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National CrossTalk Spring 2000
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

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1 of 5 Stories

Scientists Under Suspicion
Government charges hurt morale at a national nuclear weapons laboratory


By Carl Irving

Los Alamos, New Mexico

  Brain imaging researcher Michelle Espy finds it
  Brain imaging researcher Michelle Espy finds it "disheartening" that tightened security has slowed hiring at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
THE RESEARCH HERE, in a jumble of laboratories on a high, lonely mesa, has been both famed and feared for 57 years. Today, nearly 12,000 people work on many important unclassified projects, while maintaining the world's most formidable stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Work on the weapons and other secret military and intelligence projects takes place in widely scattered, heavily guarded buildings, some of them surrounded by imposing rolls of barbed wire. But in mostly unguarded buildings, from World War II "tempos" to modern multi-story structures, others labor on such matters as new ways to detect brain tumors or combat cholera.

Since last year, however, a barrage of espionage charges, followed by months of highly publicized investigations, culminating in the arrest and solitary confinement of 20-year lab employee Wen Ho Lee, has dampened morale and production under Los Alamos' first and only manager, the University of California.

Lee, a Chinese American mechanical engineer, has been charged with 59 counts of security violations. Congressional and federal investigators have charged that the Chinese People's Republic stole nuclear weapons designs, and have heaped blame on the university and its federal sponsor, the Department of Energy.

The DOE reacted by sending hastily-assembled squads of agents to impose massive security here and at the other UC-managed national weapons laboratory in Livermore, California.

Suddenly, scientists were faced with what they say were voluminous, confusing and sometimes contradictory new security directives. Thousands of lab employees underwent interrogations. Many foreign- born scientists and engineers here believe they have come under suspicion solely because of their ethnic backgrounds. At one point, lie detector tests, with their questionable veracity and potential for probing into personal matters, were to be required en masse–an order that was modified later.

Perhaps most serious were visa and hiring delays and denials for scientists and students born in China, India and other countries labeled as "sensitive" by the State Department. Like many of the nation's campuses and industries, Los Alamos has come to depend increasingly on younger staff scientists–most of them naturalized American citizens–with advanced training from such countries.

"It's been the most difficult year in Los Alamos' history," lab director John Browne recently told employees, citing a jump in resignations and a simultaneous drop in recruiting.

  Weapons development and other secret military and intelligence work takes place in heavily guarded buildings at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
  Weapons development and other secret military and intelligence work takes place in heavily guarded buildings at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
"This is a legacy we will live with for a long time," said Basil Swanson, a chemist and a Los Alamos "fellow," a title reserved for outstanding scientists here. Swanson's group recently discovered far cheaper ways of detecting cholera and other deadly diseases in water and food. Now he faces reluctance on the part of friends and colleagues at UC campuses to advise their graduates to work at Los Alamos. Swanson may lose two of his best researchers, both young Chinese Americans. "There's a big drop in inquiries and a tremendous fall off in foreign graduate students," he said.

Newly-imposed visa delays hindered Paul C. White's eight-year responsibility for directing his group's interchange with Russian scientists, both to advise them how to secure their nuclear weapons stockpile against theft and how to safely dispose of plutonium wastes. Now he finds it harder to gain approval for Russian visitors to his lab, even though it does no classified research. One recent meeting here with Russian scientists had to be postponed, and a scheduled visit from another Russian scientist had to be canceled when he was refused a visa.

"Those interactions are vital," White said. "We can do some collaboration by mail and the phone, but to work together, to set up experiments, you can't do that without sitting side by side."

White, a 25-year veteran at Los Alamos, joined other interviewed scientists in strongly rejecting charges about rampant security violations and espionage. "I could have walked out from sessions and done more harm than Wen Ho Lee," said White, who formerly managed nuclear design work. "No guard can tell, nor can any security measure, if I'm of ill will and willing to spill what's in my head. It's ultimately a matter of trust.

"If you look at what Congress is saying, there's one side says we ought to be tough, because we won the Cold War," White said. "We should restrict travel and export controls. But others say we need collaboration as much as possible. Instead of debate, we get conflicting directions. We're caught in the middle."

Joyce Guzik, deputy leader of a weapons design unit, said her staff also has been distracted by "repeated audits," while having to cope with voluminous new and confusing sets of security rules. At one point, a number of staff members warned her they would leave if sweeping lie detector tests were imposed. Subsequently the number of such tests was reduced and agents promised to limit questions to a few general ones about spying. Even so, Guzik said that anxiety over possible new security restrictions has continued to interfere with work.

Moreover, in the past year, Guzik said, an indefinite hiring freeze has been imposed, just when an aging group needs to add freshly recruited "post-docs"–younger scientists with recently earned doctorates. Other scientists had similar concerns.

