THE MAN WHO BLEW THE WHISTLE ON ‘STAR WARS’ : Roy Woodruff’s Ordeal Began When He Tried to Turn the Vision of an X-ray Laser into Reality
IN THE DUSTY town of Livermore, nestled in the Amador Valley, where cows compete with zinfindel grapes for land not yet requisitioned by the local nuclear weapons lab, the dreams of Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb and “Star Wars,” may finally have gone to ground.
These are dark, brooding days for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, “the house that Teller built,” a rambling complex of Quonset huts and low-rise office buildings two hours due east of San Francisco. One of only two places in the United States where you can legally develop a nuclear weapon, Livermore’s barbed-wire perimeter, security passes whose various colors denote levels of clearance, and Top Secret and Classified stamps on virtually every laundry list in the place still present the lab as an efficient outpost of the military-industrial complex. But now there is also a scent of scandal as investigators from various federal agencies and congressional offices comb the premises, poring over records and interviewing staffers to determine if all is in order.
For the first time in the lab’s history, key members of its leadership have broken ranks and gone public with tales of internal disarray. And for the first time, Teller, the lab’s revered 80-year-old co-founder, now an associate director emeritus, is on the defensive. He is charged by an unlikely whistle-blower--Roy Woodruff, a highly regarded and conservative former director of the laboratory’s weapons program--with having seriously misled the Reagan Administration about the X-ray laser, centerpiece of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
The persistent questions asked in the watering holes of Livermore by those not preoccupied with pickup trucks and country tunes are: Did Edward Teller deceive his old friend, President Ronald Reagan, by telling him what he wanted to hear even though it was not quite true? And as a result, were billions of dollars wasted and an imminent breakthrough in arms control derailed?
A ‘STAR WARS’ VISION IS BORN
FOR 50 YEARS, the Hungarian-born Teller has tried to surmount the opposition of less militant scientists and provide security for his adopted nation through the power of nuclear explosions. He fought scientists such as A-bomb developer Robert Oppenheimer, who thought the atomic bomb sufficient deterrence to Soviet weaponry, and he helped guide and goad generations of Livermore scientists who perfected the hydrogen bomb and then squeezed it to fit a forest of missiles in all shapes and sizes.
One of those scientists, Roy Woodruff, 47, has spent his adult life, since joining the lab in 1968, perfecting nuclear weapons. By 1982, he had become head of nuclear-weapons development. A solid man of military bearing, Woodruff had established himself as a strong team player, far more likely to go along with the lab’s programs than to dissent. But his ascension to the leadership of the lab’s nuclear-weapons program at a time when its budget would become increasingly dependent upon “Star Wars” would leave him feeling torn between the lab management’s desire for increased funding and the demands of scientific integrity.
The lab’s budget for nuclear weapons, which had declined 40% during the 1970s, would rise 25% during the first five years of the Reagan Administration. But now there was a new threat to the weapons developers: America’s Catholic bishops, dovish congressmen and grass-roots physicians’ peace movements had united to demand a freeze on all new nuclear weapons. For Teller, the nuclear-freeze movement raised echoes of historic debates about making the atomic and hydrogen bombs. And he responded, as he had in the past, with a vision of nuclear power, this time one of nuclear weapons that would form a shield to protect against the others he had helped pioneer.
“Our answer to (the freeze movement),” Teller said in a 1982 internal Livermore talk, “can be and should be that we have the third generation of nuclear weapons. . . . The Second World War could have been avoided--I was there, I knew it--if the democracies had been prepared. The third world war can be avoided if the people preaching the freeze will not succeed, and if those of us who are trying to develop the defensive weapons will succeed. . . . I think we have come dangerously close to a third catastrophe. It yet may be averted, and if it is, I am certain that this laboratory will play no small part in it.”
The basis of the new generation of arms, the “space shield,” as Teller described it, would be the nuclear-pumped X-ray laser, a weapon that would concentrate the energy of a nuclear blast into a beam of destructive light that could zap every Soviet missile in sight.
Woodruff was there that day for Teller’s speech and recalls thinking that it was “the same old thing” Teller had been pushing for decades. “What’s new?” Woodruff recalled recently. “Teller had always been an advocate of strong defense, and in the lecture he was simply posing the potential of a nuclear-pumped X-ray laser as a research program--which I supported then and still do.” What was new is that Teller now had access to the White House.
