Posts from June, 2008

Iran’s Economy, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” updated June 23, 2008.

“Conventional Warheads For Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues for Congress,” updated May 16, 2008.

“Iran’s Economy,” updated June 12, 2008.

“The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act: Comparison of the Senate Amendment to H.R. 3773 and the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 3773,” June 12, 2008.

“Awards of Attorneys’ Fees by Federal Courts and Federal Agencies,” updated June 20, 2008.

White House Report on U.S. Armed Forces

President Bush described the status of U.S. armed forces deployed in combat operations around the world in a brief report to Congress this month that was required by the War Powers Act.

“It is not possible to know at this time the precise scope or the duration of the deployment of U.S. Armed Forces necessary to counter the terrorist threat to the United States,” he wrote.

See “A Supplemental Consolidated Report Consistent with the War Powers Act,” June 17, 2008.

42 Years of FOIA

July 4 will mark the 42nd anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, Sen. Patrick Leahy noted in a statement on pending reforms to the Act.

“Now in its fourth decade [should be: fifth decade], the Freedom of Information Act remains an indispensable tool for shedding light on bad policies and Government abuses,” he said. “But there is still much more to be done to ensure that FOIA remains an effective tool for keeping our democracy open and free.”

100 Years Since Tunguska

Monday, June 30 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska incident in 1908, in which a meteor or comet fragment entered the atmosphere over Tunguska in Siberia producing an enormous explosion.

“We know that a rather massive body flew into the atmosphere of our planet,” said Boris Shustov of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“It measured 40 to 60 meters in diameter. Clearly, it did not consist of iron, otherwise it would have certainly reached the earth. The body decelerated in the atmosphere, the deceleration being very abrupt, so the whole energy of this body flying with a velocity of more than 20 meters per second [probably should be: kilometers per second] was released, which resulted in a mid-air explosion, very similar to a thermonuclear blast,” he told Tass news agency yesterday.

“The yield of the explosion totaled 10 to 15 megatons, which matches the yields of the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested on the planet [actually, the largest reported test in October 1961 had a yield in excess of 50 megatons]. The explosion felled some 80 million trees [but] it is generally assumed that the blast did not kill any people,” he added.

“The Tunguska phenomenon showed that the asteroid-comet danger is quite real. It happened not in the era of dinosaurs, but in our recent history. Russia was definitely lucky; had the body flown up to the Earth several hours later, it would have hit St.Petersburg. The consequences would have been horrendous,” he said.

“Impacts such as the Tunguska incident are thought to occur about once in one hundred years based on the density of impact craters on the Moon,” according to a White Paper on Planetary Defense attached to the 1994 U.S. Air Force report Spacecast 2020.

A 2007 NASA summary report to Congress on planetary defense is here (pdf). A longer account is here (pdf).

House Approves FACA Amendments in Response to “Abuses”

The House of Representatives yesterday passed a bill amending the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) to strengthen the public disclosure provisions of that open government law. The bill was introduced by Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) in April.

“In recent years, FACA has been undermined by the practices of the Bush administration,” said Rep. Waxman. “This bill is our response to these abuses.”

“This bill says that White House task forces can no longer operate in total secrecy. They must disclose whom they meet with and what recommendations they receive from special interests,” he said.

In particular, “This bill says that task forces like the Vice President’s energy task force must come out from the shadows,” Rep. Waxman said.

Missile Defense in Europe Needs Testing, Pentagon Says

A proposed U.S. missile defense system in Europe that is intended to defend against a postulated Iranian missile threat cannot reasonably proceed without time-consuming testing and validation, according to a newly disclosed internal assessment (pdf) performed for the Department of Defense last year.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency envisions deployment of Ground-Based Interceptors in Poland and an X-band radar in the Czech Republic, a proposal that has elicited significant political opposition from Russia, and some in Poland and the Czech Republic.

“These European assets are planned to provide defenses against long-range Iranian threats to the United States as well as against intermediate-range Iranian threats to Europe.”

But “the effectiveness of the European [missile defense] assets cannot be assumed,” said the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. “A robust test program is necessary to assess the operational effectiveness of these European [missile defense] assets.”

See “European GMD Mission Test Concept,” October 1, 2007.

This unclassified Pentagon report was not readily available to the public until a copy was obtained by the Associated Press. Desmond Butler of AP reported on the Pentagon document as well as the emerging consensus in Congress that system testing will in fact be required. See “Testing Could Delay Missile Defense Plans” by Desmond Butler, Associated Press, June 23, 2008.

Related background may be found in “Long-Range Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe” (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service.

Richard L. Garwin provided a critical assessment of the Iranian missile program and U.S. missile defense capabilities in “Evaluating Iran’s Missile Threat” (pdf), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2008.

Suitability and Security Clearance Reform

A proposed new federal rule would require executive branch agencies to accept the “suitability” determinations made by other agencies in hiring federal employees. This is a longstanding policy goal, known as “reciprocity,” that has been endorsed for decades but never fully implemented.

Suitability refers to a judgment that a potential employee is not disqualified from government service by a criminal record, a pattern of drug abuse, or other factors.

