In response to:
The Strange Trial of the Rosenbergs from the February 3, 1966 issue
To the Editors:
In his review of our book Invitation to an Inquest [Feb. 3] Professor Herbert L. Packer noted that we charge that the prosecution’s key item of documentary evidence in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell is a forgery. Professor Packer’s discussion of this charge provoked several responses which were printed in the NYR [April 28] and which need clarification.
Briefly, Professor Packer observed that we submitted to a document examiner photostats of two Albuquerque Hilton Hotel registration cards made out in the name of Harry Gold; we also provided the examiner with authenticated samples of the handwriting of a former Hilton registration clerk whose initials are on each of the cards. One card, dated June 3, 1945, had been used as a Rosenberg-Sobell trial exhibit while the other, dated September 19, 1945, had not been used at the trial, but had been secured by us in the course of our research. The document examiner, Elizabeth McCarthy, reported that the clerk’s handwriting on the June hotel card appeared to be a forgery while the same clerk’s entries on the September card seemed authentic. Professor Packer complained that we failed to state whether Mrs. McCarthy “was forewarned as to which card was suspected to be a forgery, an omission which…renders the conclusion suspect.”
To respond to this directly: We did not forewarn Mrs. McCarthy as to which card we suspected to be a forgery. In fact, when we consulted her, we had not yet reached conclusions about the authenticity of either card. (Professor Packer’s assertion that the September document was “conceded to be a genuine registration card” at the time of Mrs. McCarthy’s study of the cards is erroneous.)
Lest all this emphasis on the techniques of document examination be misleading, we want to point out that our conclusion that the June card was forged relies upon many important observations and discoveries in addition to Mrs. McCarthy’s analysis of the cards. For example, the June card—introduced at the trial to corroborate a tightly-knit sequence of events by proving that Harry Gold registered at the Albuquerque Hilton on Sunday morning, June 3—is time-stamped on the back “June 4 12:36 pm ’45,” Monday afternoon. As for the September card, the clerk’s handwritten date on the front and the machine stamped date on the back are the same. Also, the June card has no FBI identifying marks, while the September card, as is customary with FBI evidence, was both dated and initialed by agents. Furthermore, Harry Gold’s pre-trial statements to his attorneys (made public for the first time in our book) contain no mention of his alleged June registration at the hotel, but do refer to a stay at the Albuquerque Hilton in September. In this pre-trial version of his evolving story, Gold virtually precluded the possibility of a June 3 Hilton registration, noting that he had spent the night of June 2 in an Albuquerque rooming house, checked his bags at the railroad station on the morning of June 3, and left Albuquerque later that same day.
Since the publication of Invitation to an Inquest, new information about Harry Gold’s hotel registration cards has been made available by the Department of Justice. In connection with a forthcoming legal appeal on behalf of Morton Sobell, who is at present imprisoned at Lewisburg Penitentiary serving the sixteenth year of a thirty-year sentence, attorney William M. Kunstler sought to obtain the originals of the cards from the FBI. (The availability of only photostatic copies had made it impossible for Mrs. McCarthy to extend her study of the cards to such interesting aspects as dating of paper and of ink.) J. Edgar Hoover replied with the following cryptic sentence: “Due to the passage of time, these cards are no longer available.” Further inquiry to the Department of Justice, however, elicited a more informative communication from the Chief of the Criminal Section, writing for Assistant Attorney General J. Walter Yeagley. He said that the original June card was returned to the Albuquerque Hilton in August 1951 and subsequently destroyed by the hotel “in the ordinary course of business.” As for the original of the September card, it had been destroyed by the FBI, “in the normal course of operations.”
The startling admission that the government returned the original of the June card—the principal item of documentary evidence against the Rosenbergs and Sobell—months before the Court of Appeals had completed its initial study of the case and two years before the execution of the death sentences certainly comports with a conclusion of forgery.
Professor Packer called, as have many reviewers of our book both here and abroad, for “an impartial investigation of the troubling factual aspects of the case.” Such an investigation might be conducted by an official body, like the Warren Commission, as Professor Packer suggested, or, perhaps more appropriately, the surviving defendant Sobell might be granted a hearing in federal court on his latest legal appeal for a new trial or freedom. Only by reopening this case can the demands of truth, justice, and history be satisfied.
New York City
Herbert Packer replies:
It is gratifying to learn that the examination of the registration cards was, after all, carried on in a manner which your earlier correspondents on this subject had asserted was impracticable (although they did not question its desirability). And I agree with Mr. and Mrs. Schneir that much more is involved in their forgery conclusion than physical comparison of the documents: for example, the behavior of the alleged forgers and their accomplices. What, then, is the new evidence that “certainly comports with a conclusion of forgery”? It is that the Justice Department returned the original of the June registration card to the Albuquerque Hilton. Instead of what? Retaining it? Or destroying it? If I had fabricated a piece of evidence, my instinct would be to destroy it as soon as it had served its purpose. Returning the card to the Hilton, which for all the Justice Department knew might have preserved it indefinitely, “certainly comports with a conclusion” that this malignant gang of forgers were fools as well as knaves. It also, of course, “comports with a conclusion” that the conspiracy in high places charged by Mr. and Mrs. Schneir is a figment of their imaginations. As I wrote in the review which is the subject of this exchange: “Mr. and Mrs. Schneir may have started out with an open mind, but by the time they came to write their book they were so far committed that one seeking light on the case must view all their statements with the utmost reserve.”