tv 60 Minutes CBS July 23, 2017 7:00pm-8:01pm EDT
captioning funded by cbs and ford. we go further, so you can. >> whitaker: he was the governor of virginia who was convicted of corruption after accepting thousands and thousands of dollars worth of gifts. >> mcdonnell: the worst at all was the belief that much of the public, and much of the nation, looked at this and thinks, "there's another corrupt politician." >> whitaker: getting this money, these loans, these gifts, these trips, i'm wondering how you justify that. i mean, these things would not have come to you were you not the governor. >> mcdonnell: that's probably right. >> whitaker: what may surprise you is, the supreme court reversed the conviction. >> cooper: people would ask you? >> michael meeropol: oh, yeah, "are you related to those two spies?" "no." but i really hated myself. >> cooper: hated yourself because you were... >> michael meeropol: i was denying... i was too scared to admit that my parents were my
parents. >> cooper: being the rosenberg's children in 1950 was almost like being osama bin laden's kids here after 9/11. their parents were convicted and executed for being two of the most damaging spies ever. so, why are julius and ethel rosenberg's children speaking out now? because they want their mother exonerated. >> i'm steve kroft. >> i'm lesley stahl. >> i'm bill whitaker. >> i'm anderson cooper. >> i'm scott pelley. those stories, tonight on "60 minutes." >> cbs money watch update sponsored by lincoln financial, you're in charge. >> quijano: good evening, the federal reserve delivers a president si update on wednesday after the clez of its two-day meeting. amazon, facebook, and mcdonald's report earnings this week. and a rookie card player from new jersey won the world series of poker, earning more than $8
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>> whitaker: in the wake of last fall's elections, we've heard lots of talk of draining the swamp, of corruption and influence peddling. but amid all the heated discourse, you might have missed an important political story that is reverberating across the country, and that we first reported in april. it's the case of former virginia governor bob mcdonnell, who was an up-and-coming republican star with a squeaky clean image and a record of promoting job growth.
but his political career exploded in scandal worthy of a soap opera when he was convicted of public corruption and sentenced to two years in federal prison. he fought the charges all the way to the united states supreme court, racking up a hefty egal bill of $27 million. it turned out to be worth it. the supreme court reversed his conviction in a controversial and far-reaching ruling, but not without a hitch. chief justice john roberts described the case as "tawdry tales." tonight, looking no worse for wear, bob mcdonnell talks about the case and the moment his world came crashing down when a richmond jury returned a verdict against him. >> governor bob mcdonnell: i listened to 19 guilty verdicts for my wife and me. and all i could do was sob. >> whitaker: you broke down? >> mcdonnell: ah. that's all i could do, bill. at that point, i was a convicted felon with a criminal record who was going to lose my law
license, my right to vote, my passport, my reputation and other liberties. and my life was never going to quite be the same. ( applause ) >> whitaker: bob mcdonnell was one of the most popular virginia governors in recent history. in 2012, he made the short list of mitt romney's possible running mates. but in a stunning fall from grace in 2014, just ten days after leaving office, mcdonnell and his wife maureen were indicted, then convicted by a jury, of conspiracy and bribery. they had accepted $177,000 from a local businessman in personal loans and gifts, presented as evidence in court-- golf bags and clubs, luxury family vacations, the use of a ferrari, $20,000 of designer clothes for maureen, and a rolex watch for the governor.
mcdonnell appealed his guilty verdict up to the federal court of appeals and lost twice. but then, his conviction was reversed by the u.s. supreme court last fall. >> mcdonnell: the worst at all was the... the... the belief that much of the public and much of the nation looked at this and thinks, "there's another corrupt politician." >> whitaker: and if i'm one of your citizens sitting at home in virginia, and i see you, my governor, getting this money, these loans, these gifts, these trips, i'm wondering how you justify that. i mean, these things would not have come to you were you not the governor. >> mcdonnell: that's probably right. >> whitaker: how do you tell the guy, the coal miner sitting in western virginia, that that's okay? >> mcdonnell: you know, i had to make those judgements, you know, kind of one thing at a time.
