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Mrs Rodin and I watched the Stephen Spielberg historical fiction movie, Bridge of Spies, last night. It is a work of fiction because the timelines for the events were condensed. Also, other elements were included to be “illustrative” of events that, in fact, never happened to the characters but conveyed the mood and menace of the time. The basic story is the exchange of Russian spy Rudolf Abel for U-2 pilot Frances Gary Powers in 1962 and the role of James B. Donovan, Abel’s defense attorney, in negotiating the exchange.
Tom Hanks plays Donovan and is in nearly every scene. Thus, it is Donovan’s personal attitudes about America, the Constitution, and the value of every human life that is the thread that runs through the film. Hanks is the “everyman” in the story. And we are invited to embrace the world as he sees it.
Donovan is selected by the local Bar Association to be defense counsel for a captured Soviet spy. The idea is that we will showcase our American justice system in contrast to the Soviet system of the late 1950s. Although the accused spy is entitled to a defense, Donovan so reveres the Constitution that he exceeds the desires of the government, judge, and the public in providing a vigorous representation. The judge denies Donovan’s motion to suppress evidence collected without a warrant. The judge denies time to prepare an adequate defense “of an enemy.” Abel is convicted of all three counts:
- Conspiracy to transmit defense information to the Soviet Union
- Conspiracy to obtain defense information, and
- Conspiracy to act in the United States as an unregistered agent of a foreign government
Donovan successfully argues to the judge that his client be given prison time rather than death because, presciently, it holds open the possibility of a prisoner exchange with the Soviets when one of “our guys” is caught. Abel is sentenced to federal prison for 30 years. He serves four before the exchange occurs.
With more than adequate grounds for appeal, the case goes up to the US Supreme Court (which upheld the conviction in a 5-4 decision). In Donovan’s actual oral argument is the following:
No matter how we try to get around it, by any kind of elaborate argument, the fact remains that a man was made to disappear in the United States for three days with all its effects based on an administrative process, which is returnable to no one except the man who issues it, makes no provisions for counsel, makes no provision for search or seizure and the man is hold off to a distant place and on this evidence is convicted of a capital crime.
Now, I see that in our time, the only place that criminal procedures have been based on such a process have been in the police states of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia on their satellites never in this country.
Now, finally, throughout this case, there’s been elaborate discussion of the national defense and how that’s so important with respect to this man’s conviction.
But I wonder if this isn’t a very unwise oversimplification of this matter.
The fact is that — that if we look perhaps 20 years, I suggest to the Court, 25 years, when God willing, the Russian people are really free, perhaps aligned with us against Great China as a common foe.
Looking back with a benefit of hindsight, what will we see as having been the most important weapon in — on national defense?
I think we will see what the benefit of hindsight, how important it was to keep military preparedness, how important it was to use the F.B.I. and other internal security agents to prevent suppression at home.
But I suggest to the Court that it will be found with the benefit of hindsight that the most potent weapon in our arsenal defense turns out to be our way of life.
Best epitomized perhaps in that simple phrase due process of law and it is that maintenance of that way of life, the maintenance of due process of law held before the other peoples in the world that I suggest to you in an age of intercontinental missiles with hydrogen warheads will turn out to have been a strongest weapon of defense.
I close my argument the same words with which I closed my affidavit in the District Court in commencing a proceeding to suppress this evidence, and I quote
“Able is an alien charged with the capital offense of Soviet espionage.
“It may seem anomalous that our constitutional guarantees protect such a man.
“The 0(Inaudible) may view America’s conscientious adherence to the principles of a free society as altruism so scrupulous, that self-destruction must result.
“Yet our principles are engraved in the history, in the law of this land.
“If the free world is not faithful to its own moral code, there remains no society for which others may hunger.”
In the film, the script generally follows the oral argument to the same effect: due process of law for the most despised people in our midst is the only thing that distinguishes us from police states. It is a very moving moment in the movie.
The entire film is dramatic with its exciting telling of the negotiations and uncertainties of the exchange of Abel for Powers. But I could not escape the irony in this Hollywood production from 2015: The finest amongst us revere the civil liberties enshrined in our Constitution. No matter how dangerous, no matter how reviled, every man is entitled to its protection. Sharp practice by government agencies and judges must be rejected if we are to be better than a police state.
Unlawful search and seizure, detention without counsel, unregistered foreign agent, government and judges not scrupulously observing/protecting civil liberties of reviled persons. Donald Trump, the January 6 defendants, and Hunter Biden all came to mind at various points in the telling of the trial of Rudolph Abel* and the treatment of suspected persons in East Germany and the Soviet Union. Does Spielberg, Hanks, and Hollywood not see the irony at work today?
* Rudolph Abel was, in reality, William Fisher, born of Russian emigres to England. His father was a colleague of Lenin and was thrown out of Russia by the Tsar. The Fishers returned to Russia after the 1917 revolution. William was a long-time intelligence agent and ran the Soviet spy ring that exfiltrated atomic bomb secrets from Los Alamos. The Rosenbergs were part of that ring but never revealed Abel’s role.Published in