Posts Tagged ‘FBI’


Why spy?

Friday, December 4th, 2015

It's impossible to talk about the work at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project without mentioning the spies. And yet, for the first five years of the atomic age, nobody would have mentioned them, because they had escaped the view of the security services. It's one of the great ironies of the top-secret atmosphere: despite listening to phone lines, reading mail, and endlessly snooping, the security forces of General Groves caught not one spy at Los Alamos.

"Security theater" at Los Alamos — lots of effort made, but no spies were caught this way. Source: LANL.

"Security theater" at Los Alamos — lots of effort was made to create the culture of a top-secret, security-conscious environment, but no spies were caught this way. Source: LANL.

The Los Alamos spies are the ones we spend the most time talking about, because they were the ones who were closest to the parts of the bomb we associate with real "secrets": the designs, the experiments. They were also the most sensational. There is a bit of an error in looking at them in this way, an over-exaggeration of the work at Los Alamos at the expense, say, of Oak Ridge. But they do make for fascinating study. None of them were James Bonds — crack-trained intelligence experts who could kill you as much as look at you. (I appreciate that in the latest James Bond movie, much is made of the fact that Bond is more assassin than spy.) They are really "moles," volunteers who were doing more or less their normal jobs, just working for two masters at once.

This sense of the term "mole," as an aside, was popularized (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) by John Le Carré's classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974): "Ivlov's task was to service a mole. A mole is a deep penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism." It is remarkable to me how much of our language of intelligence work is indebted to fictional depictions. I admit I am much more a fan of the Le Carré approach to espionage writing than the Ian Fleming approach — I like my spies conflicted, middle-aged, and tormented. In a word, I like them human. James Bond seems to me to be nothing but a standard male ego fantasy (a well-dressed killer with gadgets who gets and then promptly discards the girl), and it makes him boring. (Daniel Craig's Bond is, at least, middle-aged and tormented, so it makes the character tolerable, even if the plots are just as silly as ever.) Even this, though, is misleading, because occasionally there are spies who are in something like a Bond mode, destroying factories and assassinating enemies and wielding gadget-guns. But I suspect most intelligence workers look more like George Smiley (or, even more to the point, Connie Sachs, the "librarian" of Smiley's "Circus" who is crucial but ever behind-the-scenes) than Bond.1

Why would someone become a mole? There are several short-hand ways of talking about motivations for espionage, like M.I.C.E.: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. They are as valuable as these kinds of short-hands can ever be — tools for generalizing cases, not understanding the individual motivations, which are always tailored by a million tiny specifics.

The invisible, bland, inconspicuous Harry Gold. Source: NARA, via Wikimedia Commons.

The invisible, bland, inconspicuous Harry Gold. Source: NARA, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite members of the atomic spy rings, for example, is Harry Gold, a "courier" to others. Gold was the one who ferried information between the moles (scientists at the lab) and the "real" Soviet espionage agents (NKVD officers working under diplomatic cover at the Soviet embassy). The courier was a crucial part of the network, because without him you have the problem of two "watched" groups (weapons scientists and Soviet officials) having to come together, a conspicuous thing. Gold, by contrast, was completely inconspicuous: a chubby little man with a dim-witted facial appearance. But he was a hard worker. Why'd he do it? Not for money — he wouldn't take any, not in any great amounts. Not so much for ideology — he had favorable thoughts towards the Soviet Union, but he doesn't appear to have been especially radicalized. He wasn't being coerced.

So that leaves ego, and that isn't the worst way to think about Gold, though it doesn't quite do him credit. As Allen Hornblum explains in great detail in his fascinating The Invisible Harry Gold (Yale University Press, 2010), Gold had a "needy," vulnerable personality that made him desperate for friendship and approval. He fell in with a group of Communists who realized how far he would go for that approval, and gradually worked towards bigger and bigger assignments. All the agents needed to do to get Gold to work his damnest, and to put his life on the line, was to give him encouragement. In the end, this same trait made Gold a nightmare for the other spies, because once he was caught, he wanted the FBI agents to be his friends, too. So he told them everything. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

Klaus Fuchs — the quiet enigma, the man against himself.

Klaus Fuchs — the quiet enigma, the man against himself.

What about Fuchs? Ideology, all the way. Fuchs wasn't new to that game — he had been putting his life on the line years before he became a spy, as a Communist student in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. It's probably a very a different thing to go from a very proud, spoken form of politics to the quiet subterfuge of becoming a mole. Fuchs himself, in his various confessions and later statements, indicated that he found this work to be an unpleasant struggle. In his 1950 confession to William Skardon, he put it this way:

In the course of this work, I began naturally to form bonds of personal friendship and I had to conceal from them my inner thoughts. I used my Marxist philosophy to establish in my mind two separate compartments. One compartment in which I allowed myself to make friendships, to have personal relations, to help people and to be in all personal ways the kind of man I wanted to be and the kind of man which, in a personal way, I had been before with my friends in or near the Communist Party. I could be free and easy and happy with other people without fear of disclosing myself because I knew the other compartment would step in if I approached the danger point. I could forget the other compartment and still rely on it. It appeared to me at the time that I had become a "free man" because I had succeeded in the other compartments to establish myself completely independent of the surrounding forces of society. Looking back at it now the best way of expressing it seems to be to call it a controlled schizophrenia.2

From the point of view of those who knew him at Los Alamos, Fuchs succeeded greatly — they were entirely caught off-guard by the revelation that he was a spy. Hans Bethe took pains to emphasize (to a fault, the FBI seems to have thought) that Fuchs worked very hard for everyone he worked for: the Americans, the British, and the Russians.

(I have written elsewhere on David Greenglass and will not go back over him. He is another curious case, to be sure.)

And what about Ted Hall? Hall was the youngest scientist at Los Alamos, and, as such, the youngest atomic spy of note. He was only 19 years old when he decided that he ought to be giving secrets to the Soviet Union. 19! Just a baby, and his Soviet codename, "MLAD," reflected that: it means "youngster." (In retrospect, that is a pretty bad codename, a little too identifying.) When I show his Los Alamos badge photograph to my students, I always emphasize that they've met this kid — the 19-year-old genius who thinks he knows better than everyone else, who thinks he has the world figured out, who is just idealistic enough, and just confident enough, to do something really terribly stupid if the opportunity was made available.

Ted Hall's Los Alamos badge photograph — teenage angst, Soviet mole.

Ted Hall's Los Alamos badge photograph — teenage angst, Soviet mole.

Why did Hall spy? Ideology, apparently. I say "apparently" because most of what we know about Hall's motivations is what he said, or seemed to have said, much later, far after the fact, decades later. A much-older Hall rationalized his spy work as being about the balance of power, an easier thing to say in 1997 than in 1944. Having known 19-year-olds, and having been one, I view this post-hoc rationalization with a bit of suspicion. Even Hall himself seems to recognize that his 19-year-old was brash and arrogant, that ego might have played a large role in his decision.

I have been thinking about Hall a lot recently while watching Manhattan. Towards the end of season 1, it is revealed that one of the scientists the show has been following was a spy, based loosely on the case of Hall. I don't want to speak too much to the specifics on here, because if you haven't been watching the show, there are many spoilers involved with just talking about this aspect of the plot, but it's been pretty interesting to see how the writers handled a spy. He's not a James Bond, to say the least. He's someone who, like most real people, see himself as a "good" person fundamentally — but whose actions give him grave doubts as to this proposition. This season there is another figure in the show who is loosely based on Lona Cohen, a courier of Hall and a fascinating figure in her own right, and a complicating factor for the spy scientist. Those interested in learning more about Hall and Cohen should definitely take a look at Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel's Bombshell (Times Books, 1997).