>> whitaker: and none of that set off alarm bells? >> mcdonnell: it didn't because i knew that it was completely legal under virginia law. >> whitaker: virginia at the time had no limits on gifts to state officials. but mcdonnell's case stands out because he took so much from one person: this man, multi- millionaire jonnie williams. williams wanted the governor's help getting state-sponsored studies of his new tobacco-based supplement, called anatabloc. he claimed it had healing powers. williams declined to talk to us, but, in court, he testified under immunity for the prosecution that he was 100% sure he and the governor had an agreement-- money and gifts for political favors. >> mcdonnell: i considered him an entrepreneur. he had the opportunity to create jobs for virginians. >> whitaker: he plied you and your wife with huge sums of money and gifts. he says that he did it because he wanted to influence you.
what did you think he wanted? >> mcdonnell: he asked to meet with staff people. i referred him to meetings. my job was just to connect people with government, and i considered it a routine part of what i did-- for job creation and just regular constituent service. >> whitaker: is that what it takes to get the attention of you guys? somebody coughin' up that kind of money? >> mcdonnell: no. >> whitaker: but explain to me where that's... where i'm... i'm wrong in seeing... as... >> mcdonnell: that is an everyday action in america, and i know that to be true from years in politics. >> whitaker: but it wasn't politics as usual for jim cole. he was the deputy attorney general who oversaw the mcdonells' prosecution. >> jim cole: he used his office for personal gain. >> whitaker: the governor says all he did was make introductions. >> cole: here is somebody who took over $170,000 to do things that he could only do because he was the governor of the state. >> whitaker: the mcdonnells actively promoted anatabloc, and invited jonnie williams to
events at the governor's mansion, with health care leaders and researchers who could help him. >> mcdonnell: there was never a quid pro quo or any conspiracy or any agreement to help mr. williams. and ultimately the supreme court of the united states said that government advanced essentially a dangerous legal... legal theory that had serious constitutional problems. >> whitaker: what do you mean, dangerous? why... why dangerous? >> mcdonnell: because it criminalizes routine political conduct, things that happen in this country every day. >> whitaker: the justices did unanimously reverse his conviction. they faulted federal prosecutors for overreaching with a definition of corruption that was too broad, and ruled that merely "setting up a meeting" or "hosting an event" for jonnie williams did not constitute a crime. but they condemned mcdonnell's conduct on ethical grounds. in his opinion, chief justice john roberts wrote, the "tawdry tales of ferraris, rolexes and ball gowns" did not "typify normal political interaction-- far from it."
in our interview, mcdonnell chose to focus on the positive. >> mcdonnell: at the end of the day, the united states supreme court said that this was the routine stuff that governors do. and we may not like the amount of gifts, but it was consistent with virginia law. and so, bill, that's why at this point, i feel... i feel vindicated. >> whitaker: vindicated? that's not my reading of the supreme court decision. chief justice roberts said himself-- and this is a quote from his opinion-- "there is no doubt that this case is distasteful. it may be worse than that." so, this wasn't an exoneration. they looked at what you did and called it "tawdry." >> mcdonnell: i would disagree with that. you've... you've picked two sentences out of a 28-page opinion. but the import of that opinion, bill, is not the language that you've read. it's the other 99% of the opinion. >> whitaker: but what i hear you saying is that "i will accept
99% of what the supreme court justices said, but that 1% that sort of slaps my wrist?" >> mcdonnell: no! >> whitaker: "i'm not... that, they got wrong." >> mcdonnell: no, i'm not saying that. i accept that. >> whitaker: they found that your behavior was not something that they sanctioned. >> mcdonnell: you know, the words are what the words are. i accept 100% of the opinion. and so, you know, with my own conscience, that's really between, i guess, me and god about how i did. >> dad, how about a game? >> you're on! >> whitaker: bob mcdonnell ran for office on a campaign of faith and family values. but when the scandal broke, apparently so did the mcdonnells. the alleged husband and wife conspirators started coming to court separately. >> mcdonnell: this was my parish. >> whitaker: and bob mcdonnell moved here, into the rectory of his church. you were in church yesterday. and you were telling me you were a moral man. >> mcdonnell: i try to be, bill.
