Public Release: 

Tension between atomic secrecy and scholarship continues

DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory

DENVER, COLO., Feb. 15, 2003 -- The secrecy created by the inventors of the atom bomb and later written into law by Congress continues to fascinate and frustrate historians, says Los Alamos National Laboratory archivist Roger Meade.

The 60-year history of this tension -- and today's renewed precautions against aiding terrorists by releasing technical information about weapons of mass destruction-- is the subject of a talk Meade gave Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.

"The quest for classified records stimulates the imagination of historians who assume that the most interesting facts are hidden under the guise of secrecy," Meade said.

Many historians and journalists are unaware that the process of declassifying historic records began shortly after the Manhattan Project completed their work and has continued in waves up to the present day.

The creators of the first bomb initially required secrecy because they feared that information about their research might help Germany develop an atom bomb. The success of Soviet espionage at Los Alamos during and just after World War Two drove home the need for stricter and codified secrecy, as well as security clearances for those who worked there.

The 1945 publication of the official history of the Manhattan Project, known as the Smyth Report, established limits on what could be said about the wartime work and became a best seller, in large part because the Soviet Union bought an estimated 1,000 copies. The report was followed by Atomic Energy Commission efforts, led by senior scientists, to promote publication of individual research.

There have been several large-scale declassification efforts over the years, based chiefly on the assumption that if the government puts enough information into the public domain, researchers will have enough material to satisfy their interests and they will accept that their government believes in openness," Meade said.

Meade terms these efforts by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Energy, "supply-side" declassification.

"Supply-side can only go so far to satisfy the historians, journalists and students, because the good stuff never will get declassified," Meade said. "Supply-side efforts only provide marginal improvement in the relationship between the government and the research community."

In fact, historians showed little interest in the history of Los Alamos until the early 1970s, Meade said. Then, three societal issues created a major shift in scholarship, and began a significant, sustained tension between historians and journalists and the government's systems for protecting classified technical information. The Cold War arms race and its specter of nuclear apocalypse made ordinary citizens more interested in atomic weapons, and the Vietnam War and Watergate created a general distrust of government and a belief in the evils of secrecy, he said.

"Despite the fact that huge numbers of documents had been declassified, scholars grew increasingly frustrated and even militant in their attempts to gain access to technical information that clearly must remain secret," Meade said.

Two recent targeted declassification efforts at Los Alamos -- the Human Studies project of 1994-95 and a current dose reconstruction project by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- have received much public and media attention. However, the vast majority of the documents identified through these exhaustive and costly searches had been declassified and released years earlier, Meade said.

Such projects have the similar, admirable goal of ensuring a comprehensive knowledge of the impacts of government work on worker and public health, but as long as even one record remains classified, researchers will complain that the whole truth is hidden. Even the Freedom of Information Act, designed to provide a "demand-side" method of access to government information, is universally disliked. Locating records, multiple classification reviews, and removing classified phrases or pages can take years. Scholars and journalists dislike the long delays and the fact that the FOIA creates a level playing field where all document requests receive equal, if slow attention; government institutions dislike the FOIA because of its enormous costs, which aren't reimbursed by Congress in the institutional budgets.

"Although we are trained as historians and work as advocates for historical scholarship, we face the very real threat of prison if we fail to meet our basic obligation of protecting classified records, Meade said. "Scholars almost never ask what public interest would be served if the technical details of nuclear weapons were published, nor do they debate how terrorists or rogue states might make use of those details."

Meade holds out little hope that the tension between secrecy and scholarship will ease, but recommends the government continue to treat declassification thoughtfully and deliberately, given the nature of the technical information that is classified.


Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy and works in partnership with NNSA's Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories to support NNSA in its mission.

Los Alamos enhances global security by ensuring safety and confidence in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction and improving the environmental and nuclear materials legacy of the cold war. Los Alamos' capabilities assist the nation in addressing energy, environment, infrastructure and biological security problems

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