Los Alamos Always Faced Security Issue Ever since Atomic Bomb Days, Guarding Site Has Been Struggle

The Florida Times Union, June 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

Los Alamos Always Faced Security Issue Ever since Atomic Bomb Days, Guarding Site Has Been Struggle


LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Reports of security breaches and missing computers have thrust the Los Alamos National Laboratory into an unwanted spotlight. But guarding the nation's nuclear secrets has been a daunting task for the lab since its scientists began working on the atomic bomb more than half a century ago.

Experts say it was a clash of cultures -- scientific vs. military -- that made security difficult from the lab's earliest days during World War II.

Manhattan Project scientists, cloistered in the remote New Mexico foothills, insisted they needed to share information with colleagues to advance their work. Military security officers had other ideas, seeking to keep scientists from knowing how their individual work fit into the mission of creating an immensely destructive weapon that might help shorten the war.

Security quickly became a problem as the scope of the Manhattan Project grew. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the top civilian on the project, had envisioned a cohort of afew dozen scientists, but that number grew to between 1,000 and 2,000 by 1943.

Eventually, atom bomb secrets were stolen by spies who passed the information to Soviet couriers.

"By 1944, it was breaking down," Richard Melzer, a University of New Mexico history professor, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "They just couldn't keep up. . . . The ultimate proof of how bad it was is that the spies [who stole the atom bomb secrets] were amateurs."

During those early days, Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, the commanding officer at Los Alamos, was obsessed with scientists who vocally advocated freedom of academic speech.

Security measures bordered on paranoia. Microphones were hidden in scientists' offices and homes, and other methods of Army surveillance were so "dishonorable" that they still haven't been disclosed, according to Melzer's new book, Breakdown: How the Secret of the Atomic Bomb was Stolen during World War II.

Richard P. Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, arrived at Los Alamos during the war years before the complex was completed. He took delight in finding holes in the security system -- easy-to-crack safes, for example -- and challenging the censors who edited incoming and outgoing mail.

At one point, Feynman wrote in his book, 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!' that he had found a hole in one of the security fences. He left through a well-guarded gate and returned through the hole, retracing his route a number of times before a guard got suspicious and called his superior with the intent of throwing Feynman in jail.

More than 50 years later, the issues facing the lab have a similar ring. According to a presidential intelligence panel report released last year: "Organizational disarray, managerial neglect and a culture of arrogance -- both at DOE headquarters and the labs themselves -- conspired to create an espionage scandal waiting to happen. …

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