Assassination as Non-Proliferation: Historical and Sociological Thoughts

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 16th, 2012

Once again, somebody has been killing Iranian nuclear scientists. Iran blames the usual suspects (CIA, Mossad), which may be correct as far as I know. This is, according to the Times, the fourth such attack in the last two years.

As an historian, I'm struck with the fact that this is, as far as I know, a fairly novel mode of non-proliferation policy, if that is what it is indeed meant to be. I don't want to speculate too much on the true motives of such a thing — there could be much deeper games going on here than are obvious on the surface of things. But let's just pretend, for the sake of discussion, that it is indeed a state like Israel that is doing this with the idea of disrupting the Iranian attempts at a latent nuclear weapons capability.

Historical examples

The use of assassination as defensive policy is not a new one. There is an entire legal doctrine of "targeted killing" in the United States which means that killing someone, even if their risk to you is not imminent (they are not, for example, actually hurling a grenade at your troops), without any due process, rights, or attempt at arrest, is technically not "assassination," because, after all, your nation has a vague ability to declare it self-defense. It's meant to lump such killings into the "what happens in war" category, but it's an obviously blurry line. As you can tell from my description of it, I think it's a fancy way to put legal and ethical lipstick on something that any man on the street would recognize as assassination, plain and simple.

The idea of targeting scientists is not new, though it seems rare. During World War II, the OSS assigned its baseball-player spy, Moe Berg, to observe a lecture given by Werner Heisenberg in Zurich, Switzerland. If anything Heisenberg said at the lecture made Berg think that the Germans were converging on an atomic bomb, Berg was supposed to shoot him. Berg decided not to shoot him. (Bill Tobey of the Belfer Center, whom I've had a few interesting conversations with over the years, recently had an article in the Bulletin on this episode. Bill and I had a long conversation about the Heisenberg "reactor-bomb," as Paul Lawrence Rose calls it, the last time I was in town. Now I see why he was suddenly so interested!)

During the Manhattan Project, General Groves assigned protective security to about half a dozen of its key scientists, and Groves did fear that assassination-as-sabotage was a real possibility. Enrico Fermi got his in 1943, while he was still in Chicago. Laura Fermi recalled later that:

The rules General Groves had set could have been chosen by a wise mother for her teen-age daughter. Enrico was not to walk by himself in the evening, nor was he to drive without escort to the newly built Argonne Laboratory twenty miles from our home.1

The Fermis became good personal friends with their bodyguard, incidentally.

In early 1951, at one of the tenser points in the Cold War, the Atomic Energy Commission weighed seriously the possibility that the Soviet Union might kidnap or assassinate any American nuclear scientists who happened to be in Europe for conferences. As an AEC Division of Security report explained:

It seems almost certain that some areas of Europe, as well as additional areas in Asia, would be overrun at least temporarily if Russia should engage in open aggression, or if Russian satellite countries should become further engaged in open aggression. The [AEC] Division of Security feels, therefore, that definite steps should be taken by the AEC to prevent personnel who have had access to highly classified "restricted data" from visiting areas where they may be subject to personal danger or where information they possess may be subject to compromise from kidnap, deception, or as a result of military aggression.2

Regulations were put in place so that if any person with access to high-level "Restricted Data" were to travel to Europe, the AEC would review the case to see if they were willing to stomach the risk.3

So the idea of assassinating, or kidnapping, nuclear scientists is not new. But did it actually occur during the Cold War? I can't personally think of a single example. Tobey, in the aforementioned article, mentions a few non-nuclear scientist assassination that have occurred in the past: bomb-makers, missile-makers, and even speculation about the death of Gerald Bull, the "supergun" expert. Tobey also brings up the case of Yahia El-Meshad, who led the Iraqi nuclear program in 1980, who was found beaten to death in a Paris hotel room. That doesn't quite sound like Mossad's style to me, but I'm no Mossad expert, and I've never heard of the case before. So maybe there's our only other dead nuclear scientist, our Oppenheimer in the crosshairs.

Does it "work"?

Tobey (and others) seem to think it's a bad policy in part because it probably won't have much effect: nuclear programs are large, responsibilities are diffused, etc. I think this is probably true of a very advanced nuclear program, but I'm not so sure about Iran. Why?

