from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2005, Issue No. 71
July 28, 2005


The rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb and later had his security clearance revoked, is among the most compelling political dramas of the twentieth century.

The story is brilliantly retold in a new book by Priscilla Johnson McMillan entitled "The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer."

The Manhattan Project, with its enormous secret budgets, its compartmentalization and cover stories, was the matrix for the cold war secrecy system that remains with us today.

If Project leader Oppenheimer was the "father" of the atomic bomb, who did more than any other individual to ensure the success of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, then the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) hearing which resulted in the loss of his security clearance was an oedipal revolt writ large.

Of course, the story is complicated and enriched by Oppenheimer's human failings, as well as his real security infractions and his admitted pre-war membership in "nearly every fellow-traveling organization on the West Coast" (though he denied being a member of the Communist Party).

In Priscilla McMillan's account, based on two decades of interviews and archival research, secrecy is integral to the story at every stage, from the internal government debates over the pursuit of a hydrogen bomb to the illegal monitoring of Oppenheimer's conversations with his attorney.

"In the case of Robert Oppenheimer," writes Ms. McMillan, "the deviations from what we consider basic rules of our democracy were so egregious that even today, half a century later, the story still stirs our consciences and makes us wonder what it was all about. It was about many things. One of them was our government's decision to move to a new and deadlier level of the nuclear arms race without telling the American people."

"This book is a look at the people and events that led to the destruction of J. Robert Oppenheimer."

"There are stories like it today."

"The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race" by Priscilla J. McMillan has just been published by Viking. See:

Priscilla McMillan is a Harvard historian, a former FAS Council member, a Secrecy News colleague since the secrecy battles of the early 1990s, and author of the enduring classic "Marina and Lee" about the JFK assassination.


"We need to return to our core values of openness and accountability," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) on the Senate floor yesterday.

Sen. Kennedy took the better part of an hour during the Senate debate on a gun liability law to lambaste the Bush White House for its secrecy policies, covering everything from overclassification to the CIA leak case to the Vice President's Energy Task Force, and much more.

"Under the Bush administration, openness and accountability have been replaced by secrecy and evasion of responsibility. They abuse their power, conceal their actions from the American people, and refuse to hold officials accountable."

Sen. Kennedy made at least two [one] commonplace errors when he stated that "Last year, a record 15.6 million documents were classified by the Bush administration."

According to the Information Security Oversight Office, there were 15.6 million classification decisions in FY 2004, which does not translate directly into 15.6 million classified documents (it could be much more). And though this represents a huge increase over recent years, it is not a record high number. The ISOO reported more than 22 million classification actions in FY 1985.

See Sen. Kennedy's July 27 remarks on secrecy here:


Recent reports of the Congressional Research Service include the following.

"Pakistan-U.S. Relations," updated July 26, 2005:

"Pakistan: Chronology of Events," updated July 25, 2005:

"Supreme Court Appointment Process: Roles of the President, Judiciary Committee, and Senate," updated July 6, 2005:

"Women in Iraq: Background and Issues for U.S. Policy," updated June 23, 2005:

"D-Day: The French Jubilee of Liberty Medal and the 60th Anniversary Commemoration on June 6, 2004, and Events for June 6, 2005," updated May 27, 2005:

"Navy Trident Submarine Conversion (SSGN) Program: Background and Issues for Congress," updated May 25, 2005:

"Republic of the Marshall Islands Changed Circumstances Petition to Congress," updated May 16, 2005:

"Sri Lanka: Background and U.S. Relations," updated May 16, 2005:

"Exemptions from Environmental Law for the Department of Defense: An Overview of Congressional Action," May 16, 2005:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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