Welcome To The New FAS Biosecurity Blog!

The FAS Biosecurity Program now has a blog of its own. We have mirrored the archived biosecurity posts from our old home at the FAS Strategic Security Blog, and we will be posting new material here at least twice a week.

We invite analytical and factual comments that advance the debate, but reserve the right to abbreviate long submissions and reject derogatory or purely opinionated messages.

Welcome to our new home, and please feel free to let us know what you think of the blog, or what you would like us to cover!

FAS Podcast, Alicia Godsberg, NPT Conference

Listen to a new edition of the FAS Podcast: “A Conversation With An Expert,” featuring Alicia Godsberg, Research Associate for the FAS Strategic Security Program and United Nations Affairs. Topics discussed include details on the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, the role of FAS at the United Nations, ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and much more!

Click here to download podcast.

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Documentary “Paths to Zero” Premiering at the NPT RevCon

by: Alicia Godsberg

On Tuesday May 11 FAS will be premiering our documentary, “Paths to Zero,” at the United Nations during the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT RevCon).  The screening will be part of FAS’s official UN Office of Disarmament Affairs side event for the RevCon, which will be held from 10 am – 12 pm in Conference Room A of the North Building.  To attend, you must be registered for the RevCon, but after the Conference FAS will be screening Paths to Zero in Washington, DC and we will be uploading the video to our website.

The world’s combined stockpile of nuclear weapons remains at a high and frightening level – over 24,000 – despite being two decades past the end of the Cold War. In the documentary film Paths to Zero, Federation of American Scientists Vice President Dr. Ivan Oelrich explains the history of how the nuclear-armed world got to this point, and how we can begin to move down a global path to zero nuclear weapons.

Export Control Policy as a Guide to Secrecy Reform

“The problem we face,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last week, “is that the current system, which has not been significantly altered since the end of the Cold War, originated and evolved in a very different era with a very different array of concerns in mind.”  He was talking about the U.S. export control process, but with minor differences he might just as well have been speaking about the national security classification system, since an increasingly obsolete model of security underlies both policy regimes.

“America’s decades-old, bureaucratically labyrinthine system does not serve our 21st century security needs or our economic interests,” Secretary Gates said April 20 at an event hosted by Business Executives for National Security.  “Our security interests would be far better served by a more agile, transparent, predictable and efficient regime.  Tinkering around the edges of the current system will not do.”

The White House expressed a similar view in an April 20 fact sheet. The current U.S. export control system, it said, “is overly complicated, contains too many redundancies, and tries to protect too much.”  The scope of export controls is so broad that it “dilutes our ability to adequately control and protect those key items and technologies that must be protected for our national security.  The goal of the reform effort is ‘to build high walls around a smaller yard’ by focusing our enforcement efforts on our ‘crown jewels’,” the White House said.

In fact, the export control system is so messed up, senior defense officials told reporters at an April 19 press briefing, that “the system itself poses a threat to national security.”

The Administration’s proposed solution for export control policy is based on principles of simplification, consolidation and a focus on the highest value items to be controlled.  This translates into a single export control list, a single licensing agency, a single enforcement agency, and a single information technology system for the entire export control program.

A similar approach could be applied to classification policy, perhaps in the following way.

A single classification system:  Currently there are two parallel classification systems, one for general national security information, based on executive order, and one for nuclear weapons-related information, based on the Atomic Energy Act.  In many areas of defense and foreign policy, the two systems overlap, generating unnecessary complexity and confusion.  The dual classification systems also significantly complicate the declassification process.  Moving to a single classification system would simplify the classification process, facilitate training of personnel, and increase declassification productivity.  A useful interim step would be to transfer the nuclear weapons classification category known as “Formerly Restricted Data” (FRD) into the general national security classification system so that FRD records — on topics such as stockpile size and weapon storage locations abroad — could be handled and declassified just like other records containing national security information.

A consolidated set of classification guides:  Currently there are nearly three thousand classification guides in government that prescribe what information is to be classified and at what level.  Instead there could be maybe three– one for defense operations and technology, one for intelligence, and one for foreign policy (and perhaps one more for nuclear weapons information if the two classification systems are combined).  This kind of consolidation would help promote standardization across agencies, including ease of correction and change of classification policies.  It would also facilitate oversight and enforcement of proper classification practices.

An enhanced oversight mechanism:  If there is going to be increased uniformity and consistency in classification across the government, then a strong oversight mechanism will be needed to adjudicate and resolve the inevitable conflicts that will arise among individual agencies, and the deviations between policy and practice.  The existing Information Security Oversight Office could help fulfill this role if the President grants it the power and the responsibility to overrule erroneous or unwise classification decisions.

