SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2006, Issue No. 127
December 14, 2006

Secrecy News Blog: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/

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GOVT SUBPOENAS ACLU TO RECOVER CLASSIFIED DOCUMENT

Government attorneys reached deep into their legal bag of tricks to devise a subpoena against the American Civil Liberties Union demanding "any and all copies" of a classified document that was leaked to the ACLU in October.

Questioned by an ACLU attorney as to the authority for this demand, a government attorney cited the espionage statutes in 18 USC 793 and 798.

Such an action is unprecedented, the ACLU said in a motion to quash the subpoena, and it is also an improper use of subpoena authority.

If successful, this tactic could be used to confiscate classified documents from news organizations, effectively imposing prior restraint on publication and curtailing freedom of the press.

"No official secrets act has yet been enacted into law, and the grand jury's subpoena power cannot be employed to create one," the ACLU said. See its motion to quash here:

The subpoena against the ACLU is the latest in a series of new government efforts to tighten controls on classified information and to punish those who disclose such information.

A recent issue of The News Media & The Law, published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, focuses on "Journalists and the Espionage Act" and provides updates on several ongoing cases and controversies. See:


CRS ON RELIABLE REPLACEMENT WARHEAD, AND MORE

In considering the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the government must decide between two basic courses of action, explains a new report from the Congressional Research Service: either it must seek to extend the functional lifetime of existing nuclear weapons, or it must develop a new generation of warheads.

The CRS report compares and contrasts the pros and cons of these two options.

Another potential option, abolition of nuclear weapons, is not considered by the CRS, since "it has garnered no support in Congress or the Administration."

The CRS does not make its products directly available to the public. A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News.

See "Nuclear Warheads: The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program and the Life Extension Program," December 13, 2006:

Some other notable recent reports from the CRS include the following.

"The Military Commissions Act of 2006: Analysis of Procedural Rules and Comparison with Previous DOD Rules and the Uniform Code of Military Justice," October 12, 2006:

"FY2007 Appropriations for State and Local Homeland Security," updated October 6, 2006:

"Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF)," October 18, 2006:

"Uganda: Current Conditions and the Crisis in North Uganda," October 20, 2006:


POLONIUM AND THE HISTORY OF SPACE NUCLEAR POWER

When the New York Times mentioned in passing recently that polonium-210 had once been used to power U.S. spacecraft, it caused a furrowing of the brow among the seven or so people who dwell on the history of space nuclear power, since it is almost certainly not correct.

"President Eisenhower, eager to promote 'atoms for peace,' had the high heats of polonium 210 turned into electricity for satellites," wrote the estimable William J. Broad in a recent Times Week in Review piece ("Polonium, $22.50 Plus Tax," December 3). "But the batteries lost power relatively fast because of the material's short half-life, just 138 days. The United States made few such spacecraft."

Not so, according to Gary L. Bennett, who devoted much of his career at the Department of Energy and NASA to the development of space nuclear power sources.

"As far as I know, the U.S. never flew a spacecraft powered by polonium-210," Dr. Bennett told Secrecy News.

Dr. Bennett identified one documentary source that claimed otherwise, a history of isotope production at the Mound Laboratory in Ohio. It is consistent with the New York Times account, but he said it too was in error.

That Mound history described the use of polonium in an early radioisotope power supply called SNAP 3A:

"The first SNAP-3A, fueled with polonium-210, provided power to a satellite radio transmitter. The use of satellites powered by SNAP for global communication was first demonstrated under President Eisenhower in 1961, at which time the President's peace message was broadcast via a satellite containing a radio transmitter powered by the SNAP-3A RTG." See (at page 4):

But all other historical accounts agree that the first SNAP-3A was launched on June 29, 1961 (on the Transit 4A spacecraft), after President Eisenhower had left office, and it was fueled with plutonium-238, not polonium-210.

It is true that the SNAP-3A was originally designed with polonium fuel, because of Atomic Energy Commission restrictions on plutonium, according to a deeply researched official history of space nuclear power prepared for the Department of Energy.

A photograph of President Eisenhower in the Oval Office enthusiastically examining a polonium-fueled SNAP battery appeared on the front page of the Washington Evening Star on January 16, 1959. ("Nuclear critic Ralph Lapp complained that a highly lethal item had been placed on the President's desk.")

But "the AEC eventually relaxed its policy and agreed to provide the plutonium fuel and SNAP-3A, as a result, was converted from polonium-210 to plutonium-238," the official history stated (at page 23).

"Despite the president's enthusiasm [in January 1959], the first RTG [radioisotope thermoelectric generator] flight came two and a half years after the White House demonstration," the official DOE history states (page 18).

It was the plutonium-fueled version that was launched into space in June 1961, not the original polonium-fueled design.

See "Atomic Power in Space: A History," prepared for U.S. Department of Energy, March 1987 (188 pages, 8.5 MB):

Polonium-fueled radioisotope power or heater units were used on spacecraft launched by the former Soviet Union on a number of occasions, Dr. Bennett noted.


JASON ON ENGINEERING MICROORGANISMS FOR ENERGY PRODUCTION

A recent report from the secretive JASON scientific advisory group considers the feasibility of using microorganisms to produce fuels as a metabolic product, such as hydrogen or ethanol.

"Microorganisms present a great opportunity for energy science," the JASON report to the Department of Energy said.

"Microorganisms are simpler than plants; they have smaller genomes and proteomes, and are easier to manipulate and culture. The enormous biodiversity of microorganisms presents a broad palette of starting points for engineering. Microorganisms already make many metabolic products, some of which are useful fuels."

"Boosting the efficiency of fuel formation from microorganisms is an important research challenge for the twenty first century."

The JASONs do not publish even their unclassified reports in an orderly or consistent fashion. A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News.

See "Engineering Microorganisms for Energy Production," JSR-05-300, June 23, 2006 (92 pages, 1.1 MB):

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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