Jack Nickerson watched the papers burn. It was the afternoon of January 2, 1957, and an overnight cold snap had descended on northern Alabama, pushing daytime temperatures to near freezing. His neighbors would think nothing of the smoke wafting from the chimney of the large antebellum colonial he shared with his wife and four children. There weren’t all that many neighbors anyway. The house sat on an isolated corner of Redstone Arsenal, a sprawling Army base in Huntsville. A reservoir surrounded it on three sides.
Nickerson, a colonel, had good reason to avoid attention. For the past three hours, he had scoured his office and home for copies of the documents that now sat stacked next to the fireplace, growing shorter by the minute. The word “SECRET” crumpled and blackened before being consumed by the flames.
Two weeks earlier, a journalist—employed by one of the country’s premier muckrakers—had turned up at the Pentagon asking questions. The journalist had with him a document—received from an anonymous source—that outlined some of the latest classified developments in the American ballistic-missile program. U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had been briefed on the leak. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a retired Army general, had taken a personal interest in the case. On New Year’s Day, the Army had dispatched its inspector general, Lieutenant General David Ogden, to Huntsville to ferret out the source of the leak.
And on January 2, before taking up his station by the fireplace, Nickerson had spent the morning in an interrogation room lying to Ogden. At 41, Nickerson had the owlish and benign look of a small-town schoolteacher—tall and lanky with round tinted eyeglasses and a gently receding hairline. When Ogden passed him the leaked document, Nickerson hesitated, then prevaricated.
“It may well have been transmitted to the enemy,” Ogden told him. “Whoever wrote it might find himself charged with espionage.”
Nickerson was befuddled: “How could that possibly be true?”
“You will find out,” Ogden said. Ogden had other interrogations scheduled, and Nickerson agreed to report back at 3 o’clock that afternoon.
Three o’clock came and went. Nickerson didn’t show. Casual passersby never ambled down the Nickerson family’s rustic road. In one direction, it dead-ended at the arsenal’s bombing range, and in the other, it ran into the reservoir, where a military-police boat patrol was stationed. So Nickerson knew what to expect when he heard unannounced visitors at his door. An M.P. burst into the house and put him under arrest. An Army investigator took note of the still-warm ashes in the fireplace.
Over the past seven years, the Obama administration has prosecuted twice as many leakers as all previous administrations combined. The accused have worked at the CIA, the National Security Agency, the FBI, and in the military. Their disclosures have ranged from discrete details about an intelligence operation in Yemen to Edward Snowden’s massive revelations about secret surveillance programs. Dennis C. Blair, Barack Obama’s former director of national intelligence, explained the crackdown to The New York Times: “My background is in the Navy, and it is good to hang an admiral once in a while as an example to the others. We were hoping to get somebody and make people realize that there are consequences to this and it needed to stop.” This “war on leaks” is likely to prove one of the Obama presidency’s more contentious legacies.
For all the recent public discussion of the war on leaks, absent from the discourse is the largely forgotten story of the first leak prosecution—United States v. John C. Nickerson Jr. The case—predating the Pentagon Papers trial by more than 15 years—turned Nickerson into a national hero. Newspaper readers were riveted by his story—a story replete with Cold War intrigue and a cast of characters that included former Nazi rocket scientists, a widely read syndicated columnist, top military officials, and a nationally renowned defense attorney. “There are occasions when in a single human drama all the conflicts of an era are concentrated,” wrote a columnist for The Washington Post and Times-Herald in 1957. “The Nickerson trial seems likely to be one of those.”
But the case did more than capture the spirit of the times. It also exposed carefully guarded government secrets. The more attention Nickerson received, the more Americans learned about those secrets. Much of the debate over the current war on leaks revolves around its chilling effect on journalism and the leakers themselves, who are alternately hailed as martyrs and denounced as common criminals. The Nickerson case, though, points to another question: Is it in the government’s interest to prosecute leakers? Or are less severe—and less public—forms of punishment a more effective way to discourage secret-telling without further compromising government secrecy?
Before the Army took up residence there, Huntsville was a sleepy cotton town nestled amid the karst of the Tennessee River Valley. The town had long self-identified as the “Watercress Capital of the World.” World War II replaced the rural charm with a chemical-ordnance facility. After the war, it became Redstone Arsenal, home to the Army’s fledgling missile-development team. The Watercress Capital of the World rebranded itself as “Rocket City, U.S.A.”
In 1950, 120 strange men appeared in Huntsville. They came from Fort Bliss in Texas. But before that, they had come from Peenemünde, on Germany’s Baltic coast, where they had designed and built the Nazi V-2 rocket that had terrorized London. Captured by American soldiers, they were subjected to a kind of mutually beneficial penance: building a new model of the V-2 for their onetime enemy.
