Feynman’s FBI File Released

MuckRock, a website dedicated to using Freedom of Information Act requests to bring greater transparency to government actions, has received the FBI files on Richard Feynman. What it shows is downright creepy, like the fact that many of his close friends were FBI informants who were spying on him and feeding information to the government, which was tracking virtually everything he did or said.

In interview after interview with the FBI, Feynman’s friends and colleagues cited him as brilliant, loyal and an excellent fit for government service. But Feynman’s past and present associations dogged him, particularly as questions swirled around the loyalty of his friend and colleague Robert Oppenheimer because of his own left-wing ties.

The concerns about communist sympathies were further inflamed by public statements Feynman made dismissing religion (the FBI files include several newspaper clippings of such talks) as well as his openly liberal politics.

Well sure, not being a good Christian and being a liberal obviously makes someone a communist. And when Feynman was invited to visit the Soviet Union for an academic conference, those suspicions were confirmed:

It was while Feynman was at Caltech, in January 1955, that the Soviet Union extended Feynman an invitation to an all-expenses paid trip to a prestigious physics conference in Moscow. The letter would precipitate the FBI’s most lengthy investigative files on Feynman.

The FBI found out about the proposed trip while sifting through the trash of Soviet Union Ambassador Georgi Zaroubin’s office. They had recovered a discarded draft of the invitation, setting off the flurry of investigations into Feynman’s possible travel across the Iron Curtain.

A deluge of information came into FBI headquarters. Close friends of Feynman acting as FBI informants provided regular – and sometimes conflicting – updates to his plans. One female associate met in secret with the FBI, indicating Feynman was likely to accept and requesting that Feynman “should be prevented from going [to Moscow] to protect him.”

However, Feynman’s desire to attend was matched with reservation — he thanked the Soviet Ambassador but wrote that he was “unable to give a definite answer,” using an expiring Visa as an excuse to delay his response.

Despite the FBI’s surreptitious surveillance, Feynman had actually alerted the State Department first thing upon receiving the invitation, hoping to receive guidance and indicating that he would be happy to help serve the United States’ propaganda interests abroad, or to simply decline the invitation outright. The letter was immediately forwarded to J. Edgar Hoover, the then-director of the FBI.

Neither the State Department or the FBI bothered to respond to Feynman, but they kept treating him as a criminal anyway.

34 comments on this post.
  1. Eric R:

    Hell, in ’55 if a local dog-catcher was going to the soviet union it would trigger a FBI investigation (under JEH) that likely would never end. Call me a pessimist but frankly, I wouldnt be surprised if this sort of record was closer to the norm for outspoken personae in that era.

  2. Doug Little:

    Was this an exception or was the FBI spying on other prominent scientists as well? It would be interesting to know as there were quite a few of the Manhattan scientists who could have been considered security risks due to their conflicting views on the dissemination of scientific information and national security.

  3. Brett McCoy:

    I always wondered if Isaac Asimov hadn’t likewise been investigated, since he was also an outspoken atheist, with very liberal views, plus he was born in the Soviet Union. He never hinted at any issues in his autobiographies, however.

  4. d cwilson:

    @ Eric R:

    You’re probably right there. I’ve heard rumors that in some activist groups, the number of informants who attended the meetings outnumbered the actual activists.

  5. jesse:

    Investigating people was the norm for the Secret Police — excuse me, FBI — at the time. The only reason they didn’t get Stasi-level files on everyone in the country was the sheer scale of the project and budget limitations, to say nothing of the political fallout.

    Either way, Asimov probably was looked at, but he didn’t have any ties to major political organizations. You have to remember that the Communist party was one of the largest such organizations in the US with some 300,000 members, I think, at its peak.

    The Manhattan Project scientists were all investigated by the FBI at one point or another, with the possible exception of Ed Teller, who was happy to be an informant. Hoover was more concerned about getting rid of gay people and Jews, though, so it must have made his head spin that security was dependent on those awful Semites. (Yes, there is a very strong anti-Semitic streak with JEH — just read the way the files are worded).

  6. keithb:

    One of the funniest stories I heard was about Arlo Guthrie requesting his FBI file with an FOI request. His friends got back thick files full of FBI investigations, but Arlo’s file only had one piece of paper: The lyrics to “Coming in to Los Angeles”!

