July 30, 2019 / 11:11 AM / 19 days ago

Special Report: Inside a Trump-era purge of military scientists at a legendary think tank

NEW YORK (Reuters) - They’re members of a prestigious academic panel with top-secret clearances who’ve advised the Pentagon on some of America’s most vexing national security issues since the Cold War. Over 60 years, they’ve won 11 Nobel prizes and conducted hundreds of government studies.

Following a strategic deterrence patrol, the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Alaska returns to its homeport at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, U.S. in this April 2, 2019 handout photo. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Bryan Tomforde/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

The advisory group, known as Jason, is a team of some 60 of America’s top physicists and scientists who spend each summer in La Jolla, California, conducting studies commissioned by the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies.

On March 28, Trump appointee Michael Griffin – the Pentagon’s chief technology officer – unexpectedly moved to terminate the group.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, objected, telling Griffin’s office the scientists were crucial for keeping America’s nuclear stockpile secure, according to an NNSA official and others affiliated with the Jason program. Gordon-Hagerty’s agency offered to take responsibility for the program. She only needed Griffin’s signature to make it happen.

Griffin refused.

He declined comment, but a Defense Department spokeswoman said the Pentagon decided it had less need for the studies than previously thought. “The department remains committed to seeking independent technical advice and review. This change is in keeping with this commitment, while making the most economic sense,” said spokeswoman Heather Babb.

Jason’s supporters, backed into a corner, managed to keep the group alive, temporarily for now, for eight more months. Democrats in Congress are trying to get Jason funded through a different Pentagon office not run by Griffin, but it’s unclear whether the Republican-controlled Senate will go along.

A day after Griffin moved to axe Jason, a 35-word blurb in the Federal Register announced the end of two other independent scientific boards, including the Navy Research Advisory Committee, which had advised the Navy and Marine Corps for 73 years.

The efforts to kill the scientific panels show how the Trump administration’s crackdown on the role of independent science in the U.S. government is reaching into areas long thought immune from political influence.

“These are institutions of great technical expertise,” said Sherri W. Goodman, a former member of the International Security Advisory Board, a State Department panel suspended shortly after Trump took office. “They are great repositories of national expertise and also scientific expertise that have helped keep America’s competitive edge militarily.”

This may be just the beginning. A June executive order signed by Trump requires all federal agencies to slash a third of their independent advisory committees by September 30, with the goal of ultimately reducing the total number of such committees to no more than 350 from about 1,000 now.

The move will cut back on red tape and costs, Trump officials say. Jason, for instance, receives about $8 million in taxpayer financing a year. “Formal boards are only one of many avenues for senior leaders to receive advice from experts, but some boards outlive their mission,” said Lisa Hershman, the Defense Department’s acting chief management officer.

The Trump administration is not the first to seek to reduce independent advisory panels, though its effort appears more ambitious in terms of the number of cuts. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, cut a handful of boards during his tenure.

Gates declined to comment, but a former defense official said Gates felt senior military officials lost time rebutting recommendations. “Gates looked at it and said you guys may decide they’re not worth the effort,” said Bill Bowes, a former vice admiral in the U.S. Navy and vice-chair of the Naval Research Advisory Committee until it was disbanded earlier this year.

In the case of the Naval panels, two former members said they were told Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was frustrated the groups took months to turn out recommendations. Instead of depending on advisory committees, a Navy spokesman said, Spencer preferred to hear from experts on a case by case basis.

Yet others say killing the committees will weaken independent assessments of crucial military and scientific issues. “The pattern of resistance that has been directed at independent science advisors suggests that it is their independence that is unwanted,” said Steve Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists.

Reuters’ account of the effort to disband Jason is built from interviews with the outgoing and incoming chairs of Jason, panel program administrators, and officials at the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration. Reuters also reviewed emails and correspondence involving Jason.

INDEPENDENT GROUP, PINK SLIP

The Jasons, drawn from America’s elite scientists, are hand-picked by the existing membership. They are known for fiercely guarding their independence and, at times, ruffling feathers.

Named after the leader of the Argonauts who sought the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology, they were formed after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth, in 1957. Fearing it was losing the space and technology war, the United States created the Jason program.

In the 1960s, the Jasons invented a type of sensor that could detect enemy guerrillas in Vietnam and communicate their location to U.S. bombers. Four decades later, the group pushed back when the Pentagon sought to appoint some of Jason’s scientists.

“They speak their mind,” said David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group. “They’ve tried very hard to be independent of the agency that is paying them. Jason can be a pain in the ass. It doesn’t always give people the answers they want.”

More recently, the Jasons determined that a rare jungle cricket, not a mysterious radio frequency weapon, likely caused the odd sound that U.S. diplomats in Cuba had suspected caused them to fall ill in late 2016. No definitive cause of the illnesses has been determined.

The Jason contract operates under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, with the Pentagon funding DOD studies. Other government agencies pay for studies they commission. Each study costs about $500,000, with 12 to 15 conducted a year, say Jason members, who are paid about $1,200 a day for their time.

The contract was due for renewal March 31. In January, Mitre Corp, the McLean, Virginia, nonprofit that manages federally funded research centers and oversees Jason, submitted a proposal to continue managing the program as it has every five years since the early 1990s.

