First-Hand:Two Years in Washington
Submitted by A. Michael Noll, September 23, 2022
© Copyright 2022
This piece documents my memories of the two years 1971-73 that I worked in Washington at the Office of Science and Technology at the Executive Office of the President.
Off To Washington
Around June 1971, I resigned from Bell Labs and went to Washington to join the staff of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) at the Executive Office of the President (EOP). The Director of OST (Dr. Edward E. David, Jr.) was also the Science Advisor to President Nixon. My office was the Southwest corner of the Old Executive Office Building (old EOB) on the second floor, with a private toilet. My areas of responsibility were digital computer technology and issues involving computer exports, computer security, and privacy.
I had just earned my Ph.D. from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. At the graduation ceremony, Ed David had received an honorary doctorate, and he came down from the platform to shake my hand when I received my doctorate. The next week after, I arrived in Washington, but I knew little of Washington, the Executive Office, and science policy. I was “in over my head.”
I was “adopted” by Hugh Loweth of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB0 and also by Doug Hogan of the National Security Agency (NSA). They were great teachers and mentors. Dr. Norm Neureiter of OST was also a great colleague. Dr. John Msys taught me much about education, and was himself responsible for the creation of the Federal Department of Education. John and I would renew our friendship decades later after he retired to Malibu and I was a professor at the USC Annenberg School.
Dr. William O. Baker was Vice President, Research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He had considerable influence in Washington at the White House, and was an unofficial advisor to many presidents, including Richard Nixon. It was Baker who sent Ed David in 1970 to be Science Advisor to Nixon. And it was Baker who sent me to join Ed David’s staff.
I will always remember the day Baker telephoned me in my office at Bell Labs and asked me how I would respond if I were asked to join David in Washington. Baker was Dr. John R. Pierce’s boss, and by telephoning me directly, Baker has skipped many levels of my management. I responded to Baker that it would be my duty to help the country. A few days later, David’s secretary, Maryanne Sembrot, invited me to visit Dr. David, and the official job offer was made to me – I accepted. My job level was GS-16. I did not know it then, but this was equivalent to a rear admiral, or brigadier general in the military.
My mother and I were living in Newark, New Jersey, and we had become community activists, working with an upper Clinton Hill neighborhood group. I investigated and wrote reports (case studies) about social programs affecting Newark. One program involved federally assisted code enforcement (FACE); another involved rats on city streets. Both programs were failures, with ineptness and corruption. Copies of my reports had gone to Baker, and from him to Ed David. The reports might have been why Baker and David sent me to Washington.
I had no idea what I would be actually doing at OST. What I had doing at Bell Labs involved digital computers in research, computer graphics and animation, speech science and technology, and engineering research. I guessed correctly that I would not be doing such technical work at OST, and would be involved in science and technology policy, but I had no idea what that was.
Washington involves a steep learning curve: some learn – others do not. Nothing is a definite black or white – everything is gray – hazy, with complicated arguments in favor of one side or the other. But, there needs to be personal standards, along with a sense of duty to the country, as the haze is navigated.
I remember leaving the old EOB one day by the front, walking down the steps and across the court yard, and out the iron fence. As I saw people on the sidewalk coming from their jobs and going home, I realized that they probably knew as much as what was going on and what to do as all the experts behind me working in the EOB.
I replaced Col. Andrew (Andy) Aines, who was chairman and responsible for the Committee on Scientific and Technical Information (COSATI) of the Federal Council on Science and Technology (FCST), which was staffed by OST. COSATI had become huge, and promoted the concept that the objective Federal research in science and technology was to create information, and that information had to be controlled and promulgated. Its time had passed, and Andy left OST. I inherited his corner office and his secretary, Mrs. FitzHugh, who was a great help in guiding me through the intricacies of OST and the EOB.
The science and technology information community was unhappy with me, since COSATI was perceived as decreased in importance by being removed from OST, and I did not promote their bureaucracy. I actually warned them that few in Washington understood what they were all about. I learned that Washington bureaucracies can be changed, but doing so makes enemies. The work done by COSATI was transferred to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Office of Science Information.
