Posts Tagged ‘Joint Committee on Atomic Energy’

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.

Notes
  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. []
Meditations

Cold War Sex, Cold War Secrecy

Monday, April 30th, 2012

This weekend I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about the unusual death of an MI6 agent. The agent in question was found dead in his apartment, badly decomposed and locked in a duffel bag. Apparently the “official” line here is that he was into unusual sexual games, including “claustrophilia,” a fetish so outre that even the venerable Wikipedia doesn’t yet have an entry on it in its copious library of paraphilias.

"Photographs from a video show an expert trying to determine whether Mr. Williams could have locked himself in a duffel bag." I don't judge. (Reuters via The New York Times)

That’s titillating, I suppose, but what’s really interesting here is that the UK intelligence agencies are using this as an example of the fact that they don’t care about the outre sexual practices of their agents anymore — and because of that, it isn’t blackmail material. That’s a pretty bold thing to say, given the sordid history of intelligence agencies in prosecuting homosexuals and others who engaged in other-than-heteronormative sexual activity during the Cold War. (On this, see David K. Johnston’s The Lavender Scare.)

The official line here was that “sex deviants” were probably psychologically unwell (this is, of course, the period in which homosexuality was still classified as mental illness), and, even if they weren’t, that they were vulnerable to blackmail attempts, and thus could be vulnerable to being coerced into aiding enemy powers. Or putting that last part in its fully circuitous form: because homosexuals were not tolerated, they were vulnerable to blackmail, thus they could not be tolerated. 

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was no stranger to these Cold War concerns. In February 1951, just before the beginning of the Rosenberg trial, AEC Chairman Gordon Dean reported to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that they had rooted out a high-placed homosexual:1

  • Mr. Dean: … We had one other pleasant thing during the course of the last month. We found out that a man down at Oak Ridge, who was in charge of personnel, was given to homosexual activity. He was arrested up here in the District of Columbia when he was up here on a trip; and of course we removed him from the payroll immediately, fired him.
  • We have also checked to see if there has been anybody brought into the program by him who might be a person with similar proclivities at the Oak Ridge office. We see no evidence of that at this point.
  • Mr. Holifield: How long had he been personnel officer at that point?
  • Mr. Dean: A matter of three years, I think. [...]
  • Sen. Bricker: What did he do?
  • Mr. Dean: He was a homosexual, picked up here by the police in Washington, D.C. It was a very unfortunate place for a man to be in, a place as high in the program as the personnel office of Oak Ridge, but such things happen.
  • Sen. Hickenlooper: He failed to report a former arrest on his PSQ [Personnel Security Questionnaire, required for security clearances], didn’t he?
  • Mr. Dean: In looking back in the file we find he did not report an arrest in his PSQ. At a subsequent hearing, which took place about two and a half years ago, he was interrogated about this, and the interrogation was not skillfully conducted and they got almost up to the point of why he had been arrested and what it was all about and then it trails off into the transcript. [...]
  • Mr. Cole: What is the reason your folks weren’t able to discover his weaknesses in the three years he was down there?
  • Mr. Dean: He is perfectly normal apparently when he is down there. He is a married man, he engaged in sexual intercourse. When he goes out of town, apparently this other thing comes on him. He got liquored up. It is when he drinks excessively. There is no indication from anybody down there he was even suspected of this sort of activity. [...]
  • Sen. Bricker: Was there any evidence in this man’s contacts and associations away from there that there was any security risk?
  • Mr. Dean: No. [...]
  • Sen. Bricker: I mean, in his homosexual activities outside. Do you know of any pressure that might be used against him to give secrets and to get any more of his kind into the operation?
  • Mr. Dean: Is there evidence of that?
  • Mr. Waters: No evidence of that.

What a sad thing. Here’s a guy who has spent the one life he has living in a horrible closet — not just one mandated by the social norms, but the “national security” requirements of his career. He’s so deep in the closet, so afraid, that he doesn’t act upon it unless out of town and very drunk. He gets arrested for his sexual preferences, loses his job, god knows what else. At least he was probably unaware that his sexual habits were being discussed (in secret) by one of the most powerful Congressional committees of all time.

