(W)Archives: Skepticism and Politics from the Rosenbergs to Khorasan

October 3, 2014

Observers on both the left and right are busily casting doubt on the existence of the Khorasan group, the alleged branch of al Qaeda that the United States bombed on the night of Sept. 22-23. In an article entitled “The Fake Terror Threat Used to Justify Bombing Syria,” Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain wrote that “there are serious questions about whether the Khorasan group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner.” The government, they maintained, had invented this group to frighten the public so it would support a new war. Meanwhile, conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh said of the group’s name, “they just made it up.” Similarly, Laura Ingraham said the name was “propaganda” for the “sheeple.” These commentators think that the Obama administration invented the term to hide the fact that it was simply bombing al Qaeda—which it had claimed to have defeated some time ago. Both sides seem to invest tremendous significance in the fact that a CIA counterterrorism analyst who left the business in 2009 told Time that he had never heard of the group while working at the agency, and that former federal terrorism prosecutor Andrew McCarthy had also never heard of it.

The patent ridiculousness of these arguments—people with no access to relevant information have never heard of it, therefore the government is lying—is appalling. But they are not without precedent.

Forty years ago, a wide segment of the American public, including people able to marshal much more persuasive evidence than Greenwald and Limbaugh have done, knew that in 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union on false pretenses. The federal government, this tale went, had fabricated evidence to send these liberals to the electric chair. Communists accused the government of “legal murder.” The U.S. government stuck by its story, but people who expressed belief in the guilt of the Rosenbergs were likely to be looked down on by many Americans as reactionaries or hopelessly naïve.

It turns out, however, that the government was right. When the Rosenbergs went to trial, the government had proof that Julius Rosenberg was absolutely guilty as charged. (Ethel appears to have been overcharged, but there is no doubt of her complicity in her husband’s espionage.) This proof could not be presented in court because it came in the form of intercepted communications of the Soviet intelligence service, referred to inside the Intelligence Community as the Venona documents. Thanks to the National Security Agency, these intercepted communications are now available to anyone with a computer. We can read how Soviet intelligence officers reported on the activities of Julius Rosenberg, how he recruited other Americans to spy, and how the Soviets were afraid that they would overwork him.

When the Venona documents were declassified in 1995, belief in the innocence of the Rosenbergs collapsed. Almost everyone now knew that the “truth” once accepted by so many Americans had been anything but true. Then, in 2008, one of the Rosenberg’s co-conspirators, the 91-year-old Morton Sobell, finally confessed. Today, even the Rosenberg’s children—who can readily be forgiven for maintaining their parent’s innocence—agree that Julius, at least, was a spy for the Soviets.

Greenwald, Limbaugh and their colleagues would do well to remember the Rosenbergs. The theory they propound has far less basis in actual evidence than did the theories of the people who believed in the Rosenbergs’ innocence. Ultimately, in fact, Greenwald and Limbaugh’s theorizing says more about their own politics than it does about anything actually going on in the U.S. government.

It is true that the U.S. government is fallible. It routinely misunderstands things and makes policy mistakes. Sometimes it is on the wrong side of history. But it also knows things that are quite rightly kept behind classified walls, well beyond the reach of journalists and talking heads. Skepticism is natural, healthy, and instrumental to America’s particular brand of democracy. Baseless conspiracy theories are not.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Library of Congress