William Perl was born in 1919. He passed the tough entrance examination to City College of New York where college tuition was free. While at the college he became friends with Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, Joel Barr and Max Elitcher. All three men joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). According to Alexander Feklissov: "Perl majored in aeronautical engineering and the two students met regularly, especially to discuss the great classics of Marxist-Lennist literature, which they read diligently. Just like Rosenberg... felt that the values of social justice, equality, and brotherhood were paramount; he hated the independently wealthy who did no work and lived in the lap of luxury." (1)
William Perl graduated with a degree in engineering in 1939 and following year found work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at their Langley Army Air Base research facility in Hampton, Virginia. In 1941 Rosenberg and Barr were recruited as Soviet spies by Jacob Golos. They in turn persuaded Sobell and Alfred Sarant to join the network.
Perl, an expert on "supersonic flight and jet propulsion" was transferred to the NACA Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked on the design of new fighter planes. (2) Since it was a government contract, Perl had access to all secret documents sent in by other companies and government agencies. When he heard about the work Perl was doing, Julius Rosenberg told Vassily Zarubin and Semyon Semyonov, two NKVD agents based in the United States. They gave their approval to proceed with his recruitment, under the code name GNOME. (3)
On 14th September 1944, Stepan Apresyan reported on the progress of Perl as a spy: "Until recently GNOME (Perl) was paid only the expenses connected with his coming to TYRE (New York City). Judging by an appraisal of the material received and the last (not deciphered) sent to us GNOME deserves remuneration for material no less valuable than that given by the rest of the members of the LIBERAL (Julius Rosenberg) group who were given a bonus by you. Please agree to paying him 500 dollars." (4)
Alexander Feklissov met with William Perl during this period: "Perl was a well-built, handsome fellow, over six feet tall, and a smart dresser. We met in a cafeteria to talk and, as usual, I avoided places that were too small. The best locations were a bar or a drugstore large enough for thirty or forty people, providing lots of noise, with a free table surrounded by tables already taken to prevent anyone following us from sitting down.... These initial meetings, which appear to be an exchange of courtesies, are actually very important for taking stock of the other person." (5)
The spy network led by Julius Rosenberg, included Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, Morton Sobell, David Greenglass and Vivian Glassman. The spies took the secret documentation as they left the office at night. They passed the material to Rosenberg, who arranged for it to be copied by Semyon Semyonov. The material was returned to the spy so that it could be placed back in the office the following morning. Alexander Feklissov claims that between 1943 and 1945 the Rosenberg group "had given me over 20,000 pages of technical documents plus another 12,000 pages of the complete design manual for the first U.S. jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star." (6)
On 5th December, 1944, Stepan Apresyan warned about overworking Rosenberg: "Expedite consent to the joint filming of their materials by both METER (Joel Barr) and HUGHES (Alfred Sarant). LIBERAL (Julius Rosenberg) has on hand eight people plus the filming of materials. The state of LIBERAL's health is nothing splendid. We are afraid of putting LIBERAL out of action with overwork." (7)
The Soviets suffered a set-back when Julius Rosenberg was sacked from the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, when they discovered that he had been a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). NKVD headquarters in Moscow sent Leonid Kvasnikov a message on 23rd February, 1945: "The latest events with (Julius Rosenberg), his having been fired, are highly serious and demand on our part, first, a correct assessment of what happened, and second, a decision about (Rosenberg's) role in future. Deciding the latter, we should proceed from the fact that, in him, we have a man devoted to us, whom we can trust completely, a man who by his practical activities for several years has shown how strong is his desire to help our country. Besides, in (Rosenberg) we have a capable agent who knows how to work with people and has solid experience in recruiting new agents." (8)
On 16th June, 1950, David Greenglass was arrested. The New York Tribune quoted him as saying: "I felt it was gross negligence on the part of the United States not to give Russia the information about the atom bomb because he was an ally." (9) According to the New York Times, while waiting to be arraigned, "Greenglass appeared unconcerned, laughing and joking with an FBI agent. When he appeared before Commissioner McDonald... he paid more attention to reporters' notes than to the proceedings." (10) Greenglass's attorney said that he had considered suicide after hearing of Gold's arrest. He was also held on $1000,000 bail.
On 6th July, 1950, the New Mexico federal grand jury indicted Greenglass on a charge of conspiring to commit espionage in wartime on behalf of the Soviet Union. Specifically, he was accused of meeting with Harry Gold in Albuquerque on 3rd June, 1945, and producing "a sketch of a high explosive lens mold" and receiving $500 from Gold. It was clear that Gold had provided the evidence to convict Greenglass.