All sorts of initial security clearances had to be obtained for me, after formal investigation of my background. During my two years at OST, I had many clearances, including sensitive letter adjuncts to Top Secret required by such agencies as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Q clearance of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). But, of course, classified information was not simply available to me unless I had a “need to know.”
There was a very secure room at the old EOB down the hallway from my corner office where Top Secret documents were stored and could be examined there if need be. We had file cabinets as safes, rated for an hour. One evening when I was working late, a guard came to me that a secure cabinet had been left open in an office down the hallway. The guard had to stay the night to be sure all was OK. I did not want to even touch a Secret document – it was a “hot potato.”
There was a delicious cafeteria in the basement of the EOB – I first met Hugh Loweth there. At our initial meeting, Hugh thought that I was just another one of those naïve science people. Hugh taught me well though and expanded my knowledge and critical skepticism of the nonsense and self-centeredness of much of the S&T community. I had become so questioning and critical of the National Science Foundation (NSF) that it did not want me in their building – I was persona non grata.
Some of the professional staff at OST were political appointees, approved by the White House. Although Director of OST, Ed David did not have total control over who worked there. Of course, the administrative people, such as secretaries, were all civil servants. The physical office and career civil servants would stay, but the political appointees would come and go.
Washington was (and is) awash in an alphabet soup of acronyms. I had to learn them all. Also, some use “the” as a prefix – others do not. So it was OST – not the OST. It was OMB – not the OMB. But it was the EOP. It was the NEOB (New Executive Office Building) and the EOB. NSA was NSA – and sometimes the NSA. CIA also could be either with or without “the.” Lengthy discussions might occur about the use of “the” for an agency. It was always the White House. In the end, there did not seem to be any rule or real logic to how an agency was addressed – it was just tradition.
“Dr.” was used for most of the professional staff at OST. Dr. David was always referred that way – so too was Dr. Kissinger. Some budget examiners in OMB had doctorates, but did not use their title.
Dr. David’s secretary was able to monitor his telephone calls. There was a small switch on her telephone director that enabled her to listen, but not be heard. She was able to take notes of any commitments and dates that he made. My secretary had a similar ability, but I instructed her never to monitor my calls. I also usually answered my own telephone calls when the phone rang. These were the days before personal computers, and I usually dictated my correspondence and memos to her. She (Mrs. FitzHugh) was a valued professional, while I was just another member of OST who came and went. In the end, we all went, but more of that later.
While I was at Bell Labs, I did research in determining the fundamental frequency of speech. Under the direction of Dr. Manfred Schroeder, I worked on the cepstrum method of pitch detection. This research was applicable to speech bandwidth compression – vocoders. The NSA was very interested in this technology for speech encryption, and hence knew of my research, although I knew little of the NSA. When I arrived in Washington, it was natural that NSA would contact me, and that person was Doug Hogan.
Hogan had worked in speech research at the NSA and hence knew my work at Bell Labs. We had met at meetings of the Acoustical Society of America. I was responsible for computer security at OST – Doug was working on computer security for the NSA. We cooperated with each other. Doug was probably “using” me to show the importance of computer security because of the EOP interest in the topic. Doug would bring me along to all sorts of meetings of researchers and professionals. I remember that we visited Cheyenne Mountain to see the computers at NORAD there. I met the famed computer scientist Ted Glaser through Doug.
I realized that the civilian side of the economy would require encryption to provide computer security, and that the NSA should help. I discussed this with NSA administrators, who tried to convince me to get NSA more funding from OMB. In the end, NSA transferred one of its people with all the appropriate crypto security clearances to the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). Dr. Ruth M. Davis was director of the Institute for Computer Sciences and Technology at the NBS.
