The Cost of Secrecy

A nuclear physicist who was horn in Uislria and brought to this country in his infancy, DR. I. I. KABI was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 19-Vi. fie has been a member of the Columbia i nirersity faculty since 1929 and was made Chairman of the President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1997.

THE 1955 Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy marked the first massive confrontation of scientists from the Soviet bloc with their colleagues from the West. It opened an era of good feeling, of mutual understanding and respect, between these two groups of scientists, which has increased in time as more Americans have had the opportunity of visiting Russian installations, and vice versa. The intervening live years have shown that science and peace do have a connection, not yet as great as science and war but certainly not negligible. This year, for example, the Russians plan to send forty scientists to the Rochester Conference on high energy physics. Last year we sent sixty to the Kiev Conference in the same field.

These contacts between scientists have led to an important amount of declassification of scientific and technical information. This declassification has not only enlarged the area of fruitful exchange of information with the East and with our own allies but has also accelerated our own program because it has made possible a freer flow of information .

Indeed, one can say that science has provided an important bridge between the two rival blocs and a means for further peaceful cooperation, for the lessening of tension and suspicion. It is to be hoped that the failure of the Summit meeting will not cut the important and delicate cultural ties which have been established only with the greatest effort and devotion on the part of scientists on both sides. Most scientists in the United States and in allied countries have regarded the advances toward a more open world as favorable omens for a future in which the threat of destructive warfare will hang less heavily over mankind. Most scientists have held this view, but not all.

A minority regards any lessening of tension as a prelude to a diminution of our effort in the development of atomic weapons and their means of delivery. In the opinion of this minority, safety can be achieved only by the development of atomic weapons to a degree which demands the utmost stretch of the imagination and the most devoted effort. No means are too large to apply to this end. They lay their hopes for peace, paradoxically enough, in a mutuality of terror, which they feel would immobilize all aggressive impulses in the nations of the world. While the large nations are being held back from attacking one another by the certainty of annihilating retaliation, limited warfare, according to this view, could go on quite in the classical pattern without a great deal of disturbance. With sufficient effort, atomically advanced nations would in time possess stores of atomic weapons so cheap and so plentiful that they could overcome the resistance of less advanced nations with the same ease with which the Spaniards conquered Peru.

My pictures may be sharply drawn, but no one who has followed ihc discussions will suggest that the positions taken by the two sides are caricatured beyond recognition. Granted that my description has some relation to reality, we ask ourselves, What is the course of wisdom in the midst of these divided counsels? How should the atom and peace be conjoined so that our young people may see a future before them in which, at the end of the rainbow, there awaits something more pleasant than a huge supernuclear explosion?

The solution to the dread problems posed by the advances of science and technology can certainly not be found by the scientists alone, just as they cannot be solved by men who have little or no knowledge of science or technology, however great the responsibility which has been thrust on them, either by election or by appointment. President Eisenhower has well realized the degree to which science and technology enter into many questions of highest policy. In a pioneering step, he created the position of Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, which for more than two years has been held by men of the highest distinction. Yet, although their efforts have been immensely fruitful, much more is required. Even a combination of the best brains in our country from all fields of experience —scientific, business, religious, and ethical, as well as academic and political — is hardly equal to the task of mapping a wise and safe course through the tangle of mistrust and terror which has grown up in the postwar years. We must find a way through this thicket of charge and countercharge, in which reason and common sense can prevail in the end.

THE history of the efforts to prevent a runaway catastrophe in the use of atomic weapons begins in 1946 with the Acheson-Lilienthal report. It goes on to the Baruch proposals, later modified to be the United Nations proposal lor the control of atomic energy. When these measures failed, there was a quiescent period in which the Soviets acquired the atomic bomb, which was followed by the United States thermonuclear bomb, and again by the Soviet thermonuclear weapon.

In 1955, during the Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, I was asked to represent the United States in a discussion with the Soviet representative on the question of safeguards which might be devised, so that the spread of the peaceful uses of atomic energy would not be a danger to peace through the clandestine diversion of bomb material. Dr. Eugene P. Wigner and Dr. Walter H. Zinn were with me in this enterprise. The discussions hinged on a new agency to be formed, as suggested by President Eisenhower. This agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is now in existence, but the dangers to peace have not diminished to any great degree. Our meeting in 1955 ended in failure, as have many other such meetings. We had a majority in favor of our proposals, a fact which gave us a certain moral glow, tempered, however, by the sober thought that this majority was composed of the already convinced.