The Pentagon told Mitre it would reply by March 16. That date came and went with no word.

On March 28, three days before the contract was due to expire, Mitre received a letter from Washington Headquarter Services, the contracting arm of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, saying it had decided to cancel calls for bids on the renewed contract.

“The requirement has changed from multiple studies being projected to only one study being needed for the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering,” Sharon Hilton, a contracting officer with Washington Headquarter Services, wrote Mitre. Issuing a new contract “does not make economic sense at this time.”

Jason chairwoman Ellen Williams, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, said the rationale for gutting the program was “ridiculous.” The Pentagon only pays for studies it commissions, she noted, while other government agencies pay for their own studies.

“It was quite a shock,” Williams said.

A ‘STAR WARS’ COLLISION

At the center of the conflict: Trump appointee Griffin, the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. The GOP-controlled Senate confirmed his appointment in February 2018.

Griffin is known as an outspoken advocate for space-based missile defense systems, an area that has drawn tough scrutiny in the past from Jason scientists.

During the Reagan administration, Griffin played a central role in the military’s Strategic Defense Initiative, an ambitious idea of space-based weaponry dubbed by some as “Star Wars.”

On March 12, the Defense Department established the Space Development Agency, responsible for advancing next-generation military space capabilities. The agency was put under Griffin’s direction.

Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Griffin “clearly wants” to pursue space-based missile defense. “He’s frustrated that people are being held back by what he sees as silly objections,” she said.

The Jasons have long been skeptical of space-based weapons systems. One study the group plans to conduct this summer deals specifically with space-based defense issues, according to people familiar with their research schedule.

Prior unclassified studies reveal their criticism of the science associated with space-based military programs. In 2008, for instance, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence asked the scientists to examine the issue of High Frequency Gravitational Waves, which have several theoretical applications, one of which is for space-based sensors that could be used to detect hidden activities, such as below-ground nuclear tests.

The Jasons examined the supporting research conducted by government-backed scientists. They slammed it. “The calculation for the required gas pressure is ridiculous,” they wrote. “It is simply and grossly the wrong calculation.”

The group called another conclusion “particularly inept.”

Two years later, the scientists studied the effectiveness of tests by the Missile Defense Agency of their ballistic missile defense technologies, and spotlighted more weaknesses.

COLD WAR, COLD SHOULDER

As the Jason program’s funding deadline neared, scientists with Jason and Mitre Corp officials suddenly couldn’t get a meeting with the Pentagon, an agency they had worked with since the Cold War.

Senior officials turned them away, according to emails reviewed by Reuters and people familiar with the communications. Mitre officials and Jason scientists both contacted Griffin’s office. A secretary told them to submit their request for a meeting via an online form, emails show. The request was rejected.

In an April 8 email, Williams asked Griffin’s office to continue the program, noting there would be no economic cost to the Defense Department. “We … would appreciate the opportunity to discuss this with Dr. Griffin as soon as possible.”

Three days later, Williams’ request was rejected, emails show.

Disbanding the program would have had a ripple effect across U.S. government agencies that use Jason research. For the summer of 2019, the Jasons had been asked to conduct 15 separate studies by seven government agencies.

Most of the scheduled studies are classified, but some are not. The National Science Foundation, for instance, had asked the scientists to determine what regulations would be appropriate to safeguard American intellectual property.

Another study was Congressionally mandated for the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, to examine the aging of nuclear weapon pits, the explosive core in many types of U.S. nuclear weapons. The agency had relied on Jason’s research for decades to help secure nuclear stockpiles.

On April 9, NNSA head Gordon-Hagerty told the House Armed Services Committee Jason’s research was crucial. “I can tell you they are rich in history and their technical expertise is sound,” she testified. Gordon-Hagerty declined an interview request, but her office pointed to her House testimony in response to Reuters questions about Jason.

Gordon-Hagerty’s semi-autonomous agency is part of the Department of Energy and has long been considered bipartisan. Before the Trump administration tapped her to lead the NNSA in 2017, Gordon-Hagerty served as the Director of Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

If the Pentagon didn’t want responsibility for the Jasons, Gordon-Hagerty decided in April, the NNSA would take over the contract, scientists said.

Drawing up a new government contract can take months. Gordon-Hagerty had two weeks to get it done before the Jasons would cease to exist on April 30. At that point, the Jasons would have to cancel outstanding studies and effectively disband.

Gordon-Hagerty asked Griffin’s office to sign a one-month contract extension, according to Jason and an NNSA official. It would cost Griffin’s office nothing, since the Jasons had money in the bank to stay operational for a month. All that was required: a signature on a piece of paper to make it legal. Griffin, as head of the office that let out the contract, needed to approve the decision. He said no.

Asked about Griffin’s refusal, Pentagon spokeswoman Babb said: “I have nothing more to provide.”

“It appears they effectively tried to kill the program,” Williams told Reuters.

Slideshow (13 Images)

At the last moment, Gordon-Hagerty’s agency managed to rush through an unorthodox paperwork maneuver: It published a formal notice of its intent to issue a contract for Jason later. That was enough to persuade Mitre to temporarily fund the program out of its own pocket.

The Jason program was saved for another eight months. Beyond that, its future is in doubt.

Editing by Ronnie Greene and Jason Szep

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