A month after his Livermore speech, Teller sat down with Ronald Reagan, whom he knew from the days when Reagan was governor of California, and reignited the President’s longstanding interest in defensive weapons. Reagan had first expressed that interest in an interview with The Times during his 1980 campaign. Describing a visit to the North American Air Defense Command, the Republican candidate had said: “The thing that struck me was the irony that here, with this great technology of ours, we . . . cannot stop any of the weapons that are coming at us. I don’t think there’s been a time in history when there wasn’t a defense against some kind of thrust, even back in the old-fashioned days when we had coast artillery that would stop invading ships if they came.”
Reagan combined this nostalgic hankering for turning back the clock to a simpler pre-nuclear stage of warfare with a near-mystical belief in the power of modern technology to solve all problems. Excited by Teller’s reports of breakthroughs in the X-ray laser, on March 23, 1983, Reagan delivered his now-famous “Star Wars” speech, calling for a commitment to a massive space defense program.
“I believe it is reasonable to assume that the discussion between Edward Teller and President Reagan was a major factor in the decision to proceed with the Strategic Defense Initiative,” Woodruff, then in charge of the X-ray laser, recounted in a confidential memo dated March 4, 1987, to the head of the Department of Energy’s San Francisco office. “In the 1983 time frame, my opinion of his statements was that they were overly optimistic but, to use a favorite phrase of (Teller’s), ‘not impossible.’ ”
Others were less generous. Shortly after Reagan’s speech, Richard DeLauer, then undersecretary of defense and the Pentagon’s top official in charge of new-weapons technology, told The Times that there had been no breakthroughs on the X-ray laser, which DeLauer said was still mostly a notion in the heads of Teller and his protege, physicist Lowell Wood. Both Teller and Wood declined requests to be interviewed for this story. But other laboratory scientists were interviewed, including recently retired Livermore director Roger Batzel.
In time, Woodruff, too, would become alarmed by Teller’s optimistic assessment of “Star Wars’ ” key component.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG PUBLICITY
IN LATE 1983, however, Teller’s hopes for the technology were high. During an underground nuclear test in Nevada, Livermore experimenters thought they had been able to produce a laser effect. “No issue,” says Woodruff, who headed the R Division, the group of scientists and technicians responsible for developing an actual working laser. “We had an X-ray laser, and a fairly bright one.” That was enough to allow Woodruff to declare that X-ray laser theory had begun to bear fruit, but, he says, “We had not established that our theory was giving us accurate predictions.
“I was enthusiastic about progress we made in the experiment,” Woodruff says. “Why wouldn’t I be? We finally, unequivocally demonstrated lasing.” However, he adds, even as experiments continued, no one knew exactly how bright that laser, then known as Excalibur, was. Indeed, there is to this day some question about just what the experimenters measured, but no serious doubt that it was several orders of magnitude away from any sort of usable weapon beam.
A fairly accurate description of what the weapon might look like if it were workable was leaked to the magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology. In one of the first of many artists’ renderings that would appear in the media, the magazine pictured a weapon that could be shot into space to explode a nuclear device whose energy would be focused in a beam that could destroy an enemy target. Artists’ imaginations notwithstanding, however, no such weapon existed.
Thus, Woodruff was amazed one afternoon in December, 1983, to read a copy of a letter from Edward Teller to George Keyworth, the President’s science adviser and another Teller protege. Woodruff still doesn’t know how it happened to cross his desk, since Teller had quite pointedly chosen not to send him a copy.
In the letter, Teller had pronounced the X-ray laser weapon ready for “engineering phase.” In the weapons world, that means something very specific: that production of a model weapon can start.
Woodruff recalls that he was astounded by the claims that Teller’s letter made for the progress of the program and went down the hall to complain to the older scientist. “I have never called Teller a liar,” Woodruff says, “but the statement was nonsense--we were not in engineering phase then and we are not today.”
