APS News

Panelists Debate Science and Security

The changing environment for national security includes a number of evolving threats for which the existing infrastructure is ill-equipped to address, according to speakers at a special session on the topic at the APS April Meeting in Washington, DC. The panel included Ernest J. Moniz of MIT, Undersecretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration; John Browne, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory; Charles Shank, Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and John Hamre, President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and chair of a recently appointed commission charged with investigating science and security issues at the Department of Energy and making recommendations for reform.

Security systems at the national labs have been in place for many years, and by and large are accepted by the scientific community. Despite the end of the Cold War, all the speakers at the session agreed there is still a very real need for national security, but maintained that the environment has changed considerably in recent years, citing such evolving threats as cyber security and counter-intelligence, and national security policy needs to change with it.

A key question for Moniz is deciding what information to protect, since he believes that, while there is a significant amount of information that is under-controlled, it is dwarfed by the amount of information that is over-controlled. "The need to protect also extends to science, not just to classified information," he said, adding, "The national labs perform by remaining at the science and technology frontier," and to do that, employees must engage in exchanges with the broader scientific community, which is increasingly international in scope. Input from the scientists and engineers employed by the national labs as to what security systems they believe might be effective is "essential," according to Moniz, who also criticized the broad-based polygraph programs currently in place, believing the polygraph is most useful in highly targeted areas.

Browne echoed many of Moniz' concerns, specifically the need to put security only in those areas where it is truly needed. He disagreed with the common misconception that science is incompatible with security, but recognized that "there is an inherent tension between the two and we must be careful to maintain the balance." Browne also decried the government's decidedly punitive approach to security crackdowns at the labs in the wake of the Wen Ho Lee controversy, which included travel restrictions, a moratorium on foreign visitors, and cuts in discretionary research funding, as well as polygraph testing.

Shank recognized the inherent tension between scientific exchange and national security, which he attributes in part to a cultural difference. "Scientists want to get information out to their colleagues; security people want to keep information in," he says, advocating more cultural exchanges and interactions between the two groups to bridge "this huge gulf in mutual understanding." And of course, scientists always want to know why something needs to be done a certain way, and the current security environment doesn't always provide them with sufficient rationale for the restrictions imposed.

Hamre said that the commission he heads will be reporting soon, and noted that his remarks were his own opinions and not necessarily those of the commission. He cited the national security policies of the Reagan Era, circa 1985, with its emphasis on protecting only information that has gone through the formal classification review. Like the other panelists, Hamre especially decried the category of "sensitive but unclassified" information, for which there is no consistent definition, and which is often left to the managers, who must enforce the restrictions, to figure out. Shank remarked that it is like pornography-you can't define it but "you know it when you see it."

"There are still many people in the world who want to get their hands on powerful technology for the wrong reasons," Hamre said, but security efforts should be directed at targeted weapons-related areas, not towards controlling scientific exchange.

He also believes the US hasn't invested sufficiently in developing quality security practices at the national labs, pointing to the Las Vegas casinos as an example of the most sophisticated security model in the country, because the casino owners made substantial investments to develop them. Specifically, Hamre recommends the creation of correlated databases and related data mining tools to combat the growing threat of cyber security.

Of course, "There is no defense against willful compromise," according to Moniz. This is why, says Browne, the essence of a national security program should not rely on following a set of rules, but be based instead on the integrity and values of people in the national lab environment.

"We need to do better at defining and communicating threats to national security, [in order to] educate our people so that they understand what they need to protect," he said. "The issue is not about rules and regulations, it's about values and ethics." Concluded Moniz: "A well-placed trust must be the foundation of our national security."


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