Michelle Espy, a young post-doc who works on brain imaging, cardiac and cancer research, said that a Russian-born colleague told her "now is the not the time to be a foreigner." Espy is nearing the end of her two-year trial period, after which, according to past routine, post-docs are either hired permanently or asked to leave.

She has been recommended for a permanent job, but even American-born scientists like Espy now face indefinite delays before being hired, because of what her boss, biophysicist Robert Krauss, called a "punitive" slowdown in congressional funding for the labs. Others here attribute the problem to cumbersome new hiring requirements causing indefinite delays, including clearance from the CIA and FBI and the personal signature of Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

Reflecting the sentiments of other young post-docs here, Espy, who earned her Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Minnesota in 1996, finds the uncertainty "disheartening, because I'm in limbo. People really work hard here and are proud of what they do, yet they're discouraged by outside perceptions."

Last December, the time of year when the lab hires the most accomplished post-docs by offering special financial inducements, applications plummeted, mostly because of a large drop in those who come from "sensitive" countries, according to Allen Hartford, Jr., director of science and technical programs.

  Los Alamos chemist Basil Swanson
  Los Alamos chemist Basil Swanson believes onerous new security requirements have led to "a tremendous fall-off in foreign graduate students."
Last year, the new security demands forced a noted Ph.D. program in applied physics, a cooperative effort of the Livermore lab and the University of California's Davis campus, to reject all foreign student applicants.

"They are driving us away, even though we don't want to leave," department chairman Richard R. Freeman said in an interview. "The center mass is moving to Davis." Freeman's department was founded by famed physicist Edward Teller in 1962 to help provide first-rate academic graduate training for future employees at Livermore.

Students and faculty use facilities outside Livermore's classified research areas and share equipment Freeman says no campus could afford. They also work and consult with a wide range of specialists. Since its founding, the department has graduated 250 Ph.D.s, most of whom eventually went to work at the Livermore lab.

Freeman said he rejected requests from security people last year to provide personal information about graduate students from abroad. "I said I'd lose my job if I supplied that," said Freeman, UC Davis' first Edward Teller Professor of Applied Science.

The 92-year-old Teller, one of the immigrant nuclear scientists who helped develop the atom bomb, is now a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He wrote recently that "the right prescription for safety is not reaction to dangers that are arising, but rather action leading to more knowledge and, one hopes, toward positive interaction between nations."

The heightened security and visa controls also have had an impact at some of the other 12 DOE-sponsored national laboratories. Eight of them are managed or co-managed by universities.

At Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York, managed by the State University of New York's nearby Stony Brook campus, "foreign nationals who work here certainly view themselves as targeted, and that complicates their lives and the administration's,"according to Peter Bond, former Brookhaven director. Even though 95 percent of the lab's work is unclassified, Bond said new security restrictions had caused "chaos."

At Argonne National Laboratory, southwest of Chicago, managed by the University of Chicago since shortly after World War II, interim director Yoon I. Chang said he is concerned about racial profiling throughout the DOE lab system, especially among Asian American employees. Chang also is worried about delays in arranging visits from scientists from countries on the restricted access list, even though 98 percent of the research at Argonne is unclassified.

The government's increased restrictions on admitting Chinese, Indian and Pakistani Ph.D.s or, more often, advanced students who want to earn their doctorates in the United States, come at a time when "growing numbers of foreign talent are changing the face of American science," according to a recent national survey by Science Magazine. "Individuals making exceptional contributions to science and engineering in the United States are disproportionately drawn from the foreign born," the survey found.

By 1995, nearly half of those earning doctorates in science and engineering at American universities had been born abroad. Two thirds of these had temporary visas, the largest proportion from China, Taiwan, India and South Korea.

But that increasingly vital addition of imported talent has been slowed abruptly by the fallout from Los Alamos, according to Marvin Miller, senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's security studies program. "We have a system to keep people out, even though it's not engraved in stone," he said. A large number of students at MIT used to come from mainland China, Miller noted. "After the furor (about Los Alamos), the U.S. government started to harass students here in terms of visas and returning. Somebody from Pakistan wanting to study nuclear engineering at MIT probably would be denied a visa.

"There is a risk; you can't read their minds," said Miller, a physicist who has been working on arms control issues since 1977. But he added, "My bottom line is that we have a policy of open doors. That's to our benefit."

Wen Ho Lee
The central issue that sparked claims of security breakdowns and espionage involved the W-88, a nuclear bomb the size of a football, developed in 1972. China exploded a similar test bomb in 1992.

