Security Clearance Denial

A Look Back in History on a 1954 Security Clearance Revocation

I thought we would take a step back in time and take a look at a security clearance denial case that occurred in 1954. Most people have heard of Robert Oppenheimer, world renowned physicist and his contribution to science. What may be less known is he was accused of disloyalty and being a national security risk by the McCarthy Administration due to having Communist acquaintances, as well as his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb. Despite having worked for the U.S. Government as an advisor for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for 11 years prior to this, the AEC chose to revoke his security clearance in June of 1954 based on unfounded accusations of being of low moral character and beyond tolerable limits in regard to having Communist friends and acquaintances.

The Federation of American Scientists, which included Albert Einstein, were outraged and protested the AEC’s decision. Although his clearance was never reinstated, Oppenheimer continued on in the field of physics, served as the Director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, and was awarded the AEC’s Enrico Fermi Award by President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. Back then it was a lot easier to deny a clearance based not on facts, but on purported conduct and character. These days there has to be facts to back up disqualifying factors. Using current adjudicative guidelines this case would have fallen under Guideline B: Foreign Influence and Guideline E: Personal Conduct.


  1. On this security clearance issue, Ray Monk in his biography on Oppenheimer ( Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk ) details an aspect to the security clearance process in the 1950’s that has certainly been scrapped, namely, the ‘Caesar’s wife’ concept.

    As Monk explains (sorry I can’t cite page I have an electronic copy):

    The struggle was between upholders of two different concepts of security: the “Caesar’s wife” concept and the “whole man” concept. The phrase “Caesar’s wife” comes from the motto “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” which dates from the time that Julius Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia, was suspected of adultery. Caesar divorced her, not because he believed her to be guilty, but merely because the question of her guilt had been raised. “My wife,” he famously declared, “ought not even to be under suspicion.”

    The “Caesar’s wife” concept of security, in Green’s words, held that “if there was any significant derogatory information at all that might be true, clearance should not be granted; and there was no need to waste time and money in trying to find out whether or not the information was true.” The “whole man” approach, on the other hand, held that “it was unfair to those enmeshed in the security net and to the atomic energy program itself to deny security clearance merely on the basis of derogatory information without giving the individual an opportunity to set the record straight and without considering favorable information that might outweigh the blemishes, as well as the importance of the individual to the nuclear program.”

    Shame, the ‘Caesar’s wife’ concept seems like a good one.

  2. And under what category would his opposition to to hydrogen bomb research and support for civilian and international nuclear controls and regulations fall under?

  3. I don’t think the “Caesar’s Wife” concept would work well today.

    It’s too easy to make baseless claims about people on social media, where the court of public perception takes a “guilty until proven innocent” approach that can often ruin the reputations and livelihoods of people even if they are proven “innocent”.

  4. Someone’s mere personal opposition to and/or criticism of a government policy is not— and should never be— an issue. I presume this was also the case in the 1950’s security clearance process.

  5. I don’t think the “Caesar’s Wife” concept would work well today.

    You’re right. Such a thing could only work in a high-order, high-trust society, something which nowadays we only have vestiges of. But in theory the ‘Caesar’s wife’ concept seems like a good m.o., even if just reserved for the highest levels.

  6. It definitely would weed out more bad apples, but potentially at the expense of missing out on more good apples.

    It’s a trade-off like many things in life.

  7. The quickest and easiest way to get a clearance is to get politically elected into one. Your background, behaviors, allegiances, foreign involvements, undocumented relatives, financial history, and of course your wife’s reputation are of no significant matter once you get elected. The Caesar’s wife concept is moot at the highest levels.