Alexander Feklisov, 83, said in an interview Saturday that the Rosenbergs were executed unjustly because while Julius Rosenberg did give away military secrets, he had not provided Russia with any useful material about the atomic bomb.
"He didn't understand anything about the atomic bomb, and he couldn't help us," Feklisov said indignantly. "And still they killed them. It was a contract murder."
Speaking in his apartment in Moscow, Feklisov said that his strong loyalty to Rosenberg and his own declining health had prompted him to tell his side of what happened 47 years ago. He said he had not received permission from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the successor to the KGB, to make his disclosures.
Feklisov, who said he would like to write a book about his role in the Rosenberg case, first discussed his relationship with the American couple in a television documentary that is expected to broadcast on the Discovery Channel next week.
Feklisov, who met with Rosenberg frequently between 1943 and 1946, said the execution of Ethel Rosenberg was particularly unfair, since, he insisted, she had not actively spied herself.
"She had nothing to do with this -- she was completely innocent," he said. "I think she knew, but for that you don't kill people."
Some, but not all, American historians now agree that Mrs. Rosenberg's role in the conspiracy was a minor one. But there is no longer much doubt that her husband was stealing military technology and recruiting spies for the Soviet Union. Nor is there doubt that he was a member of an atomic spy ring.
In 1995, the U.S. intelligence community released documents that showed how a small team of CIA cryptographers, known as the Venona Project, found the first clues that the Soviets had tried to steal the blueprints for the atomic bomb in World War II. Their evidence led to the arrests of the Rosenbergs and others.
The couple were convicted mainly on the testimony of Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass (a low-level worker at the Los Alamos, N.M., atom bomb project) and his wife, Ruth, who were arrested for conspiracy and confessed.
Although Feklisov had the most direct contact with the Rosenbergs, he is not the first Soviet official to confirm that Julius Rosenberg stole secrets. But there have been some contradictory statements on the Soviet side about exactly what services were rendered.
In his memoirs, former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote that the Rosenbergs "provided very significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb." Saturday, Kelkisov gestured impatiently at this notion. "Khrushchev was a silly man -- he didn't understand anything," he said.
Other retired KGB officials who have written more recent memoirs have confirmed that they were spies but, like Feklisov, they denied that the Rosenbergs had provided any useful atomic secrets.
In fact, Feklisov confirmed what U.S. prosecutors had maintained during the trial, namely that Rosenberg had at least tried to steal details about the atom bomb. He gave him a rough sketch of a "lens mold," a bomb part that he had received from Greenglass. But Feklisov insisted that it was useless. "He gave us a childish scribble -- it was meaningless," he said.
There was no official comment in Moscow about Feklisov's revelations. "We do not comment on the Rosenbergs," Yuri Kobaladze, spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service, said Saturday.
Feklisov said that in 1944 Rosenberg had given him a radar-controlled proximity fuse, which was vital in developing the Soviet air-to-surface missiles. But he said that in his view, stealing this technology was not a capital offense. "During the war they arrested packs of German spies and not a single one of them was executed," he said angrily. Referring to Klaus Fuchs, the German-born nuclear physicist, who was a key figure in supplying Moscow with a blueprint for America's atomic bomb, he added, "Fuchs, who told us everything about Los Alamos, got only 14 years, and there is no comparison in what they did."
The retired KGB colonel, who lives on a pension of $500 a month, was not officially recognized by the Soviet government for his spying successes. He said that after he returned to Russia in 1946, he was denied the Order of the Hero of the Soviet Union because his work helping steal atomic secrets from the United States would reflect badly on the achievement of Soviet scientists.