“This proposed rule is one of a number of initiatives the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has undertaken to simplify and streamline the system of Federal Government investigative and adjudicative processes to make them more efficient and as equitable as possible.”

An interagency working group reported to the President in April on the elusive goal of security clearance reform, another perennial pursuit. See “Security and Suitability Process Reform” (pdf), April 30, 2008.

Recent activity on security clearances was reported in “Back to square one on clearances” by Florence Olsen, Federal Computer Week, June 16, 2008.

FISA Amendments and the Rule of Law

In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) said the current debate over amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is not simply one more dispute over intelligence policy. Rather, he said, it calls into question basic issues of democratic governance and the rule of law.

He presented the case against the pending FISA amendments, particularly the provisions that would immunize telephone companies against lawsuits regarding their participation in domestic surveillance.

“Did the telecoms break the law? I don’t know. I can’t say so. But pass immunity, and we will never know,” Sen. Dodd said.

The President’s warrantless surveillance program, he said, is of a piece with other Administration departures from established legal norms including its policies on coercive interrogation and extraordinary rendition, as well as its pervasive secrecy.

“What is this about? It is about answering the fundamental question: Do we support the rule of law or the rule of men? To me, this is our defining question as a nation and may be the defining question that confronts every generation, as it has throughout our history.”

Sen. Dodd and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) announced their intention to filibuster the FISA Amendment bill.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) spoke in favor of the bill, including the provisions on shielding telephone companies from legal liability for their actions.

“Those who are opposed to the President’s efforts to monitor al-Qaida’s communications after 9/11 should take their argument to the President, not to the private companies that patriotically complied with government requests to help this country,” he said.

Court Narrows Scope of Appeal in AIPAC Case

A federal appeals court handling the case of two former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who are charged with unlawful handling of classified information last week granted a defense motion to limit the scope of a pending prosecution appeal.

In March, a lower court had issued a sealed 278-page court order identifying what classified information may be disclosed, summarized or withheld at the forthcoming trial of the AIPAC defendants. The government appealed the order in advance of the trial, as it is entitled to do. But at the same time it also attempted to appeal several other prior court orders that it regarded as unfavorable including two 2006 orders that defined the government’s burden of proof and another court opinion that limited the use of secret, non-public evidence.

Defense attorneys objected to the reopening of prior court rulings, and the appeals court concurred with them in a June 20 decision. A government brief on the surviving portion of the appeal will be due on July 25.

Selected case files from the lower court and the appeals court proceedings can be found here.

The AIPAC case is a subject of broad interest because it is the first time that Americans who are engaged in protected First Amendment activities have been prosecuted for the unauthorized receipt and transmission of classified information, which is a relatively common transaction among national security reporters and advocacy organizations. (Secrecy News has frequently sought access to information on topics or programs that we knew to be classified, and has occasionally gained such access.)

“This is not a typical espionage case,” defense attorneys told the appeals court in an April 29 motion (pdf). “Everyone who spoke with [defendants Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman] did so voluntarily, knew that Rosen and Weissman were not government officials, and knew that they did not have security clearances. Rosen and Weissman did not receive money or material goods from foreign governments or others in exchange for information; they did not speak in code; they did not conduct their meetings in secret; they are not charged with serving as agents of a foreign government, let alone with being spies; they did not receive or pass on classified documents; they did not pay any bribes to or threaten government officials.”

Prosecutors put it differently (pdf): “This is an Espionage Act prosecution involving two defendants who conspired to and did obtain classified information from their government sources and then passed that information to a foreign government, members of the news media, and others not entitled to receive it.”

But if it was a conspiracy, the government has handled it in a peculiar way, the defense said in its April 29 motion:

“Highlighting the curious underpinnings of this prosecution, the high-level government officials with whom Rosen and Weissman regularly met and who, according to the Indictment, illegally disclosed classified NDI [national defense information], have not — with but one exception — been charged criminally. Indeed, one of the disclosing officials has since received, not charges or reprimands, but a series of promotions to one of the highest, most sensitive positions in the government.”

The “one exception” is former Pentagon official Lawrence A. Franklin, who has been sentenced to a 12 year prison term.

The highly promoted official is David Satterfield, who has been elevated in position three times since the AIPAC case became public in August 2004 — first to Principal Deputy in State’s Mideast Bureau, then to Deputy Chief of Mission with the rank of Ambassador in Iraq — among the most sensitive diplomatic assignments in the world– and most recently to Principal Adviser to the Secretary of State on Iraq.

The defense attorneys’ argument is not that Mr. Satterfield did something wrong. Rather, they contend, the government’s response to the facts of the case has been erratic, inconsistent and unpredictable. Which is to say, it has been unjust.

Science and the 2008 Election

The Federation of American Scientists and other science-related organizations are urging their members and others to ask candidates about science and technology policy in the 2008 congressional elections.

From energy production to climate change and innovation, participants are encouraged to question incumbents and challengers about their agenda for meeting pressing science and technology challenges in fields such as energy production, climate change, science education and health science.

The non-partisan initiative, which does not endorse or oppose individual candidates, is called Innovation 2008.