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  • Gregory Loew

A Few Thoughts about Classified and Weapons Work at Stanford and SLAC

Steve Kahn’s remark on this subject at today’s PPA Faculty meeting prompts me to remind people of the origins of this controversial topic at Stanford and at SLAC.


After WW2 and the Manhattan Project, it was understandable that many governments wanted to protect their countries from another conflagration and disaster, and that defense work had to be protected and pursued essentially forever. The problem was that this belief also promoted arms races all over the world, making war even more dangerous and probable, and that it did not protect us from questionable involvements like the Vietnam War.


When I came to Stanford in 1954 to get my PhD, a sizable fraction of my building, the Electronics Research Laboratory, was fenced off for classified work. Nobody on the outside knew what kind of research was being conducted there. Other parts of the campus were in the same situation. Nobody questioned this state of affairs.


It wasn’t until the late 60’s and early 70’s that the student rebellion at Stanford against the Vietnam War forced the University to ban all classified work on campus, to move some of the existing classified programs to SRI, and to separate the management of SRI from that of the University. Note that there was no distinction at the time between classified and defense work: they were one and the same. The motive for rejection of classified work at the University was not that universities are there to diffuse knowledge, not to restrict it, but that universities should not be militarized, on principle. At the time, Stanford also abandoned the ROTC program.


In 1983 during the Cold War, Edward Teller promoted his Star Wars Program at LLNL and convinced President Reagan that his nuclear-generated x-ray laser could destroy incoming Soviet ICBMs in outer space. Teller’s proposal created a huge controversy. Two or three LLNL scientists came out in the open and claimed that the whole idea was totally flawed. One of them lost his security clearance in the process. However, LLNL management nevertheless came to Stanford and SSRL (not organizationally part of SLAC at the time) to propose testing some instruments necessary for the development of the weapon with the SPEAR synchrotron radiation beams. When Stanford said that no classified work could be done at the University, LLNL changed its tune and said that the instrument tests per se would not be classified.

When our SLAC staff learned of this, a huge uproar arose and more than 600 members signed a petition saying that that they did not want to participate in delivering beams to SSRL for these experiments. I was one of them. The objection was based on “involuntary servitude” forcing us to work on something to which we deeply objected, on moral grounds. But Donald Kennedy, President of the University, and Art Bienenstock, head of SSRL, said that they could not turn the work down since it was not classified. Panofsky, director of SLAC, could not intervene in our favor, even though he sympathized on principle with our position. So SSRL accepted to do the work. We were all very upset.


Several weeks or months later, for some reason unknown to me, LLNL decided not to do the tests at SSRL. Somehow, we lucked out by default.


This entire incident was a serious lesson. It was not the last time that people coming from industry and other labs thought of involving SLAC in military work. The temptation is always there, based on patriotic motives and national security interests.


For the future, it seems to me that the criterion should not just be to reject classified work. One thing is to work on some technology that can benefit all of humankind but may collaterally also help in the development of a new lethal weapon. This is hard to avoid. Another thing is to use SLAC directly to develop such a weapon. This type of work should be left to the know-how and hopefully the wisdom of NNSA labs.


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