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Analysis

JASON and the Bureaucrats

Pentagon muckety-mucks tried to cut off funding for an elite group of independent scientific overseers. Then Congress intervened.
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(Illustration by POGO)

Back in 1967, members of a secretive government advisory panel of scientists known as JASON started getting nervous as the Vietnam War ground into a stalemate. Its members were alarmed by U.S. war games (conducted by “independent” outsiders like the RAND Corp.) that concluded that nuclear weapons might help tilt the conflict in favor of South Vietnam and its ally, the United States. A top-ranking military officer (within earshot of a Jason, as members of the group are informally known) joined in the rhetoric: “It might be a good idea to toss in a nuke from time to time, just to keep the other side guessing.”

This was enough to electrify some Jasons into producing a secret report, declassified in 2002, showing such thinking was atomic hogwash. “To the extent of my personal knowledge, the talk of using nuclear weapons in that war stopped after the JASON report on the subject,” Seymour Deitchman, who spent 28 years at the federal government’s Institute for Defense Analyses, said in 2003.

So go figure that, after performing for decades what insiders say is critical work, the Pentagon tried to order these mad scientists out of business by cancelling their long-standing Defense Department contract in March. But not to fear, at least not yet: After Congressional criticism of the proposed termination, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) stepped in on April 25 to keep funding flowing to the JASON program, at least through January.

Though JASON may have gotten a stay of execution, its days still could be numbered.

“NNSA and other agencies have critical national security support studies that JASON is performing or scheduled to perform this year,” NNSA said in explaining its decision. “A gap in coverage that the current contract provides could be harmful to the completion of these studies.”

The news that JASON’s days may be numbered set off alarms inside the military-inquiry complex. “The abrupt, unilateral decision to not renew the long-standing JASON contract damages our national security by depriving not only the Pentagon, but also other national security agencies, of sober and sound advice in confronting some of the nation's most complex threats,” said Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee—the panel that deals with nuclear weapons. His view counts because JASON has several studies underway for NNSA, which is championing the Trump Administration’s push to spend $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years on nuclear weapon modernization efforts.

For those not deep into Pentagon intrigue, JASON is a low-profile group of physicists and other patriotic eggheads that has quietly whispered wisdom into the Defense Department’s ear for the past 60 years. While the group’s focus is the military’s use of science and technology, it also investigates climate change and other non-military topics. You can glean a sense of the breadth of JASON’s work by reviewing a list of its unclassified reports assembled by the Federation of American Scientists. They include military topics like the technical risks facing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and the Pentagon’s possible future use of artificial intelligence and the human genome. There also are non-military studies into subjects like cheap nuclear power and the impact of solar storms on the electrical grid.

The Pentagon, with a $700 billion budget this year, spends about $7 million every six minutes.

The Defense Department said it made “economic sense” to shutter the shop, which has been costing taxpayers about $7 million a year. But the NNSA, which has JASON producing three studies this year (on cyber-security, the detection of nuclear detonation, and plutonium aging), sees value in JASON’s work. “I found their reports to be fulsome and the members of JASON to be knowledgeable about issues associated with our programs at NNSA,” agency head Lisa Gordon-Hagerty told Congress on April 11.

Regardless of which branch on the federal tree is footing the bill, it’s important to keep that $7 million in perspective. The Pentagon, with a $700 billion budget this year, spends about $7 million every six minutes. “We certainly are a bargain,” says Russell Hemley, JASON’s chair and a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Pentagon does “need a JASON-type organization, and many people believe that,” he continued.

Jasons and people working closely with the group were gob-smacked that its full-fledged services were apparently no longer needed, at least by the office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “I had no insight this was coming—it was a surprise,” Hemley says. The Pentagon and others are free to ignore JASON’s recommendations, but their expertise often carries an influence and a power of its own. “We are a completely independent body” not beholden to the military services or defense contractors, he adds.

There are echoes in JASON’s threatened demise of an executive branch that isn’t keen on second-guessing.

The research office had been underwriting JASON’s work for the past 17 years. JASON members give up their summers to conduct serious studies for the nation, and take no public credit for it (no one acknowledges their JASON membership except for Hemley, who is the group’s chair, and Vice-Chair Ellen Williams, a professor specializing in chemistry and nanotechnology at the University of Maryland). “They’re doing vital work for the country, instead of enhancing their own career with public research,” one said.

JASON was born in 1959 over post-Sputnik concerns that the Soviet Union was eclipsing the United States in military know-how. After the glory of the Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb, the military felt a need for fresh thinking (but no, JASON doesn’t stand for “Junior Achiever, Somewhat Older Now,” as Pentagon lore has it). There are currently about 40 Jasons producing about 12 to 15 reports a year.

JASON usually meets annually for summer studies to probe the Pentagon’s technical underbelly and give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down (and no, given their annual timetable, their name also doesn’t stand for “July August September October November”). JASON actually is named for the leader of the Argonauts who sought the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology. Mildred Goldberger, wife of Marvin Goldberger, one of the original Jasons, came up with the name because she deemed the Pentagon’s “Project Sunrise” too bland.

In a letter to the Washington Post on April 19, the former top arms-control aide at the State Department during the Clinton Administration praised JASON’s bang for the buck. Peter Zimmerman said he spent $20,000 hiring JASON to review a proposal to build a “hafnium” bomb. Its backers said it would “pack the power of a small atomic bomb into a hand-grenade-size weapon.” JASON’s response was straightforward: “Several of the United States’ most distinguished scientists had found fatal flaws in the idea,” Zimmerman wrote. Soon thereafter, Congress killed the program, “saving at least tens of millions of dollars, far more than the entire JASON budget for the year.”

JASON has dodged a bullet like this before. In 2002, it got into a spat with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), its Pentagon overseer at the time. DARPA wanted to appoint three new JASON members, a decision the Jasons had long reserved for themselves. After a public squabble, the Pentagon shifted funding for the Jasons from DARPA to the office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. That office “is believed to be the driving force behind last month’s decision” to terminate funding, Science magazine reported on April 9.

There are echoes in JASON’s threatened demise of an executive branch that isn’t keen on second-guessing. For example, the Navy recently decided to abolish its Naval Research Advisory Committee after 73 years. And the key investigator scrutinizing the $100 billion the United States has spent rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan is finding that the data he needs to do his job is becoming increasingly stealthy. “What we are finding is now almost every indicia, metric for success or failure is now classified or nonexistent,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, complained on April 24.

But Hemley won’t go there. JASON has had “remarkable stability” working for the U.S. military for six decades, he says, “regardless of the politics of the day, or the administration in power.” He refrains from suggesting JASON’s possible demise is due to any Trump Administration anti-scientific bias. “We’re at a very delicate time,” one Jason says by way of explanation.

So even though the Jasons may have gotten a stay of execution, their days still could be numbered. In that case, we’ll just have to hope that the next time there’s loose talk about using nuclear weapons, there’s another hardy band of anonymous heroes willing to apply the brakes.