>> whitaker: did this meet your moral code? >> mcdonnell: if i do it over again, i was governor, i wouldn't take any gifts. i didn't need them. >> whitaker: so, why did you take them? >> mcdonnell: you know, having a family vacation after working 15 hours a day, at a nice lake resort with my family, you know, i appreciated that. >> whitaker: but you're a public official. >> mcdonnell: yes. >> whitaker: you think the public believes that you should reach a higher standard? >> mcdonnell: i knew in my heart i was governing myself properly. and i knew i was making all the appropriate disclosures. >> whitaker: virginia law didn't require disclosure of gifts to family members. so, he didn't report this $50,000 personal loan from williams to a company mcdonnell owned with his sister-- or most of the gifts, including the $6,500 rolex watch jonnie williams gave to maureen to give to the governor.
tell me about the rolex. i've seen the picture. you're holding the rolex up. you're smiling. >> mcdonnell: my wife gave it to me for christmas in 2012. with all my heart, i believed it was from her. she told me it was from her. >> whitaker: you were telling us that you needed loans, business loans. didn't you wonder, "how did my wife afford a rolex?" >> mcdonnell: bill, i didn't know what a rolex cost, to be honest. i'm a seiko and timex guy, and always have been. >> whitaker: but maureen mcdonnell, a former redskins cheerleader who brought her pom poms to her husband's inauguration, had a taste for the finer things. on a shopping spree in new york with jonnie williams, he bought her $20,000 worth of designer clothing and accessories. maureen mcdonnell declined to speak with us. but bob mcdonnell, who went with her to new york, told us he didn't notice what she bought and didn't ask questions. if my wife came in with-- what
was it-- $20,000 worth of clothing, i would notice the bags and the boxes. i would say, "honey, where'd you get all this?" >> mcdonnell: i knew she had bags. i knew she shopped. who paid for those was just not something that... that we discussed. i'm just not the kind of person that probably paid enough attention on some of those things. >> whitaker: his inattention to his wife became key to his defense strategy. in court, with his liberty at stake, mcdonnell allowed his defense team to point the finger at his wife of more than 35 years and tell the jury she was the one taking most of the gifts and, without his knowledge, helping businessman jonnie williams. if mcdonnell wasn't paying attention, the governor's chef, todd schneider, was. he told us jonnie williams was a regular at the mansion. >> todd schneider: remember, everybody talks in the kitchen. >> whitaker: and what were people saying? >> schneider: what we thought of everything that they did: shady.
why is this guy trying to get in here so much? the clothes and the gifts and the other things. you kind of knew what was going on. >> whitaker: what was going on? >> schneider: jonnie williams was trying to get his medicine approved, and bob mcdonnell and maureen mcdonnell were getting their bills paid. >> whitaker: there is bad blood between schneider and mcdonnell. after the governor fired him in an unrelated payment dispute that ended up in court, todd schneider turned over key evidence to the f.b.i.: a $15,000 check for catering mcdonnell's daughter's wedding. it came from jonnie williams' account, starwood trust. that triggered the investigation of bob mcdonnell and the federal case under former deputy attorney general jim cole. >> cole: these were not gifts. these were payoffs. >> whitaker: people are giving money all the time. people make contributions. >> cole: the key difference here is that the contributions didn't go to a campaign.
the money that came in went into his pocket. that's not normal politics. that doesn't happen every day. >> hank asbill: you want to take the money out of politics, then take it out of politics. but this is not unique to bob. >> whitaker: mcdonnell's attorney, hank asbill, admitted the evidence in the case looked bad, but he said it's just the way american politics works. >> asbill: you know, would anyone look at the gifts and loans in this case and say it's a good idea? no. i wasn't happy about having to defend it, but there was no crime. >> whitaker: but shouldn't we expect our politicians to have a higher standard? >> asbill: maybe so. and there ought to be a better way of reforming politics in america as usual than going after my client and accusing him of committing a crime which he didn't commit. >> whitaker: what do you think the effect of this supreme court decision will be on american politics? >> cole: it gives much greater room for public officials to
commit improper acts, to commit bribery in subtle ways. and it gives them that room to do it without worrying about getting prosecuted. >> whitaker: the supreme court ruling is shaking things up already. politicians found guilty of bribery in new york, pennsylvania and louisiana have been using the mcdonnell case to fight their convictions. >> why would a politician who took cash and gifts come on "60 minutes" to talk about it? go to 60minutesovertime.com. you doyou'll see whatet but in you're really made of. after five hours of spinning and one unfortunate ride on the gravitron, your grandkids spot a 6 foot banana that you need to win. in that moment, you'll be happy you partnered with a humana care manager and got your health back on track. because that banana isn't coming home with you until that bell sings.
