Posts from December, 2006

Govt Withdraws Subpoena Against ACLU

Last week it emerged that the Department of Justice had adopted the unprecedented tactic of employing a subpoena in order to recover copies of a classified document that had been provided without authorization to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yesterday, in a swift and somewhat farcical conclusion to the controversy, the government withdrew the subpoena and announced that the document had been declassified (pdf).

The use of a subpoena was not intended as a threat, a government attorney wrote (pdf) to the court, but was issued in response to a “request” from the ACLU, so that the organization would not have to voluntarily surrender the document without “due process”:

“The Government issued the subpoena based on [...] what it believed to be the ACLU’s request for a subpoena in lieu of voluntarily returning the then-classified document.”

Further background is available in “Government Backs Down in its Attempt to Seize ‘Secret’ Document,” ACLU, December 18, and “Prosecutors Drop A.C.L.U. Subpoena in Document Fight” by Adam Liptak, New York Times, December 19.

Counterinsurgency Manual Flies Off the Shelf

The new Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency doctrine has been downloaded from the Federation of American Scientists web site at an extraordinary rate — more than 250,000 times since it was posted on Friday morning.

But unlike previous drafts obtained by Secrecy News, the new manual is no secret. It has been published and actively disseminated by the Army.

“Why don’t you also put up our press release announcing the manual which can also be found on our web site?” inquired Col. Steven A. Boylan of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth. That December 15 news release (pdf) and the accompanying manual (large pdf) can be found on the Fort Leavenworth web site.

Col. Boylan also objected to Secrecy News’ statement that the new counterinsurgency doctrine was at odds with current U.S. policy in Iraq.

“This manual was in production for about two years and is not and was not intended to counter any current or future policy as you indicate in your article. This document is also not specific to Iraq or Afghanistan. If you understand the basis of doctrine, then you know that our doctrine is geared to be used anywhere our Army might deploy.”

The Grandeur of Error Correction

On December 17 the New York Times published a correction of a December 3 Times story which said that polonium-210 had been used to power U.S. spacecraft after a December 14 Secrecy News story showed that the claim was almost certainly incorrect:

    “An article on Dec. 3 about the many uses of polonium 210 referred incorrectly to the radioactive material utilized in early American satellites. While plans were drawn up to use polonium 210 as a power source, and one federal document said it was used, nuclear experts say that the government decided instead to rely on plutonium 238; no American satellites ever flew with polonium 210,” the Times wrote.

The error was trivial but the correction was grand.

Some institutions and some government officials have an aversion to admitting error, viewing it as a sign of weakness. But admitting and correcting errors paradoxically enhances credibility, not diminishes it. It makes it possible to approximate the truth ever more closely.

An openness to admitting error is also essential to a vital functioning democracy.

The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gilbert S. Omenn, touched on this point recently in a wide-ranging address published in Science Magazine:

    “Science works best in a culture that welcomes challenges to prevailing ideas and nurtures the potential of all of its people. Scientific ways of thinking and of re-evaluating one’s views in light of new evidence help strengthen a democracy.”

Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine Charts a New Course

The U.S. Army has completed a long-awaited new manual (large pdf) presenting military doctrine on counterinsurgency. It is the first revision of counterinsurgency doctrine in twenty years.

In several respects, the new doctrine implicitly repudiates the Bush Administration’s approach to the war in Iraq.

“Conducting a successful counterinsurgency campaign requires a flexible, adaptive force led by agile, well-informed, culturally astute leaders,” the foreword states.

The new manual emphasizes the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilization, and it stresses the limited utility of conventional military operations.

“The military forces that successfully defeat insurgencies are usually those able to overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war against insurgents.”

A copy of the new 282 page unclassified manual was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Counterinsurgency,” U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, December 15, 2006 (12.9 MB PDF).

DSB Report Warns of Uncertainty in U.S. Nuclear Capabilities

There is an urgent need to reach consensus on how to configure the future U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, says a new report (pdf) of the Defense Science Board (DSB).

“We are already late in addressing [stockpile] needs and the current pace of progress in defining, approving, and implementing the needed capabilities is not encouraging.”

The sources of the present urgency, the DSB report says, are several:

“We are behind on weapons surveillance, which is essential to continuing confidence in the reliability, safety, and security of weapons.”

“We are behind on dismantling unneeded weapons which adds to the security and safety concerns and burdens.”

“We have an inadequately defined and funded capability for replacement, over time, of aging weapons in the stockpile.”

In short, according to the DSB, “The current nuclear organization, management and programs do not provide for a nuclear weapons enterprise capable of meeting the nation’s minimum needs.”

The DSB proposes a series of recommendations that it says would help sustain the nuclear stockpile, transform the weapons production complex, and instigate needed organizational changes.

See Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on “Nuclear Capabilities,” unclassified Report Summary, December 2006.

An analysis of the new report by Hans Kristensen of FAS may be found on the Strategic Security blog here.

Govt Subpoenas ACLU to Recover Classified Document

Updated Below:

Government attorneys reached deep into their legal bag of tricks to devise a subpoena (pdf) against the American Civil Liberties Union demanding “any and all copies” of a classified document that was leaked to the ACLU in October.

Questioned by an ACLU attorney as to the authority for this demand, a government attorney cited the espionage statutes in 18 USC 793 and 798.

Such an action is unprecedented, the ACLU said in a motion to quash (pdf) the subpoena, and it is also an improper use of subpoena authority.

If successful, this tactic could be used to confiscate classified documents from news organizations, effectively imposing prior restraint on publication and curtailing freedom of the press.

“No official secrets act has yet been enacted into law, and the grand jury’s subpoena power cannot be employed to create one,” the ACLU said.

The story was covered in the New York Times here, and the Washington Post here.

