Transcript of 1954 Oppenheimer Hearing Declassified in Full

The transcript of the momentous 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing that led the AEC to revoke the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had led the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bomb, has now been declassified in full by the Department of Energy.

“The Department of Energy has re-reviewed the original transcript and is making available to the public, for the first time, the full text of the transcript in its original form,” according to a notice posted on Friday.

The Oppenheimer hearing was a watershed event that signaled a crisis in the nuclear weapons bureaucracy and a fracturing of the early post-war national security consensus. Asked for his opinion of the proceedings at the time, Oppenheimer told an Associated Press reporter (cited by Philip Stern) that “People will study the record of this case and reach their own conclusions. I think there is something to be learned from it.”

And so there is. But what?

“No document better explains the America of the cold war — its fears and resentments, its anxieties and dilemmas,” according to Richard Polenberg, who produced an abridged edition of the hearing transcript in 2002 based on the redacted original. “The Oppenheimer hearing also serves as a reminder of the fragility of individual rights and of how easily they may be lost.”

It further represented a breakdown in relations between scientists and the U.S. government and within the scientific community itself.

“The Oppenheimer hearing claims our attention not only because it was unjust but because it undermined respect for independent scientific thinking at a time when such thinking was desperately needed,” wrote historian Priscilla J. McMillan.

First published in redacted form by the Government Printing Office in 1954, the Oppenheimer hearing became a GPO best-seller and went on to inform countless historical studies.

The transcript has attracted intense scholarly attention even to some of its finer details. At one point (Volume II, p. 281), for example, Oppenheimer is quoted as saying “I think you can’t make an anomalous rise twice.” What he actually said, according to author Philip M. Stern, was “I think you can’t make an omelet rise twice.”

The Department of Energy has previously declassified some portions of the Oppenheimer transcript in response to FOIA requests. But this is said to be the first release of the entire unredacted text. It is part of a continuing series of DOE declassifications of historical records of documents of particular historic value and public interest.

The newly declassified portions are helpfully consolidated and cross-referenced in a separate volume entitled “Record of Deletions.”

At first glance, it is not clear that the new disclosures will substantially revise or add to previous understandings of the Oppenheimer hearing. But their release does finally remove a blemish of secrecy from this historic case.

“Ingenuity” Could Not Prevent Atom Bomb Espionage

When the internal history of the Manhattan Project was written in 1944, officials still believed — mistakenly — that the atom bomb program had evaded the threat of foreign espionage.

“Espionage attempts were detected but it is felt that prompt action and intensified investigative activity in each case prevented the passing of any substantial amount of Project information,” according to a previously overlooked page from the Manhattan District History that was declassified yesterday.

Although declassification of the official history was thought to have been completed in July of this year (WWII Atom Bomb Project Had More Than 1,500 Leaks, Secrecy News, August 21), a single page had been inadvertently withheld from disclosure.

When its absence was pointed out to Department of Energy classification officials, they expeditiously retrieved the missing page (page 2.4 of Volume 14), declassified it and incorporated it in the published online document.

The newly disclosed page presents a flattering view of Manhattan Project counterintelligence efforts.

“The CIC [Counterintelligence Corps] Special Agents assigned to espionage cases became proficient in all phases of investigation technique. Many of them displayed skill and ingenuity unsurpassed by the most experienced investigators,” the document said.

“Agents impersonated men of all occupations in order to obtain information that would enable them to evaluate a suspect properly. An agent worked as a hotel clerk for over two years while another became bell captain in the few months he worked as a bell hop. Agents have posed as electricians, painters, exterminators, contractors, gamblers, etc.”

Yet their skill and ingenuity were inadequate to the task.  It later became clear that the Manhattan Project had been effectively penetrated by a number of Soviet intelligence agents and sympathizers.

The Department of Energy’s publication of the 36-volume Manhattan Project history itself required an extra measure of devotion. First, the tens of thousands of individual pages, many of them on second- or third-generation carbon paper, were painstakingly reviewed. The Public Interest Declassification Board noted with approval that “these records received a line by line declassification review, rather than being subjected to simple pass/fail determinations.” Then, once that process was completed, each page had to be manually scanned for online publication by the Department of Energy.

Except for a few passages stubbornly redacted by the CIA, the whole document has now emerged from the purgatory of sealed government archives and is now available to anyone who cares to read it.

 

WWII Atomic Bomb Project Had More Than 1,500 “Leaks”

The Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb during World War II was among the most highly classified and tightly secured programs ever undertaken by the U.S. government. Nevertheless, it generated more than 1,500 leak investigations involving unauthorized disclosures of classified Project information.

That remarkable fact is noted in the latest declassified volume of the official Manhattan District History (Volume 14, Intelligence & Security) that was approved for release and posted online by the Department of Energy last month.

