Patent Office Reports on Invention Secrecy

Under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, the government may impose a secrecy order on patent applications submitted to the Patent Office whenever the disclosure of the inventions described in such applications “might be detrimental to the national security.”

At the end of Fiscal Year 2006, there were 4,942 secrecy orders in effect, a slight increase from the previous year’s total of 4,915, according to data provided to Secrecy News by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office under the Freedom of Information Act (and very promptly, too).

During 2006 itself, 108 new invention secrecy orders were imposed, while 81 were rescinded. The precise character of the inventions that were subjected to new controls could not be ascertained, which is the whole point. However, it should be possible, if logistically challenging, to identify inventions that were formerly subject to a secrecy order but are no longer. We haven’t tried to do so lately. But they typically involve technologies that have specific military applications.

The large majority of invention secrecy orders are imposed on patent applications in which the government has a property interest, perhaps having funded the development of the invention. But each year, there are also so-called “John Doe” secrecy orders which prohibit the disclosure of inventions created by private inventors or businesses where the government has no property interest, thereby raising thorny First Amendment issues. In 2006, there were 29 new “John Doe” invention secrecy orders.

The latest statistics and other background on invention secrecy can be found here.

Attorney General Reports on FOIA

Executive Branch agencies have implemented President Bush’s December 2005 executive order 13392 on improving the processing of Freedom of Information Act requests “in a vigorous manner fully commensurate with the importance of this unprecedented Presidential initiative,” according to an enthusiastic new report to the President (pdf) from the Attorney General.

The President’s order “has had an immediate and widespread positive effect on the operations of the Federal agencies that administer the FOIA,” the report states.

“All 91 federal agencies subject to the FOIA have prepared improvement plans, have refined them wherever necessary, and have posted them on their Web sites for public review,” according to the Justice Department. These and related steps “already have yielded significant results.”

From a public access point of view, however, the results seem less significant, particularly since the executive order did not alter disclosure policy or standards at all. Instead, it sought to improve processing and productivity under the existing disclosure standards, while reducing backlogs.

As a result, some of the reforms of which the new report boasts may loom large within the government, but still appear inconsequential from the outside.

For example, using post cards to acknowledge receipt of FOIA requests instead of more formal letters is a “novel idea,” the Attorney General says in his new report. It “holds great potential for improving the process.” It is “an outstanding idea,” the report strangely insists. “The simple use of postcards rather than standard written letters … could save countless hours.”

Unfortunately, this won’t do. Efficiency, while welcome, is not the same as productivity. And the executive order does little to improve productivity.

So, for example, the Federation of American Scientists sued the National Reconnaissance Office last year to compel that agency to provide unclassified budget data under the FOIA, and Judge Reggie B. Walton of the D.C. District Court ruled in our favor last July and ordered the NRO to process our request.

But although the NRO and its Justice Department representatives were unfailingly “courteous,” as required by President Bush’s executive order, the requested documents have still not been provided. Instead, the Justice Department is now seeking to overturn Judge Walton’s order on appeal. More rudeness would be preferable if it were accompanied by more records.

Even by the yardstick of efficiency, the current FOIA regime shows a certain lack of imagination.

Perhaps the single most important step that agencies could take would be to routinely post FOIA responses on agency web sites. A number of agencies have long archived their FOIA releases in their reading rooms, where they can be manually searched. Other agencies post frequently requested records on their web sites on occasion. But routinely posting such documentary releases, instead of simply providing them to the individual requester, would magnify the utility of the product and enrich the FOIA process. It could be even better than post cards.

See “Attorney General’s Report to the President Pursuant to Executive Order 13,392, Entitled ‘Improving Agency Disclosure of Information’,” October 16, 2006 (1.2 MB PDF).

North Korea’s Bomb: A technical assessment [edited 16 October]

Last Sunday, North Korea apparently tested a nuclear explosive. The “apparently” is needed because the explosion was so small—by nuclear standards—that some have speculated that it may have been a large conventional explosion. What is the technical significance of the test, what does it mean, and what should we do now?

There is no question that the political and security implications of the test are huge and almost entirely negative. The technical implications are more mixed; the technical significance of the test is somewhat less than meets the eye.
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How Do Editors Decide to Publish Classified Info?

Actual or purported national security secrets are routinely published not only by mainstream news organizations and best-selling authors but also by journals of opinion on the political left and right and the occasional blog. The ability to freely traverse the boundaries of classified government information, with only rare and isolated limitations, is practically a defining characteristic of American journalism.

But how do reporters and editors decide to publish classified information? How do they assess and respond to the concerns of government officials? What are the consequences?

These questions are explored in depth in a long article in the latest issue of American Journalism Review.

See “Judgment Calls” by Rachel Smolkin, AJR, October/November 2006.

The Stealth Satellite Mystery

The use of stealth techniques and technologies to reduce the signatures of intelligence or military satellites a subject that seems to be properly classified, for the most part. But it has also left discernable traces in the public domain.

