Initially dubbed the Excalibur, after King Arthur's legendary sword, the X-ray laser is now called the Super Excalibur, indicating a progression of sorts. According to SDI's proponents, an important step in that progression occurred last March 23, during the explosion of an experimental nuclear device at the government's Nevada test site. The test's code name was "Cottage."
Results Leaked to Press
That the Cottage test involved the X-ray laser should have been a tightly guarded secret. But within a short time the press was flooded with leaks from pro-SDI sources proclaiming the experiment a success.
Civilians living near the Nevada test range are routinely warned about the size of impending tests, and on March 23 they were told to expect a blast in the 20-150 kiloton range. Thus, the fact that Cottage involved the X-ray laser is a critical bit of intelligence. It indicates that the explosion needed to pump the X-ray laser was not "small," as leaked reports had claimed. It was at least 20 kilotons, possibly as large as 150 kilotons. The bomb that devastated Hiroshima was 13 kilotons.
Leaks about the Cottage test alarmed those charged with administering SDI. As a result, the FBI in May began a major investigation at Livermore to determine just how it all happened.
One possible leak occurred soon after the Cottage test in a speech Teller gave in April at UC Irvine. It was reported in the Orange County edition of The Times, but not picked up elsewhere.
In an upbeat report on "Star Wars" progress, Teller said the X-ray laser weapons "exist not on paper" but in reality. "Three weeks ago, I couldn't have said that," he said.
May Have Violated Rules
Teller's statement apparently referred to the Cottage test, which had occurred two weeks earlier and, as such, the speech may have violated classification guidelines.
On his way home to Palo Alto, after giving the Irvine speech, Teller encountered another Times reporter at the San Jose airport. When told that the reporter was working on a "Star Wars" story and was on his way to see physicist Sidney D. Drell, deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Teller told the reporter: "Make sure Drell tells you of the latest developments."
Half an hour later, Drell, a cheerful Ed Asner look-alike, greeted the reporter with an impish smile and the words: "I know, you met Edward at the airport. He called me to make sure I knew of the latest test results so that I could tell you."
Drell, a veteran of many defense science projects, who has been briefed extensively on SDI but remains critical, said he did not share Teller's assessment of the results but felt bound by classification restrictions not to say anything further about the subject.
In fact, some critics suggest that proponents of SDI have misused classified data to present a far too promising picture of the work done on the X-ray laser, but that classification rules prevent their responding in kind.
The most disturbing example of that, they claim, was a front-page article in the New York Times a month after Teller's Irvine speech. "What appears to be an important advance in developing an X-ray laser space weapon powered by a nuclear bomb," the paper reported, "has been made by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory."
Article Cites 'Focusing'
The article, by science writer William J. Broad, reported that, according to information supplied by "federal scientists," the work at Livermore "has increased the brightness and thus the power of the X-ray device by focusing its rays."
It is not clear who "federal scientists" refers to, but Broad has good sources at Livermore, where he spent time this last year preparing a forthcoming book on the scientists behind "Star Wars."
The appearance of that story propelled the FBI into its investigation. Lab classification rules had even prevented use of the word "focusing" in the non-classified titles of talks or papers. The identification of the focusing process and a report of its success were more serious.
One White House science adviser said of the New York Times article that "it was a press release. The Livermore guys saw the President's policy moving away from their favorite toy, so they began a counter campaign."
This same adviser also would not comment on the test results because of classification, but he believed that the reports of its success were exaggerated.
"As a piece of basic research in physics, they have done some clever stuff, but to go from there to a weapons system is a tremendous leap." He added that "the public is being whipped around by selective leaks of highly classified information."