Mount Graham – Big Private Eyes

Large Binocular TelescopeMount Graham International Observatory is located in a very remote part of Arizona. The nearest town is Safford: small, tangibly insular, yet friendly.

I decided to try visiting the MGIO on the spur of the moment, after Kim left Tucson bound for Colorado and my trip to Flagstaff only two days away. I was not certain I would be able to visit the MGIO by just dropping in. Unlike Kitt Peak, the MGIO is a private institution, run by the Steward Observatory and was in the middle of a large-scale construction project, building one of the world’s most advanced and unique optical telescopes.

But I headed out that night, anyway, on long, dark Arizona roads, through deserts and hills, for hours, never knowing if I was lost or not, once I exited from the main highway. Safford is small, and in the middle of the night, I never knew if I’d quite arrived. But I did. And Safford was celebrating. Eating a peaceful dinner at a local Denny’s, the restaurant suddenly filled with uncomfortably dressed-up teenagers. I think it had something to do with High School football championships and homecomings. Coincidentally, my waitress was from Tacoma, Washington, which seemed impossible, since I was obviously in the Twilight Zone. Or perhaps that made it possible. Anyway, something about her husband and jobs, or no jobs, or family — and traps out in the open, in big spaces.

So, to the hill top: I thought it was nerve wracking reaching the mountain top of Kitt Peak, but Mount Graham was far more challenging. The last twenty minutes were skidding tires on the loose gravel of unpaved roads, and sheer drops to oblivion. The drive has a few unbelievable twists and turns, but the scenery is striking.

Traveling up the mountain you see several dramatic changes in scenery as the altitude increases. The base of the mountain is traditional Arizona desert. But there were times on the drive up I could swear I was back in the Pacific Northwest. Apparently fire is a big concern up here, having burned very close to the MGIO on occasion. There also seems to be a certain level of anxiety between people who like rare squirrels and the MGIO people.

Guard and Guard Dog at the MGIOBy the way, they have armed guards and guard dogs on the top of Mount Graham.

I’ll start off with the least impressive things first. The Pope himself has his fingers twiddling in the pot up here. Even after the heresies of Galileo’s telescopic work, the Vatican has erected their own star gazing equipment here at a facility called The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. Actually, the Vatican has one of the oldest astronomical programs in the world, based out of the Pope’s summer home in Italy. The VATT telescope has a history of good science and continues to contribute. It’s one of the smaller installations I looked at, but size isn’t everything. They certainly have the most plush living quarters of any site I’ve visited to date.

The telescope of the VATT is actually called the Alice P. Lennon telescope in honor of the principal money contributor. Maybe she was trying to tell them something. Gosh, my irrational biases are showing through. But I do like hearing this: In 1992 here is what the Vatican had to say, officially, about their problems with Galileo:

“From the Galileo case we can draw a lesson which is applicable today in analogous cases which arise in our times and which may arise in the future. … It often happens that, beyond two partial points of view which are in contrast, there exists a wider view of things which embraces both and integrates them.”

(The addresses of the Pope and of Cardinal Poupard are published in L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO, 1 November 1992).

I like that. I wish they could come to the same conclusions with contraception and homosexuality. Maybe in a few hundred years. Their workshop is comfortably messy at the VATT, though, which is reassuring.

SMT - Most Probable BugNow to some fun. The MGIO also hosts the Heinrich Herz Submillimeter Telescope which is actually a radio astronomy dish. But not just any radio dish. It’s incredibly accurate, with its dish surface unable to deviate more than 15 microns. Submillimeter astronomy is fairly new, and very difficult.

When we look at stars, we normally see visible light. But as we know, this is a very small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio telescopes deal with wavelengths that are longer. This gives radio telescopes the unique ability to “see through” obstacles in space, such as interstellar gas clouds. Radio telescopes can also see gas clouds that would normally be invisible to us, unless a star were nearby to light the cloud.

Submillimeter astronomy is very, very good at allowing us to determine the chemical composition of the greater portion of stuff out in space. This helps us to learn which elements are actually floating around and how they interact to form just about anything we experience.

Most radio astronomy is not terribly difficult. But in the submillimeter range we have an issue with our atmosphere. Interestingly, our atmosphere is very particular about what it filters out. If you go down lower than visible light, including the infrared, our atmosphere filters it, until we reach low enough to things like FM radio and short wave radios. If you go above visible light, our atmosphere just goes crazy filtering out the ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma-rays. Very convenient for us. But irritating for submillimeter astronomers.

