Daily Archives: March 18, 2009

Military Laser Hits Battlefield Strength

Wired | Mar 18, 2009

By Noah Shachtman

laser_optics_laboratoryHuge news for real-life ray guns: Electric lasers have hit battlefield strength for the first time — paving the way for energy weapons to go to war.

In recent test-blasts, Pentagon-researchers at Northrop Grumman managed to get its 105 kilowatts of power out of their laser — past the “100kW threshold [that] has been viewed traditionally as a proof of principle for ‘weapons grade’ power levels for high-energy lasers,” Northrop’s vice president of directed energy systems, Dan Wildt, said in a statement.

That much power won’t get you a Star Wars-style blaster. But it should be more than enough to zap the mortars and rockets that insurgents have used to pound American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The battlefield-strength breakthrough is just one part in a larger military push to finally make laser weapons a reality, after decades of unfulfilled promises. The Army recently gave Boeing a $36 million contract to build a laser-equipped truck. Raytheon is set to start test-firing a mortar-zapper of its own. Darpa is funding a 150 kilowatt laser project that is meant to be fitted onto “tactical aircraft.”

Does that mean energy weapons are a done deal? Hardly. There are still all sorts of technical issues — thermal management and miniaturization, to name two — that have to be handled first. Then, the ray gunners have to find the money. The National Academies figure it’ll take another $100 million to get battlefield lasers right.

Still, clearing the 100 kilowatt hurdle is a big deal. For the longest time, the military research community concentrated on developing chemical-powered lasers. The ray guns produced massively powerful laser blasts. But the noxious stuff needed to produce all that power makes the weapons all-but-impractical in a war zone. (One ray gun took as many as eight shipping containers’ worth of chemicals and electronics to power a single blaster.) So the Defense Department shifted gears, and poured money into electric lasers. They’re much less hassle to operate. And, given a steady supply of power, they should be able to fire away, almost indefinitely.

At first, these electric lasers were weak. When the military started its Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program in 2003, these easy-to-maintain lasters could barely produce more than 10 kilowatts of coherent light. Now, Northrop believes, going way past 100 kilowatts should be pretty simple.

In its lab, south of Los Angeles, Northrop combines 32 garnet crystal “modules” into a “laser amplifier chains.” Shine light-emitting diodes into ’em, and they start the laser chain-reaction, shooting out as much as 15 kilowatts of focused light. Combine all those beams into one, and you’ve got yourself a battlefield-strength ray. Northrop’s JHPSSL lasers used seven chains to get to 105 kilowatts. But there’s room, at least, for an eighth. Which means an even stronger blaster.

The next step is to start trying out the ray gun, outside of the lab. The Army is planning to move the device to its High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range. Testing is supposed to begin by this time, next year.

Weaponizing the Military-Grade Laser: Four Years, $100 Million


Wired | Mar 18, 2009

By Noah Shachtman

So the military now has an electric laser that’s weapons-grade. But it still may take four years, and another $100 million, before the Army gets its first working laser weapon.

The military and Northrop Grumman announced today that its solid state laser at hit 100 kilowatts — generally considered battlefield-strength — in lab testing. So now the push begins to weaponize the ray.

First, the Army is planning to move the 100 kilowatt blaster to the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range. There, the device will be hooked up to the tracking, pointing, and optics systems from Northrop’s old, chemical-powered ray gun, the Tactical High Energy Laser. Tests against “static” targets on the ground should happen this time, next year. By 2011, the laser combo should be blasting mortars and rockets out of the sky.

In the meantime, researchers working on a separate Army program, the High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator, will be crunching all that pointing and tracking and optics machinery into a single heavy truck. By 2012, the Army will hook the Northrop solid state laser up to the truck, for test-firing. The following year, if all goes well, the truck should get a ray gun of its own.

Total cost: $100 million, says Dr. Brian Strickland, an Army program manager.

Technically, he tells Danger Room, none of this should be that hard — not even reducing the size and weight of all of this intricate machinery. The tough part is going to be mass-producing the mobile laser cannons. “The only real showstopper is we’ve got the get the costs down,” Strickland says. Manufacturing the laser and associated gear right now would cost about $40 million per ray gun truck — way too much, for a defense against munitions that can be made for next-to-nothing. “We want to have a laser that costs $15 to $20 million.”

