Monday, November 30, 2009

Or Else What?

In the wake of a demand from the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop work on its recently-revealed uranium enrichment plant, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to begin construction on ten more nuclear enrichment facilities. And while Iran may not have the capability or will to carry out either threat, the threats in and of themselves highlight the problem the international community faces in dealing with a regime like Iran: How does the international community deal with such intransigence? Iran is clearly in violation of international law as well as of international opinion and sentiment. However, all of the promised inducements, compromises, and incentives, including the recent offer to enrich Iran's uranium outside of Iran to ensure it could not be used for a weapon, have been rejected. Which leaves the international community, the UN, and the US back where it has been for the past several years: Relying on the old mantra of Comply with international law or else.

Or else what?

It's the "what" that is so important here, and that is do difficult for the international community to define. The UN has demonstrated time and time again that it can, occasionally, muster the will to impose sanctions on the most flagrant violators of international law. But, rarely does it know what to do when sanctions fail to yield results.

This is the problem today, just as it was the problem in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. What is the "what"? What will happen to a state that refuses to comply? Even when the Security Council members can overcome their own narrowly-defined national interests to reach a consensus, that's usually as far as they will go. So while Russia and China have been willing to rebuke Iran for its violations of Iran's obligations under the NPT, neither has been willing to discuss, let alone implement, any punishments intended to force compliance. President Obama has not shown a willingness to meld negotiations with punishment, leaving them as separate outcomes, making it possible for the avoidance of even the consideration serious punishment so long as negotiations are proceeding. So when Iran is challenged with a "comply or else" threat, the "or else" is left undefined. Iran doesn't know what will happen, nor does the US, the UN or anyone else.

If the US and the international community are serious in warning that they are "not going to just wait indefinitely and allow for the development of a nuclear weapon [and] the breach of international treaties" (please note that I do not necessarily agree with this position) then the negotiations and the threats need to be combined. The US needs to work to build a consensus with its international partners on what actions are to be demanded of Iran and what consequences will follow if Iran does not comply.

The stakes get higher in Iran day by day as Iran refuses to cooperate with the IAEA. The US needs to act quickly; once Iran develops a nuclear weapon, the whole equation changes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

More Thoughts on the Trial of KSM

Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the Obama administration's decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in New York City. While Holder did admit that "we are at war" with al Qaeda, the civilian court system was the best venue to try KSM: “We need not cower in the face of this enemy. Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is ready, our resolve is firm, and our people are ready.”

But there are still several problems with this decision that bother me, and make me wonder why the Obama administration made this decision.

First, in response to stated worries by the senators (Holder was testifying about the decision before the Senate Judiciary Committee) about the chance that KSM would not be found guilty, Holder responded “Failure is not an option.” Now, it's likely that Holder was speaking rhetorically here and that he didn't actually mean that it is impossible for KSM to get off on the charges. But the remark certainly implies that the civilian trial has been predetermined, or at least will be little more than a show trial. If the decision to shift trial venues was primarily intended to erase the bad taste remaining from the Bush administration's efforts to evade the law and the taint of Guantanamo, anything that calls into question the fairness of the civil trial KSM is about to undergo undermines that intent. When the Attorney General says failure is not an option, it certainly raises questions as to whether KSM can, in fact, receive a fair trial. Is it possible to find American citizens, and more specifically New Yorkers, who won't have prejudged the case and KSM's guilt? Furthermore, the New York Times reports that "other Justice Department officials have said that even if Mr. Mohammed is acquitted, the Obama administration will keep him locked up forever as a 'combatant' under the laws of war." How will that look? How will the international community respond if KSM is acquitted under our domestic laws and then kept indefinitely in military custody? Won't that simply reinforce the perception of injustice?