In current season of Manhattan, the spy character has realized that what started as something of a "game" is no game at all, no game any sane or sensitive person would want to play. The actor who plays him (who I regret not naming, do to aforementioned spoiler concerns!) manages to convey perfectly that panicky feeling one gets when one realizes one has gotten in too far, that one has taken on too much risk, that one cannot turn back, cannot turn off the ride, cannot get off the carousel. It's a sickening feeling, that feeling of being trapped.

Did Hall feel trapped? One wonders. Of the identified wartime Los Alamos spies (Fuchs, Greenglass, Hall), he is the one who got away, the one who lived out a free life until the end, even though the FBI had a pretty good idea of what he had done by the 1950s. The lack of enough evidence for a "clean case" against him (Hall used a different courier than Fuchs and Greenglass, so the testimony of Harry Gold was worthless in his case), and his isolation for further work on weapons, seems to have allowed them to let him alone. But does one ever "get away" with such a thing? Was there any time in which he was truly at ease, wondering if the hammer might drop? His spying was eventually revealed two year before his death, but he was still never charged with anything.

Ted Hall in his 70s, being interviewed for CNN's Cold War series (episode 21).

Ted Hall in his 70s, being interviewed for CNN's Cold War series (episode 21): "We were pretty close to being consumed."

Hall was interviewed for CNN's (excellent) Cold War documentary miniseries in the late 1990s. To my eyes, he seems somewhat hollow. Is this just how he was, or an artifact of his age? (He died not too long afterwards, at the age of 74.) Or an artifact of a life staring down the barrel of a gun? On the Rosenberg execution, Hall is recorded saying, grimly: "It certainly brought home the fact that there were flames consuming people, and that we were pretty close to being consumed."

Can you come out of the cold without resolution of one form or another? Maybe Hall was lucky that, by the end of his life, he got to contribute to the narrative about himself, about his actions, even if he did it in a roundabout admitting-but-not-quite-confessing way. Hall claimed, in his 70s, that the youth of 19-years-old had the right idea, in the end, even if the Cold War went places that that youth couldn't have anticipated. Hall's motivations seem to come somewhere out of that unconscious land between ideology and ego, where many monsters live.

Hall, Fuchs, Gold, and Greenglass — not a James Bond among them. They are strictly out of the Le Carréan mold. Conflicted, scared, self-sabotaging: the Le Carréan spy is always his own worst enemy, his friends barely friends at all, his punishment always of his own making. There's no right way out of a John Le Carré story. If you think things are going to end up well, just you wait — any victory will be bittersweet, if you can call it a victory at all.

  1. My greatest disappointment with the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, is that it focuses almost exclusively on the Bond-like persona, to the extent of devoting a large amount of their space to stupid James Bond plots as opposed to actual history. The best thing in the entire museum, in my opinion, is an exhibit on the catching of Aldrich Ames. Ames was no Bond, and he was caught by no Bond. The women who caught him look unassuming, but were shrewd, clever, and careful. No gadgets, just a lot of hard work, and the experienced application of psychology. []
  2. Klaus Fuchs statement (27 January 1950), copy online here. []

Who smeared Richard Feynman?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

One of the many physicists who came under official FBI scrutiny during the Cold War was Richard Feynman.1 Feynman's work on the bomb at Los Alamos, combined with his fame, penchant for telling stories about safe-cracking, and occasional consideration for being on government committees led him to be investigated a few times, to see where is loyalties lay. In March 2012, the website MuckRock filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain and release Feynman's full FBI file (minus deletions). It got a lot of Internet buzz when it first came out, but from the look of most of it, the articles about it didn't read it very carefully — they just mined it for a few good quotes.

Would you give this man a security clearance? From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Would you give this man a security clearance? From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

And good quotes it has. Like most FBI files for people who had security clearances at one point or another, it is mostly concerned with interviews with friends and colleagues about Feynman's "character and loyalty." Most of the file was filled out in 1958, when Feynman was apparently being considered for a position on Eisenhower's President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), a very high-level advisory board created in the wake of Sputnik. Most of the testimonies look like this:


"...a brilliant physicist... discreet, loyal American citizen of good character and associates and recommended him for a position of trust..." And so on.

And sometimes you can figure out the basics of what the blank spots say from the context. The first blank spot is someone who Feynman worked with during a summer of 1956 visit to Brookhaven National Laboratory, and we can deduce from the text that: 1. the person is a man, and 2. the person is not someone Feynman knew well before that period. We could if we were really tempted to, try to figure out (from archival files or databases), the names of several candidates based on these properties, and then see if they fit into the blank spot (since it is a fixed-width font). The second blank spot is the name of the interviewing FBI agent (SA = Special Agent). In this case, it is such a boring endorsement that it doesn't seem worth the effort. (The b7C and b7D on the right are FOIA exemption references that indicate that the blanked out parts have been done so to protect the "privacy" and hide the name of the confidential informant.)

Feynman smear 1

But there is a much more interesting letter in the file, and it is one that several blogs and news sites picked up on at the time. It is dated August 8, 1958, and is an epic 9-page attack on Feynman's character, written directly to J. Edgar Hoover. It argues that "Feynman is a master of deception, and that his greatest talent lies in intrigue, not physics":

I do not know—but I believe that Richard Feynman is either a Communist or very strongly pro-Communist—and as such as a very definite security risk. This man is, in my opinion, an extremely complex and dangerous person, a very dangerous person to have in a position of public trust... In matters of intrigue Richard Feynman is, I believe immensely clever—indeed a genius—and he is, I further believe, completely ruthless, unhampered by morals, ethics, or religion—and will stop at absolutely nothing to achieve his ends.

You can read the least-redacted version of the letter here.2 A lot of the sites which posted it did so in sort of a confused way — talking about how it reflected that the FBI was dubious about Feynman (the FBI do not issue opinions of this sort, and the letter is just part of his file), and wondering which of his colleagues would be mean enough to write such a thing.

Feynman smear letter, 1958

I've read a lot of FBI files of physicists, and plenty of them are full of anonymous, smearing letters to Hoover. This one sticks out as unusual, though, both in its vehemence and its personal specificity. The author of the letter is not some anti-Communist nut who writes nasty letters as a hobby. It hits much closer to home than most smears.

So who smeared Feynman? What can we infer about the letter's author, reading between the lines?

