Jun 1, 2007
Harvard University graduate student Alex Wellerstein is working on a dissertation on nuclear secrecy, 1939-2005. If he extends his field of study by two years to 2007, he could include some of his own recent experiences.
Earlier this month Wellerstein's encounters with Los Alamos National Laboratory's archives were featured in Secrecy News, a blog and alert service sponsored by the Federation of American Scientists that focuses on government secrecy.
The problem, from Wellerstein's perspective, was that the laboratory had changed its procedures in a way that would make it hard for a researcher to obtain important historical materials.
A series of e-mails among University of California officials about the matter, obtained by the Monitor, suggest that they were concerned as well, at least by appearances.
In looking back over events since then, laboratory spokesperson Kevin Roark said the policy had not changed and is not changed now, but there was a brief period when the laboratory had to figure out what it meant to the archives that the laboratory was no longer governed by the California Public Records Act, because it was no longer managed exclusively by UC, although the university remains one of the principal partners in the managing consortium.
"In the final analysis, there is nothing different about the way we handled requests for information in May 2006 that is different than May 2007," Roark said.
Wellerstein said he thought he had assurances that he could get some help from LANL officials that would make it easier to find historical information for his project.
The archives were being moved at the time, so there was some delay.
"I didn't hear back for awhile, but I didn't expect to hear," Wellerstein said. "My job is to get things in the works out there, so that in a year or so they become ripe."
One aspect of his research already written and accepted for publication is about "patenting the bomb," the paradoxical process by which the government justified using the federal patent program to protect top-secret nuclear weapons technology coming out of the Manhattan Project during World War II.
Wellerstein was also working with Peter Galison on a documentary about government secrecy with filmmaker Robb Moss. Galison is a MacArthur Fellow and prominent professor of the history of science and physics at Harvard.
Then, Wellerstein said, "Suddenly out of the blue I got an e-mail from the information practices officer that was very legalistic and hard to divine what the content was meant to be."
The gist, he said, was that the former information release policies (under the California law) were no longer in effect and there were no new policies to replace them, so that his requests would have to be submitted under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Wellerstein discussed the situation with his colleagues, including Priscilla McMillan, author of the book "The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer," published in 2005. McMillan is also a former Council Member of the Federation of American Scientists, which subsequently published the first of two notices about the matter.
Wellerstein said he had also communicated with National Coalition for History, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit and advocate for history related issues. NCH published an item on their website on May 7.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, the journal of the Council for Higher Education also made calls to lab and UC officials in Washington during a brief flap that ensued.
Since then, Wellerstein said he has filed four FOIAs of differing scopes, covering different kinds of information he is looking for.
He has also sought additional clarification from the laboratory on questions that he still has.
In an interview Wednesday, Roark answered two of the questions.
Was it possible to obtain unclassified or previously unclassified documents held in the archives?
"Yes," Roark said. There is an informal process at the archives that they have practiced for years, where they do a quick review through security and classification of items that are clearly marked for public release. And if there are no mitigating circumstances, they go ahead and provide that."
Secondly, are archivists able to look for relevant material and make them available to researchers, and are they able to help guide researchers through the FOIA process?
Roark said, "To the degree they can, yes, they are available to help." He said there may be time constraints and many researchers do not fully appreciate the scope of the holdings.
"There are millions of documents in our archives and it is not designed to be a lending library," Roark said.
A final question was harder to answer: Can researchers get information in regards to the general holdings of the Los Alamos archives without the filing of a FOIA request?
"I don't know that I can answer that," Roark said. "Without some level of specificity, it makes it difficult. You kind of need to know what you're looking for."
In conclusion, Roark said, "What the archive did in the past it will do in the future."