Argument

Freedom Begins at Home

How can the Obama administration credibly promote freedom of speech abroad while restricting it in the United States?

The investigation and potential indictment of investigative journalists for the crime of doing their jobs well enough to make the government squirm is nothing new. It happens all over the world, and is part of what the Obama administration has fought against in championing press and Internet freedom globally. By allowing its own campaign against national security leaks to become grounds for trampling free expression, the administration has put a significant piece of its very own foreign policy and human rights legacy at risk.

The United States has always seen and styled itself as a global standard-bearer on free expression, and never more so than during the last four years. The U.S. Constitution and First Amendment offer the most protective standard for free speech in the world. In June 1992, the United States even lodged a "reservation" or exception to a key provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, governing what categories of expression can be banned, on grounds that the global treaty doesn't go far enough in safeguarding speech. U.S. diplomats tout the reservation with pride, noting that virtually every other country in the world is more tolerant of limits on expression.

The Obama administration has made the promotion of free speech a signature of its own foreign policy. Upon joining the United Nations's Human Rights Council in Geneva for the first time in 2009, the United States's maiden initiative in September 2009 was a resolution on free expression. The administration waged a successful two-year campaign to put an end to U.N. resolutions that sought to ban the so-called "defamation of religion," arguing that the prohibitions conflicted with international norms on free speech.

The administration was quick to identify the risks to free expression online, and to position itself as a primary defender of digital freedom. In 2011, for the first time ever, Washington hosted the U.N. World Press Freedom Day commemoration. It put digital freedom at center stage, inviting bloggers and journalists from all over the world to discuss the challenges they face. To mark the occasion, the State Department press release voiced concern "about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put both personal political capital and financial resources behind an effort to promote free expression online. In a December 2011 speech in The Hague, Clinton decried governments for wanting to "keep what they like and which doesn't threaten them and suppress what they don't" and called for stepped-up efforts to defend and protect journalists and bloggers. In 2012, she stated, "when a free media is under attack anywhere, all human rights are under attack everywhere." The State Department documented these attacks in its own annual human rights country reports, calling out Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa for verbal attacks on specific journalists and the government of Ethiopia for using counterterrorism laws as an excuse for persecuting writers. Late last year, in one of her final speeches in office at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Clinton called out Belarus and several Central Asian countries for intimidating journalists and restricting online expression while admitting "every participating state, including the United States, has room for improvement."

The commitment did not stop at Foggy Bottom. In a message of his own last spring, the president "call[ed] on all governments to protect the ability of journalists, bloggers, and dissidents to write and speak freely without retribution and... recogniz[e] the vital role of a free press and tak[e] the necessary steps to create societies in which independent journalists can operate freely and without fear." In the last few years the United States has spent tens of millions annually to train and support journalists, human rights groups, and cyberactivists on Internet freedom and methods to secure online communications.

Living up to such lofty rhetoric and ambition has not been easy. The Obama administration's response to the WikiLeaks episode and its determination to pursue capital offense charges against Private Bradley Manning after his guilty plea have led to cries of hypocrisy. The administration's support for legislation and policies that would afford federal agencies broad power to carry out surveillance, circumvent privacy and security systems, and intercept online communications without a warrant from a court have met with staunch criticism from open Internet advocates, sometimes prompting the White House to reverse course. While the president has said that civil liberties must not be traded away in the name of security, his aggressive approach to prosecuting national security leaks within the administration's own ranks has put the rights of those targeted in jeopardy, and risks chilling the free flow of expression and government criticism far more broadly.

Revelations during the last week of government investigations of the Associated Press and of Fox News journalists only deepen the contradictions. Disclosure that the FBI officials viewed Fox reporter James Rosen as a candidate for potential prosecution as a co-conspirator in unlawful leaks over North Korean nukes, that they searched his emails and even began asking questions about phone lines connected to his parents have made international news. In his 2012 World Press Freedom Day release, President Obama spotlighted jailed Vietnamese blogger Dieu Cay and Eritrean journalist Dawit Issak by name, putting a human face on the victims of government overreach and helping make their plight visible worldwide. The naming and photographs of Rosen and his targeted colleagues William La Jeunesse and producer Mike Levine have likewise struck home with the media and the public.

It will take many months to fully expose the actions of the FBI and the Justice Department in targeting journalists, and to determine how the damage can be mitigated and prevented in the future. What has been revealed thus far, though, is already enough to tarnish America's global credibility in pressing for media freedom. The next time U.S. diplomats try to push for greater protection for journalists in Turkey or Russia, the AP and Fox scandals will be thrown back in their faces. When they decry government surveillance of the media in China or Iran, those governments will point a finger back to Washington. While U.S. officials can and will point out that outrage and national debate over these scandals itself attests to the degree of press freedom enjoyed in the United States, that won't be enough to defeat the charge of hypocrisy and eroded U.S. credibility.

And the issue goes beyond free speech. The U.S. government remains leery of having the lens of global scrutiny over human rights practices trained on its own conduct. While the State Department's report on country performance in addressing trafficking in persons includes a chapter on America's own practices, the Department's human rights report still leaves out the United States. And while U.N. human rights rapporteurs covering many topics are welcomed to U.S. shores, those requesting to visit Guantánamo and meet privately with the detainees there have never been allowed. When foreign governments use diplomatic meetings to raise issues like Guantánamo or over-incarceration in the United States, American officials tend to bristle or simply to throw up their hands at the improbable notion that the views of the State Department, much less those of a foreign government, would influence the conduct of the FBI, the Prisons Bureau, or -- still more outlandish -- the Pentagon or intelligence officials responsible for detainees.

Part of the reason for this disconnect is structural. Because the United States is not used to viewing its own behavior through the filter of international human rights obligations, relatively little thought is given to the implications of a loudly proclaimed administration commitment to advancing press and Internet freedom on the conduct of U.S. domestic agencies. The idea that the United States better make sure the nose of its own far-flung bureaucracy is clean before -- or at least while -- it sniffs out the abuses of others is a mostly unfamiliar one. The Justice Department and FBI officials responsible for targeting the Fox and AP journalists probably didn't get a memo saying that the president and secretary of state had called out other countries for spying on and seizing the records of journalists. It will be interesting to learn whether the instructions they received on investigating the national security leaks stressed the importance of respecting the bounds of the First Amendment. There are representatives of the Justice Department that take part in representing and defending the U.S. human rights record globally, working alongside colleagues from the White House, State Department, and other agencies. But their role has focused more on asserting the strengths of America's record than on addressing its weaknesses. Until they are empowered to drive forward human rights compliance within the Justice Department and the rest of the executive branch, their role is more accurately described as packaging rather than promoting human rights performance.

No government will ever meet the standard of 100 percent principled consistency in its behavior. But until the United States accepts that it is bound not only by U.S. law but also by international human rights obligations in areas including freedom of speech, the Obama administration -- and its successors -- are likely to continue to fall short in fulfilling at home the obligations it demands of others abroad.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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 io9.com, "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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