  • The author is someone who knew Feynman pretty well. This is a letter written by someone who has heard a lot of Richard Feynman stories — they are well-acquainted with his lock-picking Los Alamos stories, for example. (And this was several decades before those stories appeared in books.) They know that he's very handy with mechanical devices, they know his friends, they claim to know how Feynman has talked about his political positions over the years and how he is registered to vote (Republican).
  • The author is religious and conservative. Among the author's criticisms of Feynman is that he is irreligious and a fake Republican. The author repeatedly invokes Eisenhower's name in awe and respect, and offers to swear either on a Bible or to the President himself. The author talks of Feynman's "long hatred of Republicans," but knows that Feynman registered as a Republican in 1956 — which the author believes to have been part of a long-game deception to infiltrate the government. The author could be faking it, of course, but it doesn't read like that to me.
  • The author knows a lot about his scientific contacts and knows he is considered brilliant by his peers, but is probably not a physicist. On page 6 of the letter, the author names lots of Feynman's scientific associations and acknowledges that they would all give Feynman high marks. But the author also makes some rather elementary errors: some of the names are obviously misspelled — "Enerico Fermi" and "Claus Fuchs." It is hard for me to believe that any of his Los Alamos peers would misspell those names in 1956, much less that of Fermi's. Of course, we all make typos. But the tenor of the letter suggests someone who was pretty closely connected with Feynman's scientific world, but was not a member of it.
  • The person is someone who the FBI had already identified as worth interviewing, prior to the letter. This is obvious from the first sentence ("On July 28, 1958, I was interviewed by a representative of the FBI...") but was missed by a lot of the sites that wrote on the file. This tells us a few things. For one, it tells us that this person was already someone whose connection to Feynman was superficially obvious — again, not an anonymous ranter, but someone relatively close. For another, it lets us trace through the file and figure out where the interview happened. And indeed, we find that on 7/28/58, an FBI agent from the Butte office interviewed someone in Boise, Idaho, who talked about Feynman's lock-picking stories, and had a rare negative conclusion about his suitability. Probably the same person.
  • The person who wrote the letter is a woman. Wait, what? Indeed! Despite a lot of redaction to keep the identity of the letter writer and interviewee a secret, there are a few tiny slips: a reference to "her" and "she" in a few of the FBI memos. This is the sort of subtle thing that must make file redactors kick themselves, because it's the sort of little slip-up that gives away a lot of information.

So who smeared Feynman? I submit a theory: I suspect it was his second wife, Mary Louise Bell, to whom he was married from 1952 until 1956.3 That's not a long marriage, but it's plenty of time to hear someone's stories ad nauseam, and plenty of time to learn to hate someone. From James Gleick's Feynman biography, Genius:

His friends refused to understand why he finally chose to settle down with Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas, who had met him in a Cornell cafeteria and pursued him—they said cattily—all the way to Pasadena and finally accepted his proposal by mail from Rio de Janeiro. ... They married as soon as he returned from Brazil, in June 1952, and they honeymooned in Mexico and Guatemala, where they ran up and down Mayan pyramids. He made her laugh, but he also frightened her with what she decided was a violent temper. ... She nagged him, they thought. She liked to tell people that he was not “evolved” to the point of appreciating music and that sometimes she thought she was married to an uneducated man with a Ph.D. ... Politically she was an extreme conservative, unlike most of Feynman’s colleagues, and as the Oppenheimer security hearings began, she irritated Feynman by saying, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” He, too, voted Republican, at least for a while. Divorce was inevitable—Feynman realized early that they should not have children, he confided in his sister—but it was nearly four years before they finally separated.

Further evidence from the file: Feynman's only connection to Boise, Idaho, is through Bell (they were married there in late June 1952). The final divorce settlement was rendered only in May 1958 — two months before the FBI interviewed the letter writer. It was an extremely ugly, long (2 years!) divorce hearing: it made the newspapers because of Bell's allegations of "extreme cruelty" by Feynman, including the notion that he spent all of his waking hours either doing calculus and playing the bongos.

Another approach to these files is to try and guess missing words based on the fixed-width font size. One possible fit shown here, for example. I am always a little un-sure about this approach, though, since lots of other things could fit, as well.

Another approach to these files is to try and guess missing words based on the fixed-width font size. One possible fit shown here, for example. I am always a little un-sure about this approach, though, since lots of other things could fit, as well.

Of course, there's always another possibility, such as the idea that it might not be Bell herself, but her mother, sister, close friend, etc. But there's a level of personal animosity in the letter that is quite deep. There's a sense that this letter writer is the only person in the entire FBI file who is fed up with Feynman's self-serving stories and not engaged in any form of hero-worship just because he is a well-respected genius. It really does read like someone who just went through a very messy divorce with the guy.

As an aside, I talked about this with my own wife, and she noted how gendered a lot of the Feynman stuff is. His "smartest man in the room" stories are an awfully common male trope, and the emotional self-denial that comes through in his stories (e.g. about his first wife, Arline) reflects a guy who is trying very hard to put on a public face that is strongly within typical American masculinity. Many of the traits discussed in the smear letter are ones Feynman himself would own up to gladly, but were turned on their head — Feynman's anti-secrecy exploits at Los Alamos are not seen as evidence of the inefficiency of secrecy, but as evidence of Feynman's own juvenility. Somehow I don't see Feynman's male colleagues making that sort of twist. This isn't to be essentialist, or to claim that men couldn't smear — but the male smears usually had more emphasis on the Communism and less emphasis on his emotional stability.

Feynman never became a member of PSAC.4 Was it because of this letter, the one piece of strongly negative testimony in his file? We would need more records (and not the FBI's) to know that: the FBI did not make recommendations as to whether someone should be hired, it simply produced a summary of the information it received (often with an emphasis on the derogatory information, though), and let the agency in question decide what it wanted to do about it. Feynman's lack of PSAC participation may have had to do with other factors; it is not clear that he would have even wanted to be on the committee, given his avowed distaste for government work in the Cold War period. But it's a strong letter, so it might have had an effect — it's a letter from someone who knew Feynman, and his flaws, very well.

  1. The FBI and other anti-Communist entities took special interest in theoretical physicists during the war, because of their purported direct line to the development of nuclear weapons, and because of their alleged political naiveté. See David Kaiser, "The Atomic Secret in Red Hands? American Suspicions of Theoretical Physicists During the Early Cold War," Representations, 90 (Spring 2005),28-60. []
  2. This was the result of a follow-up FOIA asking for the names of all deceased individuals mentioned to be removed; it adds just a few names that the original Muckrock release did not. []
  3. Wikipedia claims 1954 as the divorce date, but this is not what the FBI file says, referencing the records of the divorce trial. Feynman and Bell were legally married in Boise, Idaho, on June 28, 1952; they were separated on May 20, 1956; an "interlocutory decree of divorce" was entered on June 19, 1956, and a final judgment of divorce was rendered on May 5, 1958. []
  4. His name is not included in the roster in the back of Zouyue Wang's book on PSAC, which is the definitive reference. []

What did the Nazis know about the Manhattan Project?

Friday, September 13th, 2013

The primary motivation of much Manhattan Project secrecy was to keep the Germans from finding out that the United States and United Kingdom were feverishly working on developing nuclear weapons. So it seems a pretty sensible question to ask: Did it work? That is, did the secrecy keep the Germans from knowing about Allied progress on the bomb?

Strangely enough, I wasn't able to find much of anything published on the question of what knowledge, if any, the Axis powers had about the atomic bomb. The fact that they didn’t develop one themselves is not strong evidence — it just might mean that such knowledge was very limited, or not believed, or not shared correctly. I can’t do the topic the justice it deserves, because I’m not conversant enough with the sources of Axis foreign intelligence, but I can present some thoughts and intriguing little discoveries on here regarding the German program. If anyone has further thoughts, or evidence, I’m all ears.

Farm Hall, the British country estate.

Farm Hall, the British country estate.