While the Army works on its laser truck, the Navy is looking to zap targets at sea. The Navy recently launched its Maritime Laser Demonstration program. The idea is to demonstrate laser “subsystem technologies” that can help “defeat small boat threats” against a larger ship. The 100 kilowatt laser could very well be one of those systems.

‘Wise Men’ Kissinger, Baker Visit Moscow as Obama Resets Ties

“Mr. Dodd, all of us here at the policy making level of the foundation have at one time or another served in the OSS or the European Economic Administration, operating under directives from the White House. We operate under those same directives…The substance of the directives under which we operate is that we shall use our grant making power to so alter life in the United States that we can be comfortably merged with the Soviet Union.”

– Rowan Gaither, the President of the Ford Foundation, during a meeting with Norman Dodd, Research Director for the Reece Committee, 1953.


Former US Secretaries of State James Baker (L) and Henry Kissinger (R) attend the ceremonial swearing-in of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department in Washington, February 2, 2009. Reuters Pictures

Kissinger is among a group of U.S. “wise men,” including former Secretary of State George Shultz, ex-Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn, who will see Medvedev on March 20, the Kommersant newspaper reported today. They will also meet with Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and ex-Chief of General Staff Yury Baluyevsky, Kommersant said.

Bloomberg | Mar 18, 2009

By Lucian Kim

March 18 (Bloomberg) — Henry Kissinger and James Baker, two former U.S. secretaries of state, will fly to Moscow for talks with Russian officials after President Barack Obama pledged to “reset” relations with Russia.

Kissinger, who met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in December, is scheduled to return later this week, according to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Baker, traveling separately, will hold talks with American investors and address a conference on developing Caspian Sea energy resources.


Kissinger to lead Obama group in Russia

United States-Russian merger: A done deal?

“These guys are building the bridge from the real diplomacy of the Bush Sr. administration to Obama,” said Nina Khrushcheva, an international affairs professor at the New School in New York. “Diplomatically inclined Republicans can make a better opening line because they come from successful relations in the past.”

Obama, a Democrat, is seeking to strengthen ties to Russia and win Kremlin support for his policies on Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear arms reduction. Vice President Joe Biden said in February it was time to “reset” relations after they reached a post-Cold War low under former President George W. Bush.

Kissinger is among a group of U.S. “wise men,” including former Secretary of State George Shultz, ex-Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn, who will see Medvedev on March 20, the Kommersant newspaper reported today. They will also meet with Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and ex-Chief of General Staff Yury Baluyevsky, Kommersant said.

London Meeting

Obama, who is expected to meet Medvedev for the first time in London next month, may visit Russia in July, the Moscow-based newspaper said, citing unidentified Russian government officials. The Kremlin press service declined to comment on the report.

Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn have co-authored opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal calling for the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Perry has slammed Senator John McCain’s suggestion that Russia be kicked out of the Group of Eight industrial nations.

Baker served as secretary of state when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, heralding the disintegration of the Soviet Union two years later.

Last week, former senators Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel led a bipartisan commission to Moscow, meeting with Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In a report published afterwards, the commission recommended the U.S. “significantly improve our understanding of Russian interests as Russians themselves define them.”

‘Very Positive’

“The reception we received in Moscow was very, very positive,” Hart said in Washington at the March 16 presentation of the report. “This was a much, much different kind of exchange, in my experience anyway over 35 years, from what we used to have in the bad, old days.”

Medvedev yesterday said Russia must modernize its armed forces in response to the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. President George W. Bush’s administration supported NATO membership bids by former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine, exacerbating tensions with Moscow.

DHS Fusion Centers: Giving Cops Too Much Information?


Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

The model for the centers grew out of “intelligence-led policing” — a British initiative with its roots in the early 1990s.

Time | Mar 9, 2009

By Hilary Hylton

At the time, it seemed one of the unanimous lessons of the tragedy of Sept. 11 — law enforcement agencies at all levels of government have to do a better job of sharing information with each other in order to prevent terror plots. Making that actually happen, of course, is easier said than done, which is why newfangled, multi-organizational agencies were set up to promote cooperation and overcome turf battles. But now critics claim that these so-called fusion centers are making it all too easy for government to collect and share data from numerous public databases.