To make the Germans’ presence more palatable—and their presence was hard to hide in a Southern town of 15,000—intelligence agencies had obscured their Nazi backgrounds. These were, the official story went, apolitical scientists with no interest in fascism or knowledge of Nazi atrocities. In reality, deeply alarming episodes marked the pasts of some of the German scientists—including the use of forced labor conscripted from concentration camps at the Nazi’s torturous underground missile factory near Buchenwald. The program that brought these men to the United States was known as “Operation Paperclip,” a codename befitting the official portrait of the scientists as oblivious eggheads. As one commander at Redstone put it, “We called them ‘first-generation Americans’ or ‘former German scientists who are now American citizens.’”
The scientists’ likable leader made it easy for the euphemisms to stick. Wernher von Braun was handsome and gregarious, not at all like the twitchy title character he would inspire in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. His sociability smoothed the way for the German scientists, and Huntsville—grateful for the economic boost that Redstone brought the town—welcomed its “first-generation Americans,” even establishing an annual celebration to commemorate the date of their mass naturalization: “New Citizens Day.” The Germans quickly settled into rural Alabama despite the bizarre circumstances. They had, after all, avoided postwar fates that could have been much worse.
One of Redstone’s core projects was the development of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, a class of missile that could travel more than 3,000 miles at speeds of up to 16,000 miles per hour. An IRBM had the potential to give the United States the lead in the two “races” that animated the early years of the Cold War: the space race and the nuclear-arms race. Within seven minutes of launch from the English countryside, a plutonium-tipped IRBM could send a mushroom cloud billowing into the slate skies over Moscow. But launch-pad operators could also aim it upward, at a point beyond the atmosphere, with a satellite in place of the warhead. Both uses interested U.S. military brass and civilian policy makers. They also raised a divisive question: Which branch of the military ought to control the project?
For the nuclear-missile program, the question was one of military strategy. Was air superiority the future of warfare? The Air Force believed so. Or would traditional ground combat decide the next war, with missiles serving the support role that heavy artillery had in the past? So said the Army.
In November 1955, the Pentagon split the difference and approved two competing nuclear-missile programs. The idea was that, down the road, defense officials would keep the one they wanted and cut the other. The Air Force would develop the Thor rocket, and the Army, in conjunction with the Navy, would develop the Jupiter rocket. The Army was confident Jupiter would triumph: Its development was in the hands of the same German scientists who had designed and built the V-2, and Nazi rocketry had been years ahead of every other country. The Air Force, on the other hand, was relying on a far-flung network of contractors with a paucity of missile experience.
The Pentagon’s thinking about the satellite program followed a separate track. From early on, von Braun had wanted to launch a satellite into space atop a ballistic missile. Although his day job had long entailed designing instruments of death, his chief interest was space. (During his time at Fort Bliss, he even wrote a science-fiction novel about space travel, Mars Project. Despite significant effort, he never did find a publisher.) But his enthusiasm dissolved in December 1955, when a Defense Department committee tasked the Navy with putting a satellite in orbit. Army-Navy collaboration in the nuclear-missile program didn’t guarantee collaboration in the satellite program. Von Braun was incredulous. The Army team had all the right knowledge and experience. What’s more, they already had a proven rocket—the Jupiter’s predecessor—that they planned to retrofit to carry a satellite. The Navy’s satellite-launch vehicle was just an idea. Even the engineer who presented the Navy proposal was surprised. “I thought they’d win, too,” he said afterward. “They had a rocket, and we didn’t.” But the Army rocket was modeled on the V-2, and the committee felt that the naval missile was a more “scientific” choice with “more dignity.” It lacked a history of military use—and, one might add, Nazi fingerprints.
Von Braun didn’t give up. He established a sideline at Redstone, quietly developing a satellite-launch vehicle that could, if Pentagon auditors decided to take a close look, masquerade as a nuclear missile.
Amid all this wrangling, in 1956, a new commanding officer arrived in Huntsville: a fastidious brigadier general named John Bruce Medaris. He wore a well-groomed mustache, kept his hair immaculately Brilliantined, and carried a swagger stick, a short cane whose Roman origins lay in its dual use as a drill baton and an instrument of corporal punishment. He also had his car equipped with a police siren so he could pull over reckless drivers on base. Under Medaris’s supervision, von Braun continued to lead the research team, but it was reorganized into the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, or ABMA.
Over time, von Braun began referring to Medaris as one of the three most important men in the U.S. missile program. Von Braun, who was not especially modest, included himself in that triumvirate. The third man was Jack Nickerson.