Where might we look for such evidence? The major, obvious source are the Farm Hall transcripts. Farm Hall was the British country manor where ten of Germany’s nuclear scientists were kept for six months. Their conversations were bugged. They were, on August 7th, told about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the transcripts were carefully probed at the time, and many times since, for any insight given into what the German nuclear weapons program had been at the time. The transcripts are a notoriously tricky primary source, in part because the original German copies have apparently since been lost (so we only have an English translation), and because there are some indications that the scientists were aware they were being bugged. Separately there is the psychological complexity of the issue, as the scientists were trying to come to terms with themselves, an imagined German public, and an imagined world public regarding their participation (or lack thereof) in making nuclear weapons for Hitler.1

With that said, is there anything in the Farm Hall transcripts that enlightens us one way or the other? The most significant part is that the announcement of Hiroshima, first given orally, “was greeted with incredulity.” See, for example, this sort of exchange:

HEISENBERG: Did they use the word uranium in connection with this atomic bomb?

ALL: No.

HEISENBERG: Then it’s got nothing to do with atoms, but the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive is terrific. [...]

GERLACH: Would it be possible that they have got an engine [reactor] running fairly well, that they have had it long enough to separate “93”? [neptunium]

HAHN: I don’t believe it.

HEISENBERG: All I can suggest is that some dilettante in America who knows very little about it has bluffed them in saying: “If you drop this it has the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive” and in reality doesn’t work at all. [...]

WEIZSÄCKER: I don’t think it has anything to do with uranium. [...]

HAHN: If they really have got it, they have been very clever in keeping it secret.2

All of which has been sometimes taken as pretty strong evidence that these guys didn’t know much about the Allied project. But a closer reading is less clear, because, among other things, not everyone is participating in this discussion. One of the many problems with the German nuclear program was a lack of coordination and a lack of shared knowledge. That Otto Hahn knew nothing of it seems entirely believable, but irrelevant, since he wasn’t really working on the nuclear program in any kind of military capacity. Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker worked together so it makes sense that they would be on basically the same page. But what about the others? 

Farm Hall mugshots: Werner Heisenberg, Carl Friederich von Weiszäcker, Otto Hahn, and Kurt Diebner.

Farm Hall mugshots: Werner Heisenberg, Carl Friederich von Weiszäcker, Otto Hahn, and Kurt Diebner.

Walter Gerlach was in a more administrative role, so one might imagine he would know of any foreign intelligence on the subject. He speaks very little in this part of the transcript, only the question about reactors, and he is not one of the outright initial doubters. Asking whether they could have had reactors does not indicate that he was unaware of an Allied bomb project in general, especially given the compartmentalization of the Manhattan Project. He does, much later in the transcript, apparently express private surprise with Heisenberg that “they had known nothing about the preparations that had been made in America,” though. And what of Kurt Diebner? Diebner ran the other major research wing of the German nuclear program, separate from Heisenberg. He says almost nothing in this section of the transcript, only noting that “there is also a photochemical process” for enriching uranium. Again, this tells us nothing about what he knew.3

Probing the transcript further, we find a few other odd exchanges:

HAHN: From the many scientific things which my two American collaborators sent me up to 1940, I could see that the Americans were interested in the business. 

WEIZSÄCKER: In 1940 van der Grinten wrote me, saying he was separating isotopes with General Electric.

HARTECK: Was van der Grinten a good man?

WEIZSÄCKER: He wasn’t really very good but the fact that he was being used showed that they were working on it.4

I read these as Hahn and Weizsäcker trying to recall whether they had any indication of Allied interest. Considering their only memories are from 1940 (before the Manhattan Project really began), they are actually a good indication that they did not have any truly specific intelligence.

Heisenberg three times tells a story about being contacted from someone in the German Foreign Office about uranium questions:

HEISENBERG: About a year ago, I heard from Segner [probably Sethke] from the Foreign Office that the Americans had threatened to drop a uranium bomb on Dresden if we didn’t surrender soon. At the time I was asked whether I thought it possible, and, with complete conviction, I replied: “No.”5

Now that is a strange story. I have no idea what this Sethke would have been referring to — some strange rumor. Whether it is just nonsense, or based on some actual intelligence, it’s impossible to know from just this snippet. Later, when Heisenberg tells another version of the story (this time making his answer that it was “absolutely possible”), he specifies it was in July 1944 and that it was “a senior SS official” who had asked him about the bomb.6

More Farm Hall mugshots: Walter Gerlach, Paul Harteck, Max von Laue, Karl Wirtz.

More Farm Hall mugshots: Walter Gerlach, Paul Harteck, Max von Laue, Karl Wirtz.

There is also one small exchange before the German scientists were told about Hiroshima. On August 4th, Heisenberg, Gerlach, and Hahn had this exchange:

GERLACH: The [British] Major [Rittner] asked me what we had known about scientific work in enemy countries, especially on uranium. I said, “Absolutely nothing. All the information we got was absurd.”

HEISENBERG: In that respect one should never mention any names even if one knew of a German who had anything to do with it.

GERLACH: For instance, I never mentioned the name of that man Albers (?). The “Secret Service” people kept asking me: “From whom did you get information?” and I always replied: “There was an official in Speer’s ministry and in the Air Ministry who gave it out officially.” I did not say it was Albers (?) who did it.

HEISENBERG: I had a special man who sent me amazing information from Switzerland. That was some special office. Of course I have burnt all the correspondence and I have forgotten his name.

HAHN: Did you actually get any new information from him?

HEISENBERG: At that time I always knew exactly what was being discussed in the Scherrer Institute regarding uranium. Apparently he was often there when Scherrer lectured and knew what they were talking about. It was nothing very exciting but, for instance, he once reported that the Americans had just built a new heavy water plant and that sort of thing.7

And there it ends. Other than the mention of heavy water, it is too vague to make much sense of. (The Manhattan Project built several heavy water plants are part of what they called the P-9 Project, as part of their “leave no stone unturned” approach. They upgraded an existing ammonia plant at Trail, British Columbia to produce heavy water, and built three supplementary facilities at military sites in West Virginia, Indiana, and Alabama.)

After the scientists had heard the official BBC radio announcement, they all began to believe it was true, and worked out fairly quickly how it probably would have worked (though even there, they were still impressively confused at times) and famously hashed over why they didn’t get one made. No further invocations of foreign information or intelligence were made that I found.8

My overall impression is that for the bulk of the ten scientists, the Allied atomic bomb probably did come as a genuine surprise of immense magnitude. But there are enough hints there to suggest that various bits and pieces were out there amongst their foreign intelligence officials, whether they shared all of that with the scientists or not. And as we’ve see in the Soviet case, just because the spies know something doesn’t mean it percolates back to the scientists working on it — the use of foreign intelligence is not a straightforward operation. And there are several scientists whose reactions were not individually recorded (e.g. Diebner). Of the scientists who talked a lot, they seemed genuinely clueless about what the Americans had done, but not all of them talked.

Are there any other indications? One thing that one finds on the Internet are assertions that the last attempt by the Nazis to deposit saboteurs on American soil, Operation Elster (Magpie), was supposedly aimed at sabotaging the Manhattan Project. Like all such Nazi efforts, the saboteurs in question were rounded up pretty quickly. Were they really targeting the Manhattan Project? I suspect not. The sources that give such information all seem to trace back to a postwar memoir of one of those captured. David Kahn has written that he thinks it is nonsense; I am inclined to agree.9) The idea that a single pair of spies would be sent to gain information on, much less sabotage, the Manhattan Project is too silly to be believed without corroborating evidence.