He claims that Teller accepted his points but did not want to either withdraw the letter or to have Woodruff write one stating his own views on the matter. Woodruff then approached laboratory director Batzel. Batzel either “ordered” (Woodruff’s version) or “advised” (Batzel’s) him not to send a correcting letter. Batzel later conceded to The Times that Teller asked him to keep Woodruff from sending a letter.
It was not the first time Teller and Woodruff had markedly disagreed about what kinds of claims could be made for the X-ray laser. In the fall of 1982, Woodruff recalls, the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy was about to issue a report that would be used to judge funding for various lab programs, and “Teller was clearly not satisfied with the support that they were going to give the X-ray laser.
“He wanted the lab to go to a meeting in La Jolla and say that within five years we could produce an X-ray laser that would . . . defend against a submarine-launched missile attack against our bomber fields. I wouldn’t go along with that,” Woodruff says. “We had the discussion in his office and over the telephone and in the director’s office. It finally culminated in his calling me into his office. He said: ‘Roy, I am very angry with you. Roy, I may never speak to you again. Roy, if I speak to you again it will not be this year.’
“He dismissed me, and when I got back to my office, I was informed by my secretary that I was disinvited from his 75th birthday party. A day or two later he called up to apologize, and I went to the birthday party. But I marked that as the turning point. From that point on, the relationships were strained and formal. He did not copy me with the Keyworth letter, I think, because we had the previous exchange.”
Despite his disagreements with Teller, Woodruff’s reputation was still sufficiently strong to warrant his promotion on Dec. 22, 1983, to the second-highest position in the lab, with assurances that he--and not Teller or Wood--would be truly in charge. As associate director of the lab, Woodruff would control all defense programs, or so it was written in the lab’s organizational charts and, he thought, understood by Batzel. “I had very tough words with Batzel over Teller’s letter on engineering phase,” Woodruff recalls. He says that before he accepted his new job, Batzel assured him that “if any kind of letter like (that) was sent out again, I’d be informed, and I’d be given his support in setting the record straight.”
THE IMAGINARY SILVER BULLET
OVER THE NEXT year, the Excalibur X-ray laser program ran into political difficulties. At best, critics noted, it would produce an anti-satellite weapon because it aimed at a single beam per explosion and, therefore, was too costly to be used to defend against an array of missiles and decoys. Woodruff, who still strongly favors Excalibur as a research program, concedes this. “It was an anti-SDI weapon, and very few people understand that,” he says. That’s because its logical use, in the hands of either camp, would be to knock out an opponent’s space-based assets--the key, costly and intrinsically vulnerable components of an SDI system. “It had little potential for actually defending against ballistic missile attack. It just wasn’t that capable a laser. So if the program goals had been met, if indeed we were entering engineering phase as Teller said, what we would’ve had was a weapon that was capable of attacking satellites and defending satellites at great distances. If you have a very big satellite that’s a part of some Strategic Defense Initiative--a neutral particle beam accelerator, a big chemical laser, a garage full of kinetic-kill vehicles--this X-ray laser weapon has the potential to destroy those things.” Ironically, then, the centerpiece of missile defense, if it could be produced, would spell the end of missile defense. SDI critics began to point this out with some regularity, and finally the Washington SDI office, along with Wood and Teller, conceded the argument.
Faced with this opposition, proponents of the X-ray laser then came up with the notion of Super Excalibur, which would aim at using one nuclear blast to produce many beams of an intensity sufficient to destroy thousands of enemy targets. Teller and physicist Wood became so excited about this notion that they began to publicly proclaim that one such weapon “the size of an executive desk” could destroy a majority of the Soviet missile force under launch. But the claim threw Woodruff into a panic, since the concept, desirable as it was, had no experimental basis. The insistence that he be part of selling this notion of a weapon as a realistic alternative to traditional ideas of deterrence and arms control would eventually cause Woodruff to break ranks with the lab’s Establishment.
“That’s where everything, in my personal view, turned sour,” Woodruff says. “Suddenly the ‘silver bullet’ had been invented. The silver bullet was something that would solve one of the more vexing problems facing the Strategic Defense Initiative architectural people. They had to devise a defense scheme that would be able to simultaneously destroy a thousand Soviet missiles and also be effective against a couple of missiles launched every minute. Those two very different time lines present a real problem for the guy that’s trying to develop this multilayered system.”