A graduate of West Point, Nickerson had spent more of his life in the Army than not. He had distinguished himself during the Battle of the Bulge, winning a chestful of commendations and awards. Oddly, he could credit von Braun with his interest in rocketry. While stationed near Cologne, he’d found himself mesmerized by “a very peculiar thing”—what “looked like flares” rising silently out of the German forest. These were V-2 launches, a source of perplexity even to Nickerson—an artillery officer—because the Allies had no comparable weapon.
Nickerson had been a Washington-based ordnance officer in 1955 when von Braun presented the Army’s satellite proposal. He helped make the presentation and encouraged von Braun to continue working on the project in secret after the Pentagon turned it down. Afterward, Nickerson became the ABMA’s liaison to the Defense Department, translating engineering developments into language Pentagon policy makers could understand. He and his colleagues tended to describe his work in metaphor: Medaris’s “secretary of state,” the “quarterback,” the man assigned to “grease the skids of the Defense Department,” and the ABMA’s “vice president of the corporation in charge of sales.”
That last nickname may have been a jab at Charles Wilson, the U.S. defense secretary. Wilson had been the head of General Motors when Eisenhower selected him for the post, and his tenure at the Pentagon was haunted, from the outset, by the public perception that his corporate past compromised his work as secretary. During committee hearings on his nomination, a senator reported that, when asked whether he could act against GM’s interests, Wilson responded, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” (It turned out to be a misquote, but it stuck.)
Selling the ABMA’s accomplishments to the Defense Department was no easy task. On the morning of September 20, 1956, von Braun’s team successfully launched the first American missile to travel IRBM distances—a direct descendent of the V-2 and the immediate predecessor of the nascent Jupiter. Yet mysteriously, Army officials declined to publicize the achievement. In fact, they refused to declassify it. Only later did von Braun’s team learn that these orders came from someone ranked higher than the secretary of the Army.
It became clear who that someone was on November 26. Two months after the successful launch, Wilson issued a memorandum stripping the Army of authorization to deploy or use IRBMs. The defense secretary noted that work on Jupiter could continue, but it would now be entirely under the authority of the Air Force. Wilson had not chosen between Jupiter and Thor, but by turning the project over to the Army’s competitor, he might as well have.
The secretary of the Army had rushed the September launch in the hopes of proving that the Army missile program was far ahead of the Air Force program. But the growing strategic emphasis on air superiority won out. Or, according to another, more cynical interpretation held by many in the Army, Wilson—the former corporate executive—had favored the Air Force’s contractor-centered missile program, which included GM contracts.
At the height of the Cold War, this kind of bureaucratic rivalry was national news. The Soviet Union had just invaded Hungary and was violently suppressing an anticommunist uprising there, and a recently reelected Eisenhower was dealing with the Suez Crisis. The New York Times printed the “Wilson Memorandum” verbatim in late 1956.
Von Braun called Wilson’s decision to take IRBMs out of the Army’s portfolio a “terrific blow to our team,” which was left to wonder whether it would be absorbed into the Air Force or disbanded altogether. One of von Braun’s deputies conceived of Wilson’s directive in the Götterdämmerung imagery virtually mandated by the codenames Thor and Jupiter: “A lightning bolt struck out of that thundercloud that had been hanging dark and heavy over Redstone Arsenal.” Morale, he noted, with an engineer’s precision, “dived down, I would say almost vertically.” It didn’t help that, just after Wilson issued his directive, an Air Force spokesperson told Missiles & Rockets—a trade magazine widely read in military circles—“It will be better for the country if the ABMA team were broken up and the individuals filtered out into industry and other organizations.”
At Redstone, Medaris worked to raise his team’s spirits. Jupiter would be a tough sell to the Air Force, which would naturally favor its own missile, Thor. All his team could do, he said, was to hope for an Air Force decision that prioritized merit over partisanship. Nickerson found Medaris’s reaction too timid: He favored the tactics of the lobbyist over the restraint of military discipline. As he’d come up through the ranks, Nickerson’s superiors had detected a growing strain of impulsiveness in him. “Requires some supervision to avoid independent action not always consistent with desires expressed by higher echelons,” one superior had written in a 1949 evaluation. Another, four years later, wrote, “He is impatient of actions which impede his efforts.”
Persistent rumors that the Russians were about to launch a satellite of their own surely served only to aggravate Nickerson’s impulsive tendencies. Then came the Wilson Memorandum. Nickerson had worked tirelessly to nurture the Army’s missile program, and Wilson had all but killed it. So Nickerson formulated a plan.
Meanwhile, in the city of Huntsville, the townspeople—enraged by the impending loss of the rocket project—took to Courthouse Square and burned Wilson in effigy.