So, like optical astronomers, submillimeter astronomers go up into the hills as far as they can to minimize the amount of atmosphere the radio wave must traverse to land upon their dishes. Normal radio astronomers have it easy. But at least submillimeter astronomers can ignore the daytime and the nighttime in the same way that radio astronomers do, unlike their optical counterparts. The sun is the ultimate in light pollution.

SMT - BBQI think of the three observatories on Mount Graham I felt the most comfortable at the SMT. I admit, in large part it’s because of the barbecue and chairs sitting out front. But there’s something about radio astronomy that is just far more geeky to me than optical astronomy, and I suppose that’s comforting. We cannot see radio waves. Yet we can create images based upon radio waves, and these images represent far more of the universe than we would ever be able to see with just our eyes. It’s peering at the invisible. And as most of our universe, by far, is invisible… well, it’s a little titillating.

SMT DishUnfortunately, the SMT was packed up and abandoned when I was visiting, so I didn’t get to see much action. But their website has some nice pictures. Like most of the observatories I visited, they use Linux. So much specialized equipment is used in astronomy that it seems the open nature of the computer operating system is perfect for allowing the most intimate and flexible interfaces. I’ll be doing a bit of a study on this soon, if I can get the time together.

But I do have to mention one more thing about the SMT. Biologists in particular might find it fascinating. For some reason, moths love the SMT building. No other building on the mountain had them, but the SMT was literally swarming with them, covering the walls, the ceilings, and even clumped on the floors in places. Apparently it’s a known issue. I found funny little printouts of moth species and diagrams posted on cork boards and several of those blue, shocking insect death devices were hanging about. Something there the moths find compelling. The SMT’s version of bats in the belfry, perhaps.

LBT - Hot RodOK. To the big guns now: the monster truck dominator of optical astronomy, the One, the Original, the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT). This baby is huge. So huge I couldn’t get it all in one photograph. It’s glorious. It’s big and hard. And best of all, it’s bright red and chrome. Seriously. It’s bright red. And chrome. Any greasy-fingered muscle car mechanic would love this telescope.

I suppose that’s not the most important thing about it. But let me just say again, it looks really cool. Really cool.

Did I say it was big? As I approached the building the LBT is housed within, it reminded me of the huge airplane hangers at Boeing, just raised up in the air a little higher, and not quite so long. And the whole top of the building spins around in circles to point in any direction. This makes for some interesting hallways inside the building, by the way.

Again, that’s not very important. But the control room is very nice, too, and they use nearly all Linux machines. Big living quarters, too, modern, clean, institutional, yet comfortable. Four or five big refrigerators in the kitchen…

OK. Sorry. Yes, BIG. The LBT which will be fully operational within just a few weeks is going to be one of the most advanced telescopes we’ve made. It’s very strange using two mirrors to gather light. You might wonder, why would you want to use two, when you can make one great big one? Well, because this is cool. And ok, yes, it’s cheaper. But more efficient, too.

The LBT was built through a cooperation between several organizations in Italy, Germany and the US. The Italians made the race car chrome. The US made the mirrors. I’m not sure what the Germans did — maybe they just threw money, or did the engineering. But whomever did what, it was done for a very good price, considering the imaging you get. And the whole schmeer is creative as all hell. That’s not just a saying — it was hell coming up with what they needed. But they did it.

LBT - 8.4m MirrorEach of the mirrors that gather light have 8.4 meter apertures. That’s nearly 28 feet. That’s pretty big for a mirror, but not quite the largest. For example, the Keck Observatory has a 10.0 meter mirror. But when we combine these two 8.4m mirrors in the LBT through a process of interferometric imaging (a kind of overlaying to amplify or cancel light waves based upon phase differences), we end up with the light gathering capacity of an 11.8m mirror, and the resolution of a 22.8m telescope. Besides, Keck cheated. Their big mirror is really 36 little mirrors all bunched up together.

