Broad Consensus on Gene Synthesis Guidelines

Participants at a January 11th forum on Minimizing the Risks of Synthetic DNA, held at the AAAS, appeared to be in general agreement on the principles behind proposed US guidelines to safeguard the rapidly advancing technology of gene synthesis.

Synthetic biology, a new field made possible by developments in genome sequencing and genetic engineering, seeks to take an engineering-based approach to biological problems.  The story of the malaria drug Artemisinin provides an example of the advances that this new approach can produce.  The drug is currently made from a plant extract, and crop quantities are insufficient to meet global demand.  Through synthetic biology, scientists have been able to engineer yeast capable of performing the multiple reactions necessary to create the drug’s precursor.

However, engineering life also presents the opportunity to create existing, augmented, and/or novel pathogens.  Current restrictions on select agent pathogens, such as Smallpox, are based on the physical safeguarding of live bacterial and viral stocks to keep them from malicious users.  With modern gene synthesis technology, a would-be attacker could potentially obtain a complete pathogen genome by ordering it from commercial DNA providers.

It is in this context that Monday’s forum brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, ranging from Federal regulators to major gene synthesis firms and research organizations.  Though the specifics of guideline implementation were occasionally questioned, there was a surprising degree of consensus concerning future policies implemented by private industry. Continue reading

A Military Guide to Nongovernmental Relief Organizations

In an effort to promote cooperation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in humanitarian relief operations and to enhance its own emergency response capabilities, the Department of Defense has published a newly updated “Guide to Nongovernmental Organizations for the Military” (pdf).

When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti yesterday, several disaster relief organizations such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders were already in place and functioning.  Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for U.S. Southern Command told the Washington Post that “the military was just beginning to assess what resources it has in the region and … said no official request for help had reached the U.S. military.”  (That now seems to have changed, and a U.S. government response team is expected to arrive in Haiti today, according to the Associated Press.)

In fact, when it comes to disaster relief, NGOs and the military each have comparative strengths and weaknesses.  NGOs have greater flexibility, efficiency and responsiveness, are not hampered by the regulatory constraints that limit military operations, and are perceived as politically neutral.  “With staff members immersed in local populations, NGOs can absorb information faster than militaries can, often because militaries are isolated by force protection requirements,” the DoD Guide acknowledges.

On the other hand, military forces are far superior in their logistical and communications capabilities, and when necessary can bring force to bear to establish secure zones.  Also, “militaries can provide extensive intelligence information about population movements, security conditions, road, river, and bridge conditions, and other information pertinent to conducting humanitarian operations.”

And, the DoD Guide says, “Militaries can respond to maritime and/or chemical, biological radiological, nuclear and high yield explosives (CBRNE) emergencies.  NGOs have almost no capacity.”

“When working within a humanitarian emergency, it often appears that the military and NGOs speak different languages and have widely varying and potentially incompatible missions, capacities, and knowledge,” the Guide concludes.  “This is not necessarily true, and opinions are changing on both sides.”

The 363-page DoD Guide presents a fairly comprehensive introduction to the structure, functions and characteristic activities of non-governmental relief organizations.

“The guide book answers a need which is increasingly recognized in the military, to be able to work alongside NGOs and others who have experience and networks in the field,” Dr. Warner Anderson of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs) told Secrecy News.

The author, Dr. Lynn Lawry of the Center for Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance Medicine, is herself an NGO worker and researcher, with relief experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Congo and other areas of conflict.  The “Guide to Nongovernmental Organizations for the Military,” dated Summer 2009, was recently made public.  A copy is available on the Federation of American Scientists website.

Relief organizations accepting donations to provide assistance to earthquake survivors in Haiti include the Red Cross, Mercy Corps International, American Jewish World Service, and Catholic Relief Services.

Navy Issues Guidance on Use of Marine Mammals

A new U.S. Navy Instruction (pdf) updates Navy policy on the use of marine mammals for national security missions.

It seems that by law (10 USC 7524), the Secretary of Defense is authorized to “take” (or acquire) up to 25 wild marine mammals each year “for national defense purposes.”  These mammals — including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions — are used for military missions such as locating and marking underwater mines, and providing force protection against unauthorized swimmers or vehicles, among other things.

The new Secretary of the Navy Instruction 3900.41F, dated 13 November 2009 and published this week, provides guidance on “Acquisition, Transport, Care and Maintenance of Marine Mammals.”

The U.S. military marine mammal program has labored under a cloud of public suspicion, the Navy admits, and such suspicion has only been aggravated by the secrecy that surrounded the program for many years.

