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Contra Costa Times
August 1, 1999

Seaborg journal secrecy disputed

Before he died, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist tried to get back
classified pages; family, historians would like complete record

By Andrea Widener, times staff writer

The first few thousand pages of Glenn Seaborg's journals comprise a meticulous record of high school football games and college chemistry classes.

But as the Nobel Prize-winning chemist continued to document his exceptional life -- and how it touched some of the most momentous scientific and political happenings of the century -- those journals became more than just a personal record: They became a chronicle of history.

Until he died in February at age 86, Seaborg tried to reclaim the final 940 pages of his journal -- documenting his time leading the Atomic Energy Commission and advising Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon -- that remain classified by the Department of Energy.

Seaborg maintained that the 28,000 pages of the journal from that time were reviewed when he left office in 1971, and the remaining documents should have been returned. But the DOE disagreed, saying it never found evidence of a review and that the release of the nuclear weapons information in its pages could harm national security.

"Now he has left us without having the satisfaction of resolving the fate of his journal," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., told his Senate colleagues in March, when he introduced a bill that would release the remaining pages to Seaborg's family. "It is devastating that a man who gave so much of his life to his country was treated so outrageously."

A special case

The issue of Seaborg's journal is barely a blip on the DOE's security radar screen. Numerous historians, environmentalists, scientists and security experts worry the glacial pace of document release will be further slowed by recent allegations that nuclear weapons secrets have been leaked to the Chinese.

But the case of Seaborg -- an educator and chancellor at UC-Berkeley, a leader in the Manhattan Project and preeminent chemist crucial to the discovery of plutonium and the element that bears his name -- is one of the most visible.

"It's a particularly remarkable case because Seaborg was not only a distinguished scientist and Nobel laureate, he was the head of the agency with which he ended up in conflict," said Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project.

Sense of history

Nearly every day of his life, Seaborg kept a detailed record of who he met and what he did, attaching documents to explain the short, factual entries. He would note meetings or phone calls, including everything from football games he attended with his six children to negotiations with world leaders.

"His attitude was, Doesn't everyone do that?' " said his wife, Helen Seaborg, who lives in Lafayette.

Though he had a sharp memory, Seaborg would check the journals to remind himself of details about people or events, said his son, David Seaborg of Walnut Creek. That way he could surprise fellow scientists or foreign diplomats by asking about their children's piano lessons or their new house friendly details to ease tense negotiations.

"He had a real sense of history," David Seaborg said.

That same sense of history led Seaborg to use the journals for numerous books and articles throughout his career.

"For me, it was a great gift because he wrote down nearly everything and kept these meticulous notes. There is almost nothing that had to depend on memory," said Ray Colvig, who co-wrote two books with Seaborg, including one about the forming of the Pacific 10 athletic conference due out this fall. "I'm sure they will be very valuable to many historians in the future."

It was that same historical value that eventually cost Seaborg part of his journal.

Censoring the innocuous

According to Seaborg's account, which he wrote for a 1994 issue of Science magazine, a DOE historian asked to use the part of his journals from when he led the Atomic Energy Commission. So in 1983, Seaborg sent one of his two copies of the 28,000-page journal to Washington, D.C.

That's when his troubles started.

According to Seaborg, the journal cleared a review in 1971 when he left the commission to return to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. And he said he hadn't included classified information in the journals to begin with.

The DOE has no record that his journal ever passed through editors, said Roger Heusser, who heads the declassification office.

Either way, the journal was not returned to Seaborg. DOE reviewers instead threatened to arrest him if he didn't allow a review of a second copy, which he kept in his Lafayette house, according to the Science article.

When the journal was eventually returned, it was missing large sections that Seaborg didn't believe should be classified, Helen Seaborg said.

"One of the things they classified was about taking the kids trick-or-treating once," she said.

Seaborg was outraged when the DOE took the documents, said Gregg Herken, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum.

Herken examined parts of Seaborg's journals from that era for a book they were going to write, and he remembers checking the sections that were classified.

"I remember looking at the entries and thinking, I already knew that,'" he said. "It was pretty innocuous stuff."

Common plight

Seaborg's plight is common among openness advocates who say the DOE keeps too many documents secret. The agency has more than 280 million classified pages collected over more than 50 years of nuclear weapons development. Its past practice was to classify every scrap of paper created by the agency, its predecessor, the AEC, and its weapons labs and production facilities.

"I think the main (problem), up until recently, was bureaucracy and secret bureaucracy," said Priscilla McMillan, a Harvard University historian writing a book about the development of the hydrogen bomb. She argues that historically important documents are remaining classified in the name of national security, even though their content is well-known.

Historians weren't the only ones arguing for more openness, Aftergood said. Community activists say they have the right to know what's going on next door; scientists want to be able to discuss research with their colleagues; even some security experts want to release everything except documents vital to national security.

Seaborg agreed that the DOE's classification system was getting out of control. Based on his own experiences and on his philosophical disagreement with blanket secrecy, Seaborg began an effort to get back the rest of his journal before he died. The Science article was part of that effort, as were his pleas to members of Congress for help.

Second review ordered

His efforts coincided with then-Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's decision in 1993 to release more information. She set new standards that allowed the DOE to release information on environmental impact, health risks and the amount of stockpiled plutonium but at the same time tightened security in other areas. She also renamed the Office of Classification the Office of Declassification.

As a result, the agency did another review of Seaborg's journal. Heusser says only 3 percent -- or 940 pages -- of the 12-foot tall stack remains classified, and the remaining documents cannot be released without compromising security.

But that wasn't enough for Seaborg, who wanted the complete document back.

Now that Seaborg has died, his family and historians would like to have the complete record of his life, from age 14 to 86.

They support Moynihan's bill, which would release the remaining pages, but it seems few legislators do. The bill hasn't moved since it was introduced, much like other openness initiatives buried since the nation's attention focused on possible lab security leaks.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has said numerous new security measures won't hamper the release of information. But the Office of Declassification is being renamed again, to the Nuclear and National Security Information Office.

"What is frustrating is that there was this ray of sunshine that opened up the prospect of getting things declassified," said Herken, who is focusing on 50-year-old documents that were reviewed twice but are still not out.

Congress doesn't appear inclined to increase declassification efforts. The House has passed a budget that would halve DOE's funding to review and release documents; the Senate's version left the funding intact. A compromise might result in less funding for the agency, which could result in layoffs to trained declassifiers.

"As a historian of the weapons program, the scientists who worked for the weapons program have amazing achievement to their records," McMillan said. "The story of how those weapons were built is still secret for the public that funded them."

With or without the Moynihan bill, the family would like to see the pages eventually returned.

"If it is really legitimate national security, that's another story, but that wasn't the case at all," David Seaborg said. "This is what his record was, this is what he kept, and he recorded it with a sense of posterity and history in mind."


Andrea Widener covers science and the area's national laboratories. You can reach her at 925-847-2158 or [email protected]

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