Making an 8.4m mirror was really quite a big deal. Normally mirrors are made by taking a giant slab of glass, then grinding it down to shape and polishing it. The problem is, when you get to 8.4m sizes, the sheer weight of the glass chunk you would need is far too great. You end up with a very unstable mirror, if you manage to get one at all. Happily, the Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona has developed a novel approach to creating mirrors. They take glass, melt it down, then put it into a mold where it is slowly turned for a very long time, spreading out into its parabolic shape, then slowly cooled and polished. The interior of these mirrors is a honeycomb, so they are very light and very strong. It’s a truly revolutionary process that the Mirror Lab is just starting to prove in the astronomy world. As an added bonus, it’s far cheaper than the traditional glass grinding process. Ironically, all this arcane work goes on unsuspectingly below the University of Arizona football stadium.

LBT - Exterior Open
University of Arizona/Steward Observatory/MGIO/LBT

So what does this mean for astronomy at the LBT? Since the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is not finished baking, we can’t say for certain. We’ve all seen Hubble images, though. The LBT should be able to see much further, and image objects with over 10 times the clarity. What about the atmosphere though? Doesn’t it make everything all wavy and blurry? Why yes, it does.

We won’t let that bother us any more, though. The LBT uses secondary mirrors for each of the 8.4m mirrors. These secondary mirrors are very thin – only about 2 millimeters. So thin they’re bendy. They also float it in an electromagnetic field. And that electromagnetic field has around 670 “actuators” that are each controlled by a computer that bends this little mirror by nanometers very, very quickly in real time, based upon a reference star the computer watches up through the atmosphere. No more atmospheric distortion…

When I was there, only one of the mirrors was installed. The other was recently brought up the mountain after a long convoy ride on cleared and blocked-off interstate highways, from the University of Arizona Mirror Lab. It was in storage, waiting to be installed. But there were a couple very nice operators who were kind enough to show me a lot of the software developed to control the scopes, as well as moving that giant beast around so I could get a good look at the mirror surface that was installed.

LBT - Computer Control ConsoleThe software is all home-brewed, Linux-based and very simple to use. I’ll be documenting all the software used at these various places soon, but I probably won’t be posting it here. The LBT is an engineering wonder, just bursting with creativity from many disciplines. They even developed a new method to re-silver the mirrors while they are left in place on the telescope — a process that used to be a major undertaking for an observatory.

This Fall we should be seeing what this hot rod can do, with those Italians, Germans and desert people tearing into the cosmos. Optical astronomy will most certainly take a big leap forward. Possibly not as quickly as it might, unfortunately. One of the drawbacks of private facilities like the MGIO is that only the people involved will ever get to use it, unless deals are struck or new alliances forged. C’est la vie.

Clean, Penetrating Traps

Just a quick couple new developments I’ve found interesting:

Burn Baby, Burn

We all know the problems associated with burning oil products. Not only do they lead to war and death on a large scale, and erosion of liberties, and God knows what else to come, but also buring oil is also fairly inefficient and produces considerable pollution.

However, if we’re going to be stuck burning oil for a while, which we must, in order to create more scarcity of the product, which will raise prices and produce more profit, we can at least burn the oil more cleanly.

Georgia Tech researchers have just come up with a very elegant way to burn oil more efficiently and far more completely. Their design is simpler than processing the exhaust after combustion. They just burn it more completely at the time of combustion.

They call this method Stagnation Point Reverse Flow Combustion and it really is very simple. So simple you wonder why nobody bothered to implement it before. It seems the most basic of things to do if you’re at all concerned about the toxic emissions your engines produce.

One of the big pollutants from oil combustion engines are the Nitrogen Oxides (NOx). This is the orange haze you see, the low-to-the-ground ozone that’s created and horrible for your lungs, and the chemicals that react so easily to create even more dangerous chemicals like acid rain.

Georgia Tech’s design allows the combustion to happen at much lower temperatures by introducing “radicals” into the fuel mixture such as hydrogen or oxygen and controlling the flow of combustion materials much better, stabilizing the burning. This results in significantly lower NOx emissions — less than 1 part per million. Also, it seems this technology is much cheaper to implement and maintain than current pollution reduction techniques.

Oh, did I mention, CO2 gas is also greatly reduced. In fact, as far as emissions go, it’s almost 0.

El Radar

Ohio State University just created something interesting, though it bothers me a bit. Undetectable radar. It works by generating lots of random noise that cloaks the true radar signal, which only the gadget itself will understand as a radar signal.

Apparently, most devices we have filter out and ignore random noise. So those radar detectors in your car may be of little use before long.