The subpoena against the ACLU is the latest in a series of new government efforts to tighten controls on classified information and to punish those who disclose such information.

A recent issue of The News Media & The Law, published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, focuses on “Journalists and the Espionage Act” and provides updates on several ongoing cases and controversies.

Update, December 18:

Government Backs Down in its Attempt to Seize “Secret” Document From ACLU

One week after the American Civil Liberties Union moved to quash an unprecedented government grand jury subpoena demanding “any and all copies” of a previously “secret” memorandum, the government today backed down from the fight, asking a judge to withdraw the subpoena and saying that the document in question has been declassified.

CRS on Reliable Replacement Warhead, and More

In considering the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the government must decide between two basic courses of action, explains a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service: either it must seek to extend the functional lifetime of existing nuclear weapons, or it must develop a new generation of warheads.

The CRS report compares and contrasts the pros and cons of these two options.

Another potential option, abolition of nuclear weapons, is not considered by the CRS, since “it has garnered no support in Congress or the Administration.”

The CRS does not make its products directly available to the public. A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Nuclear Warheads: The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program and the Life Extension Program,” December 13, 2006.

Some other notable recent reports from the CRS include the following (all pdf).

“The Military Commissions Act of 2006: Analysis of Procedural Rules and Comparison with Previous DOD Rules and the Uniform Code of Military Justice,”
October 12, 2006.

“FY2007 Appropriations for State and Local Homeland Security,” updated October 6, 2006.

“Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF),” October 18, 2006.

“Uganda: Current Conditions and the Crisis in North Uganda,” October 20, 2006.

Polonium and the History of Space Nuclear Power

Updated Below

When the New York Times mentioned in passing recently that polonium-210 had once been used to power U.S. spacecraft, it caused a furrowing of the brow among the seven or so people who dwell on the history of space nuclear power, since it is almost certainly not correct.

“President Eisenhower, eager to promote ‘atoms for peace,’ had the high heats of polonium 210 turned into electricity for satellites,” wrote the estimable William J. Broad in a recent Times Week in Review piece (“Polonium, $22.50 Plus Tax,” December 3). “But the batteries lost power relatively fast because of the material’s short half-life, just 138 days. The United States made few such spacecraft.”

Not so, according to Gary L. Bennett, who devoted much of his career at the Department of Energy and NASA to the development of space nuclear power sources.

“As far as I know, the U.S. never flew a spacecraft powered by polonium-210,” Dr. Bennett told Secrecy News.

Dr. Bennett identified one documentary source (pdf) that claimed otherwise, a history of isotope production at the Mound Laboratory in Ohio. It is consistent with the New York Times account, but he said it too was in error.

That Mound history described the use of polonium in an early radioisotope power supply called SNAP 3A:

“The first SNAP-3A, fueled with polonium-210, provided power to a satellite radio transmitter. The use of satellites powered by SNAP for global communication was first demonstrated under President Eisenhower in 1961, at which time the President’s peace message was broadcast via a satellite containing a radio transmitter powered by the SNAP-3A RTG.” See here (at page 4).

But all other historical accounts agree that the first SNAP-3A was launched on June 29, 1961 (on the Transit 4A spacecraft), after President Eisenhower had left office, and it was fueled with plutonium-238, not polonium-210.

It is true that the SNAP-3A was originally designed with polonium fuel, because of Atomic Energy Commission restrictions on plutonium, according to a deeply researched official history of space nuclear power (very large pdf) prepared for the Department of Energy.

A photograph of President Eisenhower in the Oval Office enthusiastically examining a polonium-fueled SNAP battery appeared on the front page of the Washington Evening Star on January 16, 1959. (“Nuclear critic Ralph Lapp complained that a highly lethal item had been placed on the President’s desk.”)

But “the AEC eventually relaxed its policy and agreed to provide the plutonium fuel and SNAP-3A, as a result, was converted from polonium-210 to plutonium-238,” the official history stated (at page 23).

“Despite the president’s enthusiasm [in January 1959], the first RTG [radioisotope thermoelectric generator] flight came two and a half years after the White House demonstration,” the official DOE history states (page 18).

It was the plutonium-fueled version that was launched into space in June 1961, not the original polonium-fueled design.

See “Atomic Power in Space: A History,” prepared for U.S. Department of Energy, March 1987 (188 pages, 8.5 MB).

Polonium-fueled radioisotope power or heater units were used on spacecraft launched by the former Soviet Union on a number of occasions, Dr. Bennett noted.

Update: To its credit, the New York Times ran the following correction on December 17:

“An article on Dec. 3 about the many uses of polonium 210 referred incorrectly to the radioactive material utilized in early American satellites. While plans were drawn up to use polonium 210 as a power source, and one federal document said it was used, nuclear experts say that the government decided instead to rely on plutonium 238; no American satellites ever flew with polonium 210.”

JASON on Engineering Microorganisms for Energy Production

A recent report from the secretive JASON scientific advisory group considers the feasibility of using microorganisms to produce fuels as a metabolic product, such as hydrogen or ethanol.

“Microorganisms present a great opportunity for energy science,” the JASON report (pdf) to the Department of Energy said.

“Microorganisms are simpler than plants; they have smaller genomes and proteomes, and are easier to manipulate and culture. The enormous biodiversity of microorganisms presents a broad palette of starting points for engineering. Microorganisms already make many metabolic products, some of which are useful fuels.”

“Boosting the efficiency of fuel formation from microorganisms is an important research challenge for the twenty first century.”

The JASONs do not publish even their unclassified reports in an orderly or consistent fashion. A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Engineering Microorganisms for Energy Production,” JSR-05-300, June 23, 2006 (92 pages, 1.1 MB).