J. Edgar Hoover, 1941. Source.

J. Edgar Hoover, 1941. Source.

But there is one last interesting source that I stumbled across. In early February 1945, J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memo to Harry Hopkins (one of Roosevelt’s closest aides) explaining that the FBI had information that indicated German interest in atomic matters. Specifically, Hoover wrote:

As you are well aware, the Army for the past two years has been vitally interested in a highly secret project for the development of an atomic explosive. [...]

Recently, in connection with the operation of a radio station by a German agent under control of the Federal Bureau of Investigation but which station the Germans believe to be a free station, an inquiry was received from Germany containing the following questions regarding the status of atomic explosive experimentation in the United States:

First, where is the heavy water being produced? In what quantities? What method? Who are users?

Second, in what Laboratories is work being carried on with large quantities of uranium? Did accidents happen there? What does protection against Neutronic Rays consist of in these laboratories? What is the material and the strength of coating?

Third, is anything known concerning the production of bodies or molecules out of metallic uranium rods, tubes, plates? Are these bodies provided with coverings for protection? Of what do these coverings consist?10

Now this looks like a legitimate technical intelligence inquiry. These are very specific questions regarding reactor construction. Not necessarily bomb construction, mind you. But it does look like someone working on reactors passed some questions up the chain of command. (The fact, incidentally, that this came to the FBI from a double-agent is also telling — the German foreign intelligence networks were notoriously compromised, yet another reason they missed so much.)

The questions reveal, though, that whomever asked them did not realize that the Americans had already been building massive, industrial-sized, carbon-moderated (not heavy water!) nuclear reactors in Hanford, Washington. Note the lack of any queries regarding uranium enrichment. Note that the questions are narrowly technical, the kind of questions you would ask if you are trying to build your own reactor, not ferret out a clandestine bomb program.

That the Germans were asking such basic, ignorant questions so late in the game — the Red Army was bearing down on Berlin and their atomic program, like so many other things, was in a tizzy11is perhaps the greatest indication that they knew very little about the American Manhattan Project indeed. That they were asking questions at all is not surprising, but the lateness perhaps is. The Soviet physicist Georgii Flerov figured out that the Americans must be working on a nuclear program in 1942, when he noticed that nobody was publishing on the subject — specifically, that nobody was citing his publication on the spontaneous fission of uranium-238. One wonders why the Germans were less observant of this fact, especially given the amount of “brain drain” their own institutes suffered.12 They also appear to have missed or misunderstood all of the various leaks, accidental disclosures, and other signs that drove General Groves and others involved with Manhattan Project security so mad. Many pieces were there for them to put together, but they didn’t solve the puzzle.13

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch as part of Alsos.

Lastly, we have the take of Samuel Goudsmit, the head of the Alsos expedition. In an unpublished memorandum written in late 1945, claimed that the Alsos investigation into the German work had shown that "the enemy was equally ignorant of Allied scientific and technical work," though notes that in 1939, a team of three Germans were sent to the USA to learn about American interest in uranium research. (This was well before there was much American interest in such.) As he was prone to do, Goudsmit generalized greatly from this, assuming that scientific and technical intelligence was too difficult to pick up during that war. The Soviets, as always, proved an important exception to Goudsmit's generalizations.14 In any case, though, this does indicate that there aren't probably an exciting espionage gems hiding in the Alsos records.

Wrapping everything up, my basic conclusion is that if German intelligence had an inkling about the American atomic bomb program, they didn’t develop the idea and they didn’t communicate it to several of their top scientists on the program. Heisenberg seems genuinely foolish on the entire subject. Diebner’s lack of participation makes it hard to gauge his knowledge, but it strikes me as strange (though not impossible) that he would know of such things but Heisenberg would be ignorant of them. Entirely separate is the question of who asked the SS to investigate what the Americans were doing with heavy water — but the queries there demonstrate that whomever is asking knows almost nothing about the Allied program, and may in fact be trying to find out how to improve their own reactor work.

A consistent theme in the Farm Hall transcripts and the Alsos investigation is that the Germans seem to have honestly thought that their work on the "uranium problem" was well beyond what anyone else might have been doing, and that the Allies would be desperate to "buy" their reactor research in the postwar. They apparently were not motivated to check to see whether this arrogance was founded, and part of the depression and desperation one sees them going through after Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a remark on their perception of irrelevance. As Otto Hahn chided them right after they learned of Hiroshima: "If the Americans have a uranium bomb then you're all second raters."

  1. The best copy of the transcripts is Jeremy Bernstein’s heavily annotated version, Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall, Second Edition (New York: Copernicus Books, 2001). My quotations and citations refer to this specific version. []
  2. Bernstein, 116-117. []
  3. Photochemical processes for enriching uranium were investigated during the Manhattan Project, but not seriously pursued. []
  4. Bernstein, 119. []
  5. Bernstein, 124. []
  6. Bernstein, 139. []
  7. Bernstein, 108. Note that the (?)’s are in the original transcript. []
  8. There is one small bit about talking about thorium with an (Indian) Japanese spy, but it seems unrelated to the bomb question directly, and the spy in question doesn't seem to have known anything. []
  9. David Kahn writes in Hitler’s Spies: German Military Intelligence in World War II, “[Erich] Gimpel’s [one of the spies] ghostwritten book, Spy for Germany, must be used with the greatest caution, as it differs in a number of critical points from his statement [to the FBI]. The most important are the book’s claims that he was assigned to ferret out atomic secrets, that he succeeded to some extent, and that he radioed a message to Germany. None of these are supported by his statement or by Colepaugh’s [a collaborator] or by postwar interrogations of his spymasters, and the atomic claim is specifically contradicted by a statement of Schellenberg’s [a top Nazi spy].” There just doesn’t seem to be any hard evidence behind the assertion that Elster had something to do with the Manhattan Project. Gimpel’s books provide zero believable details about the matter — he reports that he was just supposed to figure out what was going on (no list of targets, names, theories, etc. []
  10. J. Edgar Hoover to Harry Hopkins (9 February 1945), in Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Folder 62: "Security (Manhattan Project)," Roll 4, Target 8. []
  11. See Samuel Goudsmit, Alsos (Tomash, 1983 [1946]), 183-185. []
  12. At one point in the Farm Hall transcripts, it is noted that “Hahn remarked on the fact that there had been no publication of work on uranium fission in British or American scientific journals since January 1940, but he thought there had been one published in Russia on the spontaneous fission of uranium with deuterons.” So, at least retrospectively, Hahn realizes that there was this silence, with the exception of Flerov (probably the Russian he is thinking about). []
  13. Goudsmit describes a conversation between Paul Rosbaud and Walther Gerlach in February 1945 in which Rosbaud asks Gerlach, "Have you considered that the American, British, or Russian scientists know as much or perhaps more about it than you do?" If this actually occurred, one wonders if Gerlach didn't follow up on the issue, ergo the spy query. But this is just supposition. On the conversation, see Goudsmit, Alsos, 185. In any case, the whole conversation, if true, is further evidence of Gerlach's ignorance at that point — he was still under the delusion that the Allies would have something to gain from the German work on heavy water. []
  14. Samuel Goudsmit to C.P. Nichols, "Scientific Intelligence" (26 November 1945), Goudsmit papers. []
Meditations | Redactions

Death of a patent clerk

Friday, March 15th, 2013

This post is a bit longer than most, but the story is a bit more involved than most. It's got a little bit of everything — if by "everything" one means atomic patents and mysterious deaths.

Four of my favorite atomic patents — the nuclear reactor, the Calutron, the triggered spark gap, and the barometric fuse

Manhattan Project inventions: Patents 2,708,656, 2,709,222, 3,956,658, and 3,358,605.