These Ohio State people, who were attacked and beaten by police en masse just a few years ago for protesting our involvement in Viet Nam, also think this new radar will be great for military applications. You can suss out who’s in a building and where, with those people being none the wiser.

But they also believe it will be great for helping locate bodies in disasters. And imaging our internal organs. Actually, the ground penetrating radar stuff is pretty cool. It’s helping a lot while we explore Mars for water.

[Oops! Looks like I was thinking Kent State in Ohio, rather than Ohio State University for those police shootings of student protesters. So either the Ohio State people were more well-behaved, or their law enforcement officers were nicer.]

Cheaper Just to Kill Them

General Barry R. McCaffrey (Ret.) is Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at the United State Military Academy. He spent the 18th and 19th of June at Guantanamo to see what all the ruckus was about. Here is his academic report.

He sounds so nostalgic for the days when the military could just run its own country in some other country, ignoring the pesky laws of the United States.

My favourite quote from him:

We need to rapidly weed out as many detainees as possible and return them to their host nation with an evidence package as complete as we can produce. We can probably dump 2/3 of the detainees in the next 24 months. Many we will encounter again armed with an AK47 on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. They will join the 120,000+ fighters we now contend with in those places of combat. It may be cheaper and cleaner to kill them in combat then sit on them for the next 15 years.

It’s really very sporting. But I’ll hold back on the sports stuff for now. I do appreciate the matter-of-fact nature in which he presents things. I appreciate even more that he is willing to admit the horrific failings of the US Military.

Kitt Peak, Up and Down

Mayall 4-m TelescopeIt’s been some time since I last wrote anything about my travels to observatories in Arizona and New Mexico last year. In just a few months I’m heading back, so it seems like a good idea to finish up last year’s stories first. But they’ll likely be far more abbreviated than I intended.

My last post on the observatory tour mostly concerned some history surrounding Kitt Peak. Now to the more nitty-gritty.

One of the most striking things to me about Kitt Peak, other than the nerve-wracking drive up, is the sheer number of observatories on the peak. From nearly anywhere you stand, you will see several astronomical structures in any direction, of varying heights, on varying hill prominences, all together making what feels like a cozy little village of high-tech instruments contained in domes.

Kitt Peak is a national observatory. This means that it is funded mostly through the US government, namely the National Science Foundation. This was actually slightly revolutionary. Historically, the tools used to study Astronomy were constructed solely from private resources, whether individuals, foundations, or universities. The people who built the observatories were the only people who used the observatories.

Kitt Peak represented a fundamental shift within the science of Astronomy by allowing any individual, group or entity to apply for time at Kitt Peak for little or no money. This gave the academic word a huge boost since scholars could now have access to very good astronomical tools regardless of their institution’s ability to pay the massive observatory project costs on their own.

Since astronomers could use all the equipment at Kitt Peak for free, the data they gathered would become public knowledge. At the conclusion of their observations, a “proprietary period” began, lasting nearly two years, where their data would be wholly their own to work with. After this period, the data becomes available to everyone.

Vera Rubin
Vera Rubin at DTM image tube spectrograph attached to the Kitt Peak 84-inch telescope, 1970.

Kitt Peak has done a lot to advance our understanding. One of my favourite things is Vera Rubin studying the rotation of galaxies. Back in 1970 she published a paper which still proves to be one of the strongest arguments supporting the existence of Dark Matter in the universe. She used the 84-inch Kitt Peak mirror to determine that galaxies rotated far more quickly on their periphery than they should. This means it is very likely a significant amount of mass exists in galaxies that we simply cannot see.

Interestingly, when Vera was being interviewed for admissions to science at Swarthmore, one of the things she told the interviewer offhand was that she liked to paint. The interviewer asked if she’d ever considered painting astronomical objects. Good thing she didn’t choose that. Now, her discoveries feed into one of the modern “holy grail” mysteries of astronomical and cosmological science — not to mention various physics.

But lots of excellent science goes on at Kitt Peak, even some directly practicable work. The Near Earth Objects (NEO) program coordinated by NASA and with a heavy interest and investment by the United States Air Force, works to discover objects hurling about our solar system that might one day impact Earth unleashing devastation. One of the programs that comprise the NEO program is the Spacewatch program which operates two telescopes on Kitt Peak. They are indeed pioneers in the field and contribute much to the project, particularly in identifying smaller or less luminous NEOs.