Super Excalibur was a brilliant political invention, but, Woodruff says, not a scientific one. “I just don’t know how to say it other than that at the time these statements were being made, it was just a notion--a notional weapon. It’s the idea that you could apply the physics of lasers to X-ray lasers, and if you apply all that physics, you might come up with a laser bright enough to do ballistic missile defense.
“Let me try to give it by analogy,” Woodruff says. “When the Manhattan Project (to develop the atomic bomb) was formed, we knew enough about atomic physics to say what the fission process was and roughly how much energy it released. By the end of the Manhattan Project, we were so confident about our physics that the device that was detonated over Hiroshima was not tested. It was an untested device. The principles of physics were so well known that we dropped it on Hiroshima because we knew it would work.
“If I used that analogy for the X-ray laser, I would say, ‘I know enough physics to say that if I could split the atom, it would release a lot of energy, but I don’t know how to split the atom.’ Not impossible. May in fact become a reality someday. But at the time these notional (Super Excalibur) weapons were being talked about, did we know enough of the physics to say we could split the atom? No.”
THE AMAZING POWER OF TELLER
UNPERTURBED BY THE objections of Woodruff and others at the lab, Teller’s and Wood’s lobbying proceeded enthusiastically. This was the season for the selling of “Star Wars,” and anything that made the program seem more feasible was trotted out for the benefit of the laymen, be they in the Congress, the media or the general electorate. Livermore’s Super Excalibur was the Technicolor Buck Rogers high point of the campaign. But there are others in the series of what Woodruff refers to as the “bent can” demonstrations. “They took a chemical laser and made a booster rocket explode on TV for the public,” Woodruff recalls. “They took a piece of aluminum and put it in front of a neutral particle beam and burned a hole in it.” Woodruff thought of these demonstrations as a means to impress rather than enlighten lawmakers and the public. But it worked, and “Star Wars” money flowed. Teller’s influence channeled a goodly share of that money into Livermore.
His power to command resources from the Reagan Administration was clear at a Sept. 6, 1985, meeting in the Pentagon office of Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization. About 30 top officials from various government agencies and labs met to discuss transferring $100 million from the Defense Department to the Department of Energy to accelerate research on directed-energy weapons. Three national labs--Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia--were competing for a portion of this new kitty. At a preliminary meeting at the Department of Energy, representatives of each of the labs, including Woodruff and his colleague George Miller, had come up with a tentative plan for dividing the money. Packed into a cab, they shared an amiable ride to Abrahamson’s office. “Everyone was in agreement,” Woodruff says, “and I’m telling them, ‘If you have a problem, talk to Miller or myself.’ ”
About half an hour into the formal meeting, Abrahamson went to a display board and summarized the consensus, which was that Livermore would be given $60 million, Los Alamos $30 million and Sandia $10 million. “He raises his pen to the board to write the numbers,” Woodruff says, “and in walks Dr. Teller,” who asked to speak. According to Woodruff, whose minutes of the meeting have been confirmed by other participants, Teller said he wanted the entire $100 million to go to Livermore. The team at Livermore was “very bright and enthusiastic,” Teller argued. And, more important, President Reagan had promised all the money to him.
Teller got what he wanted: Without further discussion, Abrahamson announced that the entire $100 million in new funding would go to Livermore and that the other labs would be expected to get their money from other, unnamed sources. Woodruff, who was sitting on a couch with two representatives from Los Alamos, says he sank into his seat with embarrassment at Teller’s intervention.
FAST TIMES AT LIVERMORE LAB
BUT GETTING MONEY was one thing. Producing Super Excalibur was quite another. No one knew how to do it. For most of the scientists working on the problem at Livermore under Woodruff’s direction, this meant a steady uphill attempt to do what has so far remained the impossible. But there are others, centered in the “O Group,” a small think tank at the lab led by Wood, who came up with new and ever-wilder schemes. They worked around the clock, munching on pizza and peanut-butter sandwiches like the kids in the movie “War Games,” running endless computer simulations of the effects of Space Age weapons. And of course, there were the closely monitored nuclear explosions in the Nevada desert. The O Group’s science was good, sometimes brilliant; their work was hard and the results, often leaked in violation of security rules, seemed promising.
