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Working with Secrets

Quote from
Gusterson, Hugh.
Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War.
(Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California, 1996)

The Culture of Secrecy

“The practice of secrecy is an anvil on which the identity of new weapons scientists at the laboratory is forged. Having looked at the processes through which scientists are absorbed into the moral economy of the laboratory, here I turn to the ways in which the investigation of new scientists for security clearance and the insistent daily practice of secrecy help to reshape the identity of weapons scientists. The laboratory's rules of secrecy are applied quite unevenly, and individual scientists often differ widely in their interpretation and manipulation of these rules. Still, as we shall see, the laboratory's culture of secrecy does tend to produce certain effects in its scientists: it segregates laboratory scientists as a privileged but somewhat isolated elite; it inculcates a sense of group loyalty; and it thrusts on laboratory scientists an amorphous surveillance, which can become internalized.”

(Gusterson, Nuclear Rites, p. 68)

Quotes from:
Rosenthal, Debra.
At the Heart of the Bomb: The Dangerous Allure of Weapons Work
(Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990)

It's a Pain in the Ass

“The DOE classification system distinguishes among three types of secrets: confidential restricted information, secret restricted information, and top-secret restricted information. The system has five clearance levels (secret, top secret, 'L,' 'Q' nonsensitive, and 'Q' sensitive). Access to data that is confidential or secret requires a Q-clearance. All regular laboratory staff members and technicians must get a Q-clearance, usually issued within six months of their being hired. Even so, if someone wants to see top-secret information, he or she is supposed to get special permission from the clearance officer by establishing a 'need to know.'

“Arnold found the secrecy at Sandia annoying. 'If I'm working on something that's highly classified, it's very inconvenient,' he said. 'I can't leave my desk. If I go to the bathroom I have to carry a bundle of papers under my arm.'

“His complaint was echoed by scientists at both laboratories. 'It's a pain in the ass,' one Sandia woman said. For those with no experience dealing with classified materials, what counts as a security infraction may come as a surprise.

“If you close a safe and leave the dial on the last number of the combination, that's an infraction. If the am/fm radio in your office has a tape recorder in it, that's a second infraction. And if you do classified work on a computer terminal or desktop microcomputer that is not shielded, so that the electronic equipment and in theory, be decoded by enemy agents (at Los Alamos they call these 'compromising emanations'), that's a third violation. At Sandia, three security infractions and you're out.”

(Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 105-6)

Cut Off from the Mainstream of Scientific Research

“It's unsettling to think that secret research might be less rigorous than open research. Many Los Alamos and Sandia scientists said they had found themselves cut off from the mainstream of scientific research once they began working on classified projects. One Los Alamos scientist remembered his Ph. D. adviser warning him that he would be lost forever from civilization in the secret society on the Hill. Others told of academic scientists who refused to send preprints of their articles (an important means of communication in the scientific community) to people doing classified research.

“Most Los Alamos and Sandia scientists said they were sorry that their secret research did nothing to advance their disciplines. 'Scientific progress for three hundred years depended on the free and across-national-boundaries exchange of scientific materials and insights,' said one physicist whose work was mostly classified. 'Classification tries to close that off, to put boundaries on everything and keep things boxed off from each other. It's just an abomination from a scientific standpoint.'

“A disgruntled young Los Alamos weapons designer felt that his own group in X-division was so boxed off it had become stagnant. 'There's no peer review of the work that's done here,' he complained. 'There's no jury. People can do very bad technical work here and nobody knows.' He thought Los Alamos weapons designers mistook 1955-style physics for state-of-the-art because they had so little contact with the reset of the scientific community. 'Their in a bubble, scientifically,' he said, adding that he hoped to get out.

“Younger scientists at the two labs quickly caught on to the nature of the bubble. It may keep uncleared scientists out, but it also kept them in. Classified projects cannot be included on a public resume, for example. Eventually the scientific community loses sight of you, so, as one man said, 'The longer you stay in weapons work, the harder it is to leave.'”

(Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 106-7)


Los Alamos Study Group • 2901 Summit Place NE • Albuquerque, NM 87106 • ph 505-265-1200

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