The headquarters of the syndicated “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column was in a yellow-brick federalist-style townhouse on 29th Street in Georgetown. The D.C. neighborhood—long a hub for the rich and powerful of the American political establishment—was a fitting home for the daily must-read. Its founder, 59-year-old Drew Pearson, was the consummate political insider and a muckraker nonpareil. Midwestern housewives and Cabinet secretaries alike read his column, and each edition began with the near-sibylline line, “Drew Pearson Says.”
One day in mid-December 1956, in one of the townhouse’s five offices, Jack Anderson received a hand-delivered envelope. Pearson had left on a tour of U.S. military bases, and Anderson had been tasked with keeping the “Merry-Go-Round” moving. A handsome 34-year-old former Mormon missionary, Anderson was one of the four “legmen,” or reporters, who helped Pearson gather political tattle. Pearson liked to remind the legmen that the rooms in which they scribbled in steno pads and worked the phones had once been slave quarters.
The envelope Anderson held bore the emblem of the capital city’s storied Willard Hotel. On the flap, its sender had written enigmatically, “This may be of some use.” Inside, Anderson found two documents. One was the now-familiar Wilson Memorandum. The second was an unsigned response to the first. Its cover sheet read, in block letters, “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum.”
The response argument relied on what Anderson—a seasoned reader of classified documents—recognized as secret information: upcoming missile-launch dates, details of the Army’s successful but classified September 1956 launch, specifications of missiles still under development, and the author’s conclusion that the Army could put a satellite into space now but was stuck “awaiting Defense Department permission to fire.” But what piqued Anderson’s muckraking interest most of all was what it said about the real motivation behind Wilson’s decision. The author highlighted two companies with lucrative contracts linked to the Air Force’s Thor project—a subdivision of GM, Wilson’s old company, and Bell Telephone Companies, where the Air Force secretary had been a high-level executive. The document was, Anderson would soon write in the ham-handed prose of the daily journalist, “packed with as much explosive power as is packed in the warhead of a ballistic missile.”
Anderson remembered a call the secretary had mentioned to him a couple days earlier. A man had telephoned the yellow-brick townhouse asking for Pearson. The secretary had told the man to call back in five minutes. Before hanging up, the caller had mentioned that he was an officer in the Army and wanted to discuss the ballistic-missile program. He hadn’t called back.
While the document sat on Anderson’s desk in Georgetown, another packet of materials made its way across Washington to McPherson Square and landed on the desk of Erik Bergaust, the managing editor of Missiles & Rockets. The packet contained a letter and three documents, all stamped “SECRET.” One was an evaluation of the still-classified rocket launch in September 1956. The other two contained granular technical information about that rocket.
The letter asked Bergaust to copy the documents and return them immediately, “inasmuch as they are all three Registered Secret documents.” Where Anderson was comfortable with classified information, Bergaust was more skittish. He hid the packet in what passed for a secure place—under a sofa cushion in the Missiles & Rockets office. The following day, he mailed it to the return address. Hours later, another packet arrived. This one contained a slightly expanded version of the document Anderson had received, as well as three internal policy memoranda that lay behind Wilson’s decision. These were not marked classified, and Bergaust hung on to them.
In the meantime, Anderson had a prearranged interview at the Pentagon with the Air Force’s chief press officer, Brigadier General Andrew Kinney, and he saw a chance to extract a response to the document he’d received just days earlier. On his way out of the interview, Anderson handed Kinney “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum” to peruse. “Why don’t you read that?” Anderson said. “You will find it very interesting.” After Anderson left, Kinney glanced at the document and was taken aback by the combination of classified information and the bald accusations against his bosses, to whom he immediately brought the document. Clearly, it was the work of an insider.
Outraged, Wilson sent Ogden, the Army inspector general, to run down the source. Within the Defense Department, the leak was such an urgent matter that the Army chief of staff, who had been ill, was roused from his hospital bed. The next week, Anderson came back to the Pentagon to retrieve “Considerations” from Kinney. Wilson didn’t want Kinney to return it, of course, but he worried that the “Merry-Go-Round” would accuse him of suppressing the document, not for reasons of national security but to avoid embarrassment: “Considerations” was not marked classified after all; it was a rebuttal, and many of its most damning accusations did not rely on classified information. Wilson’s solution was simple, if craven: He classified the document. Now he could argue—to a 1950s public and press corps largely deferential to government on matters of national security—that his hands were tied. So he sent Anderson’s document to Defense Department censors. When it came back, each page read: “SECRET.”
Ogden and a deputy arrived in Huntsville on New Year’s Day 1957. It was an inauspicious start to what, in the wake of Wilson’s directive, was shaping up to be a very bad year for the ABMA. The level of detail in “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum” and its pro-Army slant had led investigators to Redstone Arsenal, and upon landing, Ogden had his sights on Medaris—the commanding officer of the ABMA—as the prime suspect.
