Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Classified on campus

UH-Manoa's stealth campaign for
secret research from Kewalo Basin
to Kauai and perhaps Pearl Harbor 2

Debonair with salt-and-pepper hair and so disarmingly soft-spoken that a professor emeritus ordered him to speak up, Bill Bakamis seemed like an ideal salesman to persuade University of Hawaii at Manoa students and faculty to buy into the U.S. Navy's proposal to establish laboratories for conducting secret and unclassified military research.


UH had nothing to fear in giving final approval to a contract to become the Navy's first University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) in the last 50 years -- and only the nation's fifth -- Bakamis told dozens of faculty and students assembled recently in the law school classroom as two videocameras ground away, their crew often interjecting shouts of protest. Bakamis serves as an associate director of business and finance at the University of Washington, one of the Navy's four current UARCs.

Suddenly, from the back of the classroom, a bombshell assertion was hurled at Bakamis by graduate student Ikaika Hussey: "You are a consultant for UARC," hired by UH. "Is that true?"

Bakamis acknowledged that it was. The Board of Regents had contracted him nearly a year earlier for $75,000 to smooth the way for UH-M's sealing the Navy contract.

Bakamis' hired-gun admission stunned the audience. Thrusting his arms toward Bakamis and tossing about his signature '60s faded goldilocks, UH-M's social work professor Joel Fischer exclaimed, "You're really an academic fraud! This is embarrassing."

The classroom face-down epitomizes a slice of the UH administration's stealth campaign to gain final approval of the UARC and the increasingly contentious resistance against the secrecy the Navy UARC mandates.

Thus far, this explosive issue has been fought out only on the Manoa campus. But UH-M has already tabbed the Manoa Innovation Center for its classified administrative offices and is in discussions for secret research and development space there, at Honolulu Community College's Ewa radar facility, at the Pacific Missile Range on Kauai and at the Kewalo Basin not far from the Ala Moana shopping center. Some faculty worry that the secret research will make Honolulu more of a military target -- Pearl Harbor 2 -- and a particularly devastating one because Hawaii and Alaska lie within striking distance of nuclear-tipped missiles launched from North Korea.

Although the Board of Regents called for consultations before giving final approval to the Navy contract, probably in April, the faculty, students and communities have thus far been cut out of the clandestine discussions that began several years ago and resulted in the Pentagon's approving UH-M as a Navy UARC on July 8, 2004.

"How dare a university say 'We're going to do research but it's too dirty for us to have on campus so we'll put it in the community,'" Fischer interjected. "And ... there's not even community opportunity to have feedback."

Even as Bakamis was consulting for UH-M, his university was engulfed in its own stealth campaign, resulting in a new battle in Seattle. The university had created an uproar by quietly applying for federal funds to build a bioterrorism laboratory on campus near a populated area before notifying the public. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, the lab would be capable of handling "deadly viruses and biological agents, including the plague and anthrax." News of it provoked outrage from faculty, students and neighborhood residents, the newspaper noted, and a rebuke from a Board of Regents member.

Historically, the University of Washington's military research dating back to 1943 may serve as a worst-case example to inform UH's decision-making. Bakamis looked stunned and answered he didn't know when asked about how much of his university's research since 1943 was related to the nation's No. 1 production site of plutonium at nearby Hanford. Nor was he aware that UW's Applied Fisheries Laboratory conducted much research about the effects of U.S. Pacific nuclear weapons testing. Much of this work was conducted in great secrecy, Michele Stenehjem Gerber writes in "On The Home Front," so much secrecy that even the UW's president had "no idea" of what one researcher was doing or why he was doing it. Production for atomic bombs of plutonium, with its radioactive existence of half a million years, led to such health and environmental hazards that in 1988 the U.S. government closed the Hanford plant and designated it as one of the nation's most contaminated Superfund sites.

Even beyond the necessity of national security during the Cold War, the U.S. government has used unwarranted secrecy to avoid embarrassing publicity and legal liabilities. Secrecy also concealed until the 1990s the role of universities in conducting unethical, federally funded research by injecting plutonium or other radioactive substances into human subjects without their informed consent or medical benefit. At the University of Rochester, for example, four patients at a hospital near the university were injected with radioactive Polonium-210; Vanderbilt University researchers served pregnant women with radioactive drinks.

Besides UW, the other three Navy UARCs are at Johns Hopkins University, University of Texas at Austin and Penn State. All began their research relationship with the Navy in the mid-1940s, and were designated in the 1990s as UARCs designed to meet the research, development and technical evaluation needs of the Navy and the U.S. government.

Now that the Bush administration is moving toward re- nuclearizing the nation's military arsenal and power plants and constructing a new Cold War atmosphere, it has skewed the federal budget away from the basic research traditionally conducted by universities and re-directed it toward research designed to fight the war on terrorism and bioterrorism. The New Scientist publication on March 1 this year reported that 750 top scientists wrote the National Institutes of Health, their main source of funds, that its emphasis on fighting bioterrorism had diverted efforts away from achieving breakthroughs in basic research.