One festive night in 1985 was typical of the group’s operations. In the bowels of Livermore, the young scientists waited in the disarray of their workspace, strewn with half-eaten pizzas, Coke bottles and candy wrappers, for a small plane to return from the Nevada test site after what was thought to have been a remarkably successful test. A nuclear bomb studded with “lasing” rods had been placed at the bottom of a subterranean 30-meter-tall canister filled with measuring instruments. Those rods, when jiggled by the explosion, were supposed to emit X-ray laser beams in the fraction of a second before they were vaporized. If the light could be focused in sufficient brightness, someday it might make a beam weapon.
Information about the test should have been secret, but Teller could not contain his excitement and had bragged about the test’s results to a Times reporter. There was even a flyer on Lowell Wood’s bulletin board proclaiming a “brightness party,” implying that the test had produced a high-intensity beam. As it turned out, there was no way of knowing: The blast-monitoring equipment, other scientists had warned, was unreliable. In the course of gathering the X-rays and reflecting their light during the test, the beam-measuring instruments also heated up and threw their own light, which could be confused with an X-ray laser. However, such concerns didn’t stop the party.
The O Group, after all, was Teller’s team, dreamers responsible for creating theoretial models of weapons. They answered doubters with the challenge: “You can’t prove it’s impossible.”
THE BIG SELL
WOODRUFF WAS troubled. Despite the claims being offered to the Administration and Congress, then almost instantaneously leaked to the media, the O Group was making no measurable progress. As the lab’s associate director, Woodruff had his hands full simply trying to make the original Excalibur anti-satellite weapon a reality, and while that seemed a distant possibility, at least he knew where the lab’s work was headed. But the Super Excalibur “silver bullet” notion of Teller and Wood, while a lively challenge for computer simulations, still existed only in a few scientists’ imaginations. Yet Teller and Wood insisted on continuing to sell Super Excalibur as an about-to-happen weapons system. Woodruff says he was particularly offended when their claims were used to buttress arguments against arms-control negotiations between the superpowers in Geneva. His conflict with the Teller camp came to a head over a new series of letters that Teller sent without Woodruff’s knowledge and despite what he thought was his understanding with lab director Batzel.
In late 1984, Teller wrote to arms-control negotiator Paul Nitze citing progress with the Super Excalibur as a reason for holding up agreement at the Geneva arms talks with the Soviets. He wrote a similar letter to National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane. (A briefing memo summarizing the information was also delivered to CIA Director William J. Casey.) The Teller letters are still classified, but Woodruff summarized his exceptions to them, and other details of the controversy that developed over the next two years, in an October, 1985, memo to Batzel. Woodruff recently requested that his memo be declassified, and after a few deletions, that request was granted. In his memo, Woodruff charged that Teller’s and Wood’s “overselling of the program was potentially dangerous” and “simply unacceptable.”
He also quoted George Miller, then his assistant, who would later take over the weapons program. Miller, too, thought Lowell Wood was overselling “Star Wars.” (Miller has confirmed to The Times that Woodruff quoted him correctly.) The X-ray laser program, Miller said, “is neither as easy as Lowell states, our current capabilities are not as significant as he states, and the time scales are not nearly as short as he states. . . . He does not even mention . . . the new knowledge which must be gained or the real difficulties which must be overcome.”
“The point here is that they were having a grand time inventing and inventing and inventing schemes that would be applicable to Super Excalibur,” Woodruff says. “Some were very innovative and deserved the highest praise. But to say that you had Super Excalibur just around the corner and that you ought to go to Geneva and base your policy on that being just around the corner--that was nonsense, utter nonsense. Yet that is what was said in the letter to McFarlane.”
Finally, on Oct. 29, 1985, frustrated by the gap between his staff’s results and Teller’s descriptions of them, Woodruff resigned as associate director of defense systems. Still he refused to go public with his criticisms. Then, he told The Times that he was “satisfied with the technical progress of the (X-ray laser) program” and planned to devote his time to research. Batzel has since denied overselling the program and contends that Woodruff resigned not because of his disagreement with the X-ray laser program but because he wanted, but couldn’t get, control over all the weapons functions at the lab. In any event, Woodruff did keep his criticisms within official channels for a year, working on other lab projects, and he relied on the internal lab grievance machinery to redress his complaints. But during the next two years, parts of the story would leak out and cause Woodruff to complete the transition from top team player to whistle-blower. Woodruff says he still doesn’t like the sound of that word.