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of the cold war. in 1953, julius and ethel rosenberg were sent to the electric chair for conspiring to provide the secrets of the atomic bomb to the soviet union. they left behind two little boys, robert and michael, just six and ten years old at the time. as we first reported in october, the brothers rosenberg were the orphans of communist spies at the height of the mccarthy era. relatives were afraid to take them in. one town blocked them from attending its schools. what ever happened to those two little boys? it's a remarkable story, a piece of american history that hasn't been fully told. people would ask you? >> michael meeropol: oh, yeah, "are you related to those two spies?" "no." but i really hated myself. >> cooper: hated yourself because you were... >> michael meeropol: i was denying... i was too scared to admit that my parents were my parents. >> robert meeropol: we were the children of communist spies. >> cooper: being the rosenberg's children in 1950 was almost like
being osama bin laden's kids here after 9/11. today, they're known by their adopted names, michael and robert meeropol; but in 1950, they were michael and robby rosenberg, ages seven and three, living in new york city's lower east side with their parents, julius and ethel rosenberg. the rosenbergs were ardent communists, but michael doesn't recall his parents ever using that word. ethel was a stay-at-home mom who loved to sing; julius, an engineer who ran a small machine shop. that's michael on his shoulders. >> michael meeropol: my father would take me to places like prospect park and, you know, get some peanuts and feed squirrels. >> cooper: what was he like? >> michael meeropol: he was very energetic. he had a smile on his face a heck of a lot of times. and i remember traveling around with him. in fact, i rode on the subway with him so often that i kind of wondered, you know, when he was working. >> cooper: and your mom? what was she like? >> michael meeropol: she was very affectionate, a lot of hugging and kissing.
and i remember that she was often cooking. the thing i remember is just a... a normal life. >> cooper: but then, in the summer of 1950, f.b.i. agents began rounding up a network of alleged communist spies. on july 17, they knocked on the rosenbergs' door. >> michael meeropol: i'm listening to "the lone ranger," and the door opens, and there is all these people in the room, who, you know, i guess, friends of daddy's. but then, my mother yells, "i had... i want a lawyer," and i knew something was weird. and then, the radio's turned off. well, i'm a brash seven-year- old, and i turned it back on. somebody turned it off again. after about three times, i gave up because, you know, the attention was on my father, and then he disappears. he's gone. >> cooper: julius was accused of running a spy ring that tried to help the soviet union make an atomic bomb. after he refused to talk to the f.b.i., ethel was arrested, too. >> michael meeropol: all i remember is, i'm on the phone with her, and she says, "i'm under arrest."
and i say, "you can't come home?" she says, "no, i can't." and i don't remember anything else about the phone call, but the story is that i screamed and that it gave her nightmares for the rest of her life. >> cooper: that scream? >> michael meeropol: yeah. it tore her heart. >> cooper: their grandmother put them up for a few months, but michael and robby say she resented their presence. when other relatives refused to care for them, they were sent to a children's shelter in the bronx. why didn't other family members take you in? >> robert meeropol: they were terrified. like, for instance, my father's older sister wanted to take us in, but her husband owned a small grocery store, and he said, "if people find out i've taken in the children of the rosenbergs, they won't buy food from my store." >> cooper: so, then, you're sent, essentially, to an orphanage? >> michael meeropol: yeah. >> cooper: what was that like? >> michael meeropol: i remember it as horrible, like something out of dickens. the staff was pretty free with the slaps and the abuse. i felt like i was in prison.
>> cooper: you felt like you were in prison, as well, not just... >> michael meeropol: yeah. oh, absolutely. >> cooper: ...your parents? >> michael meeropol: one week after i was there, i remember crying to anybody i would talk. i said, "i've been here a week. don't you think they could let me go home now?" >> cooper: the chief witness against their parents was their uncle, david greenglass, who'd worked at the military's atomic bomb-making plant in los alamos, new mexico. in march 1951, greenglass testified he'd given sketches of the atomic bomb to julius rosenberg, and that ethel had typed up his handwritten notes. david greenglass' wife ruth told the same story under oath. it took the jury only eight hours to reach a verdict. >> one of the greatest peacetime spy dramas in the nation's history reaches its climax. >> cooper: the judge sentenced the rosenbergs to death, saying he considered their crime worse than murder because he believed they'd put the atomic bomb in soviet hands earlier than anyone had expected. while their lawyers appealed the decision, the rosenbergs were
taken to new york's sing sing prison to await execution. robby and michael, now four and eight years old, hadn't seen their parents for a year, but they were allowed to visit them at sing sing. i heard that you asked to see the electric chair? >> michael meeropol: yep. the very first visit, i said to a guard, "let me see the electric chair." >> cooper: why did you want to see the electric chair? >> michael meeropol: i didn't want to see the electric chair. i wanted to prove to the people at the prison i wasn't afraid of it. >> robert meeropol: i remember that the prison seemed like a big fortress that we were entering, this gray stone building, almost medieval-like. but when we went into the visiting room, everything was kind of quiet and calm, which is what i needed. and i think that's because my parents made a conscious effort to try to act that way. and so, you could say that they fooled me, and i wanted to be fooled. ( laughs ) >> michael meeropol: i remember asking them both in sing sing if they were innocent.