Those traces were assembled by Allen Thomson in his Stealth Satellite Sourcebook (pdf), which has been recently updated (148 pages, 7 MB PDF file).

See also “Stealth satellites: Cold War myth or operational reality?” by John Croft, C4ISR Journal, October 4, 2006.


A newly enacted law requires the creation of a publicly searchable online database of government grants and contracts. The implications of that law and the challenges ahead were explored by the Congressional Research Service in a new report. See “The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act: Background, Overview, and Implementation Issues” (pdf), October 6, 2006.

An impressive prototype of such a public database,, was unveiled this week by the public interest group OMB Watch.

Also new from CRS is “Nuclear Weapons: Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty” (pdf), updated October 3, 2006 (prior to the North Korean nuclear test).

New Military Doctrine

The steady stream of new military doctrinal and other publications includes several items which will be of interest and importance to some Secrecy News readers.

“Counterland Operations” (pdf), Air Force Doctrine Document 2-1.3, 11 September 2006, refers to the use of U.S. air and space assets against enemy land-based forces.

Security for U.S. ships crossing the Panama Canal is the subject of a new Navy Instruction. “Vessels transiting the Panama Canal encounter situations in which they are isolated from any forces of the United States which could provide additional security if required. These instances provide an opportunity for unfriendly agents to harass or damage a vessel, or potentially embarrass the United States.” See “Definition and Security Requirements for High Value Transits of the Panama Canal” (pdf), OPNAV Instruction 3100.9A, October 2, 2006.

The U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s “Operational Law Handbook” (pdf) has recently been updated (August 2006). The Handbook “provides references and describes tactics and techniques for the practice of operational law….[and is intended to] help judge advocates recognize, analyze, and resolve the problems they will encounter in the operational context.”

New Military Dictionaries

“If you would converse with me,” Voltaire is supposed to have said, “define your terms!”

Several new military dictionaries make it easier to define elusive or obscure military terms.

The Department of Defense has updated (for the second time this year) its massive “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms,” Joint Publication 1-02, through 17 September 2006 (752 pages, 2.2 MB PDF file).

It explains that a “blast wave,” for example, is “a sharply defined wave of increased pressure rapidly propagated through a surrounding medium from a center of detonation or similar disturbance.”

But what is it in French?

For that one must turn to another new dictionary prepared by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which not only defines thousands of military terms (“blowback,” “laser guided weapon,” etc.) but also provides translations into Voltaire’s language.

So, one learns, “blast wave” is “onde de souffle.”

See “NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions (English and French),” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2006 (344 pages, 3.5 MB).

And for good measure there is also a new “NATO Glossary of Abbreviations Used in NATO Documents and Publications,” 2006 (432 pages, 1.4 MB).

An Assertive New National Space Policy

Updated Below

The Bush Administration has issued a new National Space Policy that stresses unilateral American freedom of action in space. The new policy is intended to “enable unhindered U.S. operations in and through space to defend our interests there.”

The policy affirms “the use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity.”

But it declares that the United States will “take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”

The policy, which supersedes a 1996 Presidential Decision Directive, was almost certainly promulgated in a National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD), which has not been publicly disclosed. Instead, a ten page unclassified summary was released late last week.

In large part, the new policy tracks closely with the previous Clinton policy. But it also departs from it in significant and surprising ways.

The previous policy prudently reserved judgment “on the feasibility and desirability of conducting further human exploration activities” beyond the International Space Station in Earth orbit.

But in a rhetorical flight of fancy, the new Bush policy purports to adopt a new national “objective of extending human presence across the solar system,” no less.

Like the earlier policy, the new policy continues to authorize the sometimes controversial use of nuclear power sources in space, but it also goes on to prescribe approval procedures for the extremely improbable scenario of “non-government spacecraft utilizing nuclear power sources.”

The 1996 policy stated that “Space nuclear reactors will not be used in Earth orbit without specific approval by the President or his designee.” This provision seemed to embrace a 1989 proposal by the Federation of American Scientists and others to ban nuclear reactors in orbit as a means of forestalling deployment of high-power orbital space weapons.

The new policy rejects that or any other infringement on unilateral U.S. freedom of action.

“The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space,” the Bush policy warns.

The new policy also addresses the problem of space debris, and the classification and declassification of space-related defense and intelligence information, among other important topics.

The text of the 1996 National Space Policy may be found here.

A September 26 NASA Notice on the development of Advanced Radioisotope Power Systems may be found here.

The FAS proposal to ban nuclear reactors in Earth orbit was introduced in “Space Reactor Arms Control” (pdf) by Joel Primack, et al, in Science and Global Security, Volume 1 (1989).

Update: The goal of “extend[ing] human presence across the solar system” is not new to this National Space Policy, but has precursors in Reagan and Bush I Administration policies, several readers point out. And the identical language appeared in the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, as noted by Jeff Foust in Space Politics.