Book Review- “Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States”


Alex Wellerstein’s magisterial work Restricted Data is an illuminating account of the historic struggle of American scientists, policymakers, and military officials who happened to harness the basic energy of the universe but were divested of the sublime insight of how to rein it in for the larger benefits of humankind and, at the same time, keep it protected from spreading and disseminating to the unwanted forces.

Unearthing the untold story of nuclear secrets, Wellerstein proceeds to tell a thrilling, sensational, and astounding evolution of the nuclear secrecy regime in the United States. Based on the recently declassified documents, Restricted Data is an amusing treat to the secret minds of the intelligence community and the researchers of security studies.

Though written on the fascinating history of nuclear weapons it takes a deep dive into the American security mindset and ways of the American bureaucracy the fabric of which is so intricately embedded in the regime of nuclear secrecy. Capturing the tensions between the ideals of science and secrecy on the one hand, and the desires for openness and security on the other, Restricted Data elucidates how the intent to pursue an absolute and totalizing secrecy regime put the ideals of the American science and the American democracy to serious test out of which it is born. Believing that the nuclear bomb owes its existence to science and industry, in Restricted Data, Wellerstein sought to answer the longstanding queries if the facts of physics and chemistry can be kept secret. Whether the parameters of secrecy apply to the science? Is it possible to brush the facts of nature under the carpet on the pretext of state secret?

To Wellerstein, the need for nuclear secrecy was initially rooted in mortal fear of a dreadful enemy i.e. Nazi Germany. The scientists, officials, and strategists did their best to prevent Nazi Germany from discovering the atomic bomb. However, the author pointed out that from its existence until the Cold War, the US was lacking in a well-defined and well-codified comprehensive legal system of secrecy to rein in the evolving situation in the nuclear arena. Consequently, the U.S. introduced the Espionage Act of 1917 to bring scientists and technical knowledge into better contact with military institutions. Furthermore, on the appeals of the visionary scientist Leo Szilard, who first envisioned the dangers of fission energy, and Albert Einstein, President Franklin Roosevelt created an advisory committee on Uranium in October 1939 to investigate whether nuclear technology might be part of potential military importance.

Later on, Wellerstein informs us that the Act was later complemented by a series of Executive Orders: Defining Certain Vital Military and Naval Installations and Equipment, issued by President Roosevelt in March 1940. Then, in June 1940 and 1941, President Roosevelt’s Executive Orders created the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) and the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).

Envisioning the possibility of manufacturing nuclear weapons on striking revelations of the University of Chicago’s scientist Arthur Compton and the British MAUD committee, Vannevar Bush took over control of the Uranium Committee from NDRC to OSRD to step up the enrichment process and strongly recommended that the work should “be placed under rigid Army control as soon as actual production is embarked upon.”

Thus, the Manhattan Project, the world’s “Best-Kept” secret, came into existence with Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves in the lead. In the fall of 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer headed the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, a secret laboratory to handle the most sensitive work of the project: the design of an actual atomic bomb. As the bomb project expanded, Groves proceeded to establish “a secret city” of isolated sites and facilities by creating “Site-X” at Oak Ridge, Tennessee for uranium enrichment in late 1942, “Site-W” at Hanford, Washington to house the first industrial-scale nuclear reactor in late 1943 and “Site-Y” at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, a secret hub for the research on the atomic bomb itself. Owing to compartmentalization policy Groves, the workforce at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos were utterly ignorant of each other work and their goals. Groves turned OSRD, primarily focused into a full counterintelligence unit. He introduced classification categories from “Secret,” “Confidential,” and “Restricted” to “Secret-Limited” under the compartmentalization policy.  Later, he labeled all correspondence of a technical nature as “Top Secret,” using a new category of secret information of the Office of War Information in March 1944.

These efforts led by Neil Bohr, Vannevar Bus, and James Conant culminated in the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 to address the problem of secrecy.  Restricted Data, a special category of information, was incorporated in the clauses of the Atomic Energy Commission. Restricted Data is related to nuclear information and fissionable material.

Throughout the text, Wellerstein maintained that the status of nuclear secrecy was persistently and consistently contested. Wellerstein illuminates us how the Cold War secrecy regime failed to protect Operation Ivy’s detonation of the H-bomb with the code name “Mike” from leaking. Furthermore, the folly of “Bravo” nuclear testing during Operation Castle revealed the true hazards of nuclear testing. Also, the decryption project code-named “Venona” which was unearthed by the dangerous minds of the nuclear field like Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, David Greensglass, and Julius Rosenberg, proved to be another weaker link in the secrecy regime.

The “Loyalty Program” Truman identified so many weaknesses in the regime, the father of the atomic bomb Oppenheimer himself turned out to be a shady character for championing policies that would decrease secrecy and for his support to communist-minded students at the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer was not issued security clearance by the Personnel Security Review Board in 1949.

Moreover, the Cold War approach was also characterized by a massive declassification drive led by the AEC’s chief Lewis Strauss which included reactor designs, and enrichment technologies like those in the Manhattan Project. Wellerstein goes on to make striking revelations about how the U.S. “Atoms for Peace” program and declassification policy, resulted in the loose or unaccounted-for fission material expansion, particularly plutonium, and pointed out that the declassified information related to manufacturing a crude bomb similar to one that devastated Hiroshima had been mistakenly released in the public domain by the US. As a result, college students like John Aristotle Phillips, a Princeton junior, and Dmitry A. Rotow, an economics major at Harvard took advantage of the nuclear literature in the public domain to design a nuclear bomb and became successful.

Furthermore, quoting sources from the FBI, Wellerstein also claimed that someone from Pakistan’s embassy contacted Phillips to obtain his design at a time when reports about Pakistan buying reactors from France were in the air. Furthermore, Wellerstein tells us about the hollowness of AEC safeguards related to nuclear secrecy attempts by sharing the CIA official’s suspicion that Israel could have stolen the uranium enriched to weapon-grade level at a reprocessing plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania in 1965. Similarly, the bubble of secrecy efforts was conveniently burst by a 14-year-old schoolboy whose interest in science led him to successfully build a nuclear fusion device, commonly known as a Hydrogen bomb, and threatened to destroy the city of Orlando, Florida.

Wellerstein also referred to Dr. A. Q. Khan’s case of how he got his hand on the centrifuge designs, blueprints, and contact information for companies that manufactured centrifuge parts.

Wellerstein alleged without evidence that Dr. A.Q. Khan with the knowledge of a Pakistani government aided in the proliferation of nuclear enrichment technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea through his network of black market centrifuge suppliers.

Thirdly, he referred to the spread of laser fusion technology best for developing thermonuclear devices, which could be harnessed as a new form of energy for mankind. These developments led to reconceptualizing control that should be based not on secrecy but materiality, like controlling fissile safeguards. Finally, Wellerstein’s book confirms that information needed to make a nuclear weapon has been in circulation for a long time. In his book, Wellerstein discusses the Iranian and Israeli weapons programs. Israel certainly has this information, The fissile material needed for such a device is much harder to obtain. But, controlling the spread of these weapons involves controlling the production of these materials.

Like a true historian, however, Wellerstein does not take sides. ‘Restricted Data’ is not just a detailed chronicle of the ongoing secrecy versus anti-secrecy debate, but a profound, well-researched, and fluently written reflection on American social history since the Second World War, with multiple lessons to be learned.

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