i said, "are you really innocent?" and they reacted, "but of course we are," you know? and that was enough for me for, you know, decades. >> cooper: but it wasn't enough for the supreme court, which denied the rosenbergs' appeal. never before in the u.s. had a husband and wife been sentenced to the electric chair, which would make their children orphans. the rosenbergs' supporters held protests all over the world, arguing the couple was innocent and the sentence unjust. albert einstein, pablo picasso and the pope appealed for clemency. days before the scheduled execution, michael and robby joined demonstrators in washington, d.c., and hand- delivered a plea for mercy to the white house. but president eisenhower refused to intervene. on june 16, 1953, nearly three years after their parents had been arrested, the boys visited them at sing sing for the last time. >> michael meeropol: and as i was leaving, i started to wail, "one more day to live, one more day to live." >> cooper: you actually said
that? >> michael meeropol: oh, yeah, absolutely. it was terrible, you know? but it was honest. i mean, basically, i was pissed off because they were kissing us goodbye like, "see you next time." and i thought, you know, "they... they should take... make... a more big deal about this because this could be forever." >> cooper: the attorney general said the couple could still save themselves by providing information to investigators, but julius and ethel rosenberg remained united in silence. as the hours of execution approached, reporters converged on the prison and protestors gathered near new york's union square. robby and michael, now six and ten years old, stayed at the home of a family friend in new jersey, playing baseball and hoping for a last minute reprieve which never came. >> michael meeropol: i played catch till it was too dark to see the ball. and when i came in, i asked the adults what happened, and they wouldn't tell me. they just said, "we listened to every radio station. they all said the same thing." and so, i knew.
i got hugged by the woman who we were staying with, and she said, "you'll stay with us." and i said, "yeah, i guess i will." and they said, "let's keep it from robby." and so, i kept it from him for a week. >> cooper: for a week? >> michael meeropol: yeah. well, i couldn't, i just couldn't... for one reason or another, i just couldn't go on with the charade. >> cooper: do you remember exactly what you said? >> michael meeropol: yeah, because he was talking about, "when mommy and daddy come home." and i said, "oh, come on, let's tell him. rob, robby"-- he was always robby-- "mommy and daddy aren't coming home. they're dead." >> cooper: do you remember what he said? >> michael meeropol: he acted as if he didn't understand. >> robert meeropol: i think i've had to work my entire life at reacting to bad news, because my first tendency whenever bad news comes is to pretend like it's not that bad somehow. and, you know, if you can do that with your parents being executed, you can do that with almost anything. >> cooper: the rosenbergs' supporters viewed them as
martyrs persecuted for their communist belief. but to the vast majority of americans, julius and ethel rosenberg were atomic spies and traitors. many believed they deserved to die. >> michael meeropol: when my parents were killed, an... a postcard came to the place i was staying, and it said, "of course you feel for the loss of your parents, but when you think of all the boys they killed in korea, you must realize that justice was done. why don't you change your names and become christians?" >> cooper: and you remember the words to this day? >> michael meeropol: well, those are the kind of words that you don't forget. >> cooper: in so many of the photos of you both at that time, your brother is... his arm is around you or both arms are around you, like he's protecting you. >> robert meeropol: he was my anchor. you know, rather than sibling rivalry, it was more of, like, the two of us against the world. >> cooper: who do you think this was harder on, you or robby? >> michael meeropol: i think it probably was much harder on robby because three years with my parents, what are his memories? he has very little to grab onto.
>> robert meeropol: i think it was harder on him. i think he had a tremendous sense of responsibility for me, and he understood more. >> cooper: it had been quite a while since anything good had happened to the rosenberg boys, but, in 1953, not long after their parents' funeral, they were introduced to anne and abel meeropol, teachers who were supporters of the rosenbergs. they took michael and robby into their home and eventually adopted them. >> michael meeropol: introducing the meeropol family, robby meeropol and yours truly! ♪ this land is your land, this land is my land... ♪ >> cooper: the meeropols became your parents? >> michael meeropol: absolutely. totally. >> cooper: they changed your life? >> michael meeropol: yeah. they saved our lives. >> robert meeropol: within a few months of living with them, i was calling them mommy and daddy. >> cooper: was it your choice to take their name? >> robert meeropol: well, i was too young to really have a choice, but it made us more anonymous, and that was a good thing.
