National Security

Beam Us Up

Why did Star Trek get to film at a secret government laser facility?

If scientists and officials at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California seem a little starstruck these days, there's a good reason: The lab's massive National Ignition Facility, or NIF, has something of a starring role in Star Trek Into Darkness, which opened nationwide last Thursday. "For many years, we've been waiting for ‘Star Trek' to realize that they should be here," NIF principal associate director Ed Moses told Live Science. "This is a very futuristic facility... and I think we've all been influenced by Star Trek's vision of the future."

The film's director, J.J. Abrams, and its stars have been similarly enthusiastic about the opportunity to film at the classified facility. "We were there just trying to shoot a movie, but all around us, these innovative scientists are working on technologies that will likely help the whole world," said Abrams. "The idea that one day the research at NIF could create clean, limitless energy is so exciting.... These people are doing research that could alter the destiny of the planet the way the wheel or the light bulb did."

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a villain and is evidently something of a science nerd, told a reporter that NIF "is trying to create hydrogen fusion by using lasers fired at extraordinary speeds through various lenses. If they can hit this target of hydrogen -- which is half the breadth of a human hair in this huge cell -- they will create this alternate energy supply which could power San Francisco for a year with one burst."

And John Cho, who plays helmsman Hikaru Sulu, has told reporters somewhat sheepishly how he and co-star Karl Urban (who plays Dr. Leonard McCoy) were pranked by their cast mates and the crew into smearing white "neutron cream" on their noses and cheeks to neutralize the radiation emitted by NIF, and to jump up and down frequently while shaking their hands "to shake the neutrons out." (Cumberbatch tells a similar story.)

But all the glowing praise and tales of Hollywood hijinks are misleading the public about NIF's true purpose while also masking a very troubling reality, one that lab officials -- and their federal overseers at the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Energy (DOE) -- would clearly prefer not to discuss: NIF is not designed to produce "clean, limitless energy," it is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, it has thus far failed to ignite the fusion reaction for which it was built, and there is a growing acceptance that it probably will never be able to generate a fusion reaction that produces more energy than was required to initiate it.

NIF is essentially an extremely large, very powerful laser. It was designed to produce a 500-trillion-watt pulse focused on a single, small cylindrical gold-plated target (called a hohlraum), heating it very rapidly and causing it to radiate intense X-rays. Those X-rays, in turn, trigger ignition of a two-millimeter capsule of frozen deuterium-tritium fuel that surrounds a tiny amount of deuterium-tritium gas, producing a self-sustaining fusion reaction more energetic than the pulse that initiated the process. (Each firing of the laser requires 1,000-times more energy than the United States consumes at any given moment.)

All the components are housed in a building large enough to contain three football fields. The NIF's 287,000-pound, 10-meter-diameter spherical target chamber -- into which 192 laser beamlines converge -- stands in for the warp core of the USS Enterprise in the film. (Although it looks nothing like the warp cores previously featured in any of the television or film incarnations of Star Trek, it is convincing, perhaps because it is real. And as NIF officials have pointed out, the Enterprise's faster-than-light warp engines also run on deuterium fuel.)

NIF is a successor to Livermore's earlier Nova laser (which also failed to achieve ignition). Conceived in the early 1990s and funded out of DOE's weapons activities account -- not the science or energy account -- as the centerpiece of the department's new Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, NIF was supposed to simulate the temperatures and densities at the very earliest stages of the ignition of a thermonuclear bomb. This, in turn, would verify and improve complex computer simulations, facilitate a better understanding of how modified or aging weapons materials would behave, and allow the United States to test the reliability of nuclear weapons without actually blowing them up. (Congress halted underground nuclear explosions in September 1992.)

The program began in 1994 with an estimated budget of about $1.1 billion (with another $1 billion for research and development) and a projected completion date in 2002. However, a variety of significant construction and engineering challenges delayed completion and rapidly drove up the costs (facts that the NIF managers withheld from Congress and the secretary of energy for years). A DOE review in 2000 increased the budget estimate to $3.3 billion and pushed back completion to 2006. A 2000 General Accounting Office (GAO) assessment pegged the cost at $3.9 billion and was not optimistic about the anticipated completion date. In a report the following year, the GAO estimated the cost to completion at $4.2 billion, and a completion date of 2008. Construction was formally finished in 2009, and initial experiments began the following year.

While NIF has conducted more than 1,000 laser "shots" and set multiple records for laser power -- including a 500-terawatt shot on July 5, 2012 -- the latest goal of achieving ignition by October 1, 2012 (set in 2009) came and went. For reasons unknown, the laser's energy is only generating pressures in the target of 150 billion times the Earth's atmosphere -- about half of what is required for ignition. Moses told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month that he cannot predict when -- or if -- ignition will ever be achieved. "Our goal is of course ignition," he said. "The goal is to get there or understand why you don't." Moses estimates that total costs have reached $5 billion, although a local grassroots watchdog organization asserts costs are closer to $7.5 billion, because the laboratory has been allowed to charge some of NIF's costs to other programs. NIF's current annual costs are at least $400 million. (By comparison, the estimated budget for Star Trek Into Darkness was $190 million.)

