Secrecy News

Pentagon Cancels Contract for JASON Advisory Panel

In a startling blow to the system of independent science and technology advice, the Department of Defense decided not to renew its support for the JASON defense science advisory panel, it was disclosed yesterday.

“Were you aware that [the JASON contract] has been summarily terminated by the Pentagon?”

That was one of the first questions asked by Rep. Jim Cooper, chair of the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee, at a hearing yesterday (at about 40’20”).

NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty replied that she was aware that the Pentagon had taken some action, and said that she had asked her staff to find out more. She noted that NNSA has an interest in maintaining the viability of the JASON panel, particularly since “We do have some ongoing studies with JASON.”

In fact, JASON performs technical studies for many agencies inside and outside of the national security bureaucracy and it is highly regarded for the quality of its work.

So why is the Pentagon threatening its future?

Even to insiders, the DoD’s thought process is obscure and uncertain.

“To understand it you first have to understand the existing contract structure,” one official said. “This is a bit arcane, but MITRE currently has an Indefinite Delivery / Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the purpose of which is to manage and operate the JASON effort. However, you don’t actually do anything with an IDIQ contract; rather, the purpose of the IDIQ contract [is to] have Task Orders (TO’s) placed on it. These TO’s are essentially mini-contracts in and of themselves, and all the actual work is performed according to the TO’s. This structure allows any government agency to commission a JASON study; conceptually, all you need to do is just open another TO for that study. (The reality is slightly more complicated, but that’s the basic idea).”

“The underlying IDIQ contract has a 5-year period of performance, which just expired on March 31. Last November, OSD started the process of letting a new 5-year IDIQ contract with essentially the same structure so that the cycle could continue. They decided to compete the contract, solicited bids, and were going to announce the contract award in mid-March. Instead, what happened is that about two weeks ago (March 28, two days before the expiration of the existing IDIQ contract) they announced that they were canceling the solicitation and would not be awarding another contract at all. Instead, they offered to award a single contract for a single study without the IDIQ structure that allows other agencies to commission studies.”

But “I do not know the reason” for the cancellation, the official said.

And so far, those who do know are not talking. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Research and Engineering) “would not answer any questions or discuss the matter in any way whatsoever.”

The news was first reported in “Storied Jason science advisory group loses contract with Pentagon” by Jeffrey Mervis and Ann Finkbeiner in Science magazine, and was first noticed by Stephen Young.

The JASON panel has performed studies (many of which are classified) for federal agencies including the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as the Census Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lately, the Department of Agriculture denied a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of a 2016 JASON report that it had sponsored entitled “New Techniques for Evaluating Crop Production.” The unclassified report is exempt from disclosure under the deliberative process privilege, USDA lawyers said. That denial is under appeal.

The Pentagon move to cancel the JASON contract appears to be part of a larger trend by federal agencies to limit independent scientific and technical advice. As noted by Rep. Cooper at yesterday’s hearing, the Navy also lately terminated its longstanding Naval Research Advisory Committee.