During the Manhattan Project, one of the odder activities that was undertaken — approved directly by Roosevelt and Churchill — was to try and file secret patent applications for every single invention that was developed while trying to build the atomic bomb. I have written about this at length in various places and won't repeat all of that here. Basically, the people working on the bomb project weren't sure of what would happen after the war, and so were trying to make sure they had iron-clad legal control over the bomb, and the secret patent applications were a way to guarantee government control of nuclear technology with regards to private contractors, private scientists, and universities.

The person who was in charge of all of this work was Captain Robert A. Lavender, USN (Ret.). Lavender was the chief patent officer of the Office for Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which headed up the civilian functions of the bomb project. Lavender was basically a Navy lawyer who knew intellectual property law inside and out. His job, basically, was to make sure that all of those secret patent applications were properly filed. He knew his stuff and he got it done. By the time the Atomic Energy Commission took over the job, Lavender's office had docketed reports on over 5,600 different inventions relating to the atomic bomb, with some 2,100 separate patent applications ready to be filed — in secret.

Now, one of the ironies of the Manhattan Project patent program is that it pretty much operated in an opposite way than the rest of the bomb work. The bomb program was defined by its secrecy. You didn't use the names of real things, you used code-names ("oralloy," "copper," "the Gadget"). You didn't centralize information, you compartmentalized it. You worried about what you needed now, not what you needed in the future. And the patent program was the opposite: you used the real names, with centralized information, because it was about protecting the bomb — legally — for the indefinite future. So from a certain standpoint, the Manhattan Project patent division housed more technical secrets in one place than any other part of the bomb program.

Invention by Oppenheimer, patent by Lavender.

Invention by Oppenheimer, patent by Lavender.

Lavender didn't do this alone, of course. He had a staff, and each Project site had dozens of lawyers attending technical meetings, looking for inventions, forcing the poor, harried scientists to fill out invention reports. It's a really amusing idea if you think about it, juxtaposing that familiar narrative of the racing Los Alamos scientists with the dull banality of the legal aspects of patent applications. The local patent officer at Los Alamos, for example, recommended that they allow a "competent disinterested individual" attend the "Trinity" test so they could write a report that would testify to the "reduction to practice" of the first atomic bomb. Talk about the least interesting reason to be at "Trinity" on July 16, 1945.

The second in command at Lavender's office was Captain Paul P. Stoutenburgh. Stoutenburgh was born in Norwalk, Ohio, on September 25, 1901. He received B.A. from Johns Hopkins in 1923, was married in 1926, and received a law degree from George Washington University in 1928. Stoutenburgh was had worked as an attorney for the Justice Department, in the claims division, and had joined the Army only in July 1945. He was discharged from the Army in February 1946 as a Lieutenant Colonel, and he thereafter resigned from the Justice Department and returned to work for the Office for Scientific Research and Development as a civilian.

When I was researching the atomic patent program, I came across Stoutenburgh's name occasionally, but it didn't stand out. His memos to Lavender or others weren't anything unusual or special — just a guy doing his job. Sometimes he wrote things in Lavender's name, the way that subordinates often do. I wasn't drawn to him in any particular way.

But as part of my research into Lavender, I started running his name through various newspaper archives, looking for obituaries, articles, later jobs, and so on. And when I did, suddenly Stoutenburgh showed up, in a horrific way:

1946 - Dead Atom Bomb Expert Carried From Home

On the morning of Saturday April 1, 1946, a friend of Stoutenburgh's daughter, became alarmed when she did not show up for a roller skating date and no one would answer the phone at the Stoutenburgh residence. They contacted Mrs. Stoutenberg's brother, and another friend, and together they went to Stoutenberg's Northwest Washington, DC, home. Finding the Stoutenberg car in the garage, they assumed the worst, and contacted the Sixth Precinct police. Three officers arrived and broke into the house through a back window.

Inside was a scene of horror. Paul Stoutenburgh was wearing his pajamas and a smoking jacket, and was sprawled across his daughter's bed on his back, with his feet on the floor. Near his hand was a .25-caliber pistol. In his right temple, a bullet wound. He was 44.

His wife, Anna, was face-down, near the door in the same room. She wore a black housecoat. She had a bullet wound in the back of her head, exiting through the skull. She was also 44.

His daughter, Mary Alice, was found unconscious, breathing heavily on the other side of the bed, in her pajamas. She had a bullet wound in her right temple. She was taken to Walter Reed Hospital, without much of hope of survival. She died a week later, without reviving. She was 12.

What happened? According to Stoutenburgh's former Justice Department colleagues, he had visited them the week before and told them that he'd be returning to the claims division soon. According to Stoutenburgh's neighbors, he had developed a "'phobia' over atomic bomb secrets, which he believed were leaking out despite his repeated recommendations to the War and Navy Departments," as the Washington Post put it at the time. "Atomic sescrets worried him," they wrote under his photo — mangling the epitaph.

The War Department, for their part, told the press that "Stoutenburgh had nothing to do with the development of the atomic bomb itself," and left it at that. Well, yes and no, as we've seen. He didn't build the bomb, but he did help patent it — every part of it.

1946 - Washington Post - Stoutenburgh detail

The newspaper stories implied that Stoutenburgh succumbed to paranoia: he imagined secrets were getting out, and couldn't take it anymore. The coroner ruled it "homicide-suicide." The phenomena of male familial murder-suicide is not a new one. These things happen with disturbing frequency. Apparently Stoutenburgh had tried to commit suicide a month previous, and failed.

He was a troubled man in a troubling time. The spring of 1946 was the period of the first real atomic spy scare — the Gouzenko affair. In terms of actual data given away, it was a minor thing; it involved a Canadian spy ring, and General Groves had compartmentalized the Canadians out of pretty much everything he cared about.1 It was nothing like a Klaus Fuchs situation.

But in the spring of 1946 it was a big deal, both because it was the first such spy scare, and because Groves leaked the news about the espionage to the press that February. Why? Because he wanted Congress to be scared of the Russians, so they would add scarier secrecy provisions to the draft version of the Atomic Energy Act they were considering. And it worked — the changes to the law made in the spring of 1946 are responsible for the problematic "Restricted Data" clause and all of its issues.

1946 - Stoutenburgh newspaper stories

Given the context, it's not surprising that Stoutenburgh's death briefly made the front pages of several national newspapers. Each played up the "secrets" angle, though the stories themselves make it clear that they are about a man driven mad by fear of secrets getting out, not actual cases of secrets getting out. Therein is the question: Did secrets kill the Stoutenburgh family, or did "secrets" kill them? Was it the thing itself, or just a fear about the thing itself? Or neither?

It doesn't strike me implausible as that someone who was on the periphery of real policy, but with an acquaintance with secrets, might, in the spring of 1946, get concerned with the loss of secrets, especially if one implies some sort of latent mental illness. But I'm an historian, not a psychologist, so I am not really treading into those waters. Still, I've tried to follow this up a bit, and the trail wasn't very rich for the most part. Stoutenburgh once had an FBI file, but it doesn't exist anymore.

2007 - Stoutenburgh FBI FOIA response

Specifically, the FBI told me that:

Records which may be responsive to your Freedom of Information-Privacy Acts (FOIPA) request were destroyed on October 1, 2001. Since this material could not be reviewed, it is not known if it actually pertains to your subject.

