Why Scientists Don't Spy

The arrest of Soviet physicist and U.N. employee Gennadi F. Zakharov on espionage charges this fall was the exception that proves the rule. Very little scientific spying is actually done by scientists. An FBI listing of 62 espionage prosecutions from 1945 to the present includes quite a few engineers and technicians and the expected large number of military and intelligence personnel. But other than Zakharov, who was ex changed in October for journalist Nicholas Daniloff after being indicted for

By | November 17, 1986

The arrest of Soviet physicist and U.N. employee Gennadi F. Zakharov on espionage charges this fall was the exception that proves the rule. Very little scientific spying is actually done by scientists.

An FBI listing of 62 espionage prosecutions from 1945 to the present includes quite a few engineers and technicians and the expected large number of military and intelligence personnel. But other than Zakharov, who was ex changed in October for journalist Nicholas Daniloff after being indicted for receiving classified documents, the only other working scientist to face charges by the FBI was Alfred Zehe.

 Zehe, an East German physicist living in Mexico, was arrested in 1983 while attending a conference in Boston and convicted of soliciting classified information from a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy. He was sentenced to eight years in prison but allowed to return to Eastern Europe in a prisoner ex change in 1985.

"We know of no cases of scientists spying" before World War II, said Spencer Weart, director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. Since that time, he said, scientists can be found only among the atomic spies of the late 1940s. They include:

  • Klaus Fuchs, a German-born physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project;
  • Alan Nunn May, a Cambridge-educated physicist who worked on the British atomic project;
  • Bruno Pontecorvo, an Italian physicist and alleged spy who also worked on the Anglo-American atomic project.
  • "Harry Jones," a hypothetical scientist-spy who is thought to have revealed secrets of the atomic pile at Hanford.


Fuchs, according to Weart, is "the one great scientist-spy." According to one account, Fuchs went regularly to the Lower East Side of New York, carrying a tennis ball, to meet his contact, a man wearing gloves and holding an extra pair of gloves and a book.

Fuchs, a British citizen, was arrested by Scotland Yard in 1950 and served nine years in prison. On release he moved to East Germany, where he now lives, and was decorated for his service.

Nunn May was recruited by the KGB during a visit to Leningrad in 1936. Operating as code name "Alek," he passed along Manhattan Project secrets through the Soviet Embassy in Canada.

Scientist-spies appeared in the 1940s, historians believe, because they had secrets worth betraying and because many had ideological reasons for doing so. "It was a time when communism seemed a reasonable, attractive ideology," Weart said, "so it may have seemed morally acceptable to them to re veal secrets to a foreign power."

Why so few scientists since then? "First, they don't have the monetary needs of the others," Weart said. Many individuals prosecuted for espionage are lower-echelon, lower-paid staff members who sell secrets to cope with financial problems.

"Second," Weart said, "Studies show that people go into science to make a contribution to the public good. The best reward for a scientist is not even a Nobel Prize, but to have a law named after him or her. If there was a 'Harry Jones,' he would rather have been known for the Jones constant than to pride himself on a secret transaction. The secret life is quite alien to the value structure of scientists."
 

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