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How Much Free Speech for Scientists?

Wolfgang Panofsky

A New Inquisition

Curiously, the charge of spying itself remains extremely badly documented, the widely publicized Cox report notwithstanding. That report greatly oversimplifies the problem by broadly alleging "stolen" secrets without identifying what was widely known beforehand. The report does not specify the source of the losses, even though the wording implies that a Los Alamos scientist of Taiwanese birth was responsible. It blames no particular person for the leaks, and neither the Cox report or any other government report alleges that foreign visits to American labs, or vice versa, were culpable in any way. Yet a direct consequence of these and earlier allegations of spying has been an extension of the classification and clearance processes to enmesh broader areas of science and to restrict sweeping categories of "sensitive" information.

Concerns of this nature were already voiced in 1982, when Admiral Bobby Inman, then deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, charged that scientific communication had led to "hemorrhage" of military data to Cold War opponents. A committee set up by the National Academy of Sciences and chaired by Dave Corson, then President of Cornell University, effectively rebutted the charge. Subsequent Academy committees have re-examined the issues, and all of them have offered the same basic recommendation: Build high fences around truly critical information, such as detailed designs for nuclear weapons, specific war plans, negotiating positions and similar items, but let the rest of scientific communication proceed unfettered. Passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 expands the prescription for openness by requiring that information generated with government support be made publicly available, unless it falls into certain specified categories. But this relatively benign framework is now collapsing, or is at least being severely shaken.

In an almost hysterical reaction, the executive and legislative branches of government seem in competition to appear toughest in preventing the release of "sensitive information." There has, for example, been a stream of regulations issued by the Department of Energy that add to the already overly broad reach of its security regulations. These rules restrict the participation and conduct of foreign visitors, the dissemination of fully unclassified information and the foreign travel of cleared individuals.

For a limited period, the DOE also introduced the new category of Sensitive Unclassified Technical Information (SUTI). Its description included such broad terms such as nuclear reactor systems, flash radiography, inertial-confinement fusion and many other general topics in science and technology. The DOE has also begun to apply export controls to technical information, an exercise that poses similar problems because the material being regulated remains ill-defined. These regulations apply to "deemed exports," which include even speech in the presence of possible non-nationals!

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