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“Ingenuity” Could Not Prevent Atom Bomb Espionage

09.10.14 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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.

 

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