Review: The Jasons–The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite

4 Star, Information Technology, Intelligence (Government/Secret), Military & Pentagon Power

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Good effort, interesting, but must less substance than expected,

October 9, 2006
Ann Finkbeiner
I do not regret buying or reading this book, but I am greatly disappointed by both the lack of detail and the lack of visualization that I was hoping for.

The JASONS (according to the author, this stands for the months from July through November when individual stars did most of their consulting) were a spin-off from the Manhattan Project. There were two branches: the JASONS were hired by government sparked by the Sputnik scare and funded by the Advanced Projects Research Agency of DoD (the same one that funded the Internet); and those that feared nuclear power founded the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) which exists to this day to expose unnecessary secrecy.

The original group met in 1958, 22 scientists meeting for 2 weeks at the National Defense University. On page 33, early on, the author denotes the importance of this group with the phrase “distinterested advice comes best from independent scientists.”

There was a major financial incentive: the summer consulting could double their 9-month academic salaries.

JASON became official on 1 January 1960, at first housed under the Institute of Defense Analysis (IDA), then under the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and finally under MITRE, all in theory Federally Funded Research & Development Centers, but in the case of MITRE, often in real competition with legitimate businesses.

Missile defense is not new to the Bush-Cheney regime. It has been a mainstay of ARPA and the JASONS going back to Sputnik days, and generally consumed 50% of ARPA’s budget (elsewhere we have speculated on the gains for mankind of having an ARPA for peace).

Early on the JASONS are described as “slightly flakey and almost bizarre,” but supremely intelligent with the arrogance to match it. Their task was partly to shoot down stupid ideas with high-ranking supporters, and partly to think out of the box on really touch problems, almost always, but not always, at a classified level.

DARPA fired the JASONS in 2000 when they refused to take on some of the lame scientists that DARPA recommended, but the happy result was their promotion to work directly for DARPA’s boss, the Director of Defense Research & Development.

The author discusses throughout the book the conflict between the scientific imperative to discuss hypotheses and findings opening, and the demands for secrecy imposed on these brilliant minds.

Among the projects credited to the JASONS, with all too little detail, are missile defense, directed energy weapons, extremely low frequency (ELF) communications to reach submerged submarines, nuclear event detection, sensors and night vision for Viet-Nam.

The JASONS could not handle the sociology of insurgency. I find this fascinating. Technocrats simply cannot “compute” real world anger.

The Pentagon Papers outed the JASONS. Over time they added the Navy, Department of Energy, and the Intelligence Community as clients, but the also changed in fundamental ways, moving from an elite of physicists to a melange of all disciplines, including many members without clearances.

The JASONS did well with adaptive optics and STAR WARS.

Putting down the book I thought to myself:

1) The Defense Science Board (DSB) is probably the public adaptation of the JASON concept, and does very very good work that is also capable of being shared with the public on most occasions (see for instance, their superb reports on “Strategic Communication” and on “Transition to and from Hostilities”).

2) Is this all there is? I give the author good marks for investigation and diplomacy and elicitation, but very candidly, I could have done better with simple citation analysis from the Science Citation Index, and some dramatic visualizations of how the JASONs did or did not stand out from the crowd. It is possible today to detect secret programs as they black out, and overall I felt that what this book provided was one person’s good efforts, without ANY of the modern tools of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).

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