But the traces left by technology—ever more often the downfall of the leaker today—shifted Ogden’s focus within a day of his arrival. FBI analysis indicated that “Considerations” had been typed on a kind of typewriter found only in high-level Army officials’ offices. Ogden found impressions from the document on the ribbon of an IBM typewriter in von Braun’s office. A round of questioning revealed that this was not likely the former German scientist’s subterfuge but a case of neighborly borrowing. “Colonel Nickerson liked to do documents of that sort on an IBM Executive-type typewriter,” Nickerson’s secretary told investigators. “It made a prettier-type paper, and it is easier to read.” But Nickerson didn’t have an IBM Executive, and von Braun’s office was just down the hall.
So, when Ogden sat down across from Nickerson just before noon on January 2, he had ample incriminating evidence. And when Nickerson went home to burn papers—copies of his “Considerations” and source documents he’d drawn on when preparing it—a parade of his colleagues passed through Ogden’s interrogation room. Threatened with collective punishment, each one first played dumb, then caved, and then eagerly pointed fingers at one another and, above all, at Nickerson. Over three days of interviews and searches, Ogden and his deputy came to realize—as they pieced the story together—that what they had thought was a discrete leak to the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” was actually a wide-ranging campaign.
Nickerson had begun to draft “Considerations” toward the end of November 1956, just after the Pentagon had issued the Wilson Memorandum. Over 12 typed pages, Nickerson argued that the Army was best positioned to develop an IRBM. To give the missile program to the Air Force was to delay missile development at a crucial juncture in the Cold War. The text accused Wilson—as well as the secretary of the Air Force and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff—of taking an anti-Army stance not on the basis of merit but on the basis of their own narrow political interests. Nickerson then asked a friend—another Army colonel, with strong ties to the Pentagon—to secretly send him copies of the classified documents on which Wilson had based his decision. In Huntsville, Nickerson had them retyped, thinking leak recipients would sooner use the documents if they weren’t marked “classified.”
Nickerson next set about enlisting his staff’s help to get “Considerations” to its intended audience. Although Nickerson’s subordinates feigned ignorance when Ogden first approached them, many had been actively involved in getting Nickerson’s paper and supporting documents to journalists and other influential people. In early December, Nickerson had called them together in front of a blackboard and written: “congressmen,” “industry,” “newspapermen,” and “friends of the president.” In the manner of a pyramid schemer, he asked who had connections to these types of people. “Objective—Influence President,” Nickerson had written in his notebook.
Nickerson’s aide, Lieutenant Colonel Lee James, had suggested a “newspaperman”—the ubiquitous journalist Drew Pearson. James had an upcoming trip to Washington for briefings at the Pentagon, so Nickerson gave him four copies of “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum” and an extra day in the capital to reach out to Pearson. James didn’t want to meet the columnist in person and reveal his identity to a journalist he had no reason to believe he could trust. So he called the “Merry-Go-Round” townhouse from a phone booth. The “Merry-Go-Round” secretary asked him to call back in five minutes. James had a better idea. He got an envelope from the concierge at his hotel, the Willard, inserted Nickerson’s paper, addressed it to Pearson, stamped it, jotted a note on the flap—“This may be of some use”—and mailed it. To calm his nerves—a forerunner of the Lee Harvey Oswald method—he went to the movies until it was time to catch his flight back to Huntsville.
Nickerson personally executed other aspects of his plan. On December 10, he met with three members of the Alabama congressional delegation in the dining room of a Huntsville hotel after a local Kiwanis chapter meeting. Each got a copy of “Considerations,” the attachments from Nickerson’s friend at the Pentagon—sans classification markings—and an hour-long lecture about the ABMA’s technical superiority, the Air Force’s shortcomings, and the corporatism behind Wilson’s decision.
A week after that, Nickerson dictated a letter to Bergaust. Nickerson had met the editor and hoped he would use the secret documents about the successful September 1956 launch to promote the ABMA’s satellite capability in Missiles & Rockets. To avoid detection, he had a civilian employee mail the documents from the Huntsville post office rather than from Redstone’s. In his notebook, Nickerson wrote about the documents he sent to Bergaust: “Not through channels”—an admission he was operating outside Army procedure.
After several days of Ogden’s interrogations, Nickerson confessed to being the “ringleader” of the leak campaign against the Wilson Memorandum. But he insisted his motives were virtuous. “This was all done with the idea of supporting the Army missile program,” he told Ogden.
The leak investigation had succeeded: Army officials knew who had done what. Now they had to decide what to do about it.