‘WHY, IT’S SUPER EXCALIBUR’
ON A JUNE afternoon, Woodruff sits on the waterfront patio of his home that borders a sluice of the San Joaquin River Delta. He and his wife, Mary, who was a top assistant to former Secretary of Energy James R. Schlesinger and an associate director at Livermore, are not fully comfortable in the company of left-leaning congressmen and academicians who have rallied to their cause since Woodruff’s doubts about the X-ray laser have become public. (The couple married in January, 1986, and Mary resigned her position soon after.) They go to great pains to indicate that they wish the laser program had made the progress Teller claimed for it. They still favor what Woodruff calls a “vigorous but realistic” program to study the possibilities of nuclear defense.
But they also feel that the President and the country have been misled. So the 23-foot outboard fishing boat, docked out back, is ignored for the time being, as the Woodruffs devote virtually all of their free hours to meticulously documenting each moment of the travail that has befallen them since Roy dissented, fearing that if they don’t, they will lose reputation, job and home.
“You have this incredibly difficult line to walk when you’re in a position like I was,” Roy says, “feeling enthusiastic support for a research program which deserved to be supported from many different aspects, not just weapons physics but for general knowledge in physics as a part of our science. At the same time, seeing someone like Teller use his prestige and reputation to gain access to people and make statements that, to a non-technical person in particular, were misleading is tough. It was clear that at least one person--the President--believed in SDI as a reality.”
“It’s not a question of openness,” Mary adds. “It’s balance. The balance got lost, and there was no way to get the balance back in.”
“It was that whole, long, hot summer that finally led to my signing off,” Roy explains. “It wasn’t a decision I made lightly; it wasn’t a decision I made in anger. My decision was: I’ve done everything I could do, and it was time to get out. If I had it to do over again I think I would go public in late ’85 or ’86. I probably would’ve answered your phone calls. It was so hard to talk about this.”
But the talking comes more easily now, and the couple’s reflections are mixed with anger. The presentation of SDI technology to the public “is comparable to supply-side economics--voodoo economics,” says Mary, who as Livermore’s associate director for administration found funds within the lab budget to support some of the early research on the X-ray laser. “There are parallels between the economic and ‘Star Wars’ plans of this Administration. Did Laffer’s curve ever exist?”
Roy bitterly describes the too-quick solutions he witnessed being offered to serious technical problems that arose in 1984 and ’85. Critics of “Star Wars” were saying that a system couldn’t be based in space because it would require a tremendous energy supply and would be vulnerable to attack. Woodruff suggests that Super Excalibur was intended more as an answer to such critics than to Soviet missiles. “They needed a little magic, and aha! Guess what? A little magic! Very classified so you can’t review it or talk about it; no power-supply problem because it uses a hydrogen bomb. It doesn’t have to have a massive reactor in space. It doesn’t have to be in space vulnerable to a space mine or some other attack. What is that? What am I describing? Why, it’s Super Excalibur.”
BANISHED TO A WINDOWLESS OFFICE
IN THE PAST, associate directors of the lab, Edward Teller included, who resigned their posts to pursue other interests at the lab or elsewhere have been accorded a great deal of respect. Woodruff, however was not. To ease the transition after he left his post, Woodruff volunteered to move for a year to the lab’s Z Division, a small, secret unit that analyzes information about advances in foreign weapons. But at the end of that time, he feared that he had been permanently banished by Batzel to what Woodruff describes as a “windowless cubicle.” His salary was to be capped for seven years, a move he viewed as having his income cut by inflation. And he was not offered assignments that would give him visibility.
Worse, his departure seemed to have little effect on the selling of “Star Wars.”
