Posts Tagged ‘FOIA’

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. []