Secrecy and the Seafloor; the Navy and NOAA War over Maps of the Ocean Bottom

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Secrecy and the Seafloor

For months now, The Hunt for Red October--a suspense novel, written by an insurance salesman in his free time, about a group of Soviet officers who defect to the United States with a state-of-the-art Soviet submarine -- has been making waves in military and intelligence circles. What has so captivated these readers is the book's accurate technical portrayal of submarines playing hide-and-seek in the Atlantic Ocean -- a sometimes deadly game whose object is to navigate without being detected.

While the fictional Hunt for Red October has been making a splash in the corridors of Washington, a sea of some very real troubles has been swelling in closed-door meetings. The debate concerns the collection of ocean-floor data that could have consequences spilling over into Red October's realm of submarines and national security. At issue is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) EEZ mapping program, a 10-year plan to chart the bathymetry, or sea-bottom topography, of the entire U.S. Exclusive economic Zone, an area extending 200 miles off U.S. shores.

Much to the chagrin of NOAA officials, who expected their maps to be widely available to the public, the Navy and the Defense Mapping Agency have argued that NOAA's detailed EEZ bathymetry data should be classified secret. Just as Red October's navigator was able to guide his submarine with gravity charts, NOAA's extensive and detailed bathymetric maps, the Navy contends, would be extremely useful tools for an enemy submarine wanting to target missiles and to navigate without being detected.

Since the dispute began two years ago, the tide of events has generally favored the Navy. Both a National Academy of Sciences committee and the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, for example, found the national security argument compelling enough to recommend that the dissemination of NOAA data be controlled in some way. And according to John F. Donnelly, who chairs the National Operations Security Advisory Committee--the subcommittee in the National Security Council set up to resolve this interagency conflict -- NOAA Administrator Anthony J. Calio and Oceanographer of the Navy Rear Admiral John R. Seesholtz agreed several months ago that the raw data set would indeed be classified. So now the emphasis of meetings between the agencies involved is on ways for NOAA to produce unclassified versions of their EEZ maps for pubic consumption.

In February, Calio sent a letter to the Navy reportedly offering to abort NOAA's EEZ survey altogether if the issue cannot be resolved, and to return to an unsystematic mapping of small, unrelated areas of the ocean that participants in the issue call "postage stamps." But this offer may not be enough to calm the troubled waters. "If you do enough postage stamps," warns Donnelly, "you have [an EEZ-size] mosaic" that could threaten national security.

for the time being, NOAA is holding in limbo its maps of 12,000 square nautical miles surveyed in 1983 and 1984, preparing to treat them on a classifed basis. The agency, which already handles a small amount of other kinds of classified data, is also expanding its secure facilities. But, says Paul Wolff, assistant administrator of NOAA and head of the National Ocean Service, "we're not prepared to handle large volumes of classified data."

While NOAA will say only that its current official position on classification is "evolving," individual NOAA officials such as Wolff are clearly unhappy with the situation. "Calio and I have compromised with the Navy to a much greater extent than as a good scientist I'm comfortable with," says Wolff. He also thinks that if the agency is required to treat its EEZ bathymetry data as classified, it would "be forced out of the mapping business." One observer who has worked with both the Navy and NOAA agrees: "It's difficult to justify [to Congress] doing that amount of work in theory for the public when it can't be released to the public. …