F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society
January 2003



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Sniffer Plane Secrets and Political Courage

Alan J. Scott

In the book Voodoo Science1 Robert Parks describes the "Sniffer Plane" incident by the French government in 1976. This government spent $200 million for a secret instrument claimed to be able to spot mineral and oil reserves from the air by measuring a new particle. French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing ordered tight secrecy on the program to keep the technological advantage. Officials didn’t even get close to the device because of dangerous radiation warnings that were issued.

Getting suspicious, the French had a prominent physicist examine the device. It was found to be an elaborate hoax that was able to survive 3 years under the cloak of secrecy and national security. After the government had determined it was a fake, they shut the operation down but kept its existence secret because of political embarrassment. In 1981 a new government took over and stumbled across the cover-up.

This story exemplifies the process I shall dub Sniffer Plane Secrecy. It applies when governments keep things secret, not necessarily for national security, but for political expediency and to prevent public scrutiny.

National Missile Defense as Sniffer Plane Genre

The United States is not immune to this type of secrecy and the instances of it appear to be rising. There are numerous multi-billion dollar programs that the United States is undertaking that have a striking resemblance to the Sniffer Plane. Consider George W. Bush’s plan to build a national missile defense shield (NMD). The missile defense program has spent 70.7 billion dollars from 1984 to 1994 without any deployable system or technological advancement.2 Billions of dollars are being spent each year for the program. Many missile interceptor tests have required a homing beacon to be placed into the target missile and - even with this beacon - many of the tests fail to intercept the target.3

The Union of Concerned Scientists clearly state that the program is “unworkable” and “counterproductive.”4 The Defense Department has recently moved to restrict access to information about future tests and costs.5 Thereby removing it from public scrutiny and turning it into a Sniffer Plane Secret.

Ted Postol, physicist and MIT Professor - formerly a U.S. Navy scientist, has been so bold as to declare the NMD a “fraud” and that a cover-up was happening.6,7 In the past, Postol declared the Patriot Missiles almost a complete failure when the Pentagon was declaring them 90% effective. It has been determined the Patriot’s were a lot less effective than the Pentagon indicated.

Aurora as Sniffer Plane

Another such secret is the Aurora plane. It is (maybe) a classified plane that the U.S. government will neither confirm or deny exists. The secrecy is almost laughable since a model airplane company has sold kits for its construction.8 Carl Sagan discusses this plane in his book The Demon Haunted World.9

The plane is estimated to have a speed of greater than Mach 4 and can fly at an altitude of 200,000 ft (38 miles). It is a successor to the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. The Federation of American Scientist (FAS) web pages at <http://www.fas.org/irp/mystery/aurora.html> estimate the plane’s development cost to be between 4.4 and 8 billion dollars. Building 24 Aurora planes is expected to cost about 10 and 24 billion dollars. An intelligent debate about the costs verses benefits is stifled under the cloak of secrecy. With spy satellites and the notion that any capable U.S. foe has probably developed effective counter-measures to the plane, it is hard to fathom why it is kept secret other than to protect a giant boondoggle.

Political Sniffer Planes

In 1997 a congressional commission10 reported “Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate… The classification system, for example, is used too often to deny the public an understanding of the policymaking process, rather than for the necessary protection of intelligence activities and other highly sensitive matters.” President George W. Bush issued an executive order11 in November, 2001, to limit the disclosure of presidential records just as information about President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush was to be made public. It is easy to see how conspiracy and cover-up theories flourish in this age of secrecy.

President Nixon argued not to release Whitehouse tapes because it wouldn’t be in the national interest. These tapes revealed crimes against our nation perpetrated by the president. They also revealed the potential truth about conspiracies. Shortly after Arthur Bremer tried to assassinate George Wallace in 1972, Nixon decided to concoct a scheme to blame the event on supporters of Democrats George McGovern and Edward Kennedy. The tapes revealed Nixon saying “Just say he (the shooter) was a supporter of McGovern and Kennedy…Now, just put that out!…Just say you have it on unmistakable evidence.”12 One can only imagine what crime was recorded on the erased sections of the Nixon tapes. More recently and a bit less egregious, we have President Bill Clinton attempting to circum-navigate justice by declaring he did not have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

The U.S. has a wide variety of “Intelligence” agencies. Two of the most prominent are the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. Their budgets are not disclosed but the total intelligence budget is estimated at about $27 billion dollars annually.13 Cost effectiveness of these agencies is as much a mystery as their activities. Much of what is known about these agencies comes from books published in the popular media. These include Body of Secrets by James Bamford,14 Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA by Bob Woodward,15 and The U.S. Intelligence Community by Jeffrey Richelson.16 These agencies do have some merit but, as indicated in these books, many abuses have occurred under the cloak of secrecy for national interest.