>> michael meeropol: as michael and robby meeropol, they eventually went to college, got married and started raising families of their own. >> robert meeropol: i think it's no accident that both of us got married when we were young, that we both had two kids, just like we were two kids. as early as we could, we recreated the family that was torn apart. >> cooper: michael meeropol became an economics professor; robert, a lawyer and founder of a charity called the rosenberg fund for children. they lived relatively normal lives. but for many years, most of the people they interacted with each day had no idea they were the children of julius and ethel rosenberg. >> robert meeropol: essentially, i was in the closet from when i was six until when i was 20 with everybody who didn't already know. >> cooper: you were worried about letting the world know who you were? >> robert meeropol: yeah, i was, because whenever... when the world knew who i was, it was very bad. terrible things happened.
>> cooper: more than 20 years after their parents' execution, the brothers decided to step back into the limelight and reinvestigate the rosenberg case. what they discovered, when we come back. >> this cbs sports update is presented by ford. >> hello, everyone. i'm adam zuker in our new york studio. in golf today, 23-year-old jordan spieth used an amazing late surge to become the youngest american to win the open championship, shooting five under on the final five holes. and in paris, chris broom made it official as he won his fourth tour de france title and third in a row, winning by margin of 54 seconds. for more sports news and information, go to for more sports news and information, go to cbssports.com. concrete. we're good. and wood for my castle. we got it. and a slide, and a drawbridge.
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ethel wrote a letter to their sons, michael and robby, saying, "always remember that we were innocent." so, perhaps it's not surprising that when the boys grew up, they wanted to try to clear their parents' names. what is surprising is how much new information they and independent historians have been able to uncover over the years-- secret messages, intercepted cables, long-forgotten files from the archives of the f.b.i., the c.i.a. and the k.g.b. the new information has changed the way this chapter of american history is viewed, and, last year, the brothers asked president obama to exonerate their mother. the little boys who disappeared from public view after their parents were executed in 1953 re-emerged as grown men in 1975, determined to uncover new information in their parents' case. they sued the f.b.i. and the c.i.a. under the freedom of information act, seeking full access to the government's files on julius and ethel rosenberg.
>> robert meeropol: the government files represent the largest body of primary evidence on my parents' case in existence. we are not afraid of what is in them. why is the government afraid? what are they trying to cover up? >> cooper: did you think you might be able to prove your parents' innocence? >> michael meeropol: oh, absolutely. i was absolutely convinced that we would find virtual proof. >> cooper: you were sure they were innocent? >> robert meeropol: as sure as one and one equals two. >> cooper: they formed a committee to re-examine the rosenberg case. ron radosh was among the first to sign up. at the time, he was an author and activist, highly sympathetic to the rosenbergs' cause and eager to help. >> radosh: by then, i had a ph.d. in history, and i believed my expertise as a historian enabled me to want to go through all these files that i expected would prove their innocence. >> cooper: but once ron radosh started going through the f.b.i. files, he realized he was wrong. julius rosenberg had been a soviet spy, and a zealous
recruiter of others. >> radosh: i was stunned. it became readily apparent that this was not people who were arrested because they opposed the korean war or whatever, because they wanted peace. >> cooper: essentially... >> radosh: so... >> cooper: ...julius rosenberg's job was as a recruiter of others? he was... >> radosh: right, he... >> cooper: ...developing a network... >> radosh: ...ran a network. he put it together and handled them all. >> cooper: in 1983, ron radosh co-wrote a book outlining the new evidence that julius rosenberg was guilty. how did the meeropols and others on the left respond? >> radosh: horrendously. i mean, i was ostracized, attacked. >> cooper: people stopped speaking to you? >> radosh: yeah. i had phone calls in the middle of the night, death threats, the usual thing. i mean... and we lost, actually lost good friends, very good friends who no longer... stopped talking to us, and to this day. >> cooper: to this day? >> radosh: oh, absolutely. >> cooper: it took michael and robby a long time to accept that their father was guilty. they finally acknowledged it in 2008 when their parents' co-
defendant, morty sobell, admitted for the first time he had been part of julius rosenberg's spy ring. was there any part of you that was disappointed in your father? >> michael meeropol: no. no. not at all. >> cooper: not disappointed that he actually did commit espionage? >> michael meeropol: i... i'll speak for myself. no, i... i didn't. >> robert meeropol: you know, for years, we were saying our parents were innocent lambs brought to slaughter. and to come to the realization that, instead, they were knowing political actors who made decisions based upon their beliefs, i actually found that to be more palatable. i didn't want them to just be victims. >> cooper: but your father was breaking u.s. law... >> michael meeropol: absolutely. >> cooper: ...to do this. so... >> michael meeropol: yeah, he was. >> robert meeropol: and i think that if he'd been arrested and given a five- or ten-year prison sentence, we would have nothing to complain about. >> cooper: there's now plenty of evidence that julius rosenberg's spy network stole important technology for jet fighters, radar and detonators.
