from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2008, Issue No. 78
August 6, 2008

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A U.S. intelligence satellite that had ceased to function was recently restored to operation by engineers from the National Reconnaissance Office and its industry affiliates, the NRO said.

The episode was first publicly described last month in a glossy two-page NRO brochure, which simply said: "Technical experts from both the NRO and industry recently performed extraordinary engineering on the ground that returned a non-operating satellite to full operation."

See "National Reconnaissance Office Accomplishments," July 2008:

Secrecy News asked NRO spokesman Rick Oborn to elaborate on the statement in the promotional brochure. ("I didn't know anyone actually read that," he said.)

He said the action occurred around "one and a half or two months ago," after the satellite in question had been "non-responsive for a while."

It was a "very interesting and pretty extraordinary" turn of events and "much to everybody's semi-surprise," satellite operation was restored.

What kind of satellite was it? "I can't tell you that," he said.

When was it launched? "That would reveal too much."

How long was the satellite non-operational? "I don't think I'm going to tell you." And he didn't.

Mr. Oborn said that NRO had prepared a classified account of the matter which was circulated in the intelligence community and to Congress.

The story shows, he said, that "we've got some really smart people doing the job."


Rather unexpectedly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is asking for public comment on whether and how it should disclose more information on the security of nuclear power plants and other facilities.

"We view nuclear regulation as the public's business and believe it should be transacted as openly and candidly as possible," said NRC Executive Director of Operations Bill Borchardt.

Among other things, the NRC wants to know what currently undisclosed information members of the public would like to have released: "What specific details would increase your level of satisfaction in our regulatory oversight of licensed facilities?"

The NRC published a request for comment in the Federal Register on July 29, along with related background material.

It is practically a law of bureaucratic physics that government agencies do not spontaneously seek to become more transparent and accountable absent some significant change in personnel or other triggering event.

According to David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the triggering event in this case was congressional outrage at the NRC's concealment of a major "nuclear safety event" in 2006 at the Nuclear Fuel Services plant in Erwin, Tennessee.

In that case, approximately 35 liters of highly enriched uranium solution leaked and spilled, creating the possibility of a criticality accident, i.e. an uncontrolled chain reaction. Yet "NRC failed to notify the public or Congress for 13 months regarding this serious incident," complained Rep. John Dingell in a July 3, 2007 letter to NRC Chairman Dale E. Klein.

"We call on NRC to make every effort to withhold from public view only those documents that contain security sensitive information, and restore to the public all other documents that have been withheld....," Rep. Dingell wrote last year.

The current NRC request for public comment on ways to increase openness, Mr. Lochbaum told Secrecy News, "is the agency's bureaucratic effort to extricate themselves from the hole they dug."

In 2003 congressional testimony, Mr. Lochbaum described the NRC's past refusal to engage with outside experts and public interest organizations on security policy.

"The net effect of the agency's actions is to exclude the public from intervening on security issues in specific licensing cases and also to exclude the public from participating, even in the limited capacity of merely expressing concerns, in security policy discussions," Mr. Lochbaum testified at that time.


The American Civil Liberties Union is petitioning the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for leave to participate in future proceedings regarding the constitutionality of government procedures under the recent FISA Amendments Act, which expanded government authority to conduct intelligence surveillance.

The government opposes the ACLU petition. Justice Department attorneys wrote in a July 29 opposition motion that since the relevant procedures are classified, "there is nothing that the ACLU could contribute to the Court's resolution...."

The government's opposition is misplaced, the ACLU replied yesterday, noting that it does not seek access to classified information, but only wishes to address the constitutionality questions that are before the Court.

"Because the FISA Amendments Act has such sweeping implications for the rights of U.S. citizens and residents, any consideration of these issues should be adversarial and as informed and transparent as possible," the August 5 ACLU reply stated.

"This Court should not issue a secret opinion after hearing secret arguments -- and from only one side," the ACLU reply said. (I am mentioned in a footnote.)

In a separate proceeding, the ACLU is also challenging the constitutionality of the FISA Amendments Act in federal district court.

See "ACLU Challenges Unconstitutional Spying Law":

The pleadings submitted to the FISA Court are also copied here:

While it isn't Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the famously interminable lawsuit in Dickens' Bleak House, the current ACLU proceeding before the FISA Court is, strangely enough, Jaffer v. Jaffer.

The lead attorney on the ACLU petition is the estimable Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Program. Among the Justice Department attorneys opposing the ACLU petition is Jamil N. Jaffer, Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General.


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

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