In the winter of 1998-99, during impeachment proceedings in Congress against President Clinton, a House oversight committee headed by Christopher Cox, a Republican representative from Orange County, California, hurriedly put together a confidential report, leaked to the press, which concluded that it would have been "virtually impossible" for China to have developed the bomb without stealing nuclear secrets from the United States.

The probe focused increasingly on Wen Ho Lee, who worked on top-secret projects here, was familiar with the W-88 and had traveled to China in 1986 and 1988. Lee was fired a year ago, after it was learned he had transferred large amounts of secret data about designing and testing nuclear weapons to his own unsecured office computer, and later to portable tapes, some of which are missing.

Last December, the FBI arrested him on 59 counts of breaking security. Although he was not accused of espionage, Lee was ordered held without bail in solitary confinement 23 hours a day-with one hour a week allowed for visits. His trial won't begin until some time after October.

"This is really awful, that Lee's held without bail," said Herbert York, the first director of the Livermore lab and later chancellor of the UC San Diego campus.

"There is reason for suspicion of espionage, and I have no idea what it all means, but it has a great deal to do with the presidential election. It's become a cause celebre because of frustration in Congress," said York, a physicist and member of UC President Richard C. Atkinson's council which is responsible for oversight at Los Alamos, Livermore and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. The Lawrence lab also is funded by the Department of Energy but does no classified research.

Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky, former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and Michael S. May, a former Livermore director, wrote a joint rebuttal to the Cox report, contending that it wrongly alleged that "essentially all Chinese visitors to the United States are potential spies, casting a cloud of suspicion over both foreign and Asian born U.S. staff members of U.S. companies."

James S. Langer, president of the American Physical Society, representing 40,000 American physicists, wrote Attorney General Janet Reno last February that Lee's treatment "has caused great consternation, especially among the large number of scientists in the United States who have come here from abroad."

Langer, a physics professor at UC Santa Barbara, said in an interview that the matter came home to him after one of his best students, a Chinese American who had been hired at Los Alamos, "showed up in my office and told me that hell was breaking loose and that he couldn't work there anymore. There was nothing I could do to help him out. I don't know where he is now."

Former UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien said in an interview that he believed Lee is held without bail because of politics. "If he is released, a number of critics will attack the government, especially in a presidential year. It's a political issue." Tien, the first Chinese American to head a leading American research university, and, like Lee, a mechanical engineer who grew up in Taiwan and became an American citizen, said word about Lee's treatment has persuaded a number of young Asian Americans to abandon studies in science and engineering. He contrasted Lee's treatment to that of former CIA director John M. Deutch.

Deutch, now a member of the MIT faculty, has admitted violating security by drafting highly classified documents on insecure computers at his home while director in 1995 and 1996. A subsequent CIA investigation recommended a reprimand.

The University Connection
Foreign scientists have been a crucial part of research here ever since World War II, when refugees from six European nations on the faculty at UC Berkeley and other American campuses came to Los Alamos to help design and develop the first atom bomb, under the direction of UC Berkeley physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

Despite occasional faculty protests, the UC Board of Regents periodically has approved new contracts to manage Los Alamos and, since 1972, Livermore. "We're very upbeat about what's been accomplished, and it's my understanding the board very much supports renewing the contract," when it comes up for renewal in 2002, said Velma Montoya, vice chair of the regents' committee which oversees university ties to the labs.

UC's $3 billion annual budget from the Department of Energy pays for 20,000 lab employees and their equipment. Rulon Linford, a physicist who oversees lab research for the UC president's office, said that "no university has as wide a range of technical skill anywhere in the world."

Los Alamos' Paul White says he has benefited frequently from consulting with UC faculty. Earlier, when White managed nuclear designs programs, scientists from the campuses helped solve problems. According to White, there is "good interaction with UC political scientists who aren't shy about giving their opinions," and valuable aid from specialists about how to dispose of plutonium.

"We are driven by an academic, inquisitive approach, to find out what's right or wrong," said Klaus Lackner, a physicist and acting associate director for strategic research at Los Alamos. "This differs dramatically from a corporation which has a product it wants to sell. The openness is critical to me."

"We've had a very open, liberal workplace and, as a result, other countries are falling farther and farther behind," said Michael May, former Livermore lab director and now a physicist at Stanford University. "The key to success is moving ahead and not standing still. These labs have been at the forefront of technical development in materials research, high powered lasers, and large projects on computers, such as climate research. They are part and parcel of America's technical preeminence."

Sidney Drell, former head of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, who helped write a White House advisory panel report that was highly critical of DOE security last June, said UC management has enabled the labs to recruit top-flight scientists and to maintain independence and high standards. "Particularly now, when we're trying to work to maintain a stockpile without underground tests, it's important for the labs to want people willing to do noble service for their country," he said.