It was not a foregone conclusion that Nickerson would be charged with anything, let alone under the Espionage Act. Today, that statute—which criminalizes gathering, possessing, or communicating classified information—is a regular feature of leak prosecutions. But in 1957, government lawyers had never used it to bring charges against a leaker. On the occasions they had come close, investigators thought they were dealing with something more like a spy case. In one incident in the 1940s, prosecutors pursued—but did not ultimately bring—Espionage Act charges against officials who had leaked classified documents to Amerasia, a far-left magazine that Time magazine described as seeking “to advance the cause of Communism in Asia.”
Along with his two designated military defense attorneys, Nickerson retained two civilian lawyers, Ray Jenkins and Robert K. Bell. Jenkins was a large-featured, crew-cut man from Tennessee who had risen to national prominence as special Senate counsel for the widely televised Senate Army-McCarthy hearings; Bell, on the other hand, was a likeable local attorney from Huntsville. For weeks, Nickerson and his defense team held out hope that the military court would issue “nonjudicial punishments”—fines, short-term house arrest, and other administrative sanctions. That had been the trend so far: As Gabriel Schoenfeld, the national-security policy expert, writes in Necessary Secrets, “Leakers themselves were not treated with particular harshness; the usual penalty, if there was a penalty at all, was forfeiting one’s official position and suffering some measure of disgrace in the public eye.”
But on January 28, Army officials filed two charges against Nickerson. The first accused him of violating 15 Army security regulations. The second charge fell under a part of the military code that allows prosecutors to charge defendants with civilian crimes. This was what Nickerson had feared. The charge accused Nickerson of violating the Espionage Act (as well as lying to the inspector general).
For Nickerson, his case could not have come at a worse time: The federal government was already planning a tougher stance against leaks. Less than a month before Nickerson began his leak campaign, Wilson had received a report from the Defense Department Committee on Classified Information—the “Coolidge Committee”—noting that instances of “unauthorized disclosure” were on the rise. In most cases, the report said, the leaker was “motivated by a desire to further the interests of a particular Service,” often in the context of interservice rivalries over the missile program. It was the very definition of Nickerson’s offense. The committee’s prescription was severe: “It seems to us that in the past, disciplinary action has often been too lenient and too slow. We think that, however high the motives of the individual may seem to himself, he is guilty of a serious offense and should be dealt with accordingly.”
It didn’t help, of course, that Nickerson had directly challenged and attacked Wilson. Moreover, according to an FBI file, Wilson’s boss, Eisenhower, was “personally interested” in the leak to Bergaust, adding, “there would be grave consequences if this material was published.”
Even the Army itself stood against Nickerson. There were reports that Wilson was losing confidence in both the secretary and chief of staff of the Army, and officials felt they needed to come down hard on Nickerson. An Alabama senator who had championed Nickerson’s cause wrote to one of Nickerson’s attorneys, “I think one of our greatest handicaps lies in the fact that the Army feels it necessary to lean over backwards in order to convince the Defense Department of its good faith.”
Nickerson refused to believe the espionage accusation was more than a bluff. “I, therefore, do not expect more than a five hundred dollar fine,” he wrote to an acquaintance on March 28. In the meantime, press interest intensified. The media coverage kept the secrets Nickerson had leaked in the public eye. Pearson and Anderson extracted another copy of “Considerations on the Wilson Memorandum” from the porous halls of Capitol Hill, and they began to publish it in the “Merry-Go-Round.” The Washington correspondent for the Newark Evening News did the same. National newspapers used the word “martyr” to describe Nickerson. The Washington Post wondered if “secrecy is not being imposed after the fact in this case in order to muzzle dissent.” Though the Army had intended to clamp down on the leak, by pressing criminal charges, it only brought more attention to Nickerson, his claims, and the classified information he had disclosed.
On the morning of June 25, 1957, a small German car pulled up outside the two-story, white-shingled Army dormitory in Huntsville that served as the courthouse for United States v. John C. Nickerson Jr. Wearing his colonel’s uniform, Nickerson emerged from the car and strode toward the building. Then he did it again. There were 75 credentialed reporters watching his arrival (Anderson was among them), and the photographers needed to get the shot right.
The jury comprised five generals and five colonels. A law officer served as a judge. Following some formalities, the military prosecutor announced to the courtroom’s surprise that the government was dropping the Espionage Act charge (and the charges of lying to the inspector general). The Espionage Act charge—more so than the lesser security-regulation charges—would require the introduction of a substantial volume of classified evidence. To prosecute Nickerson for compromising government secrecy was to risk further compromising government secrecy. That risk, in the prosecution’s calculus, was greater than the benefit of an Espionage Act conviction.
