Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

More Cowboy Scientists

SANTA FE – The column about LANL’s “cowboy scientists” engendered many responses.
Pete Nanos, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, blames security breaches at the lab on a minority of scientists who refuse to follow the rules for handling classified information. He calls them “cowboy scientists.”
One reader comments that maybe Nanos might want to choose his words a bit more carefully, lest he lose any current support he may have from President Bush, who also has been called a cowboy by some of his critics.
One of the more ridiculous responses blamed Sen. Pete Domenici’s longtime advocacy of LANL for contributing to a culture of complacency on the Hill. There is nothing original about the charge. Domenici has been under fire in Congress for his long record of success in obtaining money for a lab with too many leaks.
Domenici’s warning to LANL last week may partly have been an effort to remove some of that heat. It should also be noted that the rest of New Mexico’s congressional delegation has consistently been very supportive of the lab.
Most of the other responses came either from people who have had close contact with the lab or who are retired from the lab. Most of them had the rather general impression that the super security is largely silliness.
The lab has always had security leaks but none of them ever really mattered. And that’s true even for the biggest security breaches, when Klaus Fuchs gave away, and David Greenglass sold, secrets to the first bomb. Germany and Japan were our enemies at the time and the Soviets never got anything they didn’t already know.
During the almost-60 years since, the lab has handled billions of pieces of secret information and only lost track of a few. That’s a very good record. Several observers feel that the 24-hour news channels, which have a need to create news, have sensationalized missing information all out of proportion.
Congress then picks up on the hysteria, thinking that it needs to appear on top of things, and conducts investigations. Could it be that our government is spending far too much time and money on keeping information secret that really doesn’t need to be secret?
As a nation, we seem to have the impression that we are the only smart people in the world. But in reality, every society has its great thinkers. Our advantage is in having the natural resources and engineering capabilities to put our thoughts into action more quickly and efficiently than most other countries. And spies can’t steal that.
But our obsession with keeping secrets will continue. In a lengthy document, one bit of secret information makes the entire document secret, even if everything else is well-known. But since there are penalties for not classifying the entire document as secret, we spend millions protecting information that mostly is not secret.
The two missing disks of current concern were part of a presentation that was to be made. There now is evidence those disks may not have ever been used for the presentation.
That’s sloppy recordkeeping. But Nobel laureates don’t really like to be bothered with recordkeeping. They are paid to think big thoughts. And it is not easy to attract them into situations where someone is constantly looking over them to be sure they are meticulously keeping records.
This tension between science and security is legend. In the previous column I mentioned a movie about the ongoing battle between Gen. Leslie Groves and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer during the early days of LANL. The movie was Fat Man and Little Boy, starring Paul Newman as Groves.
Even better accounts can be found in several books on the subject. And virtually every book written about the early days of Los Alamos contains a section on Groves v. Oppenheimer and the obsessive secrecy surrounding the building of the big bomb.


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