“I would like to report that my resignation has resulted in at least some amelioration of Dr. Teller’s use of the laboratory to advance his points of view,” Woodruff wrote in a 1987 memo to the Department of Energy, “but this is not the case. For example, in April, 1986, Dr. Teller obtained the assistance of a working group at (Livermore) to produce a hurried, superficial study paper titled ‘Soviet SDI,’ which he discussed at the Central Intelligence Agency. In this paper Dr. Teller advanced his opinion that the Soviets are quite possibly many years ahead of the U.S. in the development of nuclear directed-energy weapons and that this may be the reason they have aggressively pursued a comprehensive test ban. He then testified at Senate hearings on May 10, 1986 and has continued to use the Special Projects Division staff as well as other members of the weapons program to assist in supporting these views.
“In my opinion and in the opinion of the Special Projects Division leader, Robert Andrews, the paper, ‘Soviet SDI,’ was technically weak and unbalanced. The Special Projects staff that helped with its writing were uncomfortable with the role it played in its development. However, they felt no recourse but to cooperate and package the facts to support Dr. Teller’s ‘you can’t prove it’s impossible’ hypothesis, and it’s well known that ‘blowing the whistle’ is unhealthy and won’t help in solving the problem. The only guidance given to the Special Projects staff by the director, according to Andrews, was to ‘support Edward but don’t go along with anything that is technically incorrect’ and, unfortunately, this material was used to influence the Congress as well as the CIA.”
Wood and Teller also continued to lobby. In September of last year, Wood, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s panel on SDI, again insisted that a single X-ray laser weapon could “win your war if your opponent launches all his assets at once into your field of view.”
Woodruff’s successor, George Miller, felt compelled to write to the panel head, Rep. John M. Spratt (D-S.C.), clarifying Wood’s testimony. In a December letter, Miller stated, “It is important to understand that the X-ray laser program at Livermore is a research, not a development program. . . . Our best estimate is that it will take at least five years and an integral expenditure of a billion dollars before we can actually demonstrate whether an X-ray laser weapon can be realized and what its potential might be.”
Such remarks coming from top lab spokesmen confirm the persistent criticism of other scientists both in and outside of Livermore, like Stanford’s Sidney D. Drell and Cornell’s Nobel Prize-winner Hans Bethe. Both of them have periodically traveled to the lab to review its SDI program, and both have decried what they claim is Teller’s and Wood’s superhyping of the program. Both call for more modest and orderly experimentation.
THE CONTROVERSY GOES PUBLIC
IN APRIL, 1987, Woodruff filed a personnel grievance and complained to David Gardner, president of the University of California, which operates the lab under contract with the Department of Energy, that Teller and Wood “undercut my management responsibility for the X-ray laser program. . . . Dr. Teller and Dr. Wood conveyed both orally and in writing overly optimistic, technically incorrect statements regarding this research to the nation’s highest policy makers.
“In essence,” he wrote, “I was constructively demoted since I was left with no other ethical choice” but to resign.
Woodruff’s account of events was vindicated by a formal finding of the in-house panel that heard his case and concluded that he had been a victim of administrative reprisals because of his disagreements with Teller and Batzel. But his difficulties only came to light on Oct. 21, 1987, when Robert M. Nelson of the Southern California Federation of Scientists, whose 125 members largely oppose Reagan’s “Star Wars,” called a news conference to announce that he had received anonymously mailed copies of Woodruff’s letter to Gardner. Nelson also made public a memo from Dennis Marino, acting coordinator for employee relations at the University of California, which suggested that school officials advise Woodruff to “perfect” his complaint to make it cumbersome and bureaucratic so that it “wouldn’t sell” on “60 Minutes.” Although Woodruff authenticated the copies, he told reporters that the release of information from them was “totally inappropriate.”
Two days later, after Calif. Rep. George E. Brown (D-Riverside) called Woodruff to Washington to discuss the development of the X-ray laser, the General Accounting Office began an investigation of Woodruff’s grievance and Teller’s and Wood’s statements on “Star Wars.” At the same time, Gardner ordered Batzel to find Woodruff a suitable rank and task. As of this writing, he is assistant to the director for treaty verification, but Woodruff is nervous about how long that will last.
University of California Vice President William Frazer says he’s surprised by Woodruff’s uncertainties about his job. “His classification was never changed, and his salary was never changed,” Frazer says. “Now, he didn’t get the raises he would have gotten had he stayed in his previous job title, but when a dean steps down and goes back to being a professor, the same thing happens to him. I don’t think he was forced to resign.