New Technological Opportunities Program (NTOP)
William (Bill) Magruder had promoted the super sonic transport (SST) for civilian use. When it was abandoned, the White house and Nixon wanted to reward Magruder. Accordingly, a program to promote new technological opportunities was created, with Magruder as its director – the New Technological Opportunities Program (NTOP). Usually, such a new program would have been the responsibility of the OST, but Ed David and his office were bypassed. There were tensions between OST and NTOP. I remember when a staff person at the NTOP invited me to see its new copy machine. Having your own copy machine was a sign that your had really arrived.
Agencies across the government submitted their ideas for new technological opportunities, or initiatives, as they were called. Many agencies just re-polished old ideas form the past that had not been funded. The Aerospace Corporation submitted a costly program of people movers for cities, consisting of intelligent little vehicles that would move about a city of elevated roadways. Another program proposed to straighten the northeast rail corridor. Ed David became interested and had me create an initiative for computer literacy.
OMB was watching all this with much skeptical interest. The NTOP was in the new EOB along with OMB and was easy to observe. The Christmas holiday arrived, and the NTOP staff took off. OMB spent the holiday working on the President’s budget submission and was in an even more skeptical and nasty mood. The budgetary knives went to work, and the NTOP was decimated. The NTOP staff returned from holiday to discover that the NTOP was no more. A small research program in the NSF was created to handle any political negativism.
I learned that OMB held the power in Washington those years. OST was moved from the old EOB to the new EOB across the street. OMB was in the same building. When agency budgets were due for examination by OMB, the agency representative would come to the building to submit their proposals. They would be nervously shaking in the elevator as they went to see their budget examiners.
Joint US-USSR Program -- Application of Computers to Management
The early 1970s were at the height of the Cold War, and many issues revolved around the Soviet Union and technology. The Nixon administration, guided in foreign affairs by Henry Kissinger, was attempting to open up the Soviet Union by increased interpersonal contact. Nixon went to Moscow and an agreement to cooperate in science was signed. The OST was responsible for implementing it. Ed David went to Moscow along with his secretary Maryanne Sembrot. She told me that a male went to her hotel room and attempted to compromise her with an offer of sex. She had been warned in advance that these kinds of attempts might happen.
One area of cooperation was the application of computers to management. A joint US/USSR committee was formed to plan the specifics of this area of cooperation, with me as the co-chair of the US portion, and Dr. Rameev as the co-chair of the USSR portion. I think that is how his name was spelt.
Dr. Rameev and the Soviet delegation came to the United States to visit industrial institutions and also to agree to the specifics. The Soviets landed at JFK airport, and my first meeting with them was at the Pan Am terminal. They all had thick overcoats and were accompanied by a woman handler, perhaps KGB. One or two Soviets went quickly to get US newspapers, and I sensed they were starved for news from the West. They were put up at a hotel in New York City for the first days.
The US State Department had hired a person to accompany the Soviets and help them navigate the US. That person would telephone me every evening to let me know how they were doing. I remember when day at the end of their visit when they had a free day in New York City and went shopping at Macy’s, mostly for woman’s underwear for their families back home. Our person told the details to me.
One person on the US delegation was Harvey McMains of AT&T. He was very helpful with concrete suggestions for areas of cooperation. At AT&T, he was responsible for corporate planning. Bill Baker has nominated Robert Prim of Bell Labs to be on the committee, but when I vetted Prim, it was clear that he did not have the appropriate background. However, Prim had succeeded John Pierce at Bell Labs as executive director of the research area in which I had worked.
The Soviets hosted a reception for the joint committee at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. There were so many antennas on the roof of the building for intelligence gathering that it looked like a battleship. The front door was so solid that I thought it could stop a tank. There were guards after the door that looked like they could stop an army. The reception was on the second floor with plenty of vodka and caviar. I was warned not to get into any conversations with a Soviet without having my own translator present. I was also warned that the reception would end promptly at the appointed time – and it did. The room was large and elaborate, with plenty of gold paint. I asked one of the embassy people for a tour of their building – which, of course, I did not get.
At the end of the weeklong visit, Dr. Rameev and I met at the State Department to work out the formal, written details of our area the application of computers to management. In advance, the framework was that the cooperation would mostly involve academics, and that the US government could not order industry to make technology or industrial knowledge available to the Soviets. However, Dr. Rameev clearly was under instructions from back home to get access to that industrial technology. I made it clear that this was not what had been agreed to as the overall framework. I remember stating that clearly we would not be able to agree and have a signed agreement. I knew Dr. David and the White House would be disappointed, but I had the freedom to fail in signing an agreement. Dr. Rameev said something in Russian that was translated as, “Dr. Rameev cannot go home if he does not have a signed agreement.” He did not have the freedom to fail – I did. So “I won,” and we had a signed agreement precisely along the lines as the framework.
I worried about how this would be viewed back home when he returned to the Soviet Union. Indeed, he disappeared and a new person appeared claiming to be the Soviet chair of the committee. I had left Washington by then, but was concerned about this Cold War intrigue and worried about what might have happened to Dr. Rameev. A few years later, he reappeared, and I was relieved that he had survived.
After the Soviets had returned back to Russia, I got a call from an intelligence officer who wanted to know whether any of the members of the Soviet joint committee were particularly pro-Western. The answer would have been “Yes,” but I was annoyed that a White House initiative was being used by the intelligence folks and also worried that if I gave names there might be a security leak and someone would die in Russia as a result. So, I told the officer who had called me that they were all loyal Soviets.
Educational Technology – Being an engineer, I thought that the solution to the problems and challenges of education involved educational l technology – computers to assist learning. Dr. John Mays was responsible at OST for education. When I first met him, he gave me books to read that described the broader issues of education. Technology was not the solution. John would be instrumental in the creation of the Federal Department of Education. He retired to Malibu years later, and we renewed our friendship while I was working in Southern California.
The Attica Incident - The Attica Prison riot occurred in late 1971, and resulted in many fatalities before being finally ended. I was told to form a committee to investigate the idea of installing pipes in prisons so that in case of a riot, gas could be pumped through the pipes to put the prisoners instantly to sleep. I recognized that this idea was politically a disaster and was far too similar to past atrocities. I refused the order, and was threatened that I would be fired. However, Ed David and Frank Pagnotta came to my rescue.
A committee was formed though, and concluded that any chemical that would put prisoners to sleep quickly would also result in some deaths. The idea was dropped. I envisioned the scandal of newspaper headlines that the Nixon administration was investigating gassing prisoners. I realized that political considerations were very important in decisions and what actions were taken.
I also learned that the Executive Office of the President (EOP) was huge, with many little departments and offices. Any person in any one of these many offices could do something embarrassing to the White House and president without their tacit knowledge or approval. The EOP was yet another Washington bureaucracy.
Assistance to OMB - OST volunteered to help OMB evaluate programs for the budget cycle. I volunteered to look at the Smithsonian and work with its OMB budget examiner. He asked me to look at the National Zoo. I contacted its director, Dr. Ted Reed who invited me for a visit. One late afternoon, I visited him at the Zoo. I recall him showing me the feline house, and I watched him scratch the back, through the cage bars, of one is its tigers, that purred. He also showed me the reptile house. When he turned on the lights, the floor was covered with roaches. They crunched under our feet. Insecticides could not be used since the reptiles would then eat the roaches and get poisoned. He thought frogs might be a solution. I was impressed with his plans for the Zoo and recommended to OMB that funding be increased.
Electric Automobiles - Jack Hope was a staff person at OST. He was from Cummins Engines and told me his idea for an electric automobile. The car would be powered by electric motors that would act as generators for braking to recharge the battery. A very small gasoline engine would operate at a constant speed to recharge the battery as needed. Jack claimed the vehicle would get 100 miles to the gallon. This was the early 1970s.
Greenhouse Effect – Reports were circulating warning of a greenhouse effect from excessive carbon dioxide in the air. Ed David believed that machines could be built to clean the air – to extract the carbon. He thought fusion reactors would create the clean power needed for these air-cleaners. Now, fifty years later we are no closer to air cleaning machines or fusion power.
Computer Exports - Dr. Norman Neureiter was responsible at OST for international matters; he was on loan to OST from the State Department. Norm took me to meetings about computer exports to the Soviet Union, since I was the computer person at OST. The State Department was usually in favor of exporting computer to the USSR; the Defense Department was opposed, almost as if exporting pencil and paper might add to the computing power of the USSR. The Commerce Department usually sided with industry.
I was confused by the reasonableness of both sides, and would ask for data about the current power of computing in the USSR. The opinion was expressed that the Soviets would not risk any sensitive calculations on any US computer that had been acquired since the software and hardware might be able to monitor what was being done. In the end, most exports were denied. Kissinger wanted to open up the Soviet Union, and access to US technology was a great bargaining chip.
I did go to the CIA headquarters where an agent showed me examples of Soviet electronics and computer technology. I wondered how these items had been obtained, but I also was surprised in how arcane and ancient they were. I told this to the agent, and he volunteered that they could send in an agent to get newer examples. I envisioned something going wrong and an agent getting shot – I did not think it was worth this risk and said “no” to the offer. The NSA organized an excellent briefing for me of the state of Soviet computer technology.
Telecommunication Policy - The Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) was a sister agency to OST in the EOP. Charlie Joyce and Phil Enslow were at OTP. I went to a meeting at OTP to discuss the fate of the ARPANET, the packet-switched network managed by Larry Roberts. The OTP told ARPA that it could not sell packet switching to universities. I asked whether AT&T might offer it, and was told that AT&T was not interested. I then asked whether Bolt, Beranek & Newman (BBN) was interested, and was told that they too were not. A few days later, I relayed this information to Dick Bolt, who later told me that indeed BBN would commercialize the ARPANET, creating a new company Telenet to do so. I was offered a position with this new company, but declined.
I remember a meeting in Ed David’s office with some ARPANAT person to discuss whether it was a computer service or a telecommunication service. Since the ARPANET was used to obtain access to computerized information, it was claimed to be a computer service – unregulated. I stated that it involved the transmission and switching of information, and thus was a telecommunication service. It did use computers to do some of the switching, but that, in my opinion, did not make it a computer service. In the end, the computer categorization prevailed.
NSF Computer Science - The National Science Foundation had an office that supported research in computer and information science. Hugh Loweth in OMB questioned whether there was no need for this area since the computer industry sponsored its own research. Hugh asked me for my opinion. I wrote a report that explained the difference between industry research in developing computers and the more theoretical issues of computer science, and I suggested increasing the budget for this NSF office. OMB accepted my report and increased the budget. I think it was Dr. John Pasta who headed the NSF office.
Anti-Ballistic Missile - The anti-ballistic missile (ABM) Safeguard project was controversial over whether the software could be reliable. Ed David asked me to look into this, and I visited the ABM software facility in Florham Park, New Jersey operated by Bell Labs. The facility was very secret and was housed in a non-descript windowless building setback from the street. Vic Vyssotsky, who earlier had headed the failed MULTICS project at Bell Labs, headed the software data-processing project. I concluded that the software would work reliably enough for the time of engagement. Political considerations, however, domed the project.
Approvals - All my travel requests were required to be approved in advance and arranged thorough the White House travel office. Hotels had to be at the government discount rate. Any media contacts also had to be approved in advance by the White House media office. The Arnold Zenker morning TV show in Baltimore wanted to show my computer animated films from my Bell Labs research. This had to be approved in advance by the White House press office, even though it had nothing to do with my current work at OST. The computer ballet and 4D hypercube were shown, and I was interviewed – all on live TV. The live TV was very tense, particularly when the two films got reversed.
Bureaucratic Payments - Col. Frank Pagnotta was the administrative head of OST. He was a very wise and experienced bureaucrat and knew how to maneuver in Washington. He shared with me one aspect of the secrets of his influence. He took me to the top floor of the Old Executive Office Building and unlocked the door to a huge room. Stored in that huge room were oodles of lamps and end tables – greatly valued as office status symbols. Frank used them as “payments” for favors in the bureaucracy.
Interesting People - I met many interesting people while in Washington. I met Kerstin Binns in a meeting in Ed David’s office. She was then Assistant Secretary of the National Academy of Engineering. She was living with artist Reginald Pollack in Great Falls, Virginia, and they would marry in 1974. They invited me to dinners, and Reginald and I discussed computer art. He projected my computer animation of a rotating four-dimensional hypercube on the ceiling of the Washington National Cathedral. Some of my computer art might have affected his art; I recall us shining a laser beam across the carpet of the lobby of the performing arts center. We remained friends after they moved to Palm Springs, California, and I have a small collection of his paintings, which I treasure.
There was a person from IBM who would visit me about once a month to discuss what I was working on. We would go to lunch or dinner. He and I knew well that I could not accept gifts from industry people, and so we alternated who paid and kept receipts.
I met many scientists with great ideas and learned much. I remember speaking with Dr. John McCarthy of Stanford University. He told me of his idea to use cables under city streets to move intelligent robots to deliver packages.
Government is huge and very difficult to get anything accomplished. But I learned that sometimes a small kick – a small nudge – could have ultimate impact.
I went to Washington with an image of lazy bureaucrats and inept government employees. But all those I encountered were professional, hard-working people. They all felt that they were working for the people of the United States. I recall seeing a person working late at the NSF. When I asked him why, he said that he worked for the people.
Many of the budget examiners at OMB had doctorates and had been at OMB for many years, and across many administrations. In effect, their memory was something of a marketplace to reduce duplication and waste.
Gone From Washington
After Nixon’s re-election, the White House decided that OST was no longer needed. This probably was a reaction to the embarrassment that Dr. Richard Garwin of IBM had caused by publicly criticizing the administration when he was a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). Thus PSAC and OST were disbanded. Hugh Loweth gave me strong hints in advance about what was going to happen. Ed David and Dr. Baker, I believe, had no advance warning though.
Ed David was offered to direct the planned new Department of Energy. He declined and went to direct research for Gould in Chicago, talking Maryanne Sembrot along with him. He invited me to join him, but I declined, knowing nothing of Chicago or batteries.
I failed to promote myself and create an enlarged career for me after Washington. Thus, with the collapse of OST, I had few opportunities. I was offered a position at OMB, but declined. However, I was able to write and have published some papers relevant to my work at OST. I had become critical of the science community, which believed the Science Advisor represented them at the White House – that should not be the function of the Science Advisor.
I would have wanted to work in telecommunication policy at AT&T, but Harvey McMains had no openings and was in his own battle there over the future of AT&T. Max Mathews promised me a leadership role in investigating two-way video communications at Bell Labs. I accepted and returned to Bell Labs. But when I got there in mid 1973, the position that Max had offered me was not there – I had been deceived.
I had now made a major career error. My mentors John R. Pierce and Edward E. David were no longer there, and I was adrift and unhappy. I did not know enough to go to William O. Baker, who was now President of Bell Labs, to complain and ask for his guidance. My two years in Washington had begun with him in 1971 as I left Bell Labs, and now I was back there a different person with broader experience – and unhappy. Careers have their ups and downs.
- A. Michael Noll, “The Interactions of Computers and Privacy,” Honeywell Computer Journal, Vol. 7, No. 3, (Fall 1973), pp. 163-172.
- A. Michael Noll, “Some Advice on Science Advice,” The National Science Policy and Organization Act of 1975, Hearings Before the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, 94th Congress, 1st Session, on H.R. 4461 and H.R. 7830, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C. (1975), pp. 650-684.
- A. Michael Noll, “A Marketing Approach to Science Policy,” Letter to the Editor, Physics Today, Vol. 31, No. 2 (February 1978), pp. 9-13.