 
  Paul C. White, a Los Alamos scientist for 25 years, said restrictions on visits by Russian scientists have weakened efforts to safeguard Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile against theft.
But members of Congress have questioned whether a university should manage an operation vital to the nation's military security. California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, charged during a closed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year that free exchange of information, promoted by University of California leaders, could be damaging to national security. Her remarks were released recently by Republican members of the committee.

Feinstein said at the hearing that she had been "appalled" by UC officials' arguments that an open academic setting was required to attract able employees. "I have become very much of the view that if you have this kind of academic culture and academic discipline, that it really does a great disservice to our nuclear secrets."

The senator did not respond to requests for an interview but staff members in Washington said she remains undecided how she will use her influential vote on contract renewal.

"The (university's) relationship began more than 50 years ago, and the reasons for that may have faded over time," said Harvey Sapolsky, a political science professor and director of security studies at MIT. "There seems to me no reason why the government needs to maintain such big facilities beyond work on the bomb. They've drifted away from their missions, because they are basically done. You can get others to come. Those at the forefront of physics don't spend their time on such issues."

Sapolsky, a member of a DOE panel that studied the university ties seven years ago, is convinced that the labs should be placed under the department of Defense, "which would shrink them."

Asked to respond to Sapolsky's views, UC's Rulon Linford said, "Those who say we don't need to know a lot more about nuclear weapons don't understand about problems of aging. We used to be able to replace old weapons, but now we have to have them survive far longer than before. Major problems lie ahead because of aging and because the people who were experienced in doing underground tests are retiring. We have a short time frame for the challenge ahead."

Besides the need to replace an aging staff, "cutting edge research" will be required more than ever amid growing threats that include biological warfare and global terrorism, said Bob Van Ness, University of California assistant vice president for lab administration.

"The overwhelming sentiment (among scientists) is for maintaining university-lab ties and for maintaining the visiting scientist program," said Irving Lerch, chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science committee on scientific freedom and responsibility. "Some congressmen have indeed recommended putting the weapons labs under Department of Defense authority but this proposal has never gone far. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower refused to relinquish civilian control of the labs, and this has been the mainstream sentiment ever since."

  Astrophysicist Joyce Guzik, deputy leader of a weapons design unit.
  Astrophysicist Joyce Guzik, deputy leader of a weapons design unit, believes voluminous and confusing new security rules, as well as a hiring freeze, have affected work at the laboratory. Behind Guzik, a $100 million Strategic Computing Complex is under construction.
Interviews at the labs and elsewhere indicate that the outcome of the fall elections may decide the issue. A Democratic administration is expected to retain the current administrative practices, these people believe, while a Republican administration might abolish the Department of Energy and terminate university management of the labs, or at least clamp down on the relatively open research atmosphere.

Adding to the renewal question is what Herbert York terms "the mess at Livermore." Last fall, it was revealed that the lab faced $350 million in cost overruns beyond the original $1.2 billion estimate, to complete the national ignition facility, a super-laser intended to test the nuclear arsenal without having to set off test explosions. The project lost its director last summer, after investigators discovered that he did not have a doctorate.

The Government Connection
The Department of Energy was blistered last spring in a report to President Clinton about Los Alamos and Livermore. "Brilliant scientific breakthroughs at the nuclear weapons laboratories came with a very troubling record of security administration," said the group of four authors, headed by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman and including Sidney Drell. The DOE "has been the subject of a nearly unbroken history of dire warnings and attempted but aborted reforms." The report called the DOE a "big, Byzantine and bewildering bureaucracy."

Pushed by Congress, the department adopted the report's advice to police the labs more efficiently through a new National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the department. Robin Staffin, DOE senior science advisor, said in an interview that congressional action required working with the CIA and FBI to clear foreign scientists from China and other Asian and former Soviet countries, thus creating inevitable delays in hiring or inviting scientists from such countries. He hoped that with time and increased efficiency, future delays might be avoided. Staffin, who once worked at DOE's Stanford Linear Accelerator, said he hoped that "things would stabilize and that we're soon past this difficult period."

Others are not so sure. One scientist who has dealt with the DOE for years, but would only speak without attribution, said the department "has put up with as much as possible to calm down Congress and keep their heads down during the election. DOE is always the whipping boy. Like the Department of Education, it has the president's lowest interest level.

"The new Republican president will replace DOE. They have done some stupid things, and Congress is worked up enough for UC to walk away. Without UC, the labs will lose many top scientists who are there because of UC. If Lockheed Martin comes in, they are gone."

Freelance writer Carl Irving lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Photos by Sarah Martone for CrossTalk

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