It's worth noting that this is not the first time that Star Trek has repurposed actual nuclear hardware. The 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact shot some scenes at the Titan Missile Museum near Tucson, Arizona, where a fiberglass shell covering a decommissioned Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile stood in for the Phoenix, Earth's first warp-capable spaceship.

Although NIF's weapons-related role may be fading, thanks to growing congressional frustration with slipping deadlines, a failure to achieve its primary objective, and the budgetary effects of sequestration, Star Trek has given some NIF personnel a brief bit of glory, albeit in a way that foreshadows a less than rosy future. As Simon Pegg, who plays Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott ("Scotty"), explained to, "All of those guys with red shirts in the warp core [are] all just guys from NIF who just wanted to be in Star Trek. Bruno [Van Wonterghem], the project leader there, who is the guy who will discover fusion and will go down as the next Edison" is in the background. If Moses, Van Wonterghem, and their colleagues are true Trek aficionados, the irony won't be lost on them. In Star Trek lore, anonymous crewmembers wearing red shirts are usually the first to die.

On the other hand, the film's probable box office success makes it likely there will be future installments. Which means NIF, whose slogan is "Bringing star power to Earth," could live on as possibly the world's most expensive movie set -- and its employees could continue to work as extras, trading one kind of star power for another.

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National Security

Spycraft for Hacks

A veteran FBI agent's rules for how to get a juicy leak in the Obama era -- and not get caught.

The Department of Justice case against Fox News journalist James Rosen took an ugly turn last week when it was revealed that three years ago, in an application for a search warrant targeting his Gmail account, an FBI affiant alleged that Rosen was a "co-conspirator and/or aider and abettor" in the crime of espionage. Having read the affidavit, I personally think that the allegation and the evidence presented as probable cause is a bit of a stretch. And taken on top of the revelation that the same DOJ attorneys subpoenaed the telephone records of the Associated Press, along with those of White House and National Security Council staff, the paranoia and outrage being expressed by the Washington press and across the nation is palpable, to say the least.

Rosen has been described in the media as an expert on Watergate and an aficionado of Bob Woodward's tradecraft in meeting with "Deep Throat," revealed by Vanity Fair in 2005 to have been FBI Associate Director Mark Felt. In arranging their meetings, Woodward would signal Felt that he wanted to meet by placing a flowerpot on his balcony, which could be seen by Felt as he walked by. Conversely, Felt would signal Woodward by making a note on page 20 of the copy of The New York Times delivered to Woodward's door in the morning. They would then meet in an underground garage, often at 2 a.m. Not bad tradecraft for its time.

Things, however, have changed. National security reporting in Washington is a cat-and-mouse game. Reporters try to develop sources to provide information about controversial government programs so that they can write about them. Classified information is, of course, the sexiest and most valued of all national security information. When stories containing classified information are published, however, a massive counterintelligence enterprise is sometimes set into play by the government's house cat to catch the mouse and determine if the information was leaked at the behest of a hostile foreign intelligence service. Reporters are often caught in the middle, targeted by the FBI because they are easier to catch than the leakers and the foreign spies. In the past, the point of catching the reporters was to prosecute the leakers, not the reporters, and embarrass the papers into future voluntary compliance with the law. It appears the present administration has changed the rules of the game.

As a public service to enterprising journalists, below are my top ten tradecraft lessons for those interested in protecting contact with their sources. They are based on my 28 years in the FBI as a counterterrorism/counterintelligence agent and are not meant as a primer for aspiring spies, because spying is illegal and all of the techniques described can be overcome though perseverance and enterprise by the FBI. But if you want to make the FBI earn its pay as it tries to determine where you got your information, here are some words to live by:

1. Take a lesson from the Mafia and never use phones for anything other than the most innocuous conversations -- i.e., "Meet me at our usual spot" or "We need to talk." Better yet, "I'm going out for pizza, so I won't be around to meet you today " -- the last part being previously arranged code for "Meet me at our usual spot."

Members of La Cosa Nostra are notorious for suspecting that the FBI has everything around them bugged, and modern-day gangsters typically go for public walks to discuss mafia business. John Gotti was famous for his walks with his consigliore Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano. Others, like Bill Bonanno, would only call from public phones to other pre-designated banks of public phones so that law enforcement would never know which phone was going to be used.

