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How Much Free Speech for Scientists?

Wolfgang Panofsky

The Pendulum Swings

The only guideline thus far for deemed-export controls is that a person in the presence of a foreign national may not give "gratuitous information" or allow the "premature release" of sensitive information. One problem is that the regulations do not give a clear description of what is or is not permissible to talk about in front of foreigners. And as a professor, I might add that giving gratuitous information in which the audience may or may not be interested is our bread and butter. Moreover, such restrictions are clearly ineffective, because they do not prevent the U.S. citizens who are listening from passing the information on to foreigners later. Thus, in respect to export control, U.S. scientists are poorly informed as to what is forbidden and yet may feel they are putting their jobs in jeopardy if they even approach the indistinctly drawn line. As a result, these rules have discouraged many scientists from attending foreign conferences or making foreign contacts.

So the new regulations erode some researchers' ability to do good science. They also constitute a direct threat to true national security, for several reasons. On the most basic level, they burden the officials who are now charged with enforcing the existing classification and clearance processes. These people, who in the DOE are part of the Information Security Oversight Office, are woefully over-burdened. A backlog of applicants for clearance numbering in the tens of thousands has accumulated throughout the government. Administering the recent, more restrictive changes in classification rules, which had been altered substantially not so long ago by the "Openness Initiative" of former Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary, puts additional demands on these officials. Ill-defined restrictions on the freedom of speech of scientists tax these people even more and thus compromise their ability to do their jobs in a timely fashion.

The new regulations create a further risk to true national security by hindering the many members of U.S. weapons labs who have engaged in a successful program with their Russian and Chinese counterparts to improve the protection, control and accounting of fissile materials and nuclear weapons. Under the new restrictions, contacts between foreign scientists and America scientists having access to classified information are subject to checks on whether the foreign participants have connections with spy organizations. This new requirement may appear sensible, but it creates delays measured in months rather than days and bogs down activities that in a real sense make our country safer.

The DOE has also proposed rules limiting the access of foreigners to unclassified computers, even those at national laboratories and universities doing no military work. The managers of those systems rightfully maintain that no cyber-security beyond "good business practice" is needed. By "good business practice" they mean the use of access codes and other tools of industry for protecting the privacy of information about personnel and finances. Further restrictions would do a great deal of damage to the worldwide collaborations that now share in the design, execution and interpretation of experiments at facilities in the U.S. and abroad. Some of the suggested regulations would make such joint work entirely impossible.

American scientists should not have to work under such unnecessary and counterproductive controls. Indeed, the scientists at the national laboratories should feel reassurance and encouragement, not general suspicion based on unproven charges, which will only erode their morale. Over the longer term, this sort of treatment will tend to dissuade students from taking jobs at national laboratories, perhaps even from choosing science for their careers. In this respect, increasing the restrictions on the freedom of speech for scientists is the worst move that could be made in the interest of the national security.

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