Lie Detectors: On Secrets and Hypersecurity in Los Alamos
The U.S. nuclear complex has always been haunted by the possibility of spies. At Los Alamos, some of these ghosts have names—Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, for example—while others remain elusive, like the third Soviet agent long rumored to have worked at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.1 Since the end of the Cold War, however, espionage, like the U.S. nuclear arsenal itself, has seemingly receded in the American imagination, psychically exiled as an increasingly quaint relic of a (nuclear) age now assumed past. Hence the widespread shock and bewilderment in 1999, as accusations of atomic espionage arose from the center of a surprisingly vibrant U.S. nuclear complex in New Mexico. Even more sensational than the initial accusations in March 1999 that China had covertly attained design information about the most sophisticated nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal was the announcement a month later that a U.S. nuclear weapons scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory had illicitly downloaded to nonsecured computers almost the entire archive of nuclear weapons design codes developed during the Cold War era of nuclear testing. Of fourteen high-capacity computer tapes containing design codes for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, only seven could be accounted for, creating panic among officials about the missing tapes and their 806 megabytes of U.S. “nuclear secrets.”
Suddenly the epicenter for nuclear fear at the national level, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) became the focus of an intense public debate in 1999. A Presidential Commission chaired by former Senator Warren Rudman concluded in June that Los Alamos National Laboratory conducted “science at its best, security at its worst.” The commission accused Los Alamos scientists of a profound, institutionalized arrogance concerning security and declared the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) a “big, Byzantine, and bewildering bureaucracy,” one that needed to be fundamentally reformed (PFIAB 1999: 8). By December, Wen Ho Lee, the chief suspect in the case, had become one of only a few people in U.S. history to be charged with gross negligence in handling classified information under the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. The fifty-nine-count indictment, filed on 19 December 1999, promised a life sentence for Lee, if convicted (see United States v. Wen Ho Lee, 79 F. Supp. 2d 1280 [D.N.M. 1999], affirmed, 208 F.3d 228 [10th Cir. 2000] [decided without published opinion]). Testifying at Lee’s indictment hearing, the director of the nuclear weapons programs at Los Alamos stated that the missing computer tapes could change “the global strategic balance,” while the head of Sandia National Laboratory warned the judge that letting Wen Ho Lee out on bail was a “you bet your country decision” (from transcript of bail hearing, U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, 27 December 1999). Indeed, by the end of 1999, it seemed that all the repressed anxieties of a post– Cold War nuclear world order could be located in the mundane form of seven missing Los Alamos computer tapes and their digital arsenal of nuclear secrets.2
Over the course of the next nine months, however, the case against Lee began to unravel—fantastically—culminating on 13 September 2000 with an abrupt turnaround by federal prosecutors. After fighting bail for nine months (and after keeping Lee either in solitary confinement or shackled since his arrest), prosecutors accepted a stunning plea agreement: Lee pleaded guilty to one of the original fifty-nine counts of mishandling classified information and was sentenced to time served (278 days). In the end, Wen Ho Lee—the man once portrayed as the single greatest threat to U.S. national security in a half century—walked. Investigations into the case and how it was handled became the subject of congressional hearings, as well as of formal reviews at the FBI, the U.S. Justice Department, the Department of Energy, and at LANL. In fall 2000, Wen Ho Lee signed book and television movie deals to tell his story, while FBI agents entered a particular kind of purgatory: spending weeks methodically digging through the Los Alamos County landfill in hope of recovering the missing computer tapes (which Lee claims were thrown in the trash; see Pincus 2000).
This essay is less concerned with Lee’s culpability than with interrogating what the institutional responses to the espionage allegations have revealed about America’s nuclear project and the role of secrecy in enabling it. For while institutional responses to the Lee case played on the worst fears of the nuclear age— from atomic espionage to a new arms race to the possibility of nuclear war— they have also revealed important aspects of post–Cold War nuclear culture and policy in the United States and thus are well worth examining for their official, as well as more implicit, national cultural logics. Put another way, the search for the missing computer tapes at Los Alamos has troubled a secret governmentality, revealing not only the terms of conducting U.S. nuclear science after the Cold War, but also several different orders of nuclear secrets, secrets that have little to do with the production and maintenance of military machines.
Secrecy has always been a constitutive element in the U.S. nuclear complex. Indeed, with the invention of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos in 1945 came a powerful new kind of government secrecy and the very possibility of nuclear espionage.3 During the Cold War, nuclear weapons took on the form of a national fetish in the United States, becoming simultaneously one of the largest and most dangerous industrial enterprises in U.S. history and a national project extravagantly protected from public discourse by official practices of secrecy. Nuclear weapons remain, therefore, ambiguous technosocial forms, simultaneously the material source of “national security”—the very arbiters of “superpower” status —and profoundly dangerous national products, which make claims on the life and death of citizens in a variety of ways. Secrecy has played a central role in mediating the national cultural contradictions embedded in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
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This essay was enabled by a Research and Writing Grant from the Program on Global Security and Sustainability at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as well as a Richard Carley Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. I am very grateful to these institutions for their support and to the editorial committee at Public Culture, F. G. Bailey, and Ralph E. Rodriguez for helpful comments. Finally, I am indebted to Shawn Smith for her critical engagement with this essay.
- On Klaus Fuchs, seeWilliams 1987; on Theodore Hall, seeAlbright and Kunstel 1997.
- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in February 2000, supported the federal district court’s decision to deny Wen Ho Lee bail, agreeing that Lee “presents a clear and present danger to the United States” and that “no combination of conditions of release would reasonably assure the safety of the community or the nation” (see United States v. Wen Ho Lee, 208 F.3d 228 [10th Cir. 2000] [decided without published opinion]).
- On U.S. secrecy during the Cold War, see Moynihan 1998 and Shils 1956; for analysis of the scope of secrecy within the nuclear complex, seeBurr, Blanton, and Schwartz 1998; and for Cold War secrecy practices among weapons scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, seeGusterson 1996: 68–100.