Stealing Secrets, Then and Now

Saturday, October 30, 1999

Leaks of information on the highly important topic of nuclear weapons have been discussed widely. Although I am not familiar with all the details, I can make a comparison with an important event half a century ago. At that time the most important information was leaked to the Soviet Union by, among others, Klaus Fuchs. This speeded up Soviet research maybe by three years, maybe by twenty years, but the importance of the event is not in question. I shall make two comparisons: one is to the events, the second is to our responses to the events.

Our wartime work at Los Alamos started novel technical developments like very high compression of materials. Our successes, including details on how they were accomplished, constituted important information for the Soviets. Their scientists worked under conditions in which failure was heavily punished. Therefore, they could not be adventurous except when they had information that would lead to probable success.

This situation is in sharp contrast to the present position of the Chinese scientists. They have had fifty years to consider the possibilities that we kept secret. It seems probable that the Chinese must have made discoveries that made the added knowledge from intelligence less important. I conclude, at this time, that Klaus Fuchs was more important than the Chinese spy at Los Alamos is apt to be today.

The reaction of President Harry Truman to the leaking of information is well known. He imposed no additional measures for security. Instead, we have clear knowledge that the disclosures by Fuchs caused Truman to call for accelerated work on all aspects of nuclear weapons. The result is clear. The United States kept ahead of the Soviet effort. This helped to exclude any advantages the Soviets could have obtained from threats or actions based on force. Actually, work on weapons during the Cold War did not put a particularly heavy burden on the American economy. At any rate, the Cold War had the distinction of not costing any lives. For this a lot of credit goes to the reasonable actions of President Truman.

At the present time there is as yet only one field in which Washington realizes that more research and development are needed. This is the field of missile defense. In my opinion, added research is needed in missile defense and in other fields connected with military developments. In the absence of such an effort we shall lose the advantage we now possess.

At present, the proposed remedy is more security, including exclusion of people from abroad. Let us remember that past military successes have been accomplished by remarkable people from abroad—for instance, Enrico Fermi. I claim that our continuing security is acquired by new knowledge rather than by conserving old knowledge.

That the situation gives some reason to worry is perfectly clear, but in my opinion the main reason for worry is that modern technology has made the world smaller and more interactive. Before World War II, Britain worried because the English Channel was not sufficient protection. Today, we worry because the Atlantic Ocean is no longer any more of a protection than the channel used to be.

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.