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).

Select Agent Program Regulations and High-Containment Laboratories

On June 12, 2008 Senators Richard Burr (R- North Carolina) and Edward Kennedy (D- Massachusetts) introduced S.3127, a bill to reauthorize the Select Agent Program by amending the Public Health Service Act and the Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act of 2002 and to improve oversight of high containment laboratories. To provide a context for the content of the bill, the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy hosted a briefing featuring Gigi Kwik Gronvall from the UPMC Center for Biosecurity, Nancy Connell from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and David Relman from Stanford University.

Gronvall gave a brief background of the Select Agent Program which is run jointly by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the US Department of Agriculture. She also made the point that the SA program is focused on security, but high containment laboratories and protocols are designed primarily to provide safety, not security.

Connell, a research scientist who works with select agents, contrasted the week or two it took to plan an experiment before the SA program was put in place to the 6-12 months it takes now. Experiments are also much more expensive, cumbersome, and according to Connell “what is missing now is an environment of transparency and collaboration.”

Relman, who is also a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) underscored the fact that there are risks associated with expanding biotechnology, but there are also enormous benefits. For example, he highlighted the new NIH Human Microbiome Project “basically the human genome project on steroids”, an initiative to map the genomes of all the microorganisms that live on the human body – providing a tremendous amount of information. Relman also expressed concerns about overusing and over-relying on the SA program because regulates access to agents that are found naturally and provides a very specific list that could be circumvented with synthetic or engineered agents.

The bill has now been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Withdrawn From the United Kingdom

More than 100 U.S. nuclear bombs have been withdrawn from RAF Lakenheath, the forward base of the U.S. Air Force 48th Fighter Wing.  Image: GoogleEarth

By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States has withdrawn nuclear weapons from the RAF Lakenheath air base 70 miles northeast of London, marking the end to more than 50 years of U.S. nuclear weapons deployment to the United Kingdom since the first nuclear bombs first arrived in September 1954.

The withdrawal, which has not been officially announced but confirmed by several sources, follows the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Ramstein Air Base in Germany in 2005 and Greece in 2001. The removal of nuclear weapons from three bases in two NATO countries in less than a decade undercuts the argument for continuing deployment in other European countries.

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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.