I think it’s actually a great thing that MI6 has made a point of explicitly breaking the original circuitous cycle. If they don’t care about the sexuality of their agents, then it isn’t blackmailable, and thus they don’t have to care.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret, the books on the history of the Israeli nuclear program. He shared with me a quote from Mordechai Vanunu’s lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, that I’ve been coming back to a lot lately:

“If something is secret, and something else touches it, it too becomes secret. Secrecy becomes a disease. Everything around the secret issue becomes secret, so the trial became a secret, so I became a secret.”

Secrecy, as Avner puts it, is contagious. It spreads. It goes from something that we might all agree ought to be secret — how to make a weapon of mass destruction, to take the canonical example. But from that point of apparent agreement, it seeps out, worming its way into the lives of everyone who comes near it — even into the bedroom, that most private of places.

Notes
  1. Executive Session CCLXXXVIII (8 February 1951), Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. []
Meditations

More from the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

A few weeks ago, I spent some time at the Legislative Archives in downtown Washington, DC, looking at the files of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). It was my first time over there since I had moved to the area; I had been there a few other times over the years, but it’s really quite different when you actually live in the same town as the archive. It’s a less hurried, less harried, and less targeted experience: you can take the time to really look at things you might otherwise not have time for. Case in point: I actually got to spend some time talking with one of the archivists there, Bill Davis, who knows about the JCAE records. And last Thursday, Bill called me up to tell me that a new batch of newly-declassified JCAE Executive Hearings had arrived. How’s that for helpful? Of course I couldn’t resist, and swung by last Friday on my way to work.

JCAE members Sen. Vandenberg (l) and Sen. Hickenlooper (r) look over various documents at a 1949 hearing regarding the AEC.

The eight newly-declassified JCAE hearings are all from 1953, ranging from March to December. NARA isn’t in charge of declassifying them — these ones seem to have been declassified by someone at the CIA who is apparently just working his way through the decades-old queue.  I imagine some poor declassifier sitting there with a 100 foot pile of paper next to him. In reality, these appear to have been scanned and are redacted using what looks like Adobe Acrobat. But it is just a single fellow doing it, apparently — his name (Alan Lipton) is on every one of them as the declassifier.

1953 was an important year. For one thing, the Cold War was pretty hot right about then. The Korean War was still going on for most of it; the US had tested a hydrogen bomb prototype, but not an actual usable weapon; the Soviets set off a “thermonuclear weapon” (not Teller-Ulam, but still not very nice) that August; McCarthyism was still going strong. Tough times.

So what are in these files? Here are a few notes from them — they cover some interesting topics. Many of them deal with CIA in particular, which is of some inherent interest.

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Visions

Bullseye on Washington (1953)

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Today’s image of the week comes from the files of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). In February 1953, the JCAE got their first briefing from the Atomic Energy Commission about the success of Operation Ivy, where the first hydrogen bomb prototype was detonated just a few months earlier. This was given in a Top Secret Executive session, which was only declassified in 2009, and thus is only available at the Legislative Archives in downtown Washington, D.C., so I was excited to get my hands on it on my most recent research trip.

In order to explain to the gathered Congressmen the effects of the hydrogen bomb, Brig. Gen. Kenneth E. Fields, the AEC’s General Manager at the time, showed three charts to them, illustrating the yields of the Nagasaki bomb (20 kilotons), a current stockpile fission bomb (83 kilotons), and a hypothetical hydrogen bomb (5 megatons):

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Meditations | Redactions

Archives Week, Addendum: More Notes on Technique

Monday, December 26th, 2011

My post on Day 2 of Archives Week got a few people asking me if I could elaborate on my post-processing methods for all those photos I take — the conversion from JPEG to PDF that I hinted at.

I’ve played with a few different ways of doing this, from the very simple to the reasonably sophisticated, and have come up with a way that, in the end, is “good enough” in the sense that it is easy, saves me time, and does a fine enough job.

Warning: this is a long post! There’s a document at the end of it, though, for those of you who don’t care much about how I make the files.

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