Now this sounds Kafkaesque, if not a wee bit conspiratorial, but I've been assured this is pretty standard boilerplate for a pretty common issue. Somewhere in the FBI's record database it basically says, "we had a file with this guy's name on it, but we destroyed it." Ergo, they don't really know what was in it anymore. Not so helpful.2

The Washington, DC, Police Department destroyed the records awhile back because of age. The DC Coroner's Office, likewise. The case had been closed, ruled murder-suicide, so there was no need to keep the files. Army Intelligence had nothing on Stoutenburgh, a FOIA to the National Archives turned up nothing.

But I did find a few little other tidbits in the archives. Because it wasn't just present-day people who worried about conspiracies — there were Stoutenburgh conspiracy theories back in the day, they just didn't end up in the newspapers.

The first little nibble comes from the papers of James Burnham. Burnham's work is pretty well-known — in a nutshell, he was a former Marxist who became an anti-Communist neo-conservative political pundit during the Cold War. You know the type. He wrote a lot, and wrote for the National Review, among other publications. Apparently he also collected rumors about dead patent clerks.

Burnham - Stoutenburg case, 1951

On a memo from December 1951, now in his papers at the Hoover Institution Archives, Burnham wrote that he had been called by someone he listed only as "BL." I've no clue who it is meant to correspond to, but presumably it is someone who worked with Burnham regularly.  Here's what Burnham wrote:

L stated that a fantastic and sensational story had been brought to him. He felt it essential to try to check any point we could, in order to see whether it has a presumption of truth. Involved is a man named L.t Col. STOUTENBURGH. It is stated that on 31 March 1946 STOUTENBURGH was found shot dead by a bullet in his home in Washington, D.C. His wife and daughter were also shot, presumably also dead. Apparently they were murdered, although the facts were never established. STOUTENBURGH is said to have had a secret job in connection with the atomic bomb, perhaps in something involving British-Canadian-United States liaison.

Apparently a certain E.M. Lee, living in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked with Stoutenburgh at some point. Burnham was told by "BL" that he should call Lee and tell him he was a friend of Bill Offenhauser, of Telenews in New York, and get more information. A few weeks later, Burnham called Edward M. Lee, whose number he got from a telephone directory. He spoke to Lee, who confirmed he was a friend of Offenhauser. Burnham wrote of it:

I then brought up the STOUTENBURGH case. For a minute or two, LEE shied away from the matter, and said nothing to indicate that he knew what I was talking about. Then, he stated that he had not been personally acquainted with STOUTENBURGH but had had certain relations with him. He said that STOUTENBURGH was working in the Patent Office of the ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION (he then corrected himself and said that at that time it was called the Manhattan Project). He (LEE) had been transferred to the Navy, and had certain "business" with STOUTENBURGH, which was transacted by telephone. He said that half a dozen or more times he had telephoned STOUTENBURGH at the latter's office. He stated that he knew nothing further about him, and nothing about the deaths except of what he had read in the papers. (It was my impression that LEE probably knows a good deal more about STOUTENBURGH that he indicated in his telephone conversation, and that he has thought a good deal about the case.)

Burnham's other research involved pulling up the various newspaper articles about the Stoutenburgh case. But there the trail ends. It doesn't add up to a whole lot — even the initial lead was just a suspicion, not anything hard.

The other piece was a memo I found in the archives of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. In late August 1953, a certain Calvin Bertolotte of New York City got in touch with a Congressman, desiring to talk with someone about "a theory had had which might explain the operations of the Soviet espionage in connection with the atomic program." He was put in touch with the staff of the Joint Committee, who liked to investigate this sort of thing. Bertolotte was "an employee of the Telefact Foundation engaged in research in information control and world strategy." He told the Committee staff that he had been a friend or colleague of Sidney Young White, a physicist in New York City.

1953 - JCAE Stoutenberg detail

According to Bertolotte, White had related to him "on several occasions" the story of Stoutenburgh's death. As the staff noted in their later write-up of their interview, "Bertolotte implied that both he and White imputed espionage significance to the story."

Basically, Bertolotte and White's objections to the official story were as follows, with my thoughts in parentheses:

  • Stoutenburgh actually did important secret work at the patent office and "had access to vital information." (True)
  • White claimed to have determined that Stoutenburgh only had a .45-calibre weapon, not the .25-calibre one that he was reported to have used. (How would White have known what guns Stoutenburgh could have owned?)
  • White knew Stoutenburgh was a poor shot, so how had he hit his wife and child when at least the former was fleeing? (I don't think you have to be that good a shot at that close a range.)
  • White "determined" (doesn't say how) that Stoutenburgh had mentioned "either to his brother or his brother-in-law" that papers had gone missing from his desk for short periods of time, and would then be returned. (Vaguely sourced.)

Bertolotte thought the FBI ought to get involved, but didn't want to betray White's trust, so he gave it to the Joint Committee staff instead. (Um.) The Joint Committee staff asked whether they could relay the information to the FBI for him; Bertolotte asked to check with White first, then later got in touch and said he preferred they not give it to the FBI. The Committee staff member writing this up said that "unless advised to the contrary," he was going to send all of this to the FBI anyway "despite Bertolotte's objection." I have no record as to whether he did this or not.

Where does that leave us? At a minimum, I think, we can agree with the general notion that secrecy engenders this kind of speculation. Monsters manifest within a vacuum of information, and at its peripheries. If this didn't have any connection to "secrets," would it stand out above the many other similar tragedies that happen each year? Obviously I wouldn't be sending out Freedom of Information Act requests left and right if he didn't have an atomic connection, either.

On the other hand, the fact that someone who had been so close to various secrets died under mysterious circumstances, and seems to have left no trace of any kind of official investigation, is suspicious. If you even sneezed near Los Alamos during World War II, the Manhattan Project security people would have opened a file on you. Why wasn't there more poking around? (As for me, I poke around in these things compulsively — it's sort of my job. I am always happy to check into unusual or unlikely stories, though I always try to do so with a skeptical mindset.)

Maybe there was, and it turned up nothing interesting, hence the destruction of the records. But I've got to say, the FBI sure kept around records of a lot of less-interesting cases than this one. And we do know that secrets were leaking out of the Manhattan Project during this time, after all. Stoutenburgh might not have known anything "solid" about that, but the fact that there was quite a lot of Soviet spying going on does perhaps raise our estimations of his suspicions.

Stoutenburgh signature from the Manhattan Project files

On the other hand, the idea that, say, the KGB would have killed Stoutenburgh and his family just seems unlikely. Really not their style. In general, killing someone and their whole family is not the quietest way to make accusations of spying go away. Of course, it might still be murder, but if it was, I wouldn't really suspect the Soviets. If this were a James Ellroy novel, there'd be a murderer, but it wouldn't really be about the atomic secrets — that would just be the hook that brings the ambitious young detective onto the case in the first place, an opening into a far seedier story. But this isn't a James Ellroy novel. It's real life, where banal answers are usually the correct ones.

My eventual conclusion, is that this just another sad story in a world of sad stories. It's a story, at most, that is about the conspiracy fears that cluster around "secrets" — and the conspiracy fears that follow those conspiracy fears around, decades into the future. In this case, one almost hopes there was something more sinister to it, because it would keep it from seeming so pointlessly tragic. But pointlessly tragic is probably just what it was.