The New York Daily Mirror reported on 13th July that Greenglass had decided to join Harry Gold and testify against other Soviet spies. "The possibility that alleged atomic spy David Greenglass has decided to tell what he knows about the relay of secret information to Russia was evidenced yesterday when U. S. Commissioner McDonald granted the ex-Army sergeant an adjournment of proceedings to move him to New Mexico for trial." (11) Four days later the FBI announced the arrest of Julius Rosenberg. The New York Times reported that Rosenberg was the "fourth American held as a atom spy". (12)
NKVD now made plans to get those members of the Rosenberg network who had not been arrested out of the country. As Alexander Feklissov has pointed out: "William Perl was still living in Cleveland where he had been kept dormant. Amid the hysteria of the times it was inconceivable to send a Soviet citizen to Cleveland to help him leave the country. Who, then, could possibly fulfill the mission? The underground network was disintegrating and every new contact could trigger new arrests... Even though he had been hibernating for four years, Perl had been a very important agent and it was a moral duty to save him." (13)
It was decided to send Vivian Glassman to see Perl. She was a low profile member of the network and they were convinced that the FBI was unaware that she was a spy. This is also true of Perl but he had met her sometime before when she was in the company of Julius Rosenberg, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant. On 21st July, 1950, a NKVD agent paid her a visit and asked her to "undertake an important mission: go to Cleveland, contact Perl and warn him that he could be arrested, hand him $2,000 and detailed instructions to arrange his escape to Mexico." (14)
Glassman arrived at the home of Perl on 23rd July, 1950. Perl later commented: "About noon on this Sunday afternoon, while I was preparing to go out on a picnic, Vivian Glassman suddenly appeared.... I was quite surprised. I recognized her as a friend of Joel Barr's. I asked her to come in. She acted somewhat mysteriously. She proceeded to take some paper which I had lying around and start writing on it and motioning me to read what she had written and, well she wrote to the effect that she had instructions from a person unknown to her, in New York, to travel to Cleveland to get in touch with an aeronautical engineer to give him money and instructions to leave the country, and I believe she mentioned Mexico in that connection.... Well, I was very upset. I mentioned something about... I did not understand what this was all about. I believe I possibly mentioned that I thought it was a trap of some kind, words to that effect. I was feeling rather incoherent at the time.... Well, I told her that I thought she had better go. I ushered her out." (15)
Perl believed that Vivian Glassman had been turned by the FBI and it was an attempt to trap him. He had been interviewed by the FBI the previous week. After consulting his lawyer he went to the FBI and reported her visit: "I had been questioned by the FBI for the previous week or two, and this coming on top of it all, made me feel very, well, upset, so I decided that I should consult... a lawyer, which I tried to, the following morning... Of course I had been reading about the spy cases in the papers. She did mention in writing that she knew Julius Rosenberg. Well, here was something I was being asked, to flee the country for some reason. And so all I could think of was that somebody was trying to trap me into something, since I had no reason to leave."
The FBI now carried out an investigation into Glassman. They discovered that during the Second World War she associated with a group of Soviet spies that included Julius Rosenberg, Joel Barr, Alfred Salant, Morton Sobell and David Greenglass. A file that had been created on 8th March, 1950, mentioned that she had worked with Rosenberg at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. According to this FBI file she had access to secret information in this work. (16) They considered that Glassman might well be a spy but her name, unlike Rosenberg, Barr, Salant, Sobell, and Greenglass, had not come up in the Venona transcripts. It was decided not to charge her with spying.
William Perl was arrested on 15th March 1951. He was interviewed by the FBI and prosecutors involved in the investigation of the atom spies. Perl later recalled that Roy Cohn was at the meeting: "Roy Cohn informed me that... if I did not confess I would be indicated." He said he replied to Cohn that "I had nothing to confess, but whatever he or anybody else had against me, I would very much like to hear it open court." (17)
A few months later Perl appeared before the Rosenberg Grand Jury. He denied knowing Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell and as a result he was charged with perjury. His trial began on 18th March, 1953. Perl's defense hinged mainly on his subjective interpretation of the word "know" in the grand jury's questions to him. He claimed that at first he honestly had forgotten "knowing" both Rosenberg and Sobell. It has been claimed that "his memory may well have been influenced by his admitting eagerness to disassociate himself from his accused classmates". Perl pointed out that a FBI agent had told him that "Rosenberg and Sobell are going to fry". Perl told the court: "The newspaper details of the case... and the FBI's strong emphasis to me that Rosenberg and Sobell faced the death penalty horrified and shocked me." (18)
It was also revealed that in the week before the visit of Vivian Glassman FBI agents had questioned him about Rosenberg, Sobell, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant. "They... stated that they had evidence that Barr and Sarant were members of the Communist Party". He said he had no personal knowledge that either man was a member of the Communist Party of the United States but had played down his relationship with them. "I was afraid I would lose my job if they (the loyalty board) got an impression that I was associated with Communists."