Second, in an excellent piece over at Slate, David Feige warns that, far from upholding the American principal of law and order, this trial may very well undermine our legal system by "generate a tragic flood of bad law, rendering the defense team's valiant service not merely unsuccessful but actually hostile to the interests of all their other clients." According to Feige, because "No jury on this continent is going to acquit their client, the government is certain to insist on the death penalty, and KSM will almost certainly try to put the government on trial," KSM's defense lawyers will be forced to rely on two strategies: 1) An argument that persuasive evidence of torture should result in the suppression of a great deal of evidence; and 2) to use the discovery process to uncover facts that embarrass or discomfit the government. Feige points out how this strategy forced the US government to back away from its desired three life sentences for "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh and settle for 20 years in prison in exchange for Lindh agreeing to a gag order and dropping his claims of torture and mistreatment. This time, according to Feige:

They'll allege a violation of KSM's right to a speedy trial, claiming that the years he spent in CIA detention and Gitmo violated this constitutional right. They'll seek suppression of KSM's statements, arguing (persuasively) that the torture he endured—sleep deprivation, noise, cold, physical abuse, and, of course, 183 water-boarding sessions—make his statements involuntary. They will insist that everything stemming from those statements must be suppressed, under the Fourth Amendment, as the fruit of the wildly poisonous tree. They will demand the names of operatives and interrogators, using KSM's right to confront the witnesses against him to box the government into revealing things it would prefer to keep secret—the identities of confidential informants, the locations of secret safe houses, the names of other inmates and detainees who provided information about him, and a thousand other clever things that should make the government squirm. The defense will attack the CIA, FBI, and NSA, demanding information about wiretapping and signal intelligence and sources and methods. They'll move to dismiss the case because there is simply no venue in the United States in which KSM can get a fair trial.


The judicial refusal to consider KSM's years of quasi-legal military detention as a violation of his right to a speedy trial will erode that already crippled constitutional concept. The denial of the venue motion will raise the bar even higher for defendants looking to escape from damning pretrial publicity. Ever deferential to the trial court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will affirm dozens of decisions that redact and restrict the disclosure of secret documents, prompting the government to be ever more expansive in invoking claims of national security and emboldening other judges to withhold critical evidence from future defendants. Finally, the twisted logic required to disentangle KSM's initial torture from his subsequent "clean team" statements will provide a blueprint for the government, giving them the prize they've been after all this time—a legal way both to torture and to prosecute.
By prosecuting KSM in civilian courts, the rule of law itself may very well be damaged. Take the question of torture. Even if a court is willing to determine that waterboarding is not torture but a legitimate coercive interrogation technique, the government's own memoranda make it clear that KSM was waterboarded in violation of the rules established to ensure that the use of waterboarding would not constitute torture. According to the legal opinion written by Steven Bradbury of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice (p.15):

The waterboard may be authorized for, at most, one 30 day period, during which the technique can actually applied on no more than five days...Further, there can be no more than two sessions in any 24-hour period. Each session--the time during which the detainee is strapped to the waterboard--lasts no more than two hours. There may be at most six applications of water lasting 10 seconds or longer during any session, and water may be applied for a total of no more than 12 minutes during any 24-hour period.
But, on p. 37, we are informed that the waterboard was used "183 times during March 2003 in the interrogation of KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed)." As I wrote on April 20, if you "do the math on the instructions from p. 15, the rules limit the use of the waterboard to no more than 60 times per month (five days per month, two sessions per day, six applications of water during each session; 5x2x6=60). And yet, KSM was waterboarded 183 times." There is seemingly no question that the government broke its own rules on the waterboard with KSM and that breaking those rules almost certainly means that KSM was tortured, even if the use of the waterboard, in and of itself, does not equate to torture. What will a trial judge and a jury do with this information? What happens when KSM's defense attorneys claim that everything KSM admitted was tainted by the abusive and wildly excessive torture he suffered? As Feige points out, the evidence could be dismissed, raising the likelihood that KSM could be acquitted. Or, the claim will be ignored or, if the government has enough evidence to convict KSM even if all torture-tainted evidence is throw out, rendered irrelevant. Either way, this has the potential to create extremely dangerous precedents and procedures within the US legal system.