  1. Groves let a number of French and Canadian scientists work on a reactor and plutonium separation in Montreal, but it was a strictly one-way information flow. They did good work there, but they didn't benefit from the support of the rest of the Allied effort. []
  2. Of course, the mere mention of the year 2001 is going to set off further conspiracy blinkers, but it's hard to see any connection there. []

Plutonium Lives and Half-lives

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Plutonium is a fascinating element. It's named after the Roman God of Death (by way of being named after a former planet). Its atomic abbreviation, "Pu," was chosen to sound like "Peee-yooou," as in, something smells bad. It doesn't exist in nature (at least not in more than trace quantities) — all plutonium of significance currently in the world was created by human beings. And of course it is fissile, and so can be used as fuel for nuclear bombs or nuclear reactors.

It's also pyrophoric, which is a fancy term to say it combusts on contact with air. It's chemically unusual — it's right on the juncture point between two different groups of elements, so it has six allotropic phases and four oxidation states. In non-sciency terms, this means that its volume and density changes radically as a factor of its temperature. This made it a tetchy addition to the wartime bomb project, where things like volume and density made a big difference when trying to use it inside of an exploding nuclear bomb. (They found that a plutonium-gallium alloy was a bit more stable.)

And hey, at least one form of it, Plutonium-238, actually glows in the dark! It does so because it's radioactive enough to be scalding hot, which is why it is useful as a power source for things like the Curiosity rover currently tooling around Mars.1

A glowing pellet of plutonium-238. And you thought The Simpsons wasn't factually accurate.

If you're something of a science geek, all of the above is, again, terribly fascinating. And I think it's been established on here that I am, among other things, something of a science geek. There's something alluring to folks like me about the idea of a chemically irritable, glowing man-made element named after the god of the dead that catches fire on its own and can be used to blow up entire cities. It sounds like something out of the worst types of science fiction, where authors just make up goofy substances to advance the plot.

Oh — I left out one key thing. It's also toxic. Exactly how toxic is up for some debate — some informed sources say it is intensely, acutely toxic in very small inhaled amounts, others suggest its toxicity is a lot lower than that, making it more of a long-term threat — but either way, it's not good for you if it gets into your body. 

Because of its connections to nuclear weapons, the United States produced some 100 metric tons of plutonium over the course of the Cold War. And it was produced and operated on in big factories, under lots of secrecy, surrounded by lots of regular people. And there's the rub: part of me wants to geek out on how awesome plutonium is, and part of me keeps saying, hey, idiot, don't forget how it affects individual human beings — men, women, children, families. People who have been inadvertently exposed to it, for example. People who went out of their way to live next to a plutonium fabrication facility, for example, because it promised them good jobs and work that helped their country. 

Map adapted from P.W. Krey and E.P. Hardy, "Plutonium in Soil around the Rocky Flats Plant," HASL-235 (1970). This adaptation is taken from here.

I find nuclear history fascinating, from an intellectual point of view, and all of its little detailed ins and outs continually draw me in. But I endeavor to not be too fascinated by it — so attracted to the "technically sweet" bits that I lose sight of the big picture, and lose any empathy I might have with those who lived it. It's all too common that in our rush for objectivity, especially about Big Male Military Subjects, that we take solace in the cold, hard facts, and disregard accounts that come from other perspectives.

I was reminded of this last week, when I went to see a talk at the National Museum of American History. The speaker was Kristen Iversen, talking about her new book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (which recently got a very favorable review from the New York Times). Iversen directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Memphis, and gave a good, heartfelt presentation to a packed room. Interestingly, the room was packed with mostly women, which is highly unusual for nuclear-themed talks, in my experience.

The book is part memoir, part investigative account. Iversen's family moved to Arvada, Colorado, in the late-1950s. Arvada, a small town north of Denver, was next to Rocky Flats, a plutonium fabrication facility owned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and operated initially by Dow Chemical.

Hanford would breed the plutonium in their mammoth nuclear reactors, and the metal would be shipped to Rocky Flats, where workers would shape it into forms useful inside nuclear weapons — the "pits." The pits would then be shipped to the Pantex Plant in Texas for final assembly into bombs.

In theory, all of this would be well-contained within glove boxes and filters and sensibly designed waste systems. In practice, plutonium is a messy substance, and for a variety of reasons, a lot of corners were cut. The result is that map up above — a fairly large plume of plutonium was deposited in the soil around the plant and the surrounding communities.

An employee at Rocky Flats holds a plutonium "button" inside of a glove box, 1973.

From Iversen's presentation, it sounded like a pretty interesting read. It's historical, it's journalistic, and yet it's read through the lens of the personal. This sort of thing is necessary — we need to keep in mind, when talking about grand strategy and big motivations, that there are all sorts of regular people caught up in this as well. That most of the world is not comprised of heads of state, or even heads of agencies.

The residents of the towns around Rocky Flats were ill served by nuclear secrecy. They weren't told, for example, that a fire in 1957 spread a wide plume of radioactivity across the area. Or when it happened again in 1969. They weren't given information on the sorts of diseases that are associated with coming into contact with heavy actinides. They were assured, again and again, that everything was under control.

And from Iversen's account, most of them believed it. Why wouldn't they? They had skin in that game — the livelihood of their town depended on it, and, as we've all seen again and again, human beings, for all of their famed skittishness, are quick to rationalize the big, unwieldly long-term risks that they live next door to. This is something that people in the field of risk communication have known for a long time: we learn to ignore risks that we live next to, especially when we have a personal incentive to do so. (In fact, many of those cut corners mentioned above were done by the employees themselves, because the profit incentive was on speed, not safety. This is unfortunately an all-too-common story with toxic industries.)

An "Infinity Room" at Rocky Flats — a room so contaminated by radiation that it was never to be occupied by unshielded humans again. From the DOE Digital Archive.

To give you an idea of how not under control things were, though, Iversen tells a gripping account of when the FBI raided Rocky Flats in 1989. Alerted by whistleblowers for egregious safety violations inside the plant, the FBI eventually concluded that the only way to find out what was being done inside Rocky Flats was to bust on inside. But you can't just walk into a plutonium fabrication facility, even if you're the FBI. So they came up with what was really an ingenious plan. The FBI told the Department of Energy officials at Rocky Flats that they had to brief all of them on a potential eco-terrorist threat — they said that Earth First was planning to attack the plant. Once the FBI had all of the senior management rounded up in a room for the briefing, they served them with search warrants, and along with the EPA, they invaded the facility and occupied it.

The DOE and the contractor (by then Rockwell) got off the hook pretty much scott free, despite plenty of evidence that they had in fact been complicit in plenty of environmental crimes — which are, as well, crimes against the community at large. Such is how things go, sometimes, when you're talking about plants that do secret things for the nuclear weapons industry.

I'm looking forward to reading Iversen's full book. Because I work primarily with records of the state, I always risk seeing like a state — or at least seeing history like one. Stories of the personal effects, ironically, can help one keep some distance from that standpoint. This isn't to say that the personal, individual perspective is everything — the "big picture" still undoubtedly matters — but I think a serious historian excludes it at their peril.

One little announcement: In today's issue of Science, I have a review published of Michael Gordin's The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovksy and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago Press, 2012). I've reviewed a number of Michael's books over the years, but I think this one is his best-written one yet, and I really enjoyed it a lot. It's not very nuclear, but it does have an important Cold War theme. Check it out.

  1. A correspondent also notes that this heating is from alpha emission, which also tends to break the Pu-238 into small particles — meaning they can contaminate a volume rather quickly. Charming. []