For his entire career in government service, and on and off for the rest of his life, J. Robert Oppenheimer was being watched. Sometimes by nondescript men in gray suits sitting in unmarked sedans, sometimes by anonymous upstanding citizens who kept an eye on him and reported back to governmental contacts, sometimes by G-men who followed him openly without even trying to hide. Sometimes they tapped his phone, bugged his office (and his lawyer's office), and checked up on his friends and colleagues.
Oppenheimer's FBI file runs to over 10,000 pages. Yet in all those years of surveillance, not once did investigators uncover a single instance of impropriety, disloyalty, treason, or criminal activity.
Here are a few of those pages (not among those included in A Life in Twilight),
a testament to the hounding and harassment of an innocent American
citizen, not to mention a monumental waste of tax dollars.
From the time the Atomic Energy Commission instituted its case against Oppenheimer and suspended his security clearance in December 1953, he was under FBI surveillance instigated by AEC Commissioner Lewis Strauss. Not only were Oppenheimer's private meetings with his attorneys bugged, but as this document indicates, his home phone was tapped and his movements carefully dogged by FBI agents. But spying costs money -- so after Strauss finally succeeded in getting Oppenheimer kicked out of government service, the Bureau politely suggests that maybe it's about time to pack up the bugs and send the G-men home...
Having removed the Oppenheimer thorn from his side at long last, Strauss agreed to call off the boys from the Bureau...but not for long. Especially when Oppenheimer starts doing suspicious things like planning a vacation.
Even for the professionals, keeping a close eye on a prominent public figure like Oppenheimer was a challenge, particularly when you're trying to avoid "any possible embarrassment to the Bureau." Here, the boys from the local FBI office in charge of the job fill J. Edgar Hoover in on some of the difficulties, using official FBI-speak such as "SA" (special agent), "FISUR" (short for "physical surveillance," i.e., staking out the subject and following him around), and "TESUR" (technical surveillance, i.e., bugging and phone taps).
Lewis Strauss was a man who never gave up on a good grudge. It wasn't enough for him to have masterminded a brilliantly effective campaign to destroy Oppenheimer's political influence and remove him of all his governmental advisory positions. In his capacity as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, Strauss sought to strip Oppenheimer of the one thing he had left: his position as Director of the Institute. And when talk began to circulate that Oppie might be offered a position overseas, perhaps in England, Strauss did his best to torpedo that prospect as well.
Oppenheimer tried to put the whole ordeal of his security hearing behind him by taking a vacation in the Virgin Islands in the summer of 1954. But even though he was now a private citizen, no longer working for the government, and supposedly as free as any other American (despite the fact that, as we've seen above, he remained under FBI surveillance), a routine vacation was a little too much to expect. As soon as he and his family returned to the States and landed at Idlewild airport, even before they could pick up their baggage, they found that they had an unexpected appointment with a couple of anxious FBI agents...