A drastic reduction in scope of classification:  Just as the export control system “tries to protect too much,” the same is true in spades of the classification system.  (Random example: The total dollar cost of the CIA’s CORONA satellite program, which ended in 1972, is still considered classified information.)  “Frederick the Great’s famous maxim that he who defends everything defends nothing certainly applies to export control,” Secretary Gates said last week.  The corresponding view in classification policy is Justice Potter Stewart’s familiar statement that “when everything is classified, then nothing is classified….”  The forthcoming Fundamental Classification Guidance Review that was required by executive order 13526 should help to reverse the growth of the classification system over the next two years.  But other targeted measures may also be needed to achieve the optimum classification state of “high walls around narrow areas.”

“The proposition that a more focused and streamlined system actually helps our national security can go against conventional wisdom,” Secretary Gates said.  Nevertheless, “I believe it is the right approach, and it is urgently needed, given the harmful effects of continuing with the existing set of outdated processes, institutions and assumptions.”

The Obama Administration is just beginning to consider the possible outlines of a future classification system that is “fundamentally transformed.”

“I … look forward to reviewing recommendations from the study that the National Security Advisor will undertake in cooperation with the Public Interest Declassification Board to design a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system,” President Obama wrote when the latest executive order on classification policy was issued on December 29.

A Look at China’s Use of Airships

China’s interest in the use of airships — balloons, blimps and various other lighter-than-air aircraft — was discussed in a new report (pdf) from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC).

Airships have been used in China for disaster relief, since they were able to reach distant areas when ordinary transportation was impaired, and for construction in mountainous or unstable areas, the report said.  High altitude airships may also be considered for wide area surveillance, early warning detection, or other military applications.

See “Current and Potential Applications of Chinese Aerostats (Airships),” NASIC OSINT Topic Report, March 23, 2010 (For Official Use Only).

The U.S. has deployed airships along the border with Mexico to aid in drug interdiction, and in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  See “Potential Military Use of Airships and Aerostats” (pdf) by the late Christopher Bolkcom, Congressional Research Service, September 1, 2006.

U.S. Defense Department sold more than $15 billion in arms in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2009, report reveals

By Matt Schroeder

Arms sold by the Defense Department to foreign recipients totaled more than $15 billion in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2009, according to a report obtained by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The quarterly report, which is dated February 2009 and is required by Section 36(a) of the Arms Export Control Act, indicates that defense articles and services sold through Defense Department Security Assistance programs from October through December 2008 were worth approximately $15.79 billion[1]. The United Arab Emirates was the largest buyer, accounting for $7 billion of sales. Saudi Arabia was a distant second with $1.87 billion, and Iraq was third with $947 million in sales. The remaining top ten recipients are listed in the table below. Sales to the top ten countries accounted for more than 80% of total sales, and nearly 89% of unclassified arms sales. These data show that a handful of countries continue to account – in dollar value terms – for the vast majority of arms sold through the US Defense Department.

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State Dept Seeks Public Input on Human Rights in U.S.

The U.S. State Department is inviting members of the public to present their concerns about human rights in the United States as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, in which the human rights records of all UN Member States are to be reviewed.

“In the pursuit of a transparent and effective UPR process, the Department of State is encouraging the American public, including non-governmental organizations and civil society more broadly, to provide input regarding human rights in the United States directly to the Department of State.”

“Your feedback is vital for us to better gauge the U.S. human rights situation now, and how protection of human rights can be improved in our country and around the world,” the State Department website said. “We look forward to receiving your comments.”

The Federation of American Scientists asked the State Department to turn its attention to those cases where a resolution of alleged human rights violations has been barred by the government’s use of the state secrets privilege.

“There are innocent individuals who have been swept up in U.S. Government counterterrorism operations, wrongly detained, ‘rendered’ surreptitiously to foreign countries, subjected to extreme physical and mental stress, or otherwise wronged,” we wrote.  “In some cases, like those of persons such as Maher Arar and Khaled el-Masri, efforts to seek legal remedies have been blocked by the Government’s invocation of the state secrets privilege. As a result, the alleged abuses committed in such cases remain unresolved, and there is no way for the affected individuals to be made whole.”

“If the judicial process in such cases is foreclosed by the state secrets privilege, then an alternate procedure should be created to rectify the wrongs that may have been committed,” we suggested.