McMath-Pierce Solar ObservatoryProbably the most distinguishing feature of Kitt Peak, besides the titanic, panoramic view of Arizona’s landscape far into the horizons, is the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. Another remnant of the Kennedy Era, this National Solar Observatory telescope remains the largest in the world, particularly capable at exploring the infrared spectrum beyond 2.5 microns. Unfortunately it was closed for a construction project while I was there so my lovely retired physics professor friend couldn’t take me in. However, he did suggest that someone might easily sneak in. He was right.

The solar observatory starts approximately 100 feet in the air, travels down diagonally around 200 feet, then bores down into the mountain another 300 feet. So, the largest portion of the observatory is actually underground, as is the instrumentation. The heliostat optics which sit at the top of the 100-foot column weighs in at 27 tons and is mounted on a track that extends down toward the primary mirror. It can crawl along this track at 4 feet per minute. The first mirrors used in the observatory were freely given to Dr. McMath by General Electric. These quartz mirrors were just sitting around in the yard at General Electric, unused, having been created twenty years prior for the Mount Palomar Observatory. It was either give them to Dr. McMath, or throw them away. So Dr. McMath just paid the cost of transporting them from General Electric to Kitt Peak. Well, after getting them ground and processed into the exacting specification first, including coatings of molten quartz, and an accidental cracking of one… and, well, subsequent welding together for a quick patch-up. In 1966 the welded mirror was replaced after the slight warping became too much to bear.

Heliostat on the McMath-Pierce Solar ObservatorySadly, Dr. McMath died the month before the observatory was to be dedicated. And to think he left his Detroit family’s bridge construction business after a bridge he was working on collapsed with him on it.

The solar observatory circulates over 16,000 gallons of water and anti-freeze. The tower is cooled during the summer by circulating the liquid around the copper infrastructure. However, the larger portion below ground is not cooled, since the temperature is fairly constant and cool from the earth itself. Interestingly, the portion below ground is cooled in the winter to help equalize the temperature with the winter air above ground.

One of the things I heard often in my travelings around observatories is that astronomy is a cold business. Optical astronomy is for the night, usually as high up into the atmosphere as you can get. The tragic part is that the mirrors pointing toward the sky and the mirrors inside, down where you are, must be the same temperature. I’m sure astronomers are happy with modern innovations in automation that allow most astronomy to now be performed remotely.

Returning to Kitt Peak specifically, it is a publicly-funded institution. Scientists who apply for telescope time and are accepted usually come to Kitt Peak to live in the dormitories during their study. It’s simply too difficult a commute to make every day, particularly in the black of night, where you cannot even use your car lights.

Also, adhering to its status as a public institution, Kitt Peak offers guided tours during the day. They also have an excellent nighttime observation program (NOP) available to the public. I attended this and was very happy. About 25 people showed up that night, just before dusk. We were given a brief tour of the grounds while light remained, then attended a lecture on astronomy and observational techniques. We were even trained on using a planisphere, which lets you easily find the locations of stars and constellations. They even fed us.

After we were sufficiently trained, we moved outside. The blackness of night is difficult to describe. The closest city is Tucson which has strict lighting ordinances designed to minimize light pollution. City light are dim, outside house lights must be covered, pointing down only, and street lights must be made of a specific chemical that is not only dim, but can be easily filtered out of optical observations made at Kitt Peak. The effect in Tucson is actually rather beautiful.

But the effect at Kitt Peak is stunning — there is practically no effect. The lights of Phoenix which are considerably further away cause more light pollution than Tucson. Blackness. And no lights allowed on Kitt Peak. It’s easy to run into someone accidentally who is standing right next to you. But up above, the view of the stars splashed impossibly numbered across the sky is staggering. You only truly begin to realize you’re on a planet within a vast sea of emptiness and space when you see a sight like this.

In the meantime, you know that in the many observatories around you people are busily working away on their sciences, moving in shadows through the cold night landscape only when necessary. There exists a feeling of quiet purpose and profoundness that we in the lit, busy streets forget is always there above our heads, in its overwhelming hugeness.

After examining the night sky for a while, being told histories, locations, discoveries, and strange truths, we split the group in two, heading to look at these skies through telescope of our own. It is here that you realize the difference in traditional observation and the technical advances we’ve made.