  7. harold:

    the Soviet Union extended Feynman an invitation to an all-expenses paid trip to a prestigious physics conference in Moscow

    The fact that the FBI was creepy and authoritarian does not change the fact that the Soviets were, too.

    The Soviets would have known that this invitation was almost certain to be discovered and to cause discomfort for Feynman. Their exact motivation is thus unclear. Even in 1955, they could have proposed a joint Soviet-US scientific conference on non-military topics in a neutral location, through a public channel.

    Sending an invitation like that was simply not very nice to Feynman. If he had loudly denounced it, it would have made him simultaneously look like a hypocrite playing McCarthy type games, while still getting him spied on by the FBI. If he didn’t denounce it but wisely didn’t accept it either, well, that’s what happened and we see how that worked. If he had accepted it, I think it’s very plausible that he would have been, shall we say, discouraged from returning to the US, and the fact that he would have been labeled a “communist” by US authoritarians for accepting it would have been one argument (although various other carrots and sticks would have surely also been deployed).

    Was this an exception or was the FBI spying on other prominent scientists as well?

    They were spying on other prominent scientists as well. To put it mildly.

    It is worth noting, not in defense of heavy-handed authoritarian tactics, but as a matter of historical accuracy, that there were many Soviet spies in the US at that time. Motivations ranged from misguided belief that Soviet communism represented the best hope for a humane and just future for humanity, through belief that the Soviet Union was stronger than the US, up to probably the most common, doing it for money and/or sex.

  8. harold:

    It’s also worth noting that “liberal ideas” in the context of those times mainly refers to support for the civil rights movement, although it may also refer to support for women’s rights.

    If Dwight D. Eisenhower came back to life, his economic ideas would be denounced by both contemporary parties as extreme and radical “leftism”.

    What Americans can’t seem to stand is the idea of a progressive, sustainable economic system without ethnic and gender discrimination.

    They were okay with progressive economics, as long as there was strong discrimination.

    They’re mainly tentatively okay with less overt discrimination, as long as it is compensated for by imposition of regressive, destructive economics, which disproportionately impair the opportunities of those who would have been openly discriminated against, but in a less overt way.

  9. raven:

    You’re probably right there. I’ve heard rumors that in some activist groups, the number of informants who attended the meetings outnumbered the actual activists.

    True.

    I’m sure it is still the case.

    They are easy to pick out. They are the ones who are advocating arson, bombings, or violence.

  10. timgueguen:

    The now defunct RCMP Security Service did the same kind of thing in Canada, and like the FBI kept up such silliness into the ’70s. There was much rolling of eyes several years ago when it was revealed that popular singer Rita McNeil was one of their investigation targets back in the early ’70s, along with various other women involved in the women’s movement at the time. The Security Service was worried about potential Communist infiltration of feminist groups. This was the same era when they were doing things like stealing the files of political groups in Quebec, and stealing dynamite to fake activities by the Quebec terrorist group the FLQ. The Service was eventually disbanded after such dirty tricks came to public attention.

  11. ambulocetacean:

    They are easy to pick out. They are the ones who are advocating arson, bombings, or violence.

    They are also the ones who pay their membership dues on time.

    If only the US had turned Lysenko. How different things could have been.

  12. wscott:

    but they kept treating him as a criminal anyway.

    Um, not really. It sounds like they were treating him like someone with a security clearance and with access to vital national secrets, who was having contact with foreign nationals. That’s a completely routine part of the package, and you’re told that up front when you first apply for a clearance. (Yes, Feynman was teaching at this point, but as a former Manhattan Project member he had in depth knowledge of America’s nuclear program and almost certainly retained his clearance.) Heck, *I* would get investigated if I was getting suspicious invites from foreign countries, and my clearance & access level aren’t a tenth as sensitive as Feynman’s was.

    Don’t like it? Fine. Don’t get a job that requires a security clearance.

    Similarly, all those other “informants”? Most of his colleagues had clearances too, which means they were legally *required* to report when a colleague has contact with a foreign power, etc. They could’ve lost their clearances -and therefore their jobs – if they had failed to do so.

    Seriously folks, I’m no fan of government spying either. But the Feds would’ve been criminally negligent if they hadn’t looked into this – that is part of their job.