It is customary to lay the blame for most such failures in negotiating sessions on the Russians. And, indeed, I would be among the last to deprive them of their proper share of the blame, which is large. But we are not blameless. Although we cannot do much about reforming the Russians, we ought to be able to take steps to set our own house in order, for our policy is far from clear, even to ourselves.

Until recently, the initiative for new proposals to reduce the dangers to peace has come from the United States. Although few of the proposals had any effect, they did a great deal to enhance our prestige and moral position in the eyes of the world. Now, owing to confusion and lethargy, the leadership is being appropriated by the Soviets, a trend which should cause us grave concern.

Those of us who travel abroad and have the problem of representing the United States in one way or another are often taken aback at the degree and intensity of criticism which is directed both at our actions and at the statements of some of our political figures. No such intense criticism is directed at the Soviet Union for acts compared with which our own slips would seem to be minor. At first sight, the criticism which holds us to a stricter accounting seems unfair. However, if one probes more deeply, this attitude is quite natural.

We must understand that we occupy an entirely different position in the world from that of the Russians. Not only is the United States the leader of the Western world, but to an extent greater than we realize, the United States is the leader of the whole world. Beneath the scoffing, mocking, and hostility of the Communist world, there is nevertheless a deep respect. America is the ideal, not only materially but in most elements of existence which human beings share in common. If America were to disappear, there would be no embodiment of the Russian goal, no one to catch up with and surpass. For these reasons, when we fall short of the high standards which we and the world have set for us, the failure is felt very deeply. The elevated and rarefied moral atmosphere in which we are supposed to live may be a bit hard on us plain folks here at home, but it is the role which we have assumed and the role which we have to play.

If one can be certain of anything in the uncertain course of events in this decade, it is this: the moment the United States stops supplying leadership, the world as we know it will disintegrate and fragment into chaos, with no one but the Russians to pick up the pieces. We therefore have a moral obligation to be wise, in order to guide ourselves and others, and to be prosperous, so that we can spare from our own supplies to help others. We seem to have found a way to be prosperous, and now we ask ourselves, How can we cultivate wisdom in policy and action, especially in the field of atomic energy for war and peace, which is so central to all our problems?

As I review the fifteen years which have passed since the end of the war, I am forced to the conclusion that many of our difficulties stem from one fundamental distortion of our natural habit: the distortion caused by the exaggerated secrecy in the military field, and in the atomic field especially. All will agree that these fields are central to our problems of foreign and domestic policy, but one may well ask why I regard secrecy, which seems so necessary, as being at the same time so very damaging.

The answer lies in our history and our tradition. We are a pluralistic society dedicated to a distribution both of authority and responsibility. We have always been against concentration of power in Washington, whether in the hands of the President or lesser public officials. The pressure of events has compelled a greater and greater concentration of power, but it has been granted most grudgingly. To some, the weakness of our central government is a source of regret, but there is no doubt as to the general public feeling. Washington is and always has been suspect.

Although the Constitution vests control of foreign policy firmly in the hands of the President, in actual fact the President does not operate in a vacuum. He must share his responsibilities with the Senate and with the House of Representatives. Agencies of the government, in addition to the Department of State, are directly concerned; the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission are the most important. Beyond these, there are other agencies, but almost as important are the press — the daily, weekly, and monthly periodicals — television, and radio. Behind these are the opinion makers in the universities, in the labor unions, in large and small business, and, of newer importance, the scientists and experts of every variety.

Policy comes out as a harmony produced by all these interacting forces, each contributing after its own unique fashion. This has been the American tradition and practice. Now, what happens when secrecy intervenes? Pathetic and profound ignorance of the facts in their proper context does not prevent the policy makers outside of government from carrying on in the field of atomic energy as if all were clear to them. They gather a rumor here, a leak there, and off they go. Ignorant or learned, they take a stand, and public opinion is formed.

Our government cannot act strongly without ample support from public opinion. For wise action, an informed public opinion is necessary. When secrecy intervenes, an informed public opinion can hardly exist. Too often we have, instead, a manipulated public opinion formed by leaks, half-truths, innuendoes, and sometimes by outright distortion of the actual facts.