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are pushing bills to restrict fusion centers’ access to data, most notably in New Mexico, where opponents hope to make government snooping a costly offense. Legislation has been introduced in Santa Fe that would prohibit any New Mexico law enforcement agency from collecting information about the religious, political and social associations of law-abiding New Mexicans. And in what would be a first for the nation, the bill would allow private citizens to sue law enforcement agencies for damages over the unauthorized collection of such data.


Privacy advocates point to a scandal in the state of Maryland, where last summer it was revealed that in 2005 and 2006 undercover members of the Maryland State Police had carried out surveillance of war protesters and death penalty opponents. Some of the intelligence gathered on the subjects, according to logs obtained by the ACLU last summer, may have found its way into databases shared with local, national and federal agencies through the state’s fusion center. An investigation found the data collection represented a serious lapse in judgment, but the victims had little recourse, except public outrage.

“The lack of proper legal limits on the new fusion centers not only threatens to undermine fundamental American values, but also threatens to turn them into wasteful and misdirected bureaucracies that, like our federal security agencies before 9/11, won’t succeed in their ultimate mission of stopping terrorism and other crime,” the national ACLU notes in its report on the centers. There are federal and state privacy laws governing the centers, but a recent report by the Department of Homeland Security’s own Privacy Office suggested that the multi-governmental nature of the centers allows the staffers to pick and choose a policy that suits their needs. The report, issued in late December, echoed some of the concerns laid out in earlier congressional and Government Accountability Office reports that warned of the potential for “mission creep” by the fusion centers.

There are approximately 60 “fusion centers” nationwide, with some focusing exclusively on criminal activity, others on both criminal and terrorist threats, and some on very specific acts, such as human smuggling, gang activity, online predators or drug trafficking. Much of the funding for the large state centers comes from the federal government, including a new infusion of $250 million courtesy of the stimulus package to be spent by 2010 on “upgrading, modifying, or constructing” state and local fusion centers. The latest fusion center, the $21 million Port of Long Beach facility, opened last month. Staffed by local, state and federal officials, it sits on a small swath of land inside the nation’s second largest port and utilizes state of the art surveillance technology, including cameras that can read a badge from two miles away. Every state but Idaho and Pennsylvania has at least one fusion center; Texas, for instance, has its Texas Intelligence Center within the Texas Department of Public Safety “to collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence information related to terrorist activities” covering the entire state. The state also has the North Central Texas Fusion System, covering a 16 county-area around the Dallas metro area that includes “regional homeland security, law enforcement, public health, fire, medical providers, emergency management, and private security”. (See pictures of SWAT teams around the world.)

Different missions and different mixes of manpower make each center unique.”If you’ve seen one fusion center — you’ve seen one fusion center,” says Jack Tomarchio, former deputy director of intelligence for the Department of Homeland Security, who oversaw the development of most of the country’s state fusion centers during the Bush Administration. Tomarchio says the centers have proved their value in fighting both crime and terrorism — sometimes exposing the link between the two, as in the case of cigarette smuggling in the Carolinas which funded terrorist groups abroad. They also have provided valuable information in preventing further attacks, he claims, adding that while he is not at liberty to disclose the kind of information mined, fusion center intelligence did reach the level of the daily presidential briefing in the Bush Administration.

The model for the centers grew out of “intelligence-led policing” — a British initiative with its roots in the early 1990s. It has evolved into “a management philosophy that places greater emphasis on information-sharing and collaborative, strategic solutions to crime problems,” according to Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe, a former British police officer and currently a Temple University professor who has lectured and written extensively on the subject. “It facilitates holistic crime prevention,” Ratcliffe says. Rather than each department, or even squad, having its own databases, fusion centers allow access to multiple databases and sources of intelligence; the drug squad in one community can share information with the anti-gang task force in another, picking up on patterns that may indicate an emerging threat as gangs set up to move into a new market, or distribute new contraband, for example.

But that sharing of information troubles critics. New Mexico’s All Source Intelligence Center, housed in an old National Guard building, has access to 240 state, regional and federal agencies and their databases, including agricultural and parks agencies, according to Peter Simonson, executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter. Establishing what kinds of information is being processed by fusion centers can be difficult, Simonson says, since they do not store the records, or even collect them, but simply mine them through digital gateways. Records are accessed, not retained as they would be in specific case or investigative files. Simonson says the New Mexico chapter of the ACLU has filed several open records requests seeking to find out what kind of information is being reviewed, but has been stymied by the lack of a “material product.” Other state ACLU chapters are pressing open records requests aimed at casting light on fusion center activities.

