WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense has confirmed it is ending a decades-long, open-ended agreement with a legacy science advisory board, a move that has set off alarm bells for some analysts. But the department has not ruled out relying on that office for more information in the future.
The Jason program dates back the 1950s, when the Pentagon put together a panel of scientific experts to provide outside advice. That contract is now managed by the Mitre group, and run through the Pentagon’s Undersecretary of Research and Engineering.
According to a 2006 book written about the group, the panel played major roles in developing, or lambasting, technical ideas for the department, including pushing to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons and a controversial stretch of ideas during the Vietnam War. Much of their work, however, has been classified.
In response to a request from Defense News, Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb said that the indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract, which allows for an unlimited number of deliveries over a fixed time period, expired at the end of March. And while there is an active task order with Mitre covering some of the same ground, that is set to expire at the end of April.
“After the expiration of the Program Management Task Order, there will be no active OUSD(R&E) sponsored contractual vehicles with MITRE for the JASON program,” Babb wrote in a statement.
“The department has determined that the requirements previously supported through JASON National Security Research Studies have changed and that the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, Research and Engineering will require only one study, rather than multiple studies, as projected under the previous solicitation. Because our requirements have changed, the DoD does not anticipate issuing a follow-on IDIQ.
“The department remains committed to seeking independent technical advice and review. This change is in keeping with this commitment while making the most economic sense for the department, and it is in line with our efforts to gain full value from every taxpayer dollar spent on defense.”
In essence, the department is ending its open-ended contract with the advisory group, but not looking to sever its relationship entirely, instead moving to one-off contracts for the future. That could include a contract to study issues around electronic warfare in the near-future, Babb confirmed. Of course, other contractors would also be able to bid for such work.
News of the contract cancellation for the Jason panel was first reported by Science Magazine after Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, brought the issue up to National Nuclear Security Administration head Lisa Gordon-Haggerty during a Tuesday hearing.
“I found their reports to be fulsome and the members of Jason to be knowledgeable about issues associated with our programs at NNSA,” Gordon-Haggerty said, adding she had asked staff to look into what the Pentagon’s cancellation of the contract would mean for her agency. (NNSA operates under the Department of Energy).
For some, Jason represents a key technical advisory voice from outside the building, with Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists writing that the move is “a startling blow to the system of independent science and technology advice.”
The move appears to be “part of a larger trend by federal agencies to limit independent scientific and technical advice,” Aftergood added.
Mieke Eoyang, a former Hill staffer now with the Third Way think tank, tweeted that “Congress has enough difficulty getting unbiased scientific and technical assessments. Between this and OTA (shuttered after the ’94 GOP takeover), Congress’ ability to understand technology has gotten worse even as technology becomes more ubiquitous & complex.”
Others, however, question how much impact the Jason panel actually had.
“Cutting off government access to sensitive scientific expertise is problematic,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon and National Security Council staffer now with the Center for a New American Security.
“But it’s worth exploring in more detail how the Jason Advisory Panel was actually utilized — who tasked them, was their work useful, was it translatable to policymakers in an approachable way, and is this the best means to access the sort of expertise the panel historically brought forward,” she said, adding: “There are dozens and dozens of advisory bodies across government, of highly variable utility and cost to taxpayers.”
A former intelligence official, speaking on background, agreed that Jason’s importance may be overblown. They said that the one time in over a decade of intelligence work they encountered a Jason study, the findings “didn’t really represent reality.”
“It seems like most people talking about it are from the outside, who view this as a check on government thinking. I don’t know where that comes from,” the former official said. “Every time something happens along these lines with this administration, there’s almost a temptation to view some nefarious intent behind it and connect dots that don’t really exist. I just don’t think that’s what happened here.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.