The historians and sociologists of science have been emphasizing for decades now the way in which tactic knowledge and "know-how" are crucial to the development of nuclear programs.4 To this we can add the importance of key nodes in scientific networks as studied by the Actor Network Theory school of thought (most prominently associated with Bruno Latour's work).

And in fact, the role of key, central scientists during the Manhattan Project has been studied quite specifically and extensively.5

While counterfactual history is not in vogue, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that if Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Lawrence had been killed in 1943 or 1944, that the Manhattan Project probably wouldn't have had a weapon ready to go by August 1945. These people were repositories of vast amounts of high-level program knowledge, much of which was not written down, and also served as key morale-builders amongst the many thousands of people who worked under them. Removing these central nodes from the network would have been disastrous.

That being said, if you removed them too early (say, 1941 or early 1942), it probably wouldn't have had much effect — others could have taken their place and perhaps done as good as job. (Perhaps, perhaps not — these are not your run-of-the-mill physicists we are talking about, but absolute top experts in their fields.) Removing them in July 1945 probably wouldn't have much effect either — the work was mostly done and inertia would have carried it through. But during the key moments of hard work, the worst moments of the summer of 1944 (when the entire Los Alamos program was reshuffled to deal with the implosion problem)? I think it would have added months and months to the project, if not more time. So timing probably matters. And whether the Iranian scientists in question are such central nodes, or such key figures — I have no idea. But one would have to take this sort of thing into consideration before determining one way or another the likely efficacy of something like this.

Sociologists of science in particular would, I think, endorse the idea that taking out human knowledge from large, difficult scientific projects is probably the most effective thing you could do to disrupt it. It's worse than secrecy, it's worse than sanctions, it's probably even worse than just blowing up facilities or factories. The human beings are the one who make the networks of knowledge work, not the e-mails, not the scientific papers.

Three types of network arrangements: removing a single node in each would have very different consequences.

So I'm not so sure, a priori, that it need be so ineffective. There's nothing like the violent death of high-level members of a community to disrupt a community, put fear and suspicion into others, and possibly remove considerable amounts of organizational and technical expertise. I'm sure there will be endless studies of this, someday. But I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand, just because the Iranian organization is large. The question is not the organization's size, but its structure: is it centralized, decentralized, or distributed?6 I suspect the answer for most large projects of this sort is "decentralized," as in the diagram above, which means that identifying and removing key nodes could prove fairly disruptive.


That doesn't mean it's a good tactic, though.

The Israeli intelligence agencies have a reputation for assassination when it comes to bomb-makers, but usually of the conventional type. Expanding that definition to nuclear engineers seems quite novel. For many reasons, we might consider it a disturbing change of tactics. Even if you believe that Iran is pursuing active nuclear weapons capability (I am in the "latent capability" camp, myself — that is, I think the evidence available publicly, anyway, and the IAEA reports issued, point towards Iran trying to get itself into a state in which its nuclear status is ambiguous, as opposed to a state where it was explicitly fielding nuclear weapons), expanding the realm of tactics pursued to assassination of technical workers seems to push into a territory of "total war" that is unique.

As Avner Cohen asks today in Haaretz, "What if the Iranians start killing scientists?" What if international conferences start becoming bloodbaths? It's the natural next question to ask, and a grim one. The history of car bombing, on which I posted a few weeks ago, is instructive in this case. Once a novel and disruptive form of "underground" warfare starts, it's quickly  moved around to other places, adopted by other people — especially if it is effective. There's risk for significant blowback.7

Relatedly, in 1951 the AEC worried that a conference hosted by Niels Bohr in Copenhagen could be a serious security risk for its program. The topic was just quantum physics — nothing too scary there — but nearly two dozen people with Q-clearances were invited. What if, the AEC debated, the Soviets attacked or kidnapped the scientists? How much of the sum of the AEC program was held in the heads of those scientists? How much of an effect would that have in 1951? They eventually decided that if too many, or too important, scientists tried to go, they would have the State Department revoke their visas. They themselves recognized this as an extreme measure — and I don't think it came to pass — but the fear was a real one.