Advocates for the Navy contract note that it guarantees UH-M $5 million to $10 million annually for five years.

Almost unmentioned, however, is that UH-M needs to field start-up costs of up to $2 million annually for five years. The regents were told, according to minutes of their Nov. 18-19 meeting, that the UARC would not become self-sufficient until the fourth or fifth year of the Navy's five-year contract. Then, with a new occupant in the White House budgeting new defense strategies, the Navy could drop UH-M's contract -- or could increase its demands for renewing it.

The secrecy surrounding the explosive UH-M furor operates in at least four key ways.

The foremost way to many is the secretive process in which only six administrators could decide with the Navy on what kinds of military research would be conducted and where it would be conducted. The current regents' policy gives this decision-making authority to a "managerial group" of four senior officials: the secretary of the Board of Regents, the two vice presidents for administration and legal affairs and Manoa's vice chancellor for research. The proposed new policy that would govern the UARC would add two other administrators: UH's two vice presidents for academic affairs and for research.

All six decision makers are men. Excluded are women, faculty, students and native Hawaiians, who are especially opposed because they see the research as desecrating their ancestral lands. Also excluded thus far has been any input from the Manoa or other communities. Thus, the six decision-makers are not representa- tive of campus and community members of Hawaii's diverse ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.

Even UH acting president David McClain is excluded from this inner circle, although he would be guaranteed proper security clearances.

However, the Board of Regents members would be barred from garnering security clearances. The current and proposed board policy states that regents "shall not require, nor shall have and can be effectively denied, access to classified information in possession of the university. They do not occupy positions that would enable them to affect adversely the university's policies or practices in the performance of classified contracts from the Department of Defense." Thus, representative local control would be forfeited over secret activities occurring in secret enclaves in the islands.

A pivotal decision maker will be Manoa's vice chancellor for research, Gary K. Ostrander, newly hired from Johns Hopkins University -- home to one of the Navy's biggest and oldest UARCs -- where he was associate provost for research and was once jointly appointed to its School of Medicine. That institution also has had recent woes. Four times in as many months in 2001, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Nov. 23, Hopkins was cited "for a failure to protect human experimental subjects in projects" conducted by researchers connected to it or its affiliates.

In one case, a professor tested experimental cancer drugs on volunteers in India without approval from Hopkins or the federal government. In another case, a 24-year-old laboratory technician died after volunteering for an asthma- related study in which she was administered a drug under experimental conditions. As the Chronicle reported on Aug. 3, 2001, her death prompted the federal government to halt temporarily all U.S.-financed studies involving human subjects at Hopkins School of Medicine and its other medical programs, which had consistently attracted more federal research money than any other medical school in the country.

A second key way in which secrecy at UH-M would operate surrounds the nature of the classified military research itself. Circulating on campus is a memorandum raising fears that UH-M's research will contribute to weapons development. In the message dated July 8, 2004, the Pentagon's Director of Defense Research and Engineering Ronald M. Sega states that he looks forward to seeing UH-M's technology "improve system performance of DOD (Department of Defense) weapon systems."

A third key way in which secrecy at UH-M would operate is that only the military decides which researchers will be given proper security clearances to conduct secret research. These clearances would entail more time-consuming red tape to process. International students, an important part of UH's graduate programs, would be ineligible and even American students would rarely be cleared, thus establishing two tiers of students and clandestine work that faculty members would be barred from discussing with others.

Last, and most fundamental to most faculty, is that the Navy could censor or license the results of its research so that it would be unavailable on a timely basis for traditional peer review or replication, for scrutiny in tenure-and-promotion meetings and even for granting some students class credit needed for graduation.

Even now, before signing this umbrella, five-year Navy contract, UH administrators are hush-hush about the nature of the half-dozen or so classified research projects currently being conducted.

Like this faculty member, political science student Bart Abbott has lamented that his attempt to get a list of classified research at UH since 2001 has turned into a "very cumbersome, next to impossible task."

He said his investigations showed "that virtually any information pertaining to a classified contract was now considered 'sensitive' information and permission to release this information had to be requested, then granted by the federal government before the University released any thing about what they were doing at their own facilities." If federal officials said no, he reported, "then I was simply out of luck."

As "Stop UARC" banners were paraded in front of the classroom, Abbott noted, "The fact that classified research for the military has gone on for at least four years without the majority of the university knowing about it illuminates a very real danger of doing classified research" at UH.

Moreover, UH's improper handling of research-related dangerous chemicals and numerous unknown substances at Manoa, Kauai and the Big Island has led to a $1.7 million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Jan. 26, 2001, that the $1.7 million amount "is believed to be the largest that a university has ever agreed to pay in such a settlement."

The Star-Bulletin asked University of Hawaii-Manoa professor of journalism Beverly Deepe Keever to write a commentary to coincide with today's observance of Freedom of Information Day. Keever discusses federal information policies related to U.S. Pacific nuclear weapons tests (1946-62) in her newly published book, "News Zero: The New York Times and the Bomb."

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