but the one thing he and his spies didn't do a very good job of stealing was atomic secrets, the heart of the prosecutors' case. most historians agree that the soviets got the most important atomic bomb-making information from los alamos scientists klaus fuchs and theodore hall, who belonged to a different russian spy ring. the los alamos informant julius was accused of recruiting, ethel's brother david greenglass, was a machinist, not a scientist. when a copy of the sketch greenglass said he drew for the soviets was made public in 1966, nuclear scientists were not impressed. >> michael meeropol: 1966, top scientists look at it, and they make it clear that this thing is a secret of nothing. it's got no dimensions in it. it's got errors in it. >> cooper: newspapers called julius and ethel rosenberg "atomic spies," and the judge sentenced them to death for putting the atomic bomb in the hands of the soviet union.
but there's ample evidence the u.s. government knew at the time that the information david greenglass gave to the soviets was of minor value. the prosecutors knew the information the rosenbergs had access to was not the crown jewels of the atomic world? >> radosh: yes, but they were pushing for a prosecution without using the hardest evidence they could... they had. couldn't be used. >> cooper: that's because in the 1940s, the u.s. government had been secretly intercepting soviet messages, and it didn't want the soviets to know it had broken their code. so, instead, prosecutors pressured david greenglass and his wife ruth to testify against julius and ethel rosenberg. michael and robby argue that prosecutors framed their mother by inventing evidence that she typed up david greenglass' notes on the atomic bomb. >> greenglass: where do i sit? right there? >> yes, sir. >> cooper: in 2001, half a century after he testified that his sister typed up his notes, david greenglass told "60 minutes'" correspondent bob simon it was a lie.
>> simon: so, ethel finally went to the electric chair on the basis of evidence that was false. >> greenglass: false. >> cooper: he said he did it to save himself and his wife, and he showed little remorse. >> greenglass: we're still here. i didn't have to go away. nobody killed me, and i survived. >> simon: your sister didn't. >> greenglass: you know, i'd like to say something. i would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister. how do you like that? my wife is more important to me than my sister. >> cooper: greenglass said he was pressed to give this false testimony by one of the prosecutors in the case, roy cohn, who would go on to become senator joseph mccarthy's right- hand man and was later disbarred for unethical conduct. >> simon: did cohn encourage you to testify that you saw ethel typing up the notes? >> greenglass: oh, yeah, of course, he did. >> cooper: as a reward for their testimony against the rosenbrgs, david greenglass got a reduced sentence.
and his wife ruth, who had served as a soviet courier, never spent a day in prison. prosecutors believed the prospect of ethel dying in the electric chair would force julius rosenberg to confess and name other soviet spies. >> michael meeropol: in the case of my mother, she really is collateral damage, you know. this is... this is the government trying... you know, putting a gun to her head and saying to julie, "talk or we'll kill her." >> cooper: you don't think she was involved at all? >> michael meeropol: we don't believe that, and, in fact, we believe that the evidence has virtually proved that. >> cooper: after david and ruth greenglass died, their testimony to a grand jury before the rosenbergs' trial was unsealed. there was no mention of ethel rosenberg typing up david greenglass' notes. and when those soviet messages the u.s. had been secretly decoding were publicly released, they showed the soviets had never given ethel rosenberg a code name. in 1997, when julius rosenberg's former soviet handler, alexander
feklisov, went public with tales of julius' spy missions for the soviet union, feklisov had this to say about ethel rosenberg: >> feklisov: ethel never worked for us. she didn't do anything. >> cooper: based on this information, robert and michael meeropol launched a campaign to clear their mother's name. in 2015, they got 13 members of the new york city council to issue a proclamation declaring the government wrongfully executed ethel rosenberg. >> robert meeropol: it is time for the federal government to step up and do the same. ( applause ) >> cooper: last year, they launched a petition drive, calling on president obama to exonerate their mother before leaving office. but historian ron radosh told us, given the documents he's seen, that would be a mistake. >> radosh: she was an accessory to spying by helping, identifying people, urging people to be re... recruited, suggesting that her own brother be recruited. this is aiding those who are spying. it's aiding and abetting.
