CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- It was supposed to be a kind of detective story, the clever unmasking of the identity of a former Manhattan Project scientist who may have passed atomic secrets to the Soviets during World War II.
Instead, it has turned into an acrimonious battle to preserve the reputation of one of the nation's most revered scientists, after charges of espionage were leveled against him by a respected public-interest activist and author.
What makes the story especially odd and poignant is that the two men were longtime friends. They are unlikely to be again.
The story exploded with the publication in April of a memoir by Jeremy Stone, son of the crusading independent reporter I. F. Stone and, for the last 30 years, president of the Federation of American Scientists. In the book's next-to-last chapter, he details a series of conversations and visits with a scientist he calls Scientist X, who he comes to believe was a Soviet spy, code-named Perseus.
But Scientist X was easily identified as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Philip Morrison, who then sent Stone a letter detailing clear-cut discrepancies that show he could not have been Perseus. Stone responded with a terse letter acknowledging the discrepancies, and saying that "I can only accept your denial that you are Perseus."
Given Stone's failure to apologize for his allegations or to change the book, some members of the federation are debating whether stronger remedies might be appropriate. Documents summarizing the tale were sent to members of the federation's governing board last month.
"I was just outraged" by the unsubstantiated charges in Stone's book "Every Man Should Try," says Priscilla McMillan, a professor at Harvard University's Russian Research Center and secretary of the federation. Despite Stone's attempts to conceal Morrison's identity, she says, "anybody who knew anything about the history of the Manhattan Project would know who it was."
While both men are held in high regard, several scientists and historians who know them both express dismay at Stone's actions and unreserved support for Morrison. "I think Phil is unscathed by this," says Frank von Hippel, chairman of the federation's nonprofit foundation.
As for Stone, von Hippel says, "some people would like him to apologize."
It began with the 1991 publication of a series of articles by Col. Vladimir Chikov, and then a 1994 book by Pavel Sudoplatov. Both are former KGB officials who mentioned Perseus as having been one of a half-dozen scientists who they claim provided Soviet agents during World War II with secret information about the development of the atomic bomb.
In fact, there were obvious discrepancies between Morrison and the Perseus described by Chikov, making it clear that Morrison could not have been that spy -- if, indeed, such a person ever existed.
The articles refer to Perseus having been recruited by the KGB during a visit to his ill parents in New York, but Morrison's parents lived in Philadelphia at the time. They say that Perseus was fighting with the International Brigades in Spain, whereas Morrison, as he pointed out in his letter to Stone, "was never plausible infantry material." Morrison, stricken with polio as a child, always walked with a severe limp and a cane.
If the discrepancies were so clear, what led Stone to make his identification in the first place? It all appears to have been based on a turn of phrase and on interpretations of body language.
The first clue, Stone says in his book, was a few sentences attributed to Perseus in the Chikov articles, describing his motivations for providing atomic information to Russia. Unlike more recent spy cases, there was no financial motive here; Perseus apparently believed that for the United States alone to have the bomb would be a dangerous and unstable situation, and that it was important for the Soviet Union to join the nuclear club as quickly as possible to restore a balance of power.
Stone thought the sentiments and one particular phrase sounded like those of his friend Morrison -- even though, as he acknowledged, the quote had been translated from English to Russian and back again and then edited.
Morrison not only denies the identification, he strongly repudiates the sentiments ascribed to the wartime Perseus. "No, I didn't feel that way," he says. "I think it's simply wrong."
After getting this hunch that Perseus might be Morrison, Stone recounts that in 1994, he visited Morrison and his wife twice to try to sound them out. But, as he makes clear in the book, he never actually stated what was on his mind, instead talking in broad terms about Perseus and about trying to get that person to tell his story.
In those meetings, Stone says that Morrison became so fearful that his knees shook, and that Phylis Morrison's reactions seemed to confirm his suspicions.