“He has a position which he has repeatedly said to me is a satisfying position where his talents are well used.”
At the heart of the conflict between Woodruff and his superiors, Frazer indicates, is a disagreement about the kind of information the lab should provide about its research. “The director does have a duty when he testifies to the Congress to present the laboratory position. He does that. He does it responsibly. He collects a lot of opinions doing so,” Frazer says. “But if you were somehow to say that it now follows that he should prevent others in the laboratory who disagree with the official position from speaking out, then we’re in trouble.
“If the laboratory is put in a position of being the arbiter of official truth, we lose. We’re more than a little bit nervous about that.”
Woodruff considers Frazer’s argument obfuscation and blasts university authorities for failing to provide proper oversight of the lab’s activities. “I was the only person that was suppressed. I never called for Edward Teller to be muzzled or in any way be inhibited from expressing his personal views,” he says. “I, however, was the head of the program, and it was my views that were suppressed. Teller and Wood had access to levels of government that I did not: National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, CIA director Casey and the President of the United States. They expressed their views to those levels of government, and Roger Batzel refused to allow me to express the lab’s position, which was different than theirs. As Congressman Pete Stark (D-Livermore) said, ‘Woodruff was right and Teller was famous.’ ”
UNCERTAINTY OF A WHISTLE-BLOWER
PRESIDENT REAGAN still champions “Star Wars” and Teller, as he demonstrated at a Washington conference in March commemorating the fifth anniversary of his speech launching the “Star Wars” program. Despite mounting scientific skepticism and strong signs that his own Administration is interested in negotiating new limits on anti-ballistic missiles with the Soviets as part of an overall arms-control agreement, the President persisted in labeling missile defense a “noble idea.” He heaped praise upon the beaming Teller at his side, announcing that “maybe life does begin at 80.” Reagan added, “If anything, we overestimated the technological challenge.”
Roy Woodruff stared at a front-page newspaper portrait showing the President and Teller at the upbeat “Star Wars” celebration. “There was no X-ray laser weapon when Teller first talked to Reagan about ‘Star Wars’ five years ago,” Woodruff said. “There was none when Teller wrote his wildly optimistic assessments to top presidential advisers four and three years ago. And there is none now.” A summary of the GAO investigation released by Rep. Brown has since supported Woodruff’s charge that he was prevented from amplifying the Teller-Wood views of the program.
Both the Woodruffs feel drained by the events that followed Woodruff’s resignation. They sit on the back deck of their home, which they sold recently, convinced that “being financially mobile is the way to go when you’re dealing with the lab.” Woodruff has had two meetings with the lab’s new director, John Nuckolls, a scientific collaborator of Wood’s who replaced Batzel when he resigned earlier this year. The first meeting, he says, was negative, and the second, within the space of a few weeks, was just the opposite. But he remains skeptical that Livermore and the University of California can tolerate a whistle-blower for long.
Mary Woodruff points to the fate of George Miller, the only prominent lab official as yet not reinstated after Nuckolls called for routine resignations on taking over the lab in April. Although Miller is still responsible for part of the weapons program, he no longer oversees nuclear tests.
“All the people who did this to me are still there,” Woodruff says, “and the only one who had the guts to stand up and say, ‘Roy’s right’ is now not appointed to his job. That’s our marvelous university. Gardner has chosen to be ignorant.” In the end, Woodruff is most disappointed in the failure of university authorities to get involved. “They state that the reason for their managing the weapons labs is so that the staff can have the ability to speak out within the tenets of academic freedom without fear of reprisals. That is a false claim; it is the university that has attempted to make me go away.”
“Where does a Roy Woodruff go to?” Mary Woodruff asks. “What is the message to the next person who wants to speak out? It’s: Speak out at your own peril.”
“I don’t think I can survive out here,” Woodruff says. “There are some people who are willing to work hard to get me out of the picture.” When pushed one last time to explain why, Woodruff sighs and says: “Look, it’s an enigma to me, too. The only answer I can come up with is that Livermore is the house that Teller built and ultimately a challenge like mine went to the core of what some old men believed in most.”