The Travails of Sea-Based Missile Defense

The flight test of a sea-based missile defense system in the Pacific was aborted yesterday after an interceptor missile failed to launch from an Aegis cruiser, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said.

It was the latest setback in an ambitious sea-based missile defense program that will cost more than one billion dollars in 2007.

“In developing a global ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, the Department of Defense (DOD) currently is modifying 18 Navy cruisers and destroyers for BMD operations, and has placed a large BMD radar — the Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX) — on a modified floating oil platform,” according to a new report of the Congressional Research Service.

But sea-based systems are still far from providing a satisfactory resolution to the quest for a reliable missile defense.

The new CRS report (which does not fail to mention that Aegis “is named after the mythological shield carried by Zeus”) is a superb presentation of the current state of sea-based missile defense. Full of hard-to-find details, the 37 page document asks and begins to answer a range of questions about the future of this program.

CRS does not release its reports to the public. A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Sea-Based Missile Defense — Background and Issues for Congress,” December 4, 2006.

Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations, Or Not

In a major new report (pdf) that could serve as an appendix to the Final Report of the 9/11 Commission, the Congressional Research Service performed a detailed assessment of the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.

“The discussions herein are organized on the basis of policy themes that are at the core of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, rather than through a review of each numbered item set out in the Commission’s final report,” the 73 page CRS report says.

“Each section of the report summarizes the pertinent elements of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation relevant to the section’s policy theme. Then a review is made of responses made by the Congress to implement, in whole or in part, the given recommendation. Where appropriate, notice is taken of Executive branch actions regarding the policy matter.”

A copy of the report was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “9/11 Commission Recommendations: Implementation Status,” December 4, 2006.

Update: See, relatedly, a review of the 9/11 Commission recommendations by Christian Beckner of Homeland Security Watch who examines “what the 110th Congress could potentially do to make progress on each and every one of [them].”

Even More from CRS

Some other noteworthy new products of the Congressional Research Service that are not widely available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: U.S. Policy Development,” November 29, 2006.

“Homeland Security: Evolving Roles and Missions for United States Northern Command,” updated November 16, 2006.

“U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues,” updated October 17, 2006.

“National Emergency Powers,” updated November 13, 2006.

“Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Oversight Issues and Options for Congress,” November 30, 2006.

“The United States and Europe: Current Issues,” updated November 21, 2006.

Public Interest Declassification Board Falters

The Public Interest Declassification Board was established by Congress in 2000 “to promote the fullest possible public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant United States national security decisions.” (FY 2001 Intelligence Authorization Act, Section 703).

Six years later, it has still done no such thing.

In its first practical test, members of Congress asked the Board to review the classification of two recent reports on pre-war Iraq intelligence to determine if more of the text could be disclosed.

But the Board concluded that it could not proceed without White House approval, which was not forthcoming.

This week, reported Rebecca Carr of Cox News, the Board asked Congress to modify its charter to make clear that White House approval is not required for this purpose.

See “Anti-secrecy board unable to gain traction” by Rebecca Carr, Cox News Service, December 8.

The Board will hold its next meeting on December 15 at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Britain’s Next Nuclear Era

After having spent the last several years sending diplomats to Teheran to try to persuade Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, the British government announced Monday that it plans to renew its own nuclear arsenal.

If approved by the parliament, Monday’s decision means that the United Kingdom will extend its nuclear deterrent beyond 2050, essentially doubling the timeline of its own nuclear era.

Doing so is entirely consistent with the United Kingdom’s international obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and with a policy that favors complete elimination of nuclear weapons, the government insisted in a fact sheet, because the British nuclear arsenal today is smaller than during the Cold War, and because the Treaty does not say exactly when nuclear disarmament has to be accomplished. In fact, the new plan has “the right balance,” the government claims, between working for a world free of nuclear weapons and keeping those weapons.
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Patent Secrecy Orders Lifted on Rocket Propellants

A Florida company called Space Propulsion Systems, Inc. announced this week that it had successfully petitioned the U.S. Government to lift secrecy orders that had been imposed on two of its rocket propellant concepts.

Under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, the government may restrict the publication and dissemination of information about new inventions if their disclosure could be “detrimental to the national security.”

At the end of fiscal year 2006, there were 4942 invention secrecy orders in effect, according to statistics obtained by Secrecy News from the Patent and Trademark Office. There were 108 new orders imposed in FY 2006, while 81 existing orders were rescinded.

