The Death Lab: A History of the Applied Physics Laboratory

The Death Lab: A History of the Applied Physics Laboratory

I have been to Auschwitz and stood in the gas chambers. Historians have questioned what the Poles living near the death camp knew of its operation.  When raising this question, it should be understood that during the Nazi occupation of Poland, death was the punishment for a person who provided assistance to Jews. 


I have also been to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  in placid Howard County.  Phil Berrigan, a World War II combat veteran, used the term “Death Lab” when discussing the APL, as the institution’s research on weapons of mass destruction gets it ranked among the Top 100 military contractors.  In Fiscal Year 2004, for example, the university was ranked #66 on this list, and more than $300 million went to the APL to do weapons research for the Navy.  Those sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles sent into Iraq in 2003 were tested by APL scientists.  So Phil did not use the term Death Lab frivolously. 


The APL was started in 1942 as part of a government effort to mobilize the military-educational complex.  The laboratory developed a proximity fuse, which allowed bombs to destroy a target without actually striking it. After World War II, it continued to do research for the Empire, including the development of guided missile technology for the Navy. Originally, the APL was located in Silver Spring, but started moving to its present location near Laurel in 1954.  By 1975, the move was completed.  Soon thereafter, Baltimore’s Jonah House started protesting at the Death Lab. 


While the horror at Auschwitz ended more than 60 years ago, the APL’s best and brightest still engage in weapons research designed to maximize the Navy’s killing machines —including the Aegis Warship Systems Engineering.  Some other current programs are National Security Agency Systems Engineering and Architecture (including a strategic study that determined the top locations for large-scale data centers), Space Threat Awareness and Characterization, and First Trident Submarine Demonstration and Shakedown Operation in the Pacific. Few people are aware of the laboratory's work. Christina Breda Antoniades has an article in the March 7th, 2010 issue of Baltimore Magazine, "Best Places To Work 2010." She wrote: "Here are 20 employers large and small where the working stiffs are loving it." Making the list is the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Ms. Antoniades gushes with praise for the Death Lab: "Who they are: A not-for-profit engineering, research, and development organization. What we love: Cool line of work, big-company benefits." She notes that the "APL has 600 projects going on at the moment--- in biomedicine, undersea warfare, homeland security, and other fields." She concludes her piece with this comment for the erstwhile job seeker: "Best of all, since its work is done for the US government, APL manages to maintain relative stability, even through economic downturns, which means there’s never a bad time to put in an application.” 



Try to remember when you last read about the work of the APL in the Baltimore Sun.  You can’t.  For whatever reason, probably a tacit agreement, the Sun refuses to expose the APL’s weapons research. The last story I saw in the Sun was a brief notice in January 2010 that Rich Roca, the current director, will be resigning this year. 



When an article about the APL does appear in the Sun, it will generally focus on non-military research.  For example, on March 12th, 2005, Gwyneth K. Shaw, Sun National Staff, reported that a “Hopkins rocket scientist was chosen to head NASA.” The biographical material about Michael Griffin indicated he was involved in “space work.”  The non-military space work at the APL is negligible. APL scientists make the big bucks to support the US Navy’s mission to control the seas.  Before Griffin worked at the APL, he was at the Defense (sic) Department, where he wasted his talents on Star Wars technology. And he worked for In-Q-Tel, a venture capital organization funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. So this space warrior’s career path included the Pentagon, the CIA, the APL and finally NASA.


According to the APL’s web site, its mission is “Enhancing national security through science and technology” with “an annual funding level of about $980 million.” It is not on the web site, but an estimated 90% of the research is military-related. 


Evidence of this enhanced national security can be seen in the July 3rd, 1988 incident where USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, which resulted in the loss of 290 civilians, including 66 children. The US Navy guided missile cruiser, fitted with the AEGIS combat system designed by the APL, was stationed by the Reagan administration in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. Its mission was to escort and defend Kuwaiti oil tankers registered under the US flag.  The US was supporting both sides in the conflict. Commander William C. Rogers III was relying on Aegis, and the system failed him as he shot down the airliner. If he used his eyes instead of the enclosed Aegis system, he woul dhave seen that the airliner was not a military aