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FBI CLEARS 5 PHYSICISTS OF A-BOMB SPY CHARGES

The FBI has cleared the late J. Robert Oppenheimer and four other famed physicists of charges raised by a former top Soviet spy that they knowingly passed atom-bomb secrets to Moscow during World War II.

Retired KGB General Pavel Sudoplatov provoked worldwide controversy last year with his sensational accusations against Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Niels Bohr and George Gamow - all of whom played leading research roles in America's wartime Manhattan Project.The FBI reportedly found "no evidence whatsoever" linking any of the scientists to the espionage alleged by Sudoplatov in a book titled "Special Tasks."

Sudoplatov, a one-time political assassin who plotted the death of Leon Trotsky at Josef Stalin's behest, was chief of atomic intelligence in the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1946. In his book, he claimed that he worked through a network of Soviet spies in America to persuade Oppenheimer and his colleagues to pass along crucial information on the atom bomb.

The FBI investigation was opened at the request of President Clinton's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The call for a detailed inquiry was first made by Sidney D. Drell, a member of the board and deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and was supported by the board's chairman, former Defense Secretary Les Aspin.

Although the FBI's findings have not been officially released, they were communicated to Drell, who announced them at a recent Cornell University meeting honoring Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe.

The Cornell meeting was reported in a recent issue of the British journal Nature, and Drell confirmed the report Tuesday.

According to Randy Dietering, assistant executive director of the foreign intelligence board, the precise wording of the final FBI report and the timing and manner of its release are still being worked out between the FBI and the White House. An FBI official said only that the agency is so overwhelmed by the Oklahoma City bomb investigation that it could not comment on the Oppenheimer inquiry.

Sudoplatov's book and his charges - unsupported by any documents from now-defunct Soviet intelligence agencies - outraged scientists throughout the United States and Europe. Many of them had worked either on the Manhattan Project or in the British nuclear research establishment and had known Oppenheimer and his colleagues during the war.

Oppenheimer, a former physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, headed the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which built on the pioneering basic research of his colleagues to develop the nuclear bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a period of bitter controversy after the war, Oppenheimer opposed the high-priority effort to speed development of the hydrogen bomb and - amid accusations that he had been sympathetic to communism - was stripped of his security clearance. He died in 1967 at the age of 62.