  13. Modusoperandi:

    d cwilson “You’re probably right there. I’ve heard rumors that in some activist groups, the number of informants who attended the meetings outnumbered the actual activists.”
    Art mimics life

  14. jamessweet:

    harold, I think you have it about right with the invitation to the Moscow conference. We were, after all, in the middle of a Cold War with the Soviet Union at the time. It is a sad chapter in our history that everyone with left-leaning politics was under suspicion — an American should have every right to be a communist, even, if they want, it does not mean they are not loyal to the country — but it is totally understandable that people with ties to the Soviet Union were under suspicion. It would have been very unwise for Feynman to attend at that time, I think.

    Of course, he pretty much did exactly the right thing, and still got placed under suspicion and got no guidance from the US gov’t. That’s really shitty.

  15. jesse:

    The whole problem with spying on people like that is it actually does little to enhance security.

    Let me put it another way. WHen activist groups were defending themselves against informants, how did they do it?

    Easy. Be open, be democratic, allow everyone to have their say. Make a clear distinction between private behavior that has nothing to do with the task at hand and that which does. If someone has a problem you air it, even if it’s “you’re sleeping around.” Avoid gossip by airing stuff that you think affects the leadership. (You might say “I think your relationship with X is inappropriate and could hurt this movement, and while that is a private matter we need to make sure there are no conflicts of interest.”)

    None of this is a secret — several “activist guide” type pamphlets said just that. It works because in an environment where everyone feels they have a say and a stake, where there are no real secretes between the leadership and rank and file, where tactics are discussed openly, it’s impossible for the informant to find out anything useful to use against the leadership.

    The same applies to countries in some respects. When the system is open, transparent, and democratic, and people’s rights are respected, it’s actually harder for spies. If gay people are not villified, then there’s no way for me to blackmail a gay dude. If nobody cares that you were a member of the communist party, then there’s a sense of having a stake in the system and a spy has less of an “in.” If you treat everyone like a potential criminal, you create incentives to get paid for information. It’s a little bit like the simple solution to bribery of public officials: pay them enough to raise the price so that I can’t do it with a $5 gift cert at McDs.

    I’m not saying a military planner should broadcast his plans, but when you have an atmosphere of secrecy and arbitrary authoritarian behavior you sometimes encourage the very things you want to stop. Imagine the difference in behavior if a Soviet spy at the time said “I will tell your colleagues you went to a gay bar with me if you don’ pass me secrets” and the target person said “It’s okay nobody cares, go ahead and tell them and I’ll let ‘em know you were a cheap date.”

  16. caseloweraz:

    Feynman surely had an additional red flag raised against him because of his recreational habit, while at Los Alamos, of cracking safes for fun. IIRC, he would leave notes inside. Some of the informants must have reported that.

    I forget whether that’s from Surely You’re Joking or Confessions of a Curious Character.

  17. d cwilson:

    Feynman’s safe-cracking was actually done with an aim to help improve security at Los Alamos. When he found a cabinet that was easily broken into, he dutifully reported it to his superiors, hoping that they would move the files to a more secure facility.

    Instead, they responded by revoking his security access to those areas.

  18. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven:

    Seriously folks, I’m no fan of government spying either. But the Feds would’ve been criminally negligent if they hadn’t looked into this – that is part of their job.

    “It’s just my job” is equivalent to “just following orders” which hasn’t been an excuse since 1946.

    Try again.

  19. wscott:

    “It’s just my job” is equivalent to “just following orders” which hasn’t been an excuse since 1946.

    Bull Fucking Shit.

    One of the country’s top nuclear scientists receives an invitation from a hostile foreign government that is developing their own nuclear weapons program, and which is actively working to steal such secrets wherever they can. The government looks into it to see if there’s anything to worry about. No one is arrested; no one loses their job; no one even has their travel restricted.

    This you compare to complicity in the murder of 6 million innocent people? Godwin aside, I think there’s a teensy flaw in your analogy.

    You know all those outraged news stories after every “intelligence failure” complaining about how incompetent the CIA/FBI/etc are because they couldn’t “put the pieces together” of a puzzle that seems obvious in hindsight? These are exactly the types of pieces we’re talking about. The difference is that this puzzle seems obviously benign – again, with 20-20 hindsight.

    I’ll say it again: everyone who gets a government security clearance knows the rules; it’s part of the contract you sign. If Feynman were alive today and was presented with this info, he wouldn’t be the least surprised. That’s why he reported the invitation to the State Department, because he knew it would raise red flags. The fact that State didn’t communicate that to the FBI is unfortunate, but hardly Earth-shattering.

