Morton Sobell

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Morton Sobell
Morton Sobell cropped.jpg
Sobell during a visit to East Germany in 1976
Born (1917-04-11) April 11, 1917 (age 101)
New York City, U.S.
Occupation Electrical engineer
Criminal status Released after 18 years
Helen Levitov
(m. 1945; div. 1980)
Children 1
Parent(s) Louis Sobell (April 22, 1889)
Rose Sobell (1894–1986)
Criminal charge Conspiracy to commit espionage
Penalty 30 years imprisonment

Morton Sobell (born April 11, 1917) is an American former engineer with General Electric and Reeves Electronics who worked on military and government contracts and who was subsequently found guilty of spying for the Soviets as a part of a ring that included Julius Rosenberg and others. Sobell was tried and convicted of espionage in 1951 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was released in 1969 after spending 17 years and 9 months in prison.


Morton Sobell was born into a Jewish family in New York City, to parents Louis and Rose, who in 1906 emigrated from the small village of Belozerka, Russian Empire (today in Ukraine).[1] He attended Stuyvesant High School[2] and the City College of New York where he received a degree in engineering[3] and later married Helen Levitov (1918–2002).[4] He worked in Washington, D.C., for the Navy Bureau of Ordnance and in Schenectady, New York, for the General Electric Company.

According to NKGB agent Alexander Feklisov, Sobell was recruited as a spy in the summer of 1944. "Sobell... was deferred from active military service because he was a top specialist in his field... When I asked him if he could microfilm his own documents, he replied it was not a problem since he knew photography quite well. At our next meeting I brought him a camera with the necessary accessories and a small stock of film."[5]

In June 1944, Max Elitcher claimed he was phoned by Julius Rosenberg, whom he had known slightly at college and had not seen in six years. Elitcher later recalled: "I remembered the name, I recalled who it was, and he said he would like to see me. He came over after supper, and my wife was there and we had a casual conversation. After that he asked if my wife would leave the room, that he wanted to speak to me in private." Rosenberg allegedly said that many people were aiding the Soviet Union "by providing classified information about military equipment". Rosenberg said that Morton Sobell was "also helping in this".[6]

At the beginning of September 1944, Elitcher and his wife went on holiday with Sobell and his fiancée. Elitcher told his friend of Rosenberg's visit and his disclosure that "you, Sobell, were also helping in this." According to Elitcher, Sobell became very angry and said "he should not have mentioned my name. He should not have told you that." Elitcher claimed that Rosenberg tried to recruit him again in September 1945. Rosenberg told Elitcher "that even though the war was over there was a continuing need for new military information for Russia."[7]

After being accused of espionage, he and his family fled to Mexico on June 22, 1950. He fled with his wife Helen, infant son Mark Sobell, and Helen's daughter from her previous marriage, Sydney. Sobell tried to travel to Europe, but without proper papers he was not able to leave. On August 16, 1950, Sobell and his family were abducted by armed men, taken to the United States border and turned over to the FBI.[4] The FBI arrested him for conspiring with Julius Rosenberg to violate espionage laws. He was found guilty along with the Rosenbergs, and sentenced to 30 years. He was initially sent to Alcatraz, until the prison closed in 1963. He was released in 1969 after serving 17 years and 9 months.[8]

He turned 100 in April 2017.[9]

Sobell as political cause

Sobell's supposed innocence became a cause among progressive intellectuals who organized a Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell.[10][11][12] In 1978 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting produced a television special maintaining Sobell's innocence.[13] The Monthly Review maintained that the government had presented "absolutely no proof" of Sobell's guilt, but had tried him merely "to give the impression that an extensive spy ring had been in operation."[14] In 1974, Sobell published a book, On Doing Time in which he maintained that he was innocent and that his conviction was a case of justice being subverted to serve political goals.[15][16] After his release from prison, Sobell went on the speaker circuit, regaling audiences with his account of being falsely prosecuted and convicted by the federal government.[17]

In a letter to the editor of The Nation in 2001, Sobell referred to himself as a "bona fide convicted spy".[18]

2008 admission

In 2008, at the age of 91, he told The New York Times that he did turn over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II. This was the first time he publicly admitted guilt.[19]

2018 interview

"I bet on the wrong horse," he told the Wall Street Journal.[20]

Personal life

In 1945, Sobell married Helen Levitov. She already had a daughter, and they had a son. They divorced in 1980 and Helen died in 2002.[4][21][22]

See also


  1. ^ 1920 United States Federal Census; Bronx Assembly District 7, Bronx, New York. National Archives and Administration.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Morton Sobell article Archived 2009-04-29 at the Wayback Machine. - University of Missouri-K. C. School of Law
  4. ^ a b c Saxon, Wolfgang (April 27, 2002). "Helen L. Sobell, 84, Leader Of Effort to Spare Rosenbergs". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-03. Helen Levitov Sobell, a voice in the struggle to spare Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and free their co-defendant, Morton Sobell, her husband, died on April 15 in Redwood City, Calif. She was 84. She had long been in declining health, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, said her daughter, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens.
  5. ^ Alexander Feklisov (1999). The Man Behind the Rosenbergs. Enigma. p. 132. ISBN 978-1-929631-08-7.
  6. ^ Max Elitcher, testimony at the trial of Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell (March 1951)
  7. ^
  8. ^ Ranzal, Edward (January 15, 1969). "Morton Sobell Free As Spy Term Ends". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-07. Morton Sobell, sentenced to 30 years for a wartime espionage conspiracy to deliver vital national secrets to the Soviet Union, was released from prison yesterday after serving 17 years and 9 months.
  9. ^ Debbie Lord (2017-06-19). "Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: Why were they executed? Would it happen today?". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved 2017-07-07.
  10. ^ William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America, by David J. Langum, 1999, p. 383
  11. ^ New Questions On Rosenberg Case, Sidney E. Zion, New York Times, August 28, 1966
  12. ^ Did Morton Sobell Get a Bum Deal? Hartford Courant, Jun 3, 1968
  13. ^ TV: 'Rosenberg-Sobell Revisited' Offers New Thinking on Spy Case, John J. O'Conner, New York Times, June 19, 1978
  14. ^ Refusing to Cooperate, by Lawrence Kaplan, Monthly Review,
  15. ^ Sobell, Morton, On Doing Time, 2001
  16. ^ Refusing to Cooperate, by Lawrence Kaplan, Monthly Review,
  17. ^ Reflections on Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment, by George Anastaplo, 2007, p. 253
  18. ^ "Letters", The Nation, April 2, 2001.
  19. ^ Roberts, Sam, "Figure in Rosenberg Case Admits to Soviet Spying", The New York Times, September 11, 2008
  20. ^ Evanier, David (22 June 2018). "'I Bet on the Wrong Horse,' Says an Unrepentant 101-Year-Old Spy". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 24 June 2018.
  21. ^ "Helen Sobell, 84; Activist Fought to Save Lives of Rosenbergs". Los Angeles Times. April 24, 2002. Retrieved 2011-11-18.
  22. ^ "Helen Sobell, ex-husband was convicted spy". San Francisco Chronicle. April 19, 2002. Retrieved 2011-11-18.

External links

  • An Interactive Rosenberg Espionage Ring Timeline and Archive
  • Morton Sobell de-classified FBI records
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