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In Scientists Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, editors JPat Brown et al bring together obtained FBI files to offer an insight into FBI investigations into the life and research of some of the world’s most renowned scientists, showing this surveillance to be typically driven by fear, ignorance and senseless tip-offs. The collection sheds light on some of the most intrusive ways that powerful institutions monitor people across society, writes Jochem Kootstra, and is more relevant and necessary than ever. 

Scientists Under Surveillance: The FBI Files. JPat Brown, B.C.D. Lipton and Michael Morisy (eds), with Steven Aftergood and Walter V. Robinson. MIT Press. 2019.

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Ever wondered if Neil Armstrong was conspiring with the Russians or if Albert Einstein was secretly a supporter of Communism? Possibly not. However, an international collaboration between scientists and a revenge letter made the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) dive deep into the history and actions of some of the world’s most renowned scientists. Scientists Under Surveillance: The FBI Files offers an insight into the intrusive examples of monitoring by the FBI throughout the Cold War and the nuclear age, hobbled by fear, ignorance and senseless tip-offs. Offering obtained FBI files suggesting a hidden history of the twentieth century, this book reveals some uneasy secrets that may provoke laughter and chills at the same time, while also leaving you in disbelief.

This is not the authors’ first book on the FBI’s troubling history, having already published a volume on the surveillance of writers and their ‘dangerous’ ideas. In Scientists Under Surveillance, we shift to sixteen scientists in disciplines ranging from aeronautical engineering to sexology. Covering figures including Arthur Rosenfeld, Paul Erdos and Timothy Leary, the writers reveal new shocking stories of (unnecessary) investigations by publishing original FBI files that were once again obtained by MuckRock through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This time around, we learn about Richard Feynman’s hefty FBI file, but also a ‘simple’ background or security check on Marvin Minsky and Vera Rubin. Although multiple FBI files are themselves fairly mundane and have nothing especially interesting to offer, they typically more show how they ‘reflect the ignorance, the malice or simply the limited understanding of their sources’ (ix).

The obtained records of the FBI’s close surveillance of scientists offer a snapshot of the relentless mindset of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover throughout the Cold War and times of global crises. Writers JPat Brown, B.C.D. Lipton, Michael Morisy, Steven Aftergood and Walter V. Robinson show that the investigations weren’t so much about the scientists’ inventions or research, but more often their political beliefs and international connections. Whether the monitoring was led by fear of communist infiltration or nuclear weapons that were midwifed by scientists in the Manhattan Project, the book reveals the FBI’s power in censoring scientists’ valuable knowledge in comical yet disturbing manner.

Image Credit: (Zeiss Microscopy CC BY SA 2.0)

One of the most significant files is that of physicist Feynman. Here the FBI’s ignorance, simplistic approach and infinite power come together in one massive investigation. As one of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, Feynman became part of a routine surveillance check as some of his colleagues had been feeding the Soviets nuclear secrets. As a big-time prankster, always ‘leaving little notes within supposedly locked drawers and safes’ (173), he quickly became someone to keep a closer eye on. This to the extent that special agents went through his trash and found an invitation to a prestigious physics conference in Moscow, ringing alarm bells. Starting a massive investigation, they received a letter from an informant who referred to Feynman as a ‘master of deception, unhampered by morals, ethics and religion’ (173), which led to the State Department’s decision that Feynman wasn’t allowed to attend the conference. Although the identity of the informant is left blank in the FBI files, there is a strong belief that it was sent by his revengeful ex-wife. Not aware of this months-long investigation and confused by the Bureau’s decision, Feynman ‘already went through the proper channels and asked the State Department for guidance on whether to attend the conference’ (173) before the agents decided to go through his trash. These impulsive actions demonstrate that the communist fear, as the book describes, made the agency open to useless gossip, and it used powerful tools at the expense of scientists’ intelligence, even thwarting their careers and everyday life for no useful purpose. Let’s not even start on the taxpayer’s expense.

Any possible link to Communism, whether this is misinformation in a letter or suspicious codenames, got investigated to its core just because the FBI could. Interestingly, Issac Asimov was under surveillance for a long time because he was a suspect in a case revolving around a Soviet informant codenamed ROBPROF. Asimov wrote sci-fi books about robots and he was a professor. Coincidence or not? Yet Mikhail Kalashnikov’s FBI file is much thinner, even though the assault rifle he created – now among the most popular firearms – eventually became the weapon of choice for the Russian military. What’s in a name? Although this emphasises the comical note that is dominant throughout the book, it often overshadows its seriousness. The book is introduced with a great analysis by Aftergood and Robinson, but it left me feeling quite empty after the final page. It could have benefited from an afterword emphasising the book’s current relevance and valuable lessons.

Indeed, contemporary readers may quickly reflect on the ‘hidden’ history of the twentieth century and what has been going on in our lifetime. As the book ably explores the notion that ‘the past informs the present’ (xi), one can only imagine what’s happening behind closed doors throughout, for example, the US-China trade skirmishes and Huawei’s global rollout of 5G technology. It has already been called a ‘Tech Cold War’ or ‘a new kind of Cold War’. Given our times in which hacking has become a new way of going through someone’s trash in the front yard, and whistleblowers repeatedly reveal what’s been going on out of public sight, it has become much easier to surveil while we seem to become numb to yet another invasion in our lives.

Scientists, whether working for big tech giants or at universities, are now often called ‘leftists’ and ‘elitists’ who do not act in favour of the public in need. In my country of residence, The Netherlands, one of our populist and most popular politicians, Thierry Baudet, made a statement about ‘left-wing indoctrination’ in academia. Scientists are now fighting a climate of suspicion from various sides, not only from the Bureau.

This also opens up a longstanding debate about open source and secrecy that this work wants to address. As the book describes, scientists often choose which inventions, research or knowledge they keep secret, and which they want to reveal to the state or publish open source. For this, scientists have been labelled dangerous because of the possibility of that (unknown) knowledge getting in the ‘wrong’ hands. As the case of Feynman reveals, some of his colleagues did feed Soviets nuclear information throughout the Cold War. A great contemporary example of what can happen when open sourcing anything with low moral responsibility or reflection by its makers is discussed in the podcast: ‘Should This Exist? When your invention becomes a weapon’. Here a DIY-kit and community on how to make a drone got picked up by ISIS and was used to drop bombs on civilians. However, while the book is advocating for more transparency, the reader is still partly kept in a game of ‘guessy words’ as big and important parts of the FBI files are kept blank due to various national security reasons (hello, Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the US elections and Donald Trump’s possible involvement).

Nonetheless, this collection is an important one as the reader gains valuable lessons from its FBI files in relation to the ever more intrusive ways powerful institutions nowadays monitor all kinds of people. As the book perfectly describes: ‘these records demonstrate how even a comparatively open society will behave under the stress of global competition, foreign espionage and domestic fragmentation. As such, they may hold lessons for the present day as well’ (ix). From authoritative governments to the vigorous 5G-war and tech giants, the FBI files seem more relevant and necessary than ever.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Jochem Kootstra
Jochem Kootstra graduated cumlaude in 2017, researching the interdisciplinary relationship between technological engineers, posthuman artists and technology. With that, he won the Johannes van der Zouwen Master Thesis Award in the field of social sciences. Currently, he is building an interdisciplinary research group that will work together on emerging technology and its related grant global challenges, with the purpose to move toward a more inclusive and humane future with technology.

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