    Yeah, Hoover was a paranoid totalitarian dick who regarded “liberal” as a synonym for “commie” and “irreligious” as a synonym for “un-patriotic.” I’m not defending him. But those attitudes are hardly unique even today, let alone in 1950. Of Hoover’s (and the Bureau’s) many sins, this barely qualifies as a misdemeanor.

  20. Mr. Upright:

    That there was a file on him was no surprise. He worked on the most secret physics project in the history of the U.S. More importantly, at Los Alamos he was friends with Klaus Fuchs, an actual spy who gave nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

    However, the FBI attention to his atheism and liberalism certainly tells us much about our own history.

  21. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven:

    Yeah, Hoover was a paranoid totalitarian dick who regarded “liberal” as a synonym for “commie” and “irreligious” as a synonym for “un-patriotic.”

    But that’s “just doing his job.”

    I’m not defending him.

    Liar.

    But those attitudes are hardly unique even today, let alone in 1950.

    THAT’S THE PROBLEM, DUMBASS.

  22. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven:

    You know all those outraged news stories after every “intelligence failure” complaining about how incompetent the CIA/FBI/etc are because they couldn’t “put the pieces together” of a puzzle that seems obvious in hindsight?

    You don’t think wasting so much of their fucking time trying to dig up dirt on people who hold views they’re prejudiced against but have no logical relationship to any security threat might contribute to this? Just a teensy bit?

  23. harold:

    wscott –

    Actually, there’s a lot of truth to what you are saying.

    However, the reality is that even though the Soviet Union was a very legitimate threat, it’s also obvious that the FBI under Hoover behaved in an opportunistic and authoritarian way that consciously or unconsciously, and entirely inappropriately, often prioritized personal prejudice over respect for the constitution and rational defense of national security.

    Feynman’s career actually wasn’t destroyed by any of this (despite, as I noted, activities by the Soviets that seemed to be designed to get Feynman in trouble, no doubt with the intent of exploiting that situation). Many other people were severely impacted by unfair blacklisting and worse during the era.

    an American should have every right to be a communist, even, if they want, it does not mean they are not loyal to the country

    Everyone within the jurisdiction of the United States does have the right to be a communist, and always has, since the First Amendment was added to the constitution.

  24. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven:

    Everyone within the jurisdiction of the United States does have the right to be a communist, and always has, since the First Amendment was added to the constitution.

    …without undue interference. It was obvious what was meant. This is like “I don’t know. CAN you go to the bathroom?”

  25. wscott:

    also obvious that the FBI under Hoover behaved in an opportunistic and authoritarian way that consciously or unconsciously, and entirely inappropriately, often prioritized personal prejudice over respect for the constitution and rational defense of national security.

    Oh absolutely. And as I said, I’m not defending any of that. But that’s not what happened here. When Feynman applied for his first security clearance, he basically signed a contract with the US government agreeing to subject himself to a degree of scrutiny that would clearly be unconstitutional under other circumstances. Don’t like it? Fine – don’t sign. Looking into the affiliations and loyalties of people with high-level security clearances is not only completely routine, it’s actually consensual.

    (Sidebar: It’s not clear from the article if Feynman had an active clearance at this time or not. But given his previous clearance and access to top secret material, it’s not too surprising they kept an eye on him. IIRC the “look-back” period on such matters is 5-10 years?)

    Everyone within the jurisdiction of the United States does have the right to be a communist

    Again, I agree completely, and am not defending that. What happened to Oppenheimer, for example, was a national disgrace. Nonetheless, the government does have a responsibility to protect certain secrets. (And yes this gets way overused, but we are talking nukes here.)

    To take an imperfect modern comparison: if one of our leading nuclear researchers with top secret clearance and access to highly sensitive data had publicly expressed Jihadist views (no, I don’t mean just being a Muslim, but actual support for Al Queda) and had been personally invited by the Iranian government to a visit…. Yes, he has every legal right to hold those views. But do you really think the government shouldn’t look into that? Maybe ask around, see if this guy’s trustworthy or not? Again, I’m not saying this would warrant firing or revocation of his clearance (which in that field may amount to the same thing). But asking a couple questions? Hardly controversial.