The Perl jury returned a verdict of guilty, with a recommendation of clemency. However, the Assistant United States Attorney Lloyd Francis MacMahon urged "a more severe sentence" because Perl "was concealing his personal and direct knowledge of the activities of Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell and other persons involved in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union." The judge took MacMahon's advice and gave Perl the maximum sentence - five years. (19)
About noon on this Sunday afternoon (23rd July, 1950), while I was preparing to go out on a picnic, Vivian Glassman suddenly appeared.... I was quite surprised. I recognized her as a friend of Joel Barr's. I asked her to come in. She acted somewhat mysteriously. She proceeded to take some paper which I had lying around and start writing on it and motioning me to read what she had written and, well she wrote to the effect that she had instructions from a person unknown to her, in New York, to travel to Cleveland to get in touch with an aeronautical engineer to give him money and instructions to leave the country, and I believe she mentioned Mexico in that connection....
Well, I was very upset. I mentioned something about... I did not understand what this was all about. I believe I possibly mentioned that I thought it was a trap of some kind, words to that effect. I was feeling rather incoherent at the time.... Well, I told her that I thought she had better go. I ushered her out.... As I say, I was very upset, and I had been questioned by the FBI for the previous week or two, and this coming on top of it all, made me feel very, well, upset, so I decided that I should consult... a lawyer, which I tried to, the following morning....Of course I had been reading about the spy cases in the papers. She did mention in writing that she knew Julius Rosenberg. Well, here was something I was being asked, to flee the country for some reason. And so all I could think of was that somebody was trying to trap me into something, since I had no reason to leave.
Perl revealed that about early March 1951, shortly before the start of the Rosenberg-Sobell trial, he had been called to a meeting at Foley Square attended by various FBI agents and assistant U.S. attorneys involved in the preparation of the impending espionage case. One of those present was Roy Cohn. Perl recounted: "Mr. Roy Cohn informed me that... if I did not confess I would be indicted." He said he had replied to Cohn that "I had nothing to confess, but whatever he or anybody else had against me, I would very much like to hear in open court."
Perl's indictment for perjury followed and, immediately afterward, prosecution spokesmen publicly disclosed details of Vivian Glassman's offer to him of instructions and money to flee the country. The obvious inference is that the prosecution, failing to gain Perl's cooperation as a witness, had timed his indictment for a moment when the resulting publicity might influence the Rosenberg-Sobell trial, then in mid-course. What the prosecution spokesmen neglected to reveal to the press, however, was the rather significant fact that Perl had immediately turned down Miss Glassman's curious offer and had himself reported it to the FBI.
For over two years after his indictment, Perl's attempts to avail himself of his constitutional right to a "speedy" trial were countered by repeated delays, requested by the government for undisclosed reasons of "security." However, the Perl perjury trial, when finally held, produced no revelations concerning espionage, though some of the testimony involved persons previously "connected" with the Rosenberg spy ring. Interestingly, this testimony indicated that, whatever else the relationship of these people may have encompassed, at least one aspect of it was purely social.
(1) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 120
(2) Nigel West, Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War (2000) page 167
(3) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 120
(4) Stepan Apresyan, report to NKVD headquarters (14th September 1944)
(5) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 121
(6) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 140
(7) Stepan Apresyan, report on Julius Rosenberg (5th December, 1944)
(8) NKVD headquarters, message to Leonid Kvasnikov (23rd February, 1945)
(9) The New York Tribune (17th June, 1950)
(10) New York Times (17th June, 1950)
(11) New York Daily Mirror (13th July, 1950)
(12) New York Times (18th July, 1950)
(13) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 250
(14) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 251
(15) William Perl, statement to the FBI (26th July, 1950)
(16) Declassified FBI file (8th March, 1950)
(17) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 290
(18) William Perl, testimony in court (19th March, 1953)
(19) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 292