Scientists have usually been exempt from this kind of targeting. Why? Is it because we believe, Merton-style, that there needs to be some kind of firm line between the disinterested investigators and the uses of their work? When the scientist does the work of their country, do we not relate to it as understandable (perhaps even laudable) patriotism, or at least self-interest? I'm not sure why the line is there, but the idea that the nuclear scientist is somehow "above" the actions of their state is a common one, with some exceptions (Edward Teller, for example, gets a lot of the Cold War blamed on him, though this is in part because he crossed the line between scientist and political advocate).

I agree with Cohen that the dangers of crossing this invisible, never-really-paid-much-attention-to line may be worse than any non-proliferation benefits achieved by it — and is pretty disturbing. What happens if magnetic bombs start going off around Los Alamos and Livermore? If I were a nuclear weapons scientist, I would be petitioning my government to thoroughly denounce this sort of activity. I wouldn't want to find myself in the crosshairs, some decades down the line.

  1. Laura Fermi, Atoms in the family: My life with Enrico Fermi (Los Angeles, Calif.: Tomash Publishers, 1987 [1954]), 212. []
  2. Report by the Director of Security, "Foreign Travel by Personnel Who Have Had Access to Highly Classified Atomic Energy Information," (29 January 1951), part of AEC 293/7, in RG 326, Records of the Atomic Energy Commission, National Archives and Records Administration, General Correspondence 1946-1951, Box 10, "Foreign Travel By Personnel." []
  3. This was, incidentally, a conscious shift in policy. Prior to 1951, the main travel concerns were scientists they thought might abscond, Pontecorvo-style, to go work in the USSR. The 1951 approach was to worry about loyal scientists who might be kidnapped. []
  4. In the sociological literature, the most prominent example of this is Donald MacKenzie and Graham Spinardi, "Tacit Knowledge, Weapons Design, and the Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons," American Journal of Sociology 101, No. 1 (July 1995), 44-99. The "know-how"  line, though, goes back to the anti-secrecy work of the Scientists' Movement, late 1945 through 1946. []
  5. See Charles Thorpe, Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (University of Chicago Press, 2006), chs. 4 and 5. []
  6. The network diagram above is taken from Peter Galison, "War Against the Center," Grey Room, No. 4 (Summer 2001), 5-33, on 28, originally from a RAND Report on dispersal of communications from 1964. []
  7. I've not gone into here the problems that such a policy could have on diplomacy, either. For a good piece on this, see Ali Vaez and Charles Ferguson, "Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists Is Counterproductive and Wrong," at the Atlantic. One of my covert thoughts is that this is not necessarily a real tactic to stop proliferation, but really is an attempt to discourage any kind of diplomatic process, maybe even provoke a war. But that's just a wild speculation on my part. The games-within-games aspect of this sort of activity is one of the reasons I am not so quick to be sure as to who to assign the blame; it has a very Mossad look to it, but if I were trying to scuttle US-Iran relations, I'd want it to look that way, wouldn't I? []

7 Responses to “Assassination as Non-Proliferation: Historical and Sociological Thoughts”

  1. Steven Uanna says:

    I am the son of William “Bud” Uanna. My father Bud was the top security officer on the Manhattan Project. After the War he helped set up security at the Atomic Energy Commission. He named and wrote the criteria for the Q Clearance. He finished his career as Chief of the Division of Physical Security at the Department of State. I am investigating the details of his death. The movie Enola Gay said he was murdered. I believe he was murdered, and that his murder is being covered up by individuals within the United States Government. I believe that discovering who murdered him would lead to solving many mysteries, starting before World War II and through the Cold War into the Kennedy Administration involving science and politics. These involve the nuclear security of weapons and the facilities that create them, the creation and direction of the CIA – Bud Uanna wrote the briefing manual for the Office of Policy Coordination, the first official covert action group in the United States. Robert Oppenheimer’s removal – Bud Uanna was never called to testify although he had granted Oppenheimer a “final” Q Clearance in 1947. Political murder – Bud Uanna was responsible for protecting dignitaries that visited the United States, some of which were on CIA hit lists. Thank you.

    • Hi, Steven. That’s an interesting comment. I’m a bit dubious, but I’ll keep an eye out in the archives in case I see anything that might be of interest to you. I’m doubtful, I have to admit.

