SCIENZIATI TOP SECRET ALLA CASA BIANCA
Originally published in IL SOLE 24 ORE, 9 April 2006
“I’ll give you all the information I can, provided that you will not publish my name or identify me – anything like that makes people in Washington extremely nervous.”
Given that we are not allowed to say anything about him, we will simply refer to him as “the Professor.” He is an American physicist, a friendly and valuable one, otherwise he would not be a member of such an exclusive élite: the JASONs. “They are secretive,” an American colleague warned us. And indeed little information is available about them: old criticism which goes back to the Vietnam War, brief news articles or even X-file-like stories. “There is an official list of the JASONs, but it’s not publicly available,” says the Professor, adding that, for example, they have an excellent scientist who doesn’t sign his name to their work, but contributes a great deal. “His name has managed to stay off of the web,” he explains, whereas there are other scientists who put their names on their work but are not in JASON. “There is also a lot of conspiracy nonsense about us on the web,” he finally warns us. And indeed we have all the ingredients to get a conspiracy-theory fan excited: a group of 40, or maybe more than 40, brilliant minds - some of the most brilliant on this planet - whose identities are not publicly known. They advise the American government on matters of science and technology, have clearance to get access to classified information, and, while keeping a typically low profile, travel when and where needed: in Vietnam, during the war, to check the operation of cutting-edge military technology, or at the Mexican border at midnight to look for the infrared signatures of drug runners. But who are the JASONs exactly and what is it they work on?
Tracking down the JASONs
Our ‘hunt’ began months ago. We spent months flipping through documents and dossiers...finally a name: Steven Koonin. A California Institute of Technology physicist, Koonin is the chief scientist of a big multinational company: British Petroleum (BP). Is he a member of JASON? Is he JASON’s chair? We try to ask him for an interview, offering him some ‘guarantees’. “I would be willing to do an interview under the conditions you describe,” he immediately emailed us back. But once the interview is booked and the questions are sent to him, our interview is cancelled, and not for any reasons related to time constraints. Why did he behave like this? It is not clear. But of course his reply is an indirect confirmation that he has something to do with JASON. After this attempt we continue to grope in the dark for weeks, then the turning point: a real insider in Washington circles provides us with decisive contacts for this feature.
Briefings, secrets and beautiful minds
“50 % or maybe more of our work is classified,” physicist Freeman Dyson tells us. Dyson is a stimulating mind who has spent his life at Princeton, at the Institute for Advanced Study. An “oasis” for geniuses like Einstein, the Institute is a place where scientists who have the brain power of Freeman Dyson are paid just to think. Dyson has been a member of JASON since 1961 and probably his offering to speak to us about the history of JASON -- that is, about its past – is a clever way of avoiding too many questions about its present. Physicists, chemists, electronic engineers, computer scientists, biologists, geologists, oceanographers – JASON is a group of American scientists “who are not just meeting as a committee and writing a report,” says Dyson, but “really work hard together studying problems.” There are a lot of groups which advise the American government, so what makes JASON different from the others?, we ask the Professor. “I think the the fact that we get together as a group for several weeks and have security clearance.” Both the Professor and Dyson enjoy working for JASON very much: “you can meet very intelligent and interesting people,” Dyson says – and if he says so, it must be true! Scientists get involved in JASON through co-opting, and membership comes up for review every three years -- so if people are not useful they are out. “I’m now more or less retired,” says Dyson. And most likely, having access to classified information poses delicate problems. Let’s consider Koonin, who is BP’s chief scientist and at the same time is a JASON member (now we know this for sure!), meaning he advises the American government and has security clearance. How can we be sure that some of that classified information is not relevant to his work at BP, and is not being used to that advantage? “We have dealt with that in his case and other cases,” the Professor honestly admits, “he doesn’t work on studies that were maybe perceived as conflicts of interest. He’s very bright, so there’s plenty of work for him.” Indeed a wise solution, but the problem is that in a group like JASON, in which it is not clear who is working on what, it is impossible to check whether you have inopportune situations like conflicts of interest. That said, what type of advice does JASON provide to the American government? The group works on commission: a government agency, like the Department of Energy or the CIA, asks JASON a specific question or problem and the JASONs work on it, simply using their brain power and the information provided to the group during the briefings. Certainly, a large part of the JASON work concerns matters of defense: is it suitable to provide the marines with helmet-mounted devices to locate snipers in an urban guerilla environment? Is it suitable to provide them with small, hand-held configuration technologies to help them see through walls without being detected? The JASONs neither build technology nor do experiments: they suggest theoretical solutions, which can or cannot be developed. The group's reputation is not of small importance linked to its involvement during the Vietnam War in the invention of the so-called electronic barrier, which was intended for cutting the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. “I never worked on it,” Dyson says, “I thought it was going to do more harm than good.” So are the JASONs allowed to refuse to work on some problem for moral reasons or such? “Definitely,” says Dyson, “ each JASON can choose.” In any case, the JASONs don’t work exclusively on defense matters, their work ranges from climate studies to genetics: for example, they estimated the computer power that is needed to carry out climate studies or the most promising technology for the sequencing of the Human Genome. If in the sixties the group found itself involved in the Vietnam war, today it is involved in the war on terror. Do you suggest technology against terror?, we asked the Professor. “Sometimes technical gadgets are not the right approach and one needs to look at these questions in a very general way,” he tells us quite evasively. And, understanding it's useless to push any further, we move on to the topic of the group profile: is JASON a haven for reactionaries?
JASON and Washington
“No,” says a convinced Dyson, “we want the most brilliant and don’t care whether they are left or right. During the Vietnam War we had a reputation for being a bunch of warmongers, but that was not true: there were JASONs who were in favour of that war, others who were strongly against it. So just because we work for the government we are not in favour of the war. Nobody asked our advice about invading Iraq, of course, but I’m sure if we had been asked we would have said no.” JASON doesn’t get any feedback on its work and it doesn’t know how it is used. Don’t you feel like a tool of government?, we asked the Professor. “ I would have quit if I had felt that way.” But if you don’t know how your work is used, we insist, how can you have any control over it? “You are right,” he finally says with frankness, “that’s a concern that many of us have, but all we can do is give our best scientific judgement on well-posed questions.” Freeman Dyson as well doesn’t kid himself: he has seen a lot of projects come into existence, like the Star Wars project: “we were frequently pointing out that that programme was not technically sound, and it still went ahead for political reasons. Sometimes we are able to stop something very stupid from going on, but it’s usually a choice between stupid and very stupid!” Dyson is one of the sponsors of the ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,’ an important forum of scientists who oppose Dr. Strangelove and its disquieting creatures at the service of the military. Dyson is one who has reasoned long and hard about science and morality. He has even condemned contemporary science for wasting intellectual resources in making technological toys for the rich rather than the indispensable for the poor, like for example a treatment for malaria. So then why would someone like him be working for the government or its agencies, like the CIA? “Because those people live in a closed world, they only read secret literature, they only speak to each other. That gives you a very distorted view. I think any contact they have outside is good: there are a lot of sensible people inside and a lot of unsensible ones. Working as an insider we can strengthen the sensible people a little, giving them solid and factual knowledge.” Dyson doesn’t go in any detail, but one can guess that in 45 years as an insider he has to have seen some pretty interesting things...Dr. Strangeloves of every kind, militaries in total paranoia. His rationality has probably served to keep that scary world at bay. Are you satisfied about the way the government uses your work?, we finally asked him. “No.” So why then have you been working for them for 45 years? “Because nothing is perfect but you can maybe improve it a little bit.”