    One correction, tho: I missed in the linked article that State did pass the invite on to the FBI. The more curious part to me is why it took them so long to take action either way. But we’ll likely never know the answer to that one.

  26. Marcus Ranum:

    I’ve heard rumors that in some activist groups, the number of informants who attended the meetings outnumbered the actual activists.

    That’s because the FBI officers are all literate, and are fans of GK Chesterton’s surrealist masterpiece “The Man Who Was Thursday.”

  27. Marcus Ranum:

    we are talking nukes here

    Actually, nuclear secrets are mostly irrelevant. As Feynman said, “the only secret about it, is that it works at all.” Once you know that, the rest is just difficult engineering. In fact the engineering is much much much more difficult than the physics and there aren’t any secret short-cuts – certain very expensive very obvious processes have to be performed. Fuchs’ transferring nuclear secrets to the USSR definitely boosted their program, but according to most of the accounts I’ve read it wasn’t that huge of a boost. Once they knew it could be done, they were able to reason backwards and it’s kind of “obvious.”

  28. Marcus Ranum:

    if one of our leading nuclear researchers with top secret clearance and access to highly sensitive data had publicly expressed Jihadist views (no, I don’t mean just being a Muslim, but actual support for Al Queda) and had been personally invited by the Iranian government to a visit…. Yes, he has every legal right to hold those views. But do you really think the government shouldn’t look into that?

    It’s a condition of having a clearance that high that you give up certain of your rights. They don’t phrase it exactly that way but that’s how it works out in practice. I have a friend who was a cryptographer at NSA who used to have to get permission whenever he went to a conference outside of the US.

    BTW, cryptographic secrets are probably more valuable than nuclear secrets. I’d guess approximately on par with information regarding agents in place.

  29. imthegenieicandoanything:

    What’s with the influx of “our fascists were OK!” folk? The USA needed Hoover like it needed genital herpes.

    If you think Hoover was a good guy, in any way, fuck off until your braain is reconnected.

  30. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven:

    And what’s with the fuckheads who think you can agree to be subjected to abuse of power?

  31. Pierce R. Butler:

    Eric R @ # 1: Hell, in ’55 if a local dog-catcher was going to the soviet union it would trigger a FBI investigation (under JEH) that likely would never end.

    Yet just a few years later, a certain defector closely involved with a major embarrassment to US military/intelligence operations returned from the USSR to the USA and roamed freely around the country with his new Russian wife, meeting up with all sorts of questionable characters. Whatever happened to Lee H. Oswald, anyway?

    d cwilson @ # 4: I’ve heard rumors that in some activist groups, the number of informants who attended the meetings outnumbered the actual activists.

    A friend of mine, former regional SE coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, later got a look at his (voluminous) FBI files. He found info proving that at many planning meetings he was the only non-informant/provocateur present. (Most of the “plants” were from different federal/state/local agencies, who reported back on each others’ tough talk and thereby kept themselves employed.)

    He also read the memo, signed by John Edgar Hoover, ordering his “neutralization” (which apparently led soon after to his being shot in the back by a plainclothes cop).

  32. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven:

    He also read the memo, signed by John Edgar Hoover, ordering his “neutralization” (which apparently led soon after to his being shot in the back by a plainclothes cop).

    A plainclothes cop who was just doing his job!

    Right, wscott?

  33. wscott:

    @ Marcus 27 & 28: Fair point re value of crypto secrets vs nukes.

    @ Imthegenieicandoanything: No one on this thread has said one word to defend Hoover. The nicest thing anyone has called him is “a paranoid totalitarian dick.”

    @ Azkyroth: Lemme know if you get near an actual argument, troll.

  34. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven:

    @ Imthegenieicandoanything: No one on this thread has said one word to defend Hoover. The nicest thing anyone has called him is “a paranoid totalitarian dick.”

    Except that you keep defending the way things were handled with Feynmann, where you are presenting your assertions as a counterpoint to what is being claimed in other comments. If you’re not defending Hoover or the inappropriate fixation on liberal politics or atheism for investigation then why the hell are you taking a pose of arguing with us, and doing your absolute best to be mistaken for a troll disingenuously arguing against a position we never asserted to try to undermine our actual positions?

    And why do you keep saying “I’m not defending…”? Even the first time it was convincing as “I’m not a racist, but…”

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