Asked how their client pleaded to the remaining charges of mishandling classified information, Nickerson’s attorneys requested a recess—“in view of the turn of events.” Wire-service reporters skittered to telephones. But Nickerson’s wife—in a pink cotton-knit dress and pink straw hat—sat impassively next to two of her children. They knew what the reporters didn’t: The dramatic pause in proceedings was as choreographed as Nickerson’s second stroll from the car. The colonel had signed a plea agreement three days earlier. But the break gave him the opportunity to take a public jab at the prosecution. “I always hoped they would drop those charges,” Nickerson told reporters. “I felt somewhat bitter that they didn’t before.”
Fifteen minutes later, Bell told the court martial—in what a Baltimore Sun reporter described as “softer, slurred Alabama tones” to distinguish his manner of speech from Jenkins’s “heavy mountain accent”—that his client pleaded guilty to the remaining charges. To the Associated Press, this was a “surprise plea.” To The New York Times, the dropped charges and plea were a “double surprise.” The dramatic pause had achieved its desired effect. The Sun reporter added a theatrical flourish: Nickerson’s wife, he observed, teared-up as her husband affirmed his plea.
But that was only the first act. The verdict sheet before the court martial outlined a number of possible fates: dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all pay, steep fines, even hard labor. Under the military justice system, the defense could call witnesses to demonstrate that Nickerson deserved leniency. Over the next four days, old friends and colleagues testified about Nickerson’s World War II heroics. Von Braun and one of his deputies credited Nickerson with securing the Jupiter project, criticized Army overclassification, and downplayed the sensitivity of what Nickerson had disclosed.
On the third day of testimony, June 27, Nickerson took the stand “with a quick tight smile for his attractive wife,” according to an AP reporter. His voluble style quickly took over as he accused Pentagon officials of favoring the contractor-heavy Air Force because they were “looking for good jobs” and “high salaries” in private industry after leaving the armed services. When a prosecutor asked, about Wilson, “You had thought that you were right and he was wrong—is that not true?” Nickerson answered curtly, “I know that he is wrong.” Nickerson’s testimony seemed like an extension of his leak campaign. After all, he had the ears of five generals—not to mention 75 reporters—and they were not without influence in the Pentagon.
On the fourth day, as the press corps was wrapping up its coverage, another unexpected turn of events stopped them. In a court martial, unlike in civilian trials, the jury has the power to call witnesses, and the 10-officer panel felt it was “essential” that the court hear from Nickerson’s commanding officer. The news was not welcome to the defense. Nickerson and Medaris had been close, spending hours together daily in strategy meetings, and Medaris had delegated a great deal of discretion to his “secretary of state,” whom he fondly called “Nick.” But the relationship had soured when the inspector general came to town.
Medaris arrived at the white-frame court-martial building the next day with his mustache neatly cropped and his swagger stick in hand. Over the course of an hour, he testified that he had tried and failed to control Nickerson’s impulsive tendencies. “I question today whether his judgment can be tempered,” he added. Then came the blow Nickerson had been afraid of: “It is my opinion that Colonel Nickerson has violated the fundamental military code, and I don’t think he has any future potential value to the service.” The United Press labeled Medaris’s testimony the “dramatic climax.”
Nickerson’s jury retired at 2:11 that afternoon and returned 40 minutes later. The 10 officers delivered their sentence: Nickerson was to be suspended from rank (to remain in the Army but lose the authority of a colonel) for one year, give up $100 per month for 15 months, and receive a formal reprimand. A single black line on the verdict sheet ran through each of the worse fates Nickerson had avoided—“dismissed,” “hard labor,” and “forfeit all pay and allowance.” Nickerson stood and saluted his jury.
A few months later, on the evening of October 4, 1957, during a dinner at Redstone Arsenal in honor of the incoming secretary of defense, Neil McElroy, von Braun received a phone call. On the line a New York Times reporter asked von Braun, cryptically, “Well, what do you think of it?”
“Think of what?” von Braun asked.
“The Russian satellite, the one they just orbited.”
As van Braun later told Time, he returned to the dinner and broke the news of the Sputnik launch to McElroy. “Sir,” he said, “when you get back to Washington, you’ll find that all hell has broken loose. I wish you would keep one thought in mind through all the noise and confusion: We can fire a satellite into orbit 60 days from the moment you give us the green light.” Medaris modified the promise: “90 days.”
What followed made Nickerson look like a Cold War Cassandra. The Navy’s satellite-launch vehicle was late and far over budget. On December 6, 1957, its first attempted satellite launch failed spectacularly—and on national television no less—exploding on the launch pad. Newspapers labeled the rocket “Flopnik,” “Stayputnik,” and “Kaputnik.” McElroy ordered the ABMA to reenter the satellite program it had lost to the Navy in 1955.