To me, this whole thing seems like a no-win situation. If KSM is convicted, it won't put to rest any doubts about the fairness of the American legal system and its application in the war on terror. And if by some unforeseeable development he's acquitted, it's hard to imagine a bigger transgression against justice.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed

Last week, the Obama administration annouced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, along with four other suspected members of al Qaeda will be transferred from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to New York City to face trial in civilian court. Interestingly, however, Obama has not decided to use the civilian courts for all of the Guantanamo detainees; five more face trial by military commission, largely because their crimes were more directly pursuant to military operations:

Holder also announced that five other detainees held at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be sent to military commissions for trial. They were identified as Omar Khadr, Mohammed Kamin, Ibrahim al Qosi, Noor Uthman Muhammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Al-Nashiri is an accused mastermind of the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole; Khadr is a Canadian charged with the 2002 murder of a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan. Khadr was 15 years old when he was captured in July 2002.

Additionally, several more will not be tried at all; rather, they will continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

This decision has, of course, outraged many who believe that the decision to try KSM in civilian court is dangerous. John Yoo, the architect of many of the most controversial Bush-era legal decisions, argues in the Wall Street Journal:

Trying KSM in civilian court will be an intelligence bonanza for al Qaeda and the hostile nations that will view the U.S. intelligence methods and sources that such a trial will reveal. The proceedings will tie up judges for years on issues best left to the president and Congress.

Now, however, KSM and his co-defendants will enjoy the benefits and rights that the Constitution accords to citizens and resident aliens—including the right to demand that the government produce in open court all of the information that it has on them, and how it got it.

Prosecutors will be forced to reveal U.S. intelligence on KSM, the methods and sources for acquiring its information, and his relationships to fellow al Qaeda operatives. The information will enable al Qaeda to drop plans and personnel whose cover is blown. It will enable it to detect our means of intelligence-gathering, and to push forward into areas we know nothing about.

This is not hypothetical, as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has explained. During the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (aka the "blind Sheikh"), standard criminal trial rules required the government to turn over to the defendants a list of 200 possible co-conspirators.

In essence, this list was a sketch of American intelligence on al Qaeda. According to Mr. McCarthy, who tried the case, it was delivered to bin Laden in Sudan on a silver platter within days of its production as a court exhibit.

Bin Laden, who was on the list, could immediately see who was compromised. He also could start figuring out how American intelligence had learned its information and anticipate what our future moves were likely to be.

Even more harmful to our national security will be the effect a civilian trial of KSM will have on the future conduct of intelligence officers and military personnel. Will they have to read al Qaeda terrorists their Miranda rights? Will they have to secure the "crime scene" under battlefield conditions? Will they have to take statements from nearby "witnesses"? Will they have to gather evidence and secure its chain of custody for transport all the way back to New York? All of this while intelligence officers and soldiers operate in a war zone, trying to stay alive, and working to complete their mission and get out without casualties.


For a preview of the KSM trial, look at what happened in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker who was arrested in the U.S. just before 9/11. His trial never made it to a jury. Moussaoui's lawyers tied the court up in knots.

All they had to do was demand that the government hand over all its intelligence on him. The case became a four-year circus, giving Moussaoui a platform to air his anti-American tirades. The only reason the trial ended was because, at the last minute, Moussaoui decided to plead guilty. That plea relieved the government of the choice between allowing a fishing expedition into its intelligence files or dismissing the charges.

In response to Yoo and others who have decried Obama's decision, Tommy Crocker of the University of South Carolina's Law School, guest-blogging over Opinio Juris, writes:

Mr. Yoo [does not make] this clear, but [he] seems to rely on a judgment about the nature of the acts perpetrated by terrorists. Are some acts so heinous that by their very nature, they morally “deserve” to be punished by less robust rights-protecting procedures? I can see that for pragmatic purposes, different criminal acts may lead to differing needs to seek punishment in ad hoc tribunals or military commissions which may afford alternative procedures. But to my knowledge special tribunals do not establish differing degrees of rights-protections based on moral judgments about the nature of the underlying criminal acts over which they sit in judgment. Ordinarily, questions of moral desert occur both before and after a trial—in judgments about which acts to criminalize and how severe to punish them—not in decisions about trial procedure itself, nor in decisions about who receives basic human rights protections. Thus, the underlying view is not only that we are engaged in a “new kind of war” facing a new kind of enemy whose very warlike actions are illegal, but those actions are of a kind morally deserving of a lesser legal process.