In several respects, the Manhattan Project established the template for secret government programs during the Cold War (and after). It pioneered or refined the practices of compartmentalization of information, “black” budgets, cover and deception to conceal secret facilities, minimal notification to Congress, and more.

But wherever there are national security secrets, it seems that leaks and spies are not far behind.

During the course of the Manhattan Project, counterintelligence agents “handled more than 1,000 general subversive investigations, over 1,500 cases in which classified project information was transmitted to unauthorized persons, approximately 100 suspected espionage cases, and approximately 200 suspected sabotage cases,” according to the newly declassified history (at pp. S2-3).

Most of the 1,500 leak cases seem to have been inadvertent disclosures rather than deliberate releases to the news media of the contemporary sort. But they were diligently investigated nonetheless. “Complete security of information could be achieved only by following all leaks to their source.”

In 1943, there were several seemingly unrelated cases of Protestant clergymen in the South preaching sermons that alarmingly cited “the devastating energy contained in minute quantities of Uranium 235″ (while contrasting it with “the power of God [that] was infinitely greater”). The sermons were eventually traced back to a pamphlet distributed by a Bible college in Chicago, which was determined to be harmless. Other disclosures cited in the history involved more serious indiscretions that drew punitive action.

“Since September 1943, investigations were conducted of more than 1500 ‘loose talk’ or leakage of information cases and corrective action was taken in more than 1200 violations of procedures for handling classified material,” the history said (p. 6.5).

“Upon discovery of the source of a violation of regulations for safeguarding military information, the violator, if a project employee, was usually reprimanded, informed of the possible application of the Espionage Act, and warned not to repeat the violation.”

Fundamentally, however, information security was not to be achieved by the force of law or the threat of punishment. Rather, it was rooted in shared values and common commitments, the Project history said.

“Grounds for protecting information were largely patriotism, loyalty to the fighting men, and the reasoning that the less publicity given the Project, the more difficult it would be for the enemy to acquire information about it and also, the greater would be the element of surprise” (p. 6.13).

The only other remaining portion of the official history, Foreign Intelligence Supplement No. 1 to Manhattan District History Volume 14, was also published online last month. It provided an account of U.S. wartime intelligence collection aimed at enemy scientific research and development. Some information in that volume was deleted by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The entire thirty-six volume Manhattan District history has now been declassified and posted online.

History of 1953 CIA Covert Action in Iran to be Published

In 1989, the Department of State published a notorious volume that purported to document U.S. foreign policy towards Iran in the early Eisenhower Administration. The volume triggered an avalanche of criticism because it omitted any mention of the CIA’s role in a 1953 covert action that helped overthrow the government of Iran.

Later this year, after the passage of more than two decades, the State Department will rectify that error by publishing a supplemental volume of declassified documents in its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series that is expected to fill in the missing pieces of the documentary record of the 1953 coup against the Mossadeq government of Iran.

The publication of the 1989 Iran volume was a milestone in the history of U.S. government secrecy that prompted widespread outrage and ridicule, but it also inspired remedial efforts that had some lasting impact.

The episode was recounted in detail in an impressive history of the FRUS series that was also published by the State Department last year (Chapter 10).

“FRUS historians could have been more assertive in their efforts to promote greater openness in the 1980s,” the FRUS history candidly observed. “They should have recognized that the Iran volume was too incomplete to be published without damaging the series’s reputation, consulted with stakeholders across the government and the academic community, and devised alternatives to releasing an unacceptable volume.”

Ironically, the defects in the official Iran history generated more broad public attention to questions of diplomatic history than the subject had received for many years.

“The ostensibly authoritative” FRUS volume on Iran “is ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince of Denmark — or the ghost,” the New York Times editorialized in 1990.

“We are poisoning the wells of our historical memory,” wrote Senator Daniel P. Moynihan in the New York Review of Books at the time. “The secrecy system has gone loony.”

On the plus side, the scandal over the Iran history galvanized efforts by historians and others to demand a higher standard of fidelity in official history. Those efforts led directly to the enactment of a 1991 statute dictating that the Foreign Relations of the United States series shall provide “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity.”

The forthcoming publication of the FRUS retrospective volume on Iran was noted in a new annual report from the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation.

It was confirmed by Historian of the State Department, Dr. Stephen Randolph, who told Secrecy News that the volume was expected to be released this summer, barring unforeseen events, along with another long-deferred collection on Chile, 1969-1973.

An initial selection of recently declassified CIA records on the 1953 coup with related background material was posted last year by the National Security Archive.

“The issue is more than academic,” wrote the Archive’s Malcolm Byrne. “Political partisans on all sides, including the Iranian government, regularly invoke the coup to argue whether Iran or foreign powers are primarily responsible for the country’s historical trajectory, whether the United States can be trusted to respect Iran’s sovereignty, or whether Washington needs to apologize for its prior interference before better relations can occur.”