Researcher Earns Distinguished Fellowship to Study Relationship Between War, National Security, and Secrecy

By Tom McLaughlin

The role of the controversial state secrets privilege in America’s past and present has long been murky and mysterious.  Now, a Rutgers University–Camden researcher is seeking to shed light on this critical element of national security and its impact on contemporary American life.

Epstein says that earning the 2018 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars will allow her time to write her second book

“In particular,” says Kate Epstein, an associate professor of history at Rutgers–Camden, “we need to understand how the acquisition of advanced weapons technologies required to compete in modern wars and to maintain national security has challenged the United States’ commitment to liberal values, including government transparency and the protection of private property rights.”

Epstein is advancing her exploration of the complex – and often at-odds – relationship between national security and liberal values, thanks to earning a 2018 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars.

The fellowship, awarded by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), supports recently tenured faculty as they pursue ambitious scholarship opportunities at a pivotal point in their careers. The award carries a $95,000 stipend and a $7,500 research budget, and allows recipients to take up yearlong residencies at institutions whose resources and scholarly communities are ideally suited to facilitate their proposed research projects.

The Philadelphia resident says that the fellowship will allow her the time to write her second book.

“I am deeply grateful to the ACLS for giving me that opportunity, and to Rutgers–Camden for enabling me to take advantage of it,” says Epstein, who explored the complicated relationship between government and private industry in her first book, Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain (Harvard University Press, 2014).

Epstein adds that she is “super excited” to spend a year working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a longtime personal and scholarly goal of hers.

“I’ve wanted to spend time there since I had read George Kennan’s description of it in his memoirs,” she says, referring to the Cold War-era American diplomat and historian.

Epstein plans to devote her scholarship to discovering the hidden history behind the “State Secrets Privilege,” a controversial government privilege that has cropped up in the news recently as a result of the ongoing “war on terror.”

Epstein’s first book explored the complicated relationship between government and private industry

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, this privilege, which was formally established in a 1953 U.S. Supreme Court case, allows the U.S. government the right to refuse the disclosure of information in judicial proceedings that it claims would compromise state secrets, thereby enabling the government to withhold this information from scrutiny.

Recently, says Epstein, people claiming to be victims of CIA rendition and torture have tried to sue the U.S. government. However, when they have asked the government to turn over evidence to help them make their case, the government has responded by asserting the state secrets privilege.

Epstein plans to examine closely a little-known case from the late 1930s involving computers and defense contractors to show how the concept of state secrets became embedded in U.S. law and policy earlier than thought, and with ramifications that persist to the present day.

“The case illustrates previously unknown connections between the atomic secrecy regime of World War II and the early Cold War on the one hand, and World War I-era defense contracting on the other,” she says.

In so doing, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the case suggests a new narrative about the history of the national-security state: one beginning decades before the Cold War, and driven by the need to acquire advanced military technology generally rather than atomic weapons specifically.

In addition, says Epstein, her project reveals how the concept of state secrets was bound up with a significant episode of international technology transfer that hampered scientific and technological cooperation between the United States and Great Britain at the start of World War II.

“In sum, it demonstrates that we cannot understand the modern national-security state with its vast powers to classify information as secret by starting its history in the mid-20th century and restricting it to the United States,” says. “This is a transnational story with longer roots.”

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