I think this view mistaken. I also see no reason to think that precluding this type of moral judgment harms national security—quite the opposite. Procedural protections are not, nor should they be, grounded in prior judgments of moral desert. To go down this path is to go down the path of varying human rights protections based on moral judgments about who deserves them. On this score, we make no further distinctions than to say that if anyone deserves them, we all do.

Not surprisingly, I think both of these guys are wrong. Crocker's argument seems a bit bizarre to me. I don't see why or how a moral judgment needs to be part of the equation here. Yoo isn't arguing that members of al Qaeda are inhuman and therefore undeserving of rights and due process; rather, he's arguing that the US is involved in a war with al Qaeda and that different legal codes apply in time of war. People who commit war crimes are not tried in civilian courts; they are tried by military commissions with different legal rights than civilians and under the laws of war which are different than civilian laws. One can argue about whether terrorism of the kind practiced by al Qaeda should be dealt with in a military framework, but Crocker seems to dismiss this argument entirely.

The nature of al Qaeda and its missions do, in my opinion, lend themselves to the military model rather than a civilian legalistic frame. The inter- and trans-national nature of the organization, its efforts to kill large numbers of non-combatants, its frequent targeting of military assets and the difficulties posed by the standard law enforcement models (e.g. its emphasis on procedural justice and ex post, rather than ex ante, actions) are not well suited for a civilian/traditional law enforcement response. That's not to say that law enforcement plays no role, or that the military option is always the proper one. But the US is clearly involved in military operations against al Qaeda and mass terrorism of the kind perpetrated by al Qaeda is much closer to a war crime than it is to murder.

That said, I think Yoo's argument is wrong as well. Well, not so much wrong as problematic. The problem is the poor decisions the Bush administration made in the early days of the war on terror regarding the detainees; decisions in which Yoo was involved as he makes abundantly clear in his memoir War By Other Means: An Insider's Accout of the War on Terror.

As suspected members of al Qaeda began to trickle into Guantanamo Bay (along with hundreds of innocent people handed over to US forces by opportunistic Afghani militants seeking reward money) the Bush administration needed to decide what laws would apply to these people. The choices were civilian law or military law. The Bush administration chose neither.

The selection of Guantanamo Bay as the detention facility was explicitly intended to place the detainees beyond the reach of US civilian courts and laws. Fine. But no one is outside of all law. If individuals seized by US military forces are not to be granted the rights and protections of US civilian law then they must be granted the rights and protections of the laws of war, as embodied in the Geneva Conventions. But the Bush administration sought to deny KSM and his colleagues even these rights.

Following the Geneva Conventions would not have guaranteed KSM protections as a prisoner of war. The Geneva Conventions make it clear that al Qaeda was fighting in violations of the laws of war, and thus not due the protection of POW status and eligible for trial for their actions. All that was needed was an Article 5 hearing to determine status; not guilt, just status. Each detainee needed to be given the opportunity to claim before a competent panel that he was not a member of al Qaeda or that he was fighting in accordance with the laws of war. Once the determination was made that the detainee was a member of al Qaeda and was violating the laws of war, the detainee could be denied POW status and subject to trial by a military commission (Common Article 3 of the Conventions protects the rights of non-POWs by guaranteeing them fair trials).

However, Yoo and the Bush administration sought to have it both ways. They did not want US law to apply, nor did they want the Geneva Conventions to apply. And this kicked off a series of court cases between detainees challenging their status and the administration. If the administration had simply granted KSM and his fellow al Qaeda suspects an Article 5 hearing to determine their status as illegal combatants under the laws of war, we most likely wouldn't be in the mess we're in today. The US would have then been perfectly within its rights under the laws of war to either hold the detainees indefinitely until the end of hostilities or to try them under military commissions. Of course, the argument could still be made that the laws of war were not the appropriate laws to be used. But as it seems that part of Obama's decision to move KSM into the civilian judicial system is to erase the doubts and questions raised by the Bush administration's attempts to escape the law perhaps Obama would have been happy to try KSM under military law as he is doing with Omar Khadr, Mohammed Kamin, Ibrahim al Qosi, Noor Uthman Muhammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. In fact, the whole thing might be over by now, as KSM was prepared to plead guilty to a military tribunal late last year.

