In 1951, Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. He served more than 18 years in Alcatraz and other federal prisons, traveled to Cuba and Vietnam after his release in 1969 and became an advocate for progressive causes.
Through it all, he maintained his innocence.
But on Thursday, Mr. Sobell, 91, dramatically reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans smoldering political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.
1969: Elias Abu-Saba teaches Existentialism at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, Pennsylvania, as pro bono community service. Befriends Morton Sobell.
Helen Sobell, Morton's first wife, stays with Abu-Saba family in Lewisburg overnight during her visits to Morton.
Morton is released from prison.
Abu-Saba family drive to New York City and celebrate Sobell's release at a dim sum parlor in Chinatown.
1977: Abu-Saba family visits New York City. Morton Sobell comes for lunch with host family and Abu-Sabas. Leila, 15, asks Sobell about the Equal Rights Amendment. Sobell answers that the Communist Party of America is against the ERA because under communism there is no sex discrimination. Therefore to fight for the ERA is unnecessary, since he is fighting for communism.
The conversation turns to the Rosenbergs and Sobell's imprisonment by the U.S. Government for atom-bomb spying. Leila's brother, 12, asks Sobell directly: "Did you do it?"
Sobell refuses to answer the question. Brother presses. Sobell dodges.
Leila Abu-Saba concludes that Morton Sobell may actually be guilty, even though her father says the US Government persecuted an innocent man. She also decides she is never, ever going to be a Communist.
If you ever wonder why I walk the middle of the road and refuse to be counted among the true believers in any cause, look at this story. Such an episode might have made a neo-conservative out of some people of my generation but I don't go for opposite extremes, either. Life is complicated and nobody is a total hero, nor is any cause or movement totally just and pure.
My good wishes to Sobell, who is 91 and frail, for his peace of mind and reconciliation of contradictions in the winter of his life. I hope we live long enough to hear Dick Cheney confess his sins. In the scheme of things I believe Richard Cheney caused more harm and loss of life than Morton Sobell ever did.