Secrecy is contagious

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:


Imagine the scenario: you’re a security officer working at Los Alamos. You know that spheres are weapon parts. You walk into a technical area, and you see spheres all around! Is that an ashtray, or it is a model of a plutonium pit? Anxiety mounts — does the ashtray go into a safe at the end of the day, or does it stay out on the desk? (Has someone been tapping their cigarettes out into the pit model?)

All of this anxiety can be gone — gone! — by simply banning all non-nuclear spheres! That way you can effectively treat all spheres as sensitive shapes.

What I love about this little policy proposal is that it illuminates something deep about how secrecy works. Once you decide that something is so dangerous that the entire world hinges on keeping it under control, this sense of fear and dread starts to creep outwards. The worry about what must be controlled becomes insatiable — and pretty soon the mundane is included with the existential.

I’ve posted this quote before, from Mordechai Vanunu’s lawyer, but it never gets old. Secrecy is contagious:

If something is secret, and something else touches it, it too becomes secret. Secrecy becomes a disease. Everything around the secret issue becomes secret, so the trial became a secret, so I became a secret.

So, did Los Alamos actually end up adopting the policy of No Spheres in the War Room? It may very well have! Below is an excerpt from Joseph Masco‘s highly-recommended book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico:

One weapons scientist explained to me how he breached security at Los Alamos simply by bringing a sack lunch into the plutonium facility. He left his lunch on his office desk and stepped out for a minute. He came back to find a commotion. A security officer informed him that the orange he left on his desk was, in fact, a classified object.

He learned that any spherical object became a nuclear secret once it passes over the line demarcating the secure from the open areas of the laboratory, as it could be taken as a model for the plutonium pit that drives a nuclear weapon.

The weapons scientist was told that in the future he could eat the fruit or store it inside his office safe with the rest of his classified documents, but if he left the orange out on his desk unsupervised it was a security infraction that could be referred to the FBI for investigation.