“Several decades of classification of the program’s true missions of mine-hunting and swimmer defense, led to media speculation and animal activist charges of dolphins used as offensive weapons, speculation and charges that could not be countered with facts due to that classification,” according to a Navy fact sheet.

“With declassification of the missions of the program in the early 1990s, the Navy has repeatedly and openly discussed those missions, but rumors are not easily forgotten, and there are those who continue to actively promote them.”

Russian Nuclear Forces 2010

Russia’s Teykovo 4 missile garrison northeast of Moscow is undergoing major upgrades for new SS-27 mobile nuclear missiles. Click image for large illustration of the changes.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The latest overview of Russia’s nuclear forces produced by Robert Norris from NRDC and myself is now available on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

We estimate that Russia currently (January 2010) deploys approximately 4,600 nuclear weapons, down from roughly 4,800 a year ago. The arsenal includes some 2,600 strategic warheads and about 2,000 warheads for nonstrategic forces. Another 7,300 weapons are thought to be in reserve or awaiting dismantlement for a total inventory of approximately 12,000 nuclear warheads. We estimate the weapons are stored at 48 permanent storage sites. Continue reading

NRC Seeks Public Input on Open Government

In a remarkable sign of how the ground is shifting in government information policy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has invited the public to suggest categories of NRC information that should be published on its web site, and to recommend other measures the Commission might take to improve transparency, public participation and collaboration.

A December 8, 2009 Open Government Directive (pdf) issued by the Obama Administration ordered federal agencies to “identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets” within 45 days (i.e. by January 22), and to take other steps “toward the goal of creating a more open government.”

In a Federal Register notice published today, the NRC asked for public assistance to meet the requirements of the Open Government Directive.

“To aid the NRC’s efforts to determine what data sets might be appropriate to publish and what transparency, public participation, and collaboration improvements it might include in its Open Government Plan, the NRC is soliciting public comments. Comments regarding publication of data sets are requested as soon as possible in light of the January 22, 2010, target date for publication of data sets,” the NRC notice said.

In fact, anyone can propose high value data sets belonging to any agency for publication online, through a public comment page on the Obama Administration’s web site.

We have suggested publication of the CIA’s CREST database of declassified historical records, and of a broad selection of Open Source Center products that are not classified or copyrighted.  Matt Schroeder of the FAS Arms Sales Project recommended improved online publication of government data on U.S. arms exports.

ACLU Files Suit on Behalf of Fired CRS Official

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Friday on behalf of Col. Morris D. Davis, a former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo, alleging that he was unlawfully fired from the Congressional Research Service because he made statements as a private individual that were critical of Obama Administration policy on military commissions.  (“CRS Fires A Division Chief,” Secrecy News, December 4, 2009.)

“Col. Davis has a constitutional right to speak about issues of which he has expert knowledge, and the public has a right to hear from him,” said ACLU attorney Aden Fine.

The lawsuit names as defendants James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, as well as CRS Director Daniel P. Mulhollan, who is sued in his personal capacity.

At the root of the matter, ACLU argues, are ambiguous Library regulations and a problematic 2004 CRS policy (pdf) on “outside activities” by CRS employees.

“Neither the Library’s regulations nor CRS’s policy establishes a standard for determining which outside speaking and writing is permissible and which is not. The regulations and policy afford the Library and CRS unfettered discretion to determine which speech to punish,” according to the ACLU lawsuit (pdf).

“We maintain that the removal of Mr. Davis is justified,” wrote Library of Congress General Counsel Elizabeth Pugh on December 14, 2009 (pdf).

The case was assigned to Judge Reggie Walton of the DC District Court. A job vacancy notice for Mr. Davis’s position was posted on USAJobs on January 8, 2010.

Book: The World Bank Unveiled

“The World Bank Unveiled” tells the story of an attempt by World Bank researcher David Shaman and some of his colleagues to introduce greater transparency into the deliberations of the World Bank.

In 1999, at a time when the Bank was subject to intense controversy and public demonstrations, Shaman co-created the internet-based B-SPAN, which offered unedited videos of internal Bank discussions and debates.  “We began B-SPAN as a way to increase the Bank’s transparency.  We believed by doing so we would increase people’s understanding of what the Bank did, increase opportunities for the Bank to be more accountable to its critics, and thereby mute tensions on all sides.”

The 688-page book details the development of this transparency initiative from the author’s perspective, and describes its early success as well as the opposition that it quickly engendered.

