Air Force Gen. Lew Allen Jr., 84; headed NSA, NASA lab

Gen. Lew Allen Jr. was a former Air Force chief of staff.
Gen. Lew Allen Jr. was a former Air Force chief of staff. (Associated Press)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Retired Gen. Lew Allen Jr., a nuclear physicist who led the National Security Agency and served as the senior uniformed officer in the Air Force before heading NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1980s, died Jan. 4 at home in Potomac Falls of complications from rheumatoid arthritis. He was 84.

In a career spanning more than 40 years, Gen. Allen was a highly regarded scientist and administrator whose work touched on atomic testing, space exploration and a variety of clandestine projects. He achieved a four-star rank in the military without having held a combat command position and was known for being tight-lipped.

One profile of Gen. Allen asserted that he had a less-than-rollicking sense of humor. "If a joke walks by," a colleague said, "he salutes it."

In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon named Gen. Allen director of the National Security Agency, which monitors overseas communications. During his four-year tenure, the agency was scrutinized for conducting surveillance of U.S. citizens' international phone calls.

In response, Gen. Allen emerged from obscurity to make rare public statements about the agency's work in testimony before Congress. He said little before the House intelligence committee in August 1975, saying that "unwise revelations" could undermine U.S. interests. Two months later, testifying before the Senate intelligence committee chaired by Frank Church (D-Idaho), Gen. Allen described how the agency had indeed monitored communications between 1967 and 1973 by 1,600 American citizens who appeared on a watch list.

The eavesdropping prevented "a major terrorist attack," Gen. Allen said, and "some large drug shipments were prevented from entering the U.S."

The disclosure helped push Congress to establish a secret court responsible for issuing warrants for domestic wiretapping. It also set off a still-relevant debate between those who called the agency's techniques intrusive and unconstitutional and others who thought the government's actions were necessary to ensure the nation's security.

From 1978 to 1982, Gen. Allen served as the Air Force's 10th chief of staff and one of the principal military advisers to presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. After his military retirement in 1982, he spent eight years guiding NASA's unmanned space program during a period in which it sought to develop more space-related defense programs.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., he oversaw the Galileo mission to Jupiter, which provided the only direct observations of a comet colliding with a planet; the Magellan mission to Venus, which mapped the planet and its gravity field; and the only fly-bys of Uranus and Neptune, by the spacecraft Voyager 2.

In 1990, Gen. Allen led a NASA investigation into a faulty mirror on the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope, which had been launched that year. His report, issued in November 1990, concluded that a flawed test instrument used by the mirror's manufacturer, Perkin-Elmer Corp., was to blame. The federal government settled with Perkin-Elmer for $25 million.

Lew Allen Jr. was born in Miami on Sept. 30, 1925, and grew up in Gainesville, Tex., after his parents separated. After graduating in 1946 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he flew B-29 bombers at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas before returning to school at the University of Illinois for graduate training in nuclear physics. There he received a master's degree in 1952 and, two years later, a doctorate in physics.

He went on to specialize in the military effects of nuclear weapons, studying high-altitude nuclear explosions and developing satellite and missile systems. For his work on some of the nation's most secret programs, Gen. Allen was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2007. His other honors included the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Barbara Frink Allen of Potomac Falls; five children, Barbara Miller of Annandale, Marjorie A. Dauster of North Haven, Conn., Christie A. Jameson of the Woodlands, Tex., Lew Allen III of Anchorage and James G. Allen of London; 13 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Gen. Allen guarded his privacy as well as the secrets of the government he served. The son of a newspaperman who once wanted to be a reporter, he took pains to avoid the press. "Anonymity," he told the New York Times in 1975, "is something we treasure."

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