I certainly understand Obama's desire to make amends for the legal mistakes of the Bush administration, but moving KSM to New York is a risky move. Despite Obama's predictions that KSM will be found guilty and put to death, there most certainly is a risk that KSM will not be given the death penalty (as occurred in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, when one juror balked at handing down a death sentence) or that he won't be found guilty at all for a number of procedural reasons. And Yoo's warnings about the threats to intelligence and counter-terror operations should not be taken lightly either. Military commissions can be both fair and efficient; in fact, in this case I'd assume that KSM would get a more fair trial in a military tribunal than before a panel of American citizens. But the die has been cast; let's hope KSM gets what is coming to him.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Abbas and Israel

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that he does not plan to run for re-election in the upcoming Palestinian elections in January. According to the Associated Press, "Abbas says the stalemate in peace negotiations with Israel prompted his decision not to run again. He charged the U.S. with backtracking on its Mideast policy and refusing to press Israel to freeze construction in its West Bank settlements." Today, at a ceremony honoring former PLO Chairman and the first head of the Palestinian Authority Yasir Arafat, Abbas called on Hamas to honor the Egyptian-broked reconciliation deal designed to ease tensions between the Islamic organization based in Gaza and the West Bank-center, and more moderate, PA.

Abbas's resignation has raised serious concerns over the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (if one can be said to still exist) as well as the future of any moderate Palestinian political faction willing to talk and negotiate with Israel. If the PA does, indeed, collapse, Hamas will certainly benefit the most from being able to point the fruitlessness and foolishness of trusting in talks with Israel and the US to bring about an independent Palestinian homeland.

The problem, as Abbas apparently sees it, is Israel's unwillingness to negotiate in good faith towards a Palestinian state along the lines set out by the US and its international partners (the EU, the UN, and Russia), coupled with the American refusal to pressure Israel to make any real progress (exemplified by President Obama's caving in on the settlement freeze issue). Between the ridiculous Israeli electoral system that inevitably produces weak governments beholden to small extreme parties and the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has certainly seemed to lose interest in the peace process, and has repeatedly rebuffed requests to make any kind of commitment to an eventual independent Palestinian state (Netanyahu claims he favors "negotiations without preconditions" which forbids him from discussing any eventual end-game) or offer any kind of serious freeze on the building and expansion of West Bank settlements. The latter is perhaps the most important issue to the PA and Abbas, as the Palestinians rightly fear that continued and unchecked settlement expansion threatens to create a fait accompli on the ground that will determine the boundaries of any Palestinian-governed lands, sovereign or not, outside of the negotiated process. Palestinians are also worried that Netanhayu is, in essence, trying to bribe the West Bankers, hoping that allowing economic development in the occupied territory will quiet cries for independence.

Certainly, economic conditions have improved recently in the West Bank, and concurrently (although not necessarily causally) the West Bank has for the last years been relatively quiet. It's certainly possible that this is indeed Netanyahu's strategy; it's also possible that this is simply the result of Israel's domestic political system that is more likely to produce paralysis than results. It's also entirely possible that Abbas's threat of retirement is a political ploy, intended to coax more concessions from an Israel scared of an Abbas-less Palestinian political apparatus.

Either way, however, it's a bad strategy for Israel to play such a dangerous game of chicken. Israel has no choice, ultimately, but to move towards an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank (most likely in Gaza too, but that's a different story). Simple demographics about the growth rate of the Palestinians in the West Bank make it inevitable that Israel will become, very soon, an apartheid-type regime, with a minority population of Israelis governing and oppressing a majority population of Palestinians (I know the analogy isn't perfect as the West Bank is an occupied territory and not part of Israel proper, but the problem is basically the same). Furthermore, the longer the Palestinians feel the peace process isn't moving forward, the weaker the moderate PA-based wing will become, and the stronger and better Hamas looks as a representative of the Palestinians. Armed struggle will begin to look a more attractive option; it's certainly not out of the question that the West Bank could initiate a third intifada, although the security wall along the Green Wall and the removal of many of the deepest settlements will certainly blunt the impact of any such uprising.