      • Steven Uanna says:

        Google “Jones to Uanna”. This involves the Oppenheimer hearings and Oppenheimer’s lawyer trying to get this document. Also, I think the prosecution promoted FBI information and opinions and I don’t think that Oppenheimer’s lawyer knew that the security for the Manhattan Project was run by the Counter Intelligence Corps, the FBI was kept out of it. And that AEC security was made up of current or former CIC agents. I have a very revealing FOI document from 1948 that shows the duplicity and lack of FBI knowledge about Atomic programs. It involves the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project and the storage facilities for Atomic Bombs. I also have an FBI doucment that calls Bud Uanna the FBI’s “prime source of confidential information” at the AEC. Thanks, Steve Uanna

        • I believe he’s who you say he was, but jumping from there to a motivation for murder is kind of a big one. There were a lot of folks involved with security in the AEC, a lot of people involved with the Oppenheimer case, and so on. What I’m not seeing here is a motive. Just being helpful to the FBI is not going to get one killed. It would probably get one fired, at most, if it came out.

          But if you have documents that are scanned, please feel free to e-mail them to me, and I’d be happy to take a look at them, tell you what I think about them. And again, I’m happy to keep my eyes out for you. But it has got to pass Occam’s Razor before I am going to go too far down that rabbit hole.

  2. Steven Uanna says:

    Since the release of the movie Enola Gay and a study of my father’s own file, FOI files I requested and open sources, mostly books by historians, – I found that although my father was in the inner circle or right outside it in many activities or events he was often left out of the “Official” record. Leslie Groves and Kenneth Nichols accounts are a good example involving the Manhattan Project and the AEC. Why? In the introduction to Lilienthal’s AEC Diary it describes the behind the scenes struggle between the AEC and the Military over custody of the Atomic Bombs. Who was the gatekeeper at the AEC? Bud Uanna. Who did Lilienthal call his “arch enemy”? Groves. Who did Truman call to a meeting between himself and Lilienthal and infer that if Nichols could not get along with Lilenthal he would be fired? Nichols. Yet Groves and Nichold, especially Nichols, were elevated during the Eisenhower Administration. I have seen my father pictured carrying nuclear material into the cabin at Los Alamos, on the tower at Trinity and in the pit under the bomb bay on Tinian. Did Groves really know what was going on? Why didn’t he go into the AEC? Who was really in charge? My study of my father’s career has revealed that the United States once had a good security system, not any more. Why? Because it was difficult to oust people like Oppemheimer and others, sneak in Nazi’s who could never pass a real security check and maintain any kind of security. Was it really necessary to bring the Nazi brainpower here? We had built the bomb without them. Who knew about the lever of brain power we had? My father. Oppenheimer was a problem because he had a conscience. So did my father. And what you think about and the way you think about it is very important. Where would our technology and standard of living be now if our scientific community had not been demoralized by the way Oppenheimer was treated. On the cover sheet of a Full Field Investigation done by the FBI on my father in 1948 the FBI Agent wrote this in the Synopsis ” Subject is loyal, capable and of unimpeachable honesty and integrity”. But if there were problems that eventually led to Wackenhut running our nuclear security and mercinaries handling the security for the US State Department and our embassy in Iraq why wouldn’t some of the other top security people say something? How about Boris Pash of Operation Alsos fame – he ran the notorious Bloodstone Operation sneaking Nazis in. How about Peer DeSilva who was on the USSBS survey in Japan? Check his background out and what he did after the war. Will people be quiet and cooprate for monetary bones thrown their way or was it because of some beliefs they held before the war? Was that the reason the CIC investigated the military? The beakdown in US security that we see now was and is a long standing work in progress. It is still going on. When you contract out background investigations like we do now what do you expect. A clever Red Scare right after the war, framing of the Rosenbergs to explain how the Russians got the Atomic Bomb when they probably captured the Japanese Project at the Chosin Reservoir, … and a new president in 1961 who was not fully informed about many things. Many people who have gone into the maze of Kennedy Assassination investigations and theories can see that there is something very strange going on. If Bud Uanna and a squad of CIC Agents had been on the ground that day on November 22, 1963 we might have a clearer picture of what really happened.

  3. […] little discussion of Tobey’s article on nuclear assassination is here, along with my own thoughts. […]

  4. […] Heisenberg que hubo un plan de asesinarlo como a otros científicos contemporáneos o actuales(4)? Sí. Años después, en una biografía de Moe Berg(*), lo reconocería como aquel que puso […]