Groups like the ACLU have sued law enforcement agencies in the past aimed at exposing domestic spying, but individuals whose privacy has been violated have little recourse — “suing is a shot in the dark,” Simonson says, given current state and federal laws. “There aren’t any legal remedies and we are trying to create one,” Simonson says, acknowledging that it may take more than one legislative session to pass the bill in New Mexico.

One of the most well regarded fusion centers was created under the leadership of former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, now Secretary of Homeland Security. During her confirmation hearings Napolitano highlighted her leadership in creating one of the first state anti-terrorism law enforcement fusion centers in the country, and her first directive at DHS ordered a thorough review of intelligence-sharing programs and methods aimed improving the flow of information to states, local and tribal governments. But in her testimony to Congress, she also cited her commitment to privacy: “As Governor, I created the Statewide Information Security and Privacy Office to ensure adequate controls and safeguards are in place for all State of Arizona government technology systems and business practices.” However, Napolitano’s appointment gives Simonson pause. “I think the Obama Administration has a much greater sensitivity to these issues than the previous Administration, but the track record from Arizona would suggest that we still have good reason to be concerned.”

Missouri Homeland Security “fusion center” report on militias, terrorists draws criticism

Associated Press | Mar 14, 2009

COLUMBIA, Mo. | A new document meant to help Missouri law enforcement agencies identify militia members or domestic terrorists has drawn criticism for some of the warning signs mentioned.

The Feb. 20 report called “The Modern Militia Movement” mentions such red flags as political bumper stickers for third-party candidates, such as U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who ran for president last year; talk of conspiracy theories, such as the plan for a superhighway linking Canada to Mexico; and possession of subversive literature.


Police Trained Nationwide That Informed Americans Are Domestic Terrorists

“It seems like they want to stifle political thought,” said Roger Webb, president of the University of Missouri campus Libertarians. “There are a lot of third parties out there, and none of them express any violence. In fact, if you join the Libertarian Party, one of the things you sign in your membership application is that you don’t support violence as a means to any ends.”

But state law enforcement officials said the report is being misinterpreted.

Lt. John Hotz of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said the report comes from publicly available, trend data on militias. It was compiled by the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a “fusion center” in Jefferson City that combines resources from the federal Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. The center, which opened in 2005, was set up to collect local intelligence to better combat terrorism and other criminal activity, he said.

“All this is an educational thing,” Hotz said of the report. “Troopers have been shot by members of groups, so it’s our job to let law enforcement officers know what the trends are in the modern militia movement.”

But Tim Neal, a military veteran and delegate to last year’s state GOP convention, was shocked by the report’s contents.

“I was going down the list and thinking, ‘Check, that’s me,'” he said. “I’m a Ron Paul supporter, check. I talk about the North American union, check. I’ve got the ‘America: Freedom to Fascism’ video loaned out to somebody right now. So that means I’m a domestic terrorist? Because I’ve got a video about the Federal Reserve?”

Neal, who has a Ron Paul bumper sticker on his car, said the next time he is pulled over by a police officer, he won’t know whether it’s because he was speeding or because of his political views.

“If a police officer is pulling me over with my family in the car and he sees a bumper sticker on my vehicle that has been specifically identified as one that an extremist would have in their vehicle, the guy is probably going to be pretty apprehensive and not thinking in a rational manner,” Neal said. “And this guy’s walking up to my vehicle with a gun.”

But Hotz said using factors in the report to determine whether someone could be a terrorist is not profiling. He said people who display signs or bumper stickers from third-party groups are not in danger of harassment from police.

“It’s giving the makeup of militia members and their political beliefs,” Hotz said of the report. “It’s not saying that everybody who supports these candidates is involved in a militia. It’s not even saying that all militias are bad.”