One would think that the policy makers within the various departments and agencies of government would be free of the disabilities which afflict the unanointed without. Not at all. Under the sensible doctrine that a secret shared by many is not secret at all, a person is admitted to a share of classified information under the rubric “need to know.” For years after the war, this doctrine was interpreted so as to keep information about atomic weapons from the military other than the highest officers, which often meant from the officers who did the actual planning. The difficulty of secrecy within the government is that, unless administered with the greatest wisdom, it furthers confusion, which comes from ignorance or partial knowledge, and often results in inaction or unwise acts. The farcical snafu of the U-2 incident with all its overtones of tragedy shows how great the costs of secrecy can be, even in the highest echelons of government.

We can now ask ourselves, What have we really gained from our exaggerated secrecy in the way of real security? Actually, very little. The Russians are not far behind us in atomic weapons, but our allies have been left way behind, after expending an enormous treasure in trying to rediscover facts and techniques already known to the Russians as well as to ourselves. The secrets of military technology must be as highly protected as any trade secrets, but only as long as they are real secrets. In most cases, this time is measured in years rather than in decades. Although most policy makers, amateur or professional, are not deeply interested in or capable of judging the technological situation, secrecy results in frustration, doubt, and timidity about the exercise of any independent judgment. The result has been that a number of less inhibited men of greater or lesser scientific or technical accomplishment, but with a low boiling point, have been gaining the public ear on the basis of prestige acquired through a technical accomplishment, quite limited in scope. Their policy statements are given weight on the basis ot skills not necessarily relevant to the dread subjects of war and peace, which they discuss with easy confidence. Were it not for the secrecy which hides the hard core of the matter, the intelligent public would be quite capable of judging the questions under discussion. The fear of being guilty of a judgment based on a partial knowledge of the facts misleads many judicious people into accepting judgments by others whose knowledge is often even more partial but which extends into the dread domain of the top-secret.

The questions which should concern the informed nontechnical general opinion are such questions as: How many weapons do we actually have? What are their means of delivery? What are the effects of these weapons? What is the composition of the stockpile in the range of yields and sizes? How much do they cost? Who controls them, and by what means are they controlled? What are claimed to be the further needs for nuclear and other weapons, and what is the justification? What do we know about the state of weapons in other countries?

The answer to every one of these questions falls under a high degree of classification. Some of them have this classification for very good reasons, and others merely from force of habit. One can nevertheless ask, How can the publisher, editor, commentator, or editorial writer of an important organ influential in informing and shaping public opinion carry on in an intelligent way without a fairly full knowledge of these and other facts?

Most of the fog which surrounds these matters serves only to confuse the American citizenry. Actually, a great deal of information concerning the general questions I have raised is in the public domain. The general budget of the Atomic Energy Commission is known, and the ambitious newspaperman can learn a great deal from it. The services in their rival claims do, in the end, tell a great deal about their military secrets, and the practiced eye can discern this information. In the same way, other important secrets do leak out, bit by bit. It is hard to believe that foreign governments, friendly or hostile, have not given these matters, as they appear in public documents, very close study; they therefore must possess fairly reliable estimates. Our press could do likewise, but the fact is that it has not availed itself of the wealth of material which already exists. The reason for these inhibitions can best be discovered by members of the fourth estate.

We have been engaged in tripartite negotiations with the Soviets and the United Kingdom on a test suspension coupled with a system of inspection. Clearly, this is a most delicate matter, perhaps best left to the wisdom of the President and his most trusted advisers who have access to full information. Nevertheless, it was not left to the President, and public debate, which impairs the freedom of action of the President, has been raging over the land. This would be the right thing if the debate were well informed. Unfortunately, when the debate is not well informed it becomes a conflict of pressure groups rather than a quest for clarity and wisdom.

To live at peace with the atom, we must find our way back to the fundamental principles on which this republic was founded. We must again become a nation of free men informed by a free press. Since the very beginning, we have been told that this is a dangerous doctrine. In about a century and three quarters of national existence, we have learned to live dangerously in a dynamic society. Totalitarian countries preserve their secrecy by regimenting their people, giving them neither freedom of travel, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, nor freedom of opinion. Some may envy their secrecy, but no one will envy their lives.

Our ancient freedoms also entail responsibilities and can be exercised successfully only by people who have learned how to handle freedom over a long period of time. We must not let this skill atrophy for want of use while pursuing the phantom of security through secrecy.