Sniffer Plane Secrets as an Affront to Science and Society

Secrecy does have a role for protecting the national interest. For example, the security plan for protecting Vice President Cheney on his visit to the 2002 Winter Olympics should be kept secret. (Such plans were accidentally left in a souvenir shop by a secret service agent.17) But secrecy can tear apart the very fabric of society and science. The U.S. government has withdrawn18 over 6,000 documents from shelves and web pages pertaining to or even remotely connected to germ and chemical weapons. Ronald M. Atlas, the president-elect of the American Society of Microbiology, was quoted as saying "(it) takes apart the whole foundation of science...I think it undermines science." In the wake of September 11, the Pentagon tried to establish the Office of Strategic Influence. Its purpose was to influence public sentiment in foreign countries by providing news items – possibly false news items or propaganda!19 About two weeks after the office was established, the Bush Administration closed the office due to public criticism. This leads one to ask how many other governments around the world have such an office which is kept secret and out of the reach of public scrutiny. Truth and openness is vital for healthy governance and strong science.20 As Mark Twain has stated “Truth is the most valuable thing we have, let us economize it.”

Solutions to Sniffer Plane Secrecies

The world needs an antidote to cynicism – the consequence of Sniffer Plane Secrets. Producing workable solutions is formidable. The most important solution is to encourage our political leaders to be honest and open. Our nation needs to recognize and reward such courage. The recent book Profiles in Courage for Our Time21 edited and introduced by Carolyn Kennedy, acknowledges those that have labored admirably in the political arena. One essay in this book is about Russell Feingold and John McCain for their courageous efforts to reform campaign financing. It chronicles the strategic maneuvering by special interest to keep their hold on American politics and stifle the McCain-Feingold reform effort. A total of 160 million dollars were given to political campaigns in 2001 to advance the agendas of special interests.22 The biggest special interests include Securities and Investments, Telecommunications, Labor, Insurance, Lawyers, and Pharmaceuticals.23 The people of the United States can be proud of McCain and Feingold for their principled determination on this issue!

There exists another surprising way in which to rout out Sniffer Plane Secrets. When government officials see classified documents that are blatant abuses of power, it can be argued that exposing the abuses by leaking the information to the press is a patriotic act. Robert Parks (which brings us back to the author of Voodoo Science) discusses this issue by stating “…but conscientious government employees who are willing to risk their careers by leaking classified documents may be the only check on government excesses carried out behind the screen of national security.”24

As our nation rallies to fight terrorism, it is important to recognize the acts of bravery and sacrifice of soldiers on the battlefield. It is also important to recognize acts of courage from our political leaders because it is these acts that make our nation and its institutions worthy of wartime sacrifices.

Alan J. Scott
Department of Physics
University of Wisconsin-Stout


1Parks, R. 2000. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford University Press

2Physicians for Social Responsibility, 1999, Ballistic Missile Defense, January, Issue Brief

3Conason, J., 2001, The Rigged Missile Defense Test, Salon.com, July 31, <http://www.salon.com/news/col/cona/2001/07/31/test/>

4Union of Concerned Scientist, 2000, Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned US National Missile Defense System, UCS/MIT Study, April

5Graham, B., 2002, U.S. antimissile system cloaked in secrecy: Foes object to the absence of public scrutiny, Washington Post, June 16

660 Minutes II, 2000, A Far-Off Dream?, December 26

760 Minutes II, 2002, America’s Dream Defense, July 10

8Muradian, V., 1993, Supersecret - Company Claims Model Represents New Spy Plane, But the Air Force Says the Aircraft Does Not Exist, FAS (Federation of American Scientists) archives, <http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1993_cr/501.cfm>

9Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness, Ballantime Books, p. 95

10Senate Document 105-2, 1997, Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, 103rd Congress

11Zaid, M, 2002, Too Many Secrets, The National Law Journal, March 27

12Anderson, K., 2002, Revelations and gaps on Nixon tapes, BBC News, March 1

13Federation of American Scientists (FAS), 1998, Intelligence Agency: Budget and Personnel, <http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/budget1.html>

14Bamford, J., 2002, Body of Secrets, Anchor Books

15Woodward, B., 1992, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, Pocket Books

16Richelson, J., 1999, The U.S. Intelligence Community, Westview Press

17Lindlaw, S., 2002, Secret Service admits it lost security document for vice president, Associated Press, February 27

18Broad, W.J., 2002, U.S. Tightening Rules on Keeping Scientific Secrets, New York Times, February 17

19Dao, J.; Schmitt, E., 2002, Pentagon PR plan takes aim at world, New York Times article (reported in Pioneer Press), February 20, p. 2A

20American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), American Physical Society (APS), 1999, Philosophy of Science, Am. J. Phys. 67 (8), August

21Kennedy, C., (ed.) 2002, Profiles in Courage for Our Time, Hyperion Books, May

22Common Cause, 2002, National Parties Raise $160.1 Million of Soft Money in 2001; Shattering Previous Fundraising Records for First Year of an Election Cycle, February 13

23Common Cause, 2001, Life of the Party, November 20

24Parks, R., 2002, Nuclear Posture Review: Leaked Document Ignites Heated Debate, What’s New (APS Electronic Newsletter), March 15



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