut and dry. In recent weeks, a number of public intellectuals and officials have used the word traitor and the charge treason to describe Snowden and his actions. Among them have been Speaker John Boehner, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, and former ambassador John Bolton. (Like some of the Rosenbergs’ supporters, others like Senator Rand Paul have defended Snowden, calling his work an act of “civil disobedience” on par with Thoreau and MLK.)

“I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower,” Feinstein said. “It’s an act of treason.” Boehner called Snowden a “traitor.” “This guy thinks he has a higher morality” Bolton said. “I say that is the worst form of treason.”

Others have openly called for Snowden to be tried for treason. The minutiae will no doubt be debated in the coming months and years, regardless of whether Snowden is caught or extradited or simply disappears. But for now, it seems important to note that not even the Rosenbergs were convicted of treason. From reading some of the Snowden coverage, you wouldn’t know it.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the last Americans executed for treason, back in 1953. The United States has only tried about 30 people for treason.

The second part is true; treason trials have been extremely rare in the United States for a number of reasons.

Why do U.S. prosecutors avoid treason charges? One reason is that the standards of evidence are high: The Constitution requires “two witnesses to the same overt act.” Another likely explanation, however, is that treason convictions simply aren’t worth the trouble. Most traitors can be put away for life on several counts of espionage and conspiracy. That’s less work for the prosecution.

Snowden’s crime doesn’t fit the standards of treason, anyway. If captured, he will be prosecuted for offenses similar to those of Manning. One likely charge: the disclosure of classified information “concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States,” which is a federal crime. If past leakers are any indication, he will be in prison for decades, if not the rest of his years.

Sixty years ago, the Rosenbergs became the only two American civilians to be executed on spy-related charges during the Cold War. In some circles, the debates have roiled ever since. It’s easy to imagine that the Snowden Affair will birth its own partisans who, for decades to come and with similar ferocity, will fight over whether Snowden’s deeds constituted a war against Americans or a defense of them.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.