>> cooper: you're saying even though she wasn't as involved as her husband... >> radosh: right. >> cooper: ...she still engaged in a conspiracy. >> radosh: yes. she considered herself a friend of the soviet union, was doing... helping her husband in his valuable work. >> cooper: so, the trial was not fair, but that doesn't mean the rosenbergs were innocent. >> radosh: right. right. you could say... if you want to say those who say the rosenbergs were framed, they framed guilty people. >> cooper: but you are acknowledging there was an injustice when it comes to ethel in terms of the death penalty? >> radosh: yes. yeah. she... compared to the others, she was of minimal importance. she should not have been executed. the government did it as a mechanism of leverage, hoping that would push julius to talk. it didn't work, and i think they were shocked that it didn't work. i th... they all thought julius would break and cooperate. >> cooper: when judge kaufman sentenced them to death, he said the rosenbergs loved their cause more than their children. do you think that's true? >> radosh: yes. unfortunately, i would agree with that.
yes. otherwise, how could they have done what they did? >> cooper: you've said that your mother was a hostage who was killed when your father wouldn't talk. isn't it true, though, that she could have told investigators everything she knew and lived? >> robert meeropol: both our parents could've saved themselves. >> michael meeropol: no question. >> robert meeropol: the... the f.b.i. agents who've written memoirs in which they said, "we didn't want them to die, we wanted them to talk." >> cooper: after your father had been executed, could she have then... >> michael meeropol: absolutely. >> cooper: ...last minute... >> michael meeropol: exac... >> cooper: ...said, "you know what? i'll tell you everything i know"? >> michael meeropol: absolutely. in fact, we know that the rabbi came to her cell after witnessing our father's execution and said, "julius is gone, and, you know, you have two children. and if there's anything you can say-- a name, even a false name, just anything, you know, to save yourself." and allegedly, she said to the rabbi, "i have no names. i'm innocent, and i'm ready." >> robert meeropol: ultimately, they couldn't betray each other.
they couldn't and they would not betray each other. and that would've been the ultimate betrayal. >> cooper: do you feel she betrayed you? >> robert meeropol: not at all. >> cooper: the judge said, "your parents loved their cause more than their own children," which is certainly a very cruel thing to say. >> robert meeropol: and it's not true. >> cooper: you don't believe by... >> robert meeropol: i don't. >> cooper: ...by choosing to die rather than cooperate, they didn't prove the judge right? >> robert meeropol: no, i don't think they did. if you were interviewing us in a psychiatric ward, then you might say, "yeah, they... they damaged us by what they did." >> cooper: to you, exoneration would mean what? is it political or is it personal? >> michael meeropol: both. >> robert meeropol: oh, it's both. our mother was killed for something she did not do. she was taken away from us. that's as personal as it can get. but the fact that the government facilitated the invention of evidence in order to convict
someone of a capital crime, that is something that should concern everybody. >> cooper: since our story first aired, more than 50,000 people signed an online petition calling for ethel rosenberg to be exonerated. in december, the brothers went to the gates of the white house to plead their case, just as they had done as boys. but president obama never responded to their request, and the brothers told us they don't plan on asking president trump. ♪ affordable paper towels that shine as bright as you do. own your shine™. sparkle®. we cut the price of trades to give investors even more value. and at $4.95, you can trade with a clear advantage.
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captioning funded by cbs >> previously on "big brother"! after a pool game got ugly -- >> no! you double hit the ball. >> redo it. >> how do you redo that? >> mark and josh went toe to toe. >> did you beat me that game? >> yes. >> okay. >> but when jessica inserted herself into the melee -- >> you lied to me. >> josh unleashed his rant on her. >> you turned on us because cody convinced you. now you want to reinsert yourself. >> don't call me boo boo, sweetheart. >> with the den of temporary nation openi