Sixty years ago, on June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.
The Rosenbergs, who lived in Manhattan, had been arrested in 1950, accused of passing classified military information to agents of the Soviet Union. The government charged that the pair had secured the secret data on nuclear weapons from Ethel’s brother, who worked at the Los Alamos atomic bomb project.
With the Cold War heating up along with the anti-communist climate fanned by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, there was little public sympathy for the Rosenbergs. Many did believe, however, that their death sentences were too harsh. They were the first American civilians to be executed for espionage.
Today, espionage is of a different sort, with defendants not being accused of secretly passing classified information to an enemy nation, but of leaking secrets to the media or the Internet. In effect, the data becomes public information for anyone to see.
The latest case involves Edward Snowden, a former CIA technician and a systems employee for a government contractor. He provided documents to two newspapers that detailed the activity of American surveillance programs. The information revealed that the government was collecting huge amounts of data on American citizens through phone and Internet records.
The government considers the surveillance legal under laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act, which have been tweaked to justify snooping in attempts to prevent terrorism.
What Snowden did was to let Americans and the rest of the world know that the government was actually and secretly doing what it was authorized to do. While most people were vaguely aware that the government was capable of spying on its own citizens, they really had no idea it was doing so to such an extent.