Israel also suffers on the international stage for its refusal to make any meaningful progress. While Israel often claims, with much merit, that the international community is massively biased against it, the unjust occupation and continued settlement of the West Bank does nothing to help Israel in the international court of opinion. And Israel does, despite its claims to the contrary, need the international community. Just last week, Israel captured a ship it claimed was carrying from Iran to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon a supply of weapons large enough for a month's worth of military operations. In a speech discussing the seizure, Netanyahu argued that "[the smuggling] is a war crime that the U.N. Security Council should have a special meeting over. A major component of this shipment were rockets whose only goal was to hit civilians and kill as many civilians as possible — women, children, old people." That may be true -- in fact, it most likely is true -- but given Israel's repeated refusal to comply with international demands to freeze settlement expansion and enter into serious negotiations about the future of a Palestinian state, not to mention Israel's refusal to investigate allegations of war crimes in January's invasion of Gaza (all states, especially democratic ones, have an obligation to fight their battles in a moral and legal manner; Israel should, as it has in the past, willingly investigate the behavior of its troops and commanders, not because the UN demands it, but because liberal democracies hold themselves to higher standards), the international community isn't likely to spend much time looking into Israel's claims.

Israel's national interest demands that it divest itself from the occupation of the Palestinians. It no longer needs the West Bank as a defensive buffer against Jordan; nor, given the security fence being built and its overwhelming military dominance, does it have much to fear about a terrorist or military threat from the West Bank itself. But by seriously committing itself to negotiations, including an meaningful ex ante freeze on settlement building and expansion, Israel can gain several things: It can begin to avert the impending racist crisis; it can begin to capitalize on the fears of its Arab neighbors over Iran; it can begin to transform international public opinion; and it can protect its relationship with the United States.

Even if Abbas's threat is just a negotiating ploy, Israel cannot allow the PA to collapse. And preventing that collapse may require that Israel stop dithering, and start taking seriously the inevitable.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Decision on Afghanistan?

CBS News is reporting that President Obama has decided to provide General Stanley McChrystal with most, if not all, of the 40,000 troops the general requested to wage a counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign in Afghanistan against the forces of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

According to the report:

The buildup would be expected to last about four years, until McChrystal completes his plan for doubling the size of the Afghan army and police force.

With 68,000 Americans already there, the Afghan surge would mean there would be 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of the president's first term.
However, a header on the article reads as follows:

Editor's note, 9:57 p.m. EDT: The White House has issued the following response to this story, attributed to White House National Security Advisor James Jones:

"Reports that President Obama has made a decision about Afghanistan are absolutely false. He has not received final options for his consideration, he has not reviewed those options with his national security team, and he has not made any decisions about resources. Any reports to the contrary are completely untrue and come from uninformed sources."
As I've argued several times, I believe this is the right move. Afghanistan is too important for US strategy and especially for Pakistan to ignore the resurgence of the Taliban. More on this as it develops.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Space Elevator Success?

One more on this...

Success in 'space elevator' competition

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – A robot powered by a ground-based laser beam climbed a long cable dangling from a helicopter on Wednesday to qualify for prize money in a $2 million competition to test the potential reality of the science fiction concept of space elevators.

The highly technical contest brought teams from Missouri, Alaska and Seattle to Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, most familiar to the public as a space shuttle landing site.

The contest requires their machines to climb 2,953 feet (nearly 1 kilometer) up a cable slung beneath a helicopter hovering nearly a mile high.

LaserMotive's vehicle zipped up to the top in just over four minutes and immediately repeated the feat, qualifying for at least a $900,000 second-place prize.

The device, a square of photo voltaic panels about 2 feet by 2 feet and topped by a motor structure and thin triangle frame, had failed to respond to the laser three times before it was lowered, inspected and then hoisted back up by the helicopter for the successful tries.

Earlier out on the lakebed, team member Nick Burrows had pointed out how it grips the cable with modified skateboard wheels and the laser is aimed with an X Box game controller.