It is usually difficult if not impossible to identify patents and patent applications that were subject to invention secrecy orders which have been rescinded, though doing so would make an interesting construct for a historical research project.

But in this case, the applicant identified itself.

“Space Propulsion Systems, Inc. is pleased to announce that the Patent and Trademark Office of the Department of Commerce has rescinded the Secrecy Orders that had been imposed with respect to both its WREEM homogeneous propellant and the Supercritical Fluids fabricated Micro Fuel Cell composite rocket propellant in the light of guidance provided by U.S. defense agencies,” according to a company news release.

“Although SPS intends to work with the US Government in any way required to protect this technology, SPS believed that the Company needed to develop this technology for the sake of the US, the stockholders of SPS, and the Company. SPS therefore requested our patent attorneys to petition the US Government to rescind the Secrecy Orders on these products. It took over a year, but SPS was finally successful in this effort,” the release said.

Copies of Secrecy Order forms of various types (pdf) issued by the Patent Office are available here (courtesy of Michael Ravnitzky).

Some other background on invention secrecy may be found here.

GAO Warns of Possible University Export Control Violations

A new Government Accountability Office study (pdf) warns darkly that the Departments of State and Commerce are not doing enough to police university research to ensure that export control violations are not occurring on campus.

State and Commerce “have not fully assessed the potential for transfers of export-controlled information to foreign nationals in the course of U.S. university research,” the GAO study said. The study urged closer attention to available data on foreign students at U.S. universities.

The negative tone of the report is somewhat surprising since the GAO investigation did not identify a single export control violation, nor did it discover any misinterpretation or misapplication of existing law committed by university researchers.

But the study may reopen a fierce debate that seemed to be nearly settled regarding “deemed exports,” referring to the transfer of export-controlled information to foreign persons residing in the United States. A strict interpretation of “deemed export” controls could cause massive disruption of university research, many academic scientists argued in the last two years. In May 2006, the Department of Commerce withdrew a proposed rule on the subject in response to widespread academic criticism.

Buried deep in the new report, the GAO did note the significant fact that “government and industry contracting officials are increasingly inserting restrictive language in contracts for research that universities consider to be fundamental [including] language that prohibits the contractor from releasing information, even unclassified information, outside of the contractor’s organization.” (Page 10).

Such pre-publication restrictions are obviously inconsistent with the university environment. Regrettably, the GAO report did not pursue this issue or recommend the more discriminating use of disclosure restrictions by contracting agencies.

See “Export Controls: Agencies Should Assess Vulnerabilities and Improve Guidance for Protecting Export-Controlled Information at Universities,” Government Accountability Office report GAO-07-70, December 2006.

See also a companion report on “Export Controls: Agencies Should Assess Vulnerabilities and Improve Guidance for Protecting Export-Controlled Information at Companies,” Government Accountability Office report GAO-07-69, December 2006.

Specter, Leahy Introduce Bill to “Restore” Habeas Corpus

In another sign of shifting ground in the post-election Congress, Senators Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy yesterday introduced the “Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2006,” which would reinstate federal court jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees and other suspected enemy combatants.

The bill would repeal two provisions of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 enacted in September that limit habeas corpus. “Habeas corpus” refers to the ability of a detainee to seek judicial review of his case.

“The Constitution of the United States is explicit that habeas corpus may be suspended only in time of rebellion or invasion,” observed Sen. Specter. “We are suffering neither of those alternatives at the present time. We have not been invaded, and there has not been a rebellion.”

“This bill would restore the great writ of habeas corpus, a cornerstone of American liberty for hundreds of years that Congress and the President rolled back in an unprecedented and unnecessary way with September’s Military Commissions Act,” said Senator Leahy.

See the introduction of the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act here.

Air Force Space Operations, and Orbital Debris

U.S. Air Force doctrine on space operations is elaborated in a new publication. See “Space Operations” (pdf), Air Force Doctrine Document AFDD 2-2, November 27, 2006.

The threat posed by debris in Earth orbit is the subject of a recent Master’s Thesis, which provides a convenient introduction to the subject and a review of recent literature. See “Orbital Debris: Technical and Legal Issues and Solutions” (pdf) by Michael W. Taylor, Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University, Montreal, August 2006.