Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 937:
SECRECY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 937.

Today, we let freedom trickle through our fingers. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I first heard Glenn Seaborg talk at the University of Washington in 1952. He'd won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry the year before. He was only 40. A few years later, when I studied at Berkeley, he was the chancellor there.

All the while his team discovered new elements -- berkelium, californium, americium. He worked his way through the American atlas and then through the gallery of scientific history -- einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, and (why not!) nobelium.

In 1961, JFK named Seaborg head of the Atomic Energy Commission -- the AEC. He served for 10 years. Now, just past his 82nd birthday, he tells a chilling tale: He'd kept a diary since his teens. When he left the AEC, he asked security people to clear the relevant parts. They went through it, deleted an item or two, and said, "Take it with you." Since it wasn't classified, they gave no written clearance. Seaborg made one copy.

In 1983, the AEC historian asked to borrow the copy. He was writing the history of Seaborg's term. Seaborg said, "Sure. Just get it back to me in three weeks." The historian agreed.

Then the fun began. Three weeks passed; no diary. Three months -- a year and a half. No diary, no explanation. The government finally told him his diary had secret material in it. When they told him to hand over the other copy, Seaborg objected. They compromised. Security people came to his house to sanitize the diary.

They made 162 deletions. Then Seaborg learned that other security people had made twice as many deletions in the copy, and they'd held out another 530 items for further consideration.

The two sets of excisions weren't even consistent with each other, but now the security people had the bit in their teeth. Next they ordered Seaborg's copy removed to Livermore Lab, where a team could go over it. This time some ten people worked on it for weeks. They returned it with a thousand items removed.

The excised material included things Seaborg had published in books -- stuff that was public in many other forms as well. And Seaborg asks: How could an organization that began with an enlightened sense of public openness have come to this? He believes that we let a blind bureaucratic notion of security grow up in government, quietly and mindlessly, during the 1980s.

There's a moral fable for us in this. For this is how we let our freedoms die -- quietly and unnoticed. Today, the government assures Seaborg that they hold one clean copy of the entire document. But they hold it in secret. He might yet live to see historians using his carefully kept records. But that is, by now -- unlikely.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Seaborg, G.T., Secrecy Runs Amok, Science, Vol. 264, 3 June, 1994, pp. 1410-1411.

I did this episode in 1994. Glen Seaborg died on Feb. 15, 1999. (You may read his obituary at: http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/glenn-seaborg-obit.html) I am grateful to the late Dr. Seaborg for his counsel on this episode.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode