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Nuclear Sorehead
How Howard Morland Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Bomb

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2000; Page C01

Howard Morland stands amid a clot of peaceniks outside the Israeli Embassy, placard in hand. He's been out here once a month for three years, protesting on behalf of an Israeli nuclear technician named Mordechai Vanunu.

Israel considers Vanunu a traitor for telling the Sunday Times of London in 1986 about its atomic weapons program and sentenced him to 18 years in jail. Morland considers him a hero, a prisoner of conscience.

Joined by a couple of retirees from his church, Dumbarton United Methodist in Georgetown, some activists from the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and a group from the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House, he is holding a posterboard copy of the Sunday Times front page from the day Vanunu went public.

Like clockwork, the group will gather again at noon today.

Most Americans have never heard of Vanunu, let alone rallied to his cause. None, certainly, have come to watch this quixotic exercise in persistence. Even the Israeli security agent across the street looks bored.

But Morland, 57, a tall and rangy Tennessee native who once flew jets for the Air Force, is not deterred. He's been fighting against nuclear weapons for the better part of three decades, and he's not about to quit now.

Does the name ring a bell? In 1979, Morland's 15 minutes of fame stretched into six months after he set out to publish the "secret" of the hydrogen bomb in an obscure left-wing magazine called the Progressive.

Although Morland's piece was drawn mainly from encyclopedias and contained no classified information, the Carter administration went to court and blocked publication from March to October of that year.

The government argued that Morland's description of how radiation from one part of an H-bomb triggers thermonuclear fusion in another--essentially an educated guess on his part--would "irreparably impair the national security." United States v. The Progressive, as its known in the law books, remains the country's longest case of prior restraint on national security grounds. It came to an end only after a small Wisconsin newspaper also divined the "secret" of thermonuclear fusion and published its own version of the H-bomb's design, prompting government lawyers to drop the case.

Morland still calls it his "big adventure."

But these days, even as he stands outside the Israeli Embassy, Morland has become engrossed by another nuclear-secrets case involving a suspected traitor: Wen Ho Lee, the American scientist who was under investigation in connection with the government's inquiry into the possible theft by China of data relating to the W-88, a small thermonuclear warhead that is this country's most sophisticated atomic weapon.

"I thought I had revealed all the interesting H-bomb secrets some twenty years ago in The Progressive magazine," he writes in a recent essay on the Web, ruminating about the Lee case and his life in the disarmament trade. "One of my purposes then, as now, was to argue that nuclear bomb secrets are a hoax and that public understanding of nuclear arsenals is a necessary step in the quest for nuclear disarmament. This idea was, and remains, a hard sell."

Morland admits he does not know whether Lee is a spy. But he feels quite certain that a few scraps of classified information about a 20-year-old warhead--a warhead he believes China could undoubtedly build on its own--isn't going to damage national security.

He also feels quite certain that the political hysteria over suspected Chinese espionage at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories is related to the Senate's vote last March to deploy a missile defense system and its rejection in October of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

"It achieves a certain political agenda to prosecute Wen Ho Lee," he says. "It achieves a certain political agenda to ditch the test ban treaty."

Morland traces his own personal connection to the W-88 to 1977 when he was demonstrating outside a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, N.H. He was arrested with a group of protesters who urged him to accompany them to Groton, Conn., to demonstrate against a new target: the Trident submarine, replete with its new D-5 ballistic missile and a sophisticated, miniaturized thermonuclear warhead, the W-88.

Morland's focus shifted from power plants to H-bombs and took him to Washington--and fame, at least for a time. He wrote a book about the Progressive case in 1981, "The Secret That Exploded," and then settled down. He bought a two-story brick Colonial in Arlington and married his wife, Barbara, who is now head of the main reading room at the Library of Congress.

He became a suburban, middle-class anti-nuclear activist, contenting himself over the years with small, symbolic victories in a land that seemed to forget all about his cause once the Cold War went away.

"I devoted the 1980s to a grass-roots and legislative campaign against the D-5 ballistic missile," Morland writes in his essay, which has been published on the Federation of American Scientists Web site (www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/morland.html). "We never got more than 100 votes in the House of Representatives, but each year we got an hour or so of debate during floor consideration of the Defense authorization bill."

Morland admits to burning out in the late '80s. "I figured I'd let the professionals handle it for a while," he says.

But the bureaucrats and the politicians have managed things badly, he says, and he's re-energized. "I really think this is the story of the century, but it's hard to sell," he says. "The human mind has a hard time wrapping itself around the destruction of the human race."

So Morland and other like-minded souls gather outside the Israeli Embassy once a month, hoping to embarrass the Israeli government into releasing Vanunu for telling the world what it already knew.

After an hour, Morland quietly walks to his 1980 Volvo, parked half a block down Van Ness Street. A mock-up H-bomb, a lecture prop he's used for years, is belted into the back seat.

Is he having an impact?

"I've decided it doesn't matter," Morland says. "It isn't doing any harm--and doing something is better than doing nothing."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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