Mainly, all objects in the sky are very far away. When we look at them, even through a telescope, we see only the very brightest that the object has to offer. Seeing another galaxy, a collection of billions of stars, so far away. An exploded cloud of gases. So tiny from here, so dim — yet truly enormous. The trick to seeing them more vividly is how long you expose its image, whether on photographic material, or electronic CCD’s. When you look through a telescope, as I said, you can only see the brightest. But leave that brightness, and the hidden dimness exposed long enough, and the glorious details emerge.

During my nighttime visit I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful guy name Michael who was similarly very interested in astronomy but had chosen a different path. Kitt Peak also offers an advanced observation program where you spend a whole evening with a telescope, imaging equipment and even a technician, and a place to sleep. It costs around $450/night, but two people can participate at once. Michael and I discussed the possibility of participating in this amazing little program — I sincerely hope that one day soon we will actually get around to doing it.

In the meantime, the drive home from the nighttime observation program can be a little terrifying. Remember the horrific drive up the mountain I described? That was during bright daylight. To leave the mountain, you must drive down those same perilous roads, but using no headlights. I’m just happy I was a few cars down in the train leaving so I could follow the parking lights of the car in front of me. Of course, had they gone off the cliffs, I would have soon followed.

Kitt Peak was my first stop on the observatory tour. It was transforming. And I promise, for anyone, it would be most inspirational.

NGC 4038

By the way, this image was taken by Bob and Bill Twardy/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF from Kitt Peak’s Advanced Observation Program. It’s galaxy NGC 4038. It used to be two galaxies, but they have collided, much like our Milky Way galaxy will soon collide into our neighboring Andromeda galaxy. The wispy, curled lines off to either side are stars from each galaxy that have been thrown off into intergalactic space from the gravitational forces of the collision.

Next comes Mount Graham Observatory.

Oh, did I mention that Kitt Peak also houses one of the radio telescopes that comprise the Very Long Baseline Array? It’s an array of radio telescopes that span over 5,000 miles, all combined into one. It is the sharpest, most far-seeing thing we have. As a cute analogy, consider reading a newspaper in Los Angeles from the top of the Empire State Building in New York.

Oh yes, and a rich business man turned astrophysicist (Edgar Smith) rents out a space at Kitt Peak and built his own high resolution observatory. It’s the only private telescope there. I think the last man to put his own money into Astronomy was Purcival Lowell. And Lowell Observatory will be coming up in a short while, too.

You’re Screwed – Trust Me

I have been hearing a lot about the State Secrets Privilege which can be invoked by the Executive Branch of the US Government. I became curious.

From what I can tell, there is no law in existence that defines the State Secrets Privilege, it’s scope, nor powers. It is considered “common law”, arisen as a result of legal precedents resultant from prior court rulings, supporting the desire of the Executive Branch to withhold any information in a trial if the Executive deems that information could damage our national security.

It relies completely upon the word of the Executive. There is no way to determine if, in fact, information withheld could damage national security. It just needs to be invoked.

Although the State Secrets Privilege has been invoked ever since the formation of our country, the Supreme Court of the US experienced it for the first time only in the 1950’s in the case United States v. Reynolds (345 U.S. 1). It wasn’t even called the “State Secrects Privilege” then.

In this case, three widowed women were suing the US for the deaths of their civilian husbands during an Air Force test of electronic equipment aboard a B-29 bomber. It turns out that a lower court had ordered the Air Force to turn over documents related to the flight. These documents were the accident report. The Air Force refused. Even when the Judge said that only he would look at the documents to determine if state secrets were involved. As a result, that court decided in favor of the widows, since the US Government would not provide any documentation.

However, this Supreme Court ruling reversed that decision. It’s an interesting read. The judge mentions how instrumental the Air Force was in the last war and how electronic equipment was crucial in expanding the Air Force’s effectiveness. They reasoned that if the US Government could not produce the documents, then it could not defend itself, so any trial was pointless.

The Supreme Court decision did have some good things to say. The primary point was simple: “It is not to be lightly invoked.” The also said words which ring through to our current legal predicaments with the State Secrets Privilege:

“Judicial control over the evidence in a case cannot be abdicated to the caprice of executive officers. Yet we will not go so far as to say that the court may automatically require a complete disclosure to the judge before the claim of privilege will be accepted in any case.”