Some, like Paul "Big Paul" Castellano, head of the Gambino family, would only conduct business at the kitchen table of his well-guarded Long Island mansion. All of these techniques can be defeated, of course, but it takes a much higher level of investigative activity on the part of the FBI. Houses, cars, kitchens, restaurant tables, and individuals can all be bugged. Castellano's Rottweilers succumbed to a daily bribe of cheeseburgers offered by an enterprising agent, proving that even highly trained guard dogs cannot resist a dose of grease.

2. Like the phone, the Internet is a sieve, and a goldmine for lawful and unlawful penetration through technical means by law enforcement. Never use the Internet or email for any kind of contact with a source if your beat is national security because it creates too many electronic trails, all of which are traceable and usually recoverable by even the newest rookie FBI cyber-agent. Social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook are the worst because they are public, and even though you may direct message your source or delete a contact tweet, it can be recorded by any number of interested followers, including the FBI, and preserved for all time on Google.

3. Take a tip from the Mossad and never meet or recruit a source in a public place where you can be observed by law enforcement, fellow journalists, or jealous spouses. The only exception to this rule would be large-scale public events where meeting a source could be described as a random chance encounter, like at a sporting event.

Hotels are only marginally better, particularly if you use the same hotel or pre-book a room. If the FBI knows the hotels you like to use, there are ways to ensure that you get the room that the bureau wants you to get -- i.e., the pre-wired room.

That goes for bars and taverns as well. Some of my best sources while in the FBI were bartenders, but then I was of a different generation. Today's FBI agents tend to develop sources at gyms, not bars. So perhaps random bars wouldn't be so bad after all. Just watch for the lone 28-year-old in a cheap suit drinking soda water all alone.

4. Use the U.S. mail. Many journalists are unaware of the existence of mail covers, which are formal requests to the Postmaster that allow the postal service to record certain information -- but only that information on the outside of the envelope. To get at its contents requires probable cause that evidence of a crime is contained within the envelope and a search warrant. Of course, "accidental" openings can and do occur. So be careful what you say in your letter. See rule #1.

5. Variety is the spice of life. If nothing else, vary your routine. Every day. All day long. The technical term for directed or dedicated random activity designed to spot surveillance is a surveillance detection route, or SDR.

6. Look over your shoulder occasionally. Surveillance comes in a variety of levels of sophistication and expertise. Routine criminal surveillance might be conducted by detectives in their G-rides, or even uniformed police officers in a marked patrol car. The highest level of national security surveillance is conducted by teams of agents and specialists who do surveillance for a living and will generally not be detected, except possibly by trained foreign intelligence officers. Criminals are notorious for acting "hinky" when engaged in illegal activity, so try not to look obvious or uncomfortable. You should assume you are being photographed, so dress well.

7. If your source is engaged in illegal activity, such as the dissemination of classified defense information, STOP AND THINK. There are a lot of reasons why leakers leak classified information to the press. Be careful that you don't get caught up in someone else's criminal fantasy of getting back at the government through you, all for the sake of a story. Even if you believe that the documents deserve to be published, I would caution you to think long and hard, in consultation with corporate counsel, before you do so. You could wind up in jail. Even if you are ultimately vindicated and hailed as a hero for your actions, you may first have to go through many years of (expensive) litigation.

Anger at the government, disagreement with foreign policy, revenge, and ideology are all possible motives for providing classified information. While the lure of a story may overwhelm common sense, take a moment to evaluate the source's true motivation, and if you and your editor/publisher think you can "fade the heat," then go ahead and publish. But don't express moral outrage when you are accused of a crime and threatened with prosecution. It is part of the dangerous game you are playing. After all, unauthorized possession of classified information, even without publication, is still a crime.

8. Don't wear wigs or disguises, carry recruitment letters offering money in exchange for information, or use electronic surveillance detection equipment. These things don't work and will just subject you to ridicule from the FBI, your colleagues, and many others if you are caught. (My apologies to my friends in other government agencies who use and believe in these techniques. We still make fun of you.)

9. If you don't want to be charged with conspiracy, then don't conspire with your source. Legal opinions differ on what constitutes criminal conspiracy, but the threshold is much lower than actual commission of the crime being planned -- in fact, the overt crime need never be committed at all. (Think bank robbery. If you and a source talk about robbing a bank, and then the source actually robs a bank and says you talked him into it, you can be charged with conspiracy to rob a bank.) And, once you become a criminal target, the rules for the DOJ and FBI change, and they can utilize the full force of the U.S. government to investigate the leak. Make sure you know the law and what you are willing to risk before you publish.

10. Finally, remember that publishing articles on national security can often have unintended consequences. The danger of revealing a sensitive source or method is very real and can have deadly consequences for the human source at the other end. It is my personal opinion that there is a classified backstory that remains untold in both the Rosen and the AP cases that would explain the aggressive pursuit of the leaks. I don't know what it is, but I look forward to the day when I can hear the story reported by James Rosen, Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, and others at Fox, the AP, and the New York Times. Go get ‘em, fellas.