“I decided to write The World Bank Unveiled because I believe it will provide an opportunity for those who want a more open and accountable institution to overcome an internal culture wedded to secrecy and a bureaucracy married to the status quo,” said Mr. Shaman. “If this should occur, the ultimate winners will be those millions who currently live in poverty because they will then have a more effective advocate on their behalf.”

See “The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency” by David Ian Shaman, Parkhurst Brothers Inc. Publishers, 2009.

National Cut Your Energy Costs Day…

Because a kilowatt saved is a penny earned.

Actually, the average cost of 1 KW of electricity in the US as of September 2009 was 12.6¢.  And while this figure doesn’t seem very large, all those cents add up when you consider that an average household consumes more than 34,000 KWH of electricity annually, including about 1200 KWH/Year to run each refrigerator and even more to run a plasma screen TV.  And when you add in the natural gas, fuel oil, kerosene, and wood used to heat houses, run hot water tanks, and operate ovens and other appliances, that’s even more energy consumed and more ways for you to begin cutting your energy costs.

In celebration of National Cut Your Energy Costs Day, which is Sunday, January 10th, FAS has provided a brief list of easy steps  you can  take  to cut your energy use, energy costs, and carbon footprint.  While this list is by no means comprehensive, use it as a starting point to think about how you can begin cutting your energy consumption  today, this month, and over this coming year.  Why not make your New Years resolution to consume less energy in your home?  And as you implement this resolution, we welcome your input into the best ways you have found to reduce your energy consumption and costs.

What you can do today:

-Set your thermostat down to 55 degrees or less at night and when you’re away from the house.

– Caulk and weatherstrip around windows and door that have gaps or where the seam is not adequately sealed.  You can also use a removable caulk to seal windows that you will use in the summer—when the weather warms up, you can just peel off the strip of caulk.

-Reduce “vampire power” in your house by unplugging appliances and electronics when not in use (especially electronics that stay in “stand by” mode such as TVs and computer).

-Visit the Home Energy Saver, an online do-it-yourself energy audit tool that offers advice on how to save energy in your home.  Find it at:

What you can do this month:

-Upgrade to an Energy Star-rated programmable thermostat if you don’t have one.  Many local utilities and governments will provide and install a free programmable thermostat or will offer a subsidy or tax credits for installing one.

-Have a blower door test done to see where your house is leaking energy.  Many utility companies and some local/municipal governments will offer free or subsidized blower door tests.

What you can do this year:

-Based on the results of your blower door test, add and/or upgrade your house’s insulation.  Insulating around your ducts, in your attic, and in the basement or crawlspace especially is both highly effective and low in cost.

-If it’s time to upgrade your HVAC system, hot water heater, major appliances, or roof, look for Energy Star certified products, which can be found at:  Note that not all Energy Star products are equal and make sure you compare to find those products with the greatest efficiency and lowest operating cost.   Don’t forget to look for state and local tax credits!

Nuclear Doctrine and Missing the Point.

The government’s much anticipated Nuclear Posture Review, originally scheduled for release in the late fall, then last month, then early February is now due out the first of March.  The report is, no doubt, coalescing into final form and a few recent newspaper articles, in particular articles in Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times, have hinted at what it will contain.

Before discussing the possible content of the review, does yet another release date delay mean anything?  I take the delay of the release as the only good sign that I have seen coming out of the process.  Reading the news, going to meetings where government officials involved in the process give periodic updates, and knowing something of the main players who are actually writing the review, what jumps out most vividly to me is that no one seems to share President Obama’s vision.  And I mean the word vision to have all the implied definition it can carry.  The people in charge may say some of the right words, but I have not yet discerned any sense of the emotional investment that should be part of a vision for transforming the world’s nuclear security environment, of how to make the world different, of how to escape old thinking.  As I understand the president, his vision is truly transformative.  That is why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  His appointees who are developing the Nuclear Posture Review, at least the ones I know anything about, are incredibly smart and knowledgeable, but they are also careful, cautious, and, I suspect, incrementalists who might understand intellectually what the president is saying but don’t feel it (and, in many cases, fundamentally don’t really agree with it).  A transformative vision not driven by passion will die.  As far as I can see (and, I admit, I am not the least bit connected so perhaps I simply cannot see very far) the only person in the administration working on the review who really feels the president’s vision is the president.  Much of what I hear from appointees in the administration has, to me at least, the feel of “what the president really means is…”   If the cause of the delay is that yet more time is needed to find compromise among centers of power, reform is in trouble because we will see a nuclear posture statement that is what it is today neatened up around the edges.  But if the delay is because the president is not getting the visionary document he demands, delay might be the only hopeful sign we are getting.

Continue reading