Also, it seems that the United States is always in danger and must grant “special rights” to itself above its people: “In the instant case we cannot escape judicial notice that this is a time of vigorous preparation for national defense.” This was in 1953.

In 2003, when the documents became unclassified, it is revealed that they contained no state secrets or sensitive material whatsoever. However, the documents did reveal that the Air Force failed to comply with orders to modify the B-29’s exhaust assembly, which was the cause of the crash.

This was the landmark case test of the State Secrets Privilege before the United States Supreme Court. It is now revealed that the United States committed fraud. The plaintiffs also filed a Writ of Error Coram Nobis to remedy fraud performed upon the Supreme Court by the United States Government. This is apparently a very rare thing, and was last used to set aside convictions of Japanese Americans who were wrongfully imprisoned based upon government falsehoods. The Clerk’s office of the Supreme Court rejected it the first time, later sounded confused by it, and subsequently accepted it after all. However, three months later, the Supreme Court refused the hear the case, without comment.

Making matters slightly worse, as the plaintiffs tried to carry on their suit in a lower court, Federal District Judge Legrome D. Davis of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled on September 10, 2004 that the US Government actually did not commit fraud against the court: “A finding of fraud upon the court is justified only by the most egregious misconduct directed to the court itself such as bribery of a judge or jury or fabrication of evidence by counsel.� Apparently the affidavit supplied by the head of the US Air Force to the courts was not considered evidence.

Right now we have the State Secrets Privilege being used basically willy-nilly. President Bush extended it by executive order, granting it to all former Presidents and their representatives. It is being used on government “whistle blowers”. It is being used to hide surveillance of our own people, violating several laws and even Constitutional rights. It is even used to hide laws that exist, that we cannot know about. The State Secret Privilege has even been used to hide US foreknowledge of the 9/11 attack and the Executive Branch has even go so far as to retroactively classify documents after the fact that were being used in this investigation, including communications with Senators. This case is particularly interesting, and a good starting point can be found with Sibel Edmonds.

We’ve had all the major internet content providers turn over all the email we send, and things we visit – such as Yahoo!, MSN, etc…. with only Google refusing to provide the information. We have all the major telephone companies providing all telephone access information to the NSA, apparently with the exception of Qwest. AT&T, a major backbone provider of the Internet, is currently being sued for its alleged spying on our data for the NSA, in which the State Secrets Privilege is being invoked. And we have, thanks to the Patriot Act, gag orders on any company or citizen that does not allow them to tell us, or anyone else, if we’re under surveillance or even have been arrested. They don’t even need court orders to do this — well, at least they didn’t — I’m not really sure about today…

Almost every one of us has nothing to hide. And most of us wouldn’t mind anyone knowing anything about what we send in email or talk about on the telephone. But there is something fundamentally chilling about a government that can do almost anything it wants without having to say why. Particularly when they can force family, friends, employers, newspapers, etc. to keep their mouths shut.

Is this the democracy and freedom we want to see in world?

D.C. District Case No. 94-1756 “SEALED v. SEALED” Annotation: “Case is not available to the public.”

Those of you who are US citizens know that our government has three branches designed to check each other’s power and maintain balance and freedom. The Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. Lately, the Executive has been attacking the Judicial, or just trying to do end runs around it. The Legislative seems fairly well impotent and meaningless. I’m really wondering how this is possible — and if anyone has any light, please shine it upon me!

I am seeing one glimmer of hope lately in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuit against AT&T for illegal wiretapping, where the Executive has once again brought in the State Secret Privilege. Judge Vaugh Walker orders the parties to consider some very interesting questions, including:

How can the court minimize the conflict between plaintiffs’ right to litigate this case and the government’s duty to protect state secrets? See Ellsberg v Mitchell, 709 F2d 51, 57 (DC Cir 1983) (“[T]he [state secret] privilege may not be used to shield any material not strictly necessary to prevent injury to national security; and, whenever possible, sensitive information must be disentangled from nonsensitive information to allow for the release of the latter.�).

If a warrant is not required for the government via AT&T to intercept plaintiffs’ communications, how can the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement be adjudicated without implicating state secrets?

How can confirming or denying the existence of the alleged surveillance program at issue here, or AT&T’s alleged participation in that program, constitute disclosure of a state secret when the program has been so widely reported in the public sphere?

You go Judge Walker!!

Damn. It must be the long conversation with Johnny that got me so riled up again. Damnit Johnny!