Missouri Libertarian Party Condemns Missouri Highway Patrol Training Document as Political Profiling

Internal MIAC “Strategic Report” implies Libertarian Party members and other political activists could be members of “the militia movement”

Missouri Libertarian Party | Mar 15, 2009

by Mike Ferguson

Columbia, MO Mar. 15 — The Missouri Libertarian Party, the third-largest political party in the state, issued the following statement regarding a “Strategic Report” issued by the Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC) on February 22nd, which became known to the public late last week:

An internal document designed for law enforcement education purposes inaccurately and dangerously implies that among the indicators of possible involvement in extremist, militant militia activity is support for the Libertarian Party. This memo and its findings are potentially dangerous to both the people of Missouri and to our system of free political speech.

The memo claims that membership in, among other groups, the Libertarian Party and/or the display of what it calls “political paraphernalia” in support of the party or its 2008 presidential nominee (former US Congressman Bob Barr) could be an indicator that someone is involved in a “militant militia”.

“Not only is this assertion baseless, it is outrageous and very dangerous,” stated Missouri LP spokesman Mike Ferguson, who was also the national field director for the Barr presidential campaign in 2008. “it is also misleading. Libertarians oppose the violence, racism and extremism of the ‘militant militia’ that MIAC expresses concern about. Anyone who understands basic libertarian thought knows we adamantly oppose any violence for political purposes.”

The memo purports to outline “trends” in extremist militia activity and claims those involved in such activity “…commonly associate with 3rd party political groups.” It went on to claim that militia members are “usually supporters of” Bob Barr, another third party candidate and Republican Ron Paul. While the report claims to be a memo about trends in militia activity, no specific evidence is offered to support the claim.

“The evidence is not offered because it is not there,” explained Ferguson, “the claims amount to political profiling. If support for a legitimate political party might lead the police to worry that you are a violent extremist, you are less likely to become involved in our political process. This incorrect document has the potential to stifle political free speech that opposes the two larger political parties’ policies. This is dangerous for anyone who wants to be part of our political and social discourse.”

The Missouri Libertarian Party is asking for meetings with Missouri State Highway Patrol Col. James Keathley, MIAC Director Van Godsey, Department of Public Safety Director John Britt and Governor Jay Nixon to correct the misinformation. The party also demands that the potentially libelous statements about the Libertarian Party and Bob Barr are removed from the training document and calls for a public apology from those responsible for the irresponsible MIAC “strategic memo.”

Military Scientists Explore Planet-Hacking

Wired | Mar 17, 2009

By Noah Shachtman

Some of the military’s leading scientific advisers are looking into the idea of remaking the planet’s environment, to stave off global warming.

The idea of “geoengineering” — hacking the Earth’s climate, to prevent more radical changes — has been kicking around the scientific fringes for years. One scheme calls for adding iron to the ocean, to stimulate the growth of greenhouse gas-absorbing algae. Another for “loading the skies” with sulfate particles that “act as mini-reflectors, shading out sunlight and cooling the Earth.” A third, “covering the Arctic with dust.” Most mainstream climatologists have responded to the proposals with a combination of snickers and horror; the environment is such a chatoic system, they argue, that there’s no telling what such wholesale monkeying around with it will do.

In recent months, however, several “top institutions have launched efforts to study the subject,” the ScienceInsider blog notes. The Pentagon’s secretive JASON scientific panel is schedule to discuss geonengineering soon. The National Academies are hosting a workshop over the summer. The U.K. Royal Society should have study out by then, too.

The Defense Sciences Research Council, which advises Pentagon premiere research arm Darpa, is meeting today at Stanford University to explore geoengineering. But at least one of the scientists that’s scheduled to attend will be arguing against planet-hacking, not in favor of it.

“The last thing we need is to have Darpa developing climate-intervention technology,” Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science tells ScienceInsider.

He says he agreed to go to the meeting “to try to get Darpa not to develop geoengineering techniques. Geoengineering is already so fraught with social, geopolitical, economic, and ethical issues; why would we want to add military dimensions?” He adds, however, that he would support Darpa studying the topic in case an adversary were to use it.

Darpa has been working on environmental issues for years — putting money into algae-based fuel and trash-based “bioplastics.” It’s part of a larger, far-flung, often-disjointed series of Pentagon initiatives to kick the fossil fuel habit, and reduce the military’s carbon footprint. Giant solar arrays, wind-powered bases, and garbage-munching generators in Baghdad are all part of the mix. We’ll see if a more radical global warming answer will soon be, too.