It had never climbed higher than 80 feet previously, he said.

Update on the Space Elevator

Laser-powered elevator to space hits some snags

  • By JOHN ANTCZAK, Associated Press Writer - Wed Nov 4, 2009 4:23PM EST

A laser-powered robot failed to complete its climb up a long cable dangling from a helicopter Wednesday in a $2 million competition to test the potential reality of the science fiction concept of space elevators.

The highly technical contest brought teams from Missouri, Alaska and Seattle to Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, most familiar to the public as a space shuttle landing site.

The contest requires their machines to climb 2,953 feet (nearly 1 kilometer) up a cable slung beneath a helicopter hovering nearly a mile high.

The Kansas City, Mo., Space Pirates team was first off the ground after hours of testing the cable system, refueling the helicopter and waiting to fire up the laser so it doesn't interfere with satellites.

Its climber, a flat machine several feet square, initially failed to respond to laser power and was lowered, examined and sent back up. On the second try it began moving and then stopped.

On the third try it began moving steadily, but then trouble developed as the laser could not stay locked on the machine. It failed to climb all the way up before the laser had to be shut off to protect satellites, said Ted Semons of the sponsoring Spaceward Foundation. The team was expected to try again Friday.

Funded by a NASA program to explore bold technology, the contest is intended to encourage development of a theory that originated in the 1960s and was popularized by Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel "The Fountains of Paradise."

Space elevators are envisioned as a way to reach space without the risk and expense of rockets.

Instead, electrically powered vehicles would run up and down a cable anchored to a ground structure and extending thousands of miles up to a mass in geosynchronous orbit — the kind of orbit communications satellites are placed in to stay over a fixed spot on the Earth.

Electricity would be supplied through a concept known as "power beaming," ground-based lasers pointing up to photo voltaic cells on the bottom of the climbing vehicle — something like an upside-down solar power system.

The space elevator competition has not produced a winner in its previous three years, but has become increasingly difficult.

Semons said the competing machines all use wheels to grip the cable. Two use modified inline-skate wheels and one uses steel wheels.

The vehicles must climb at an average speed of 16.4 feet (5 meters) per second, or about 11 miles (18 kilometers) per hour, to qualify for the top prize. A lesser prize is available for vehicles that climb at 2 meters per second.

The rules allow one team to collect all $2 million or for sums to be shared among all three teams depending on their achievements.

The other teams scheduled to compete later Wednesday were the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team, known as USST, and LaserMotive of Seattle.

The teams were scheduled to make attempts Wednesday and Thursday. Additional attempts were possible Friday, Semons said.

Space Elevators?

This may not have anything to do with international security or politics, but it's too cool not to post!

Elevator to space? They're really trying


Rocketing into space? Some think an elevator might be the way to go.

That's the future goal of this week's $2 million Space Elevator Games in the Mojave Desert.

In a major test of the concept, robotic machines powered by laser beams will try to climb a cable suspended from a helicopter hovering more than a half-mile (one kilometer) high.

Three teams have qualified to participate in the event on the dry lakebed near NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards. Attempts were expected from early Wednesday through Thursday.

Funded by a space agency program to explore bold technology, the contest is a step toward bringing the idea of a space elevator out of the realm of science fiction and into reality.

Theorized in the 1960s and then popularized by Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel "The Fountains of Paradise," space elevators are envisioned as a way to gain access to space without the risk and expense of rockets.

Instead, electrically powered vehicles would run up and down a cable anchored to a ground structure and extending thousands of miles up to a mass in geosynchronous orbit — the kind of orbit communications satellites are placed in to stay over a fixed spot on the Earth.

Electricity would be supplied through a concept known as "power beaming," ground-based lasers pointing up to photo voltaic cells on the bottom of the climbing vehicle — something like an upside-down solar power system.

The space elevator competition has not produced a winner in its previous three years, but has become increasingly difficult.

The vehicles must climb a cable six-tenths of a mile into the sky and move at an average speed of 16.4 feet (five meters) per second.

The competition is sponsored by the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation with support from NASA's Centennial Challenges program.