Meanwhile, Pearson’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round” elaborated on what Nickerson had leaked: The Army had “six satellites in a warehouse in Huntsville, Ala., all ready to launch. They could have been launched before the Sputnik, thus keeping the U.S.A. ahead of the USSR and preventing one of the greatest psychological defeats the United States ever suffered.”
In October 1957, McElroy formally decided to proceed with Jupiter. On January 31, 1958, just three months later, von Braun’s team launched Explorer I, the first American satellite put into orbit. The team launched it on the back of a rocket that was almost exactly like the one launched in September 1956 that had been kept classified. In fact, it had been ready to fire at the time of the 1956 launch. Plaudits for Nickerson poured in. A retired Army general wrote in a letter that Explorer’s success was “due to Nickerson and those associated with him in insisting on not fully complying with Secretary Wilson’s throttling instructions.” Newspapers praised his foresight. The New York Times wrote, “Not the least of those were responsible for the successful launching of the Explorer is Col. John C. Nickerson.”
In Huntsville, for the second time in two years, the townspeople burned an effigy of Wilson in Courthouse Square. “I am confident they would have burned him in person had he been there,” Bell wrote to Nickerson.
The colonel witnessed none of this firsthand. Within a month of his court martial, the Army had reassigned Nickerson to an Army base in the Panama Canal Zone, where he was to be a glorified maintenance man. “Like a policeman sent to a beat in the sticks,” The New York Times wrote.
But, even from his remote outpost, he was satisfied by what he saw as vindication. And it wasn’t just the satellite program. No lesser a figure than the president adopted Nickerson’s position on the nuclear-missile program. Even before Sputnik’s launch, Eisenhower—surely leaning on his military bona fides—had overruled the Wilson Memorandum, noting “the unwisdom of taking a rigid view of missiles ranges and roles and missions of services,” as well as the “real morale problem” the memo had wrought. In the “Merry-Go-Round,” Pearson called it a “sensational victory” for Nickerson. McElroy announced that he planned to begin deploying IRBMs, including Jupiter missiles, to emplacements in Western Europe by the end of the year.
Many of today’s leak cases reaffirm the forgotten lesson of Nickerson’s trial: Prosecution is a far from optimal tool to discourage leaking and protect government secrets. Take the case of Thomas Drake, an NSA official indicted in 2010 for leaking information to a Baltimore Sun reporter. Like Nickerson, Drake was charged under the Espionage Act. But the case against him collapsed—resulting, as it did for Nickerson, in a lenient plea bargain. As Politico reported at the time, “Drake’s last-minute plea deal came after prosecutors notified [the judge] on Sunday that, in order to avoid public mention of a particular technology at trial, they planned to drop four exhibits.”
The highest-profile prosecutions have also kept public attention trained on the leaked information. Last year, the former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was convicted under the Espionage Act for telling The New York Times’ James Risen about a botched effort to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. The classified episode, which appeared in Risen’s 2006 book, State of War, might have faded from public memory if it hadn’t been for the trial. Instead, it resurfaced again and again in media accounts during the four years between Sterling’s indictment and his conviction.
Then there’s the inevitable hagiography. Shortly after Nickerson’s court martial, Jack Anderson noted, “Equally dedicated but more cautious officers are still smuggling the Army’s arguments to outside sources.” Growing public esteem for Nickerson’s actions—and the outcome of his case, viewed largely as a victory for the colonel—surely emboldened them. Meanwhile, leakers like Drake, Sterling, Snowden, and Chelsea Manning have been cast as heroes or martyrs, much as Nickerson was in his day.
The government has other, less dramatic—and less overtly public—ways to punish and deter leakers. In a Harvard Law Review article (for which I was a research assistant), the Columbia professor David Pozen describes some of those other means: firing leakers, revoking their security clearances, internally shunning them, and so on. That’s what happened to the Army colonel who passed Nickerson the classified background material on the Wilson Memorandum. Within two weeks of Nickerson’s arrest, the colonel was relieved of duty. Military police disburdened him of his Pentagon credentials, all classified documents, and his parking pass. His punishment required no public acknowledgment. It risked no further disclosure. It attracted no hero worship. It garnered no press coverage. Yet, though some may have been inspired by Nickerson, others were surely deterred by his accomplice’s fate. Even when it’s not in the papers, news—especially about a colleague’s misfortunes—travels fast within bureaucracies.
In the end, Nickerson’s prosecutors were left to wonder whether, in criminal prosecution, they had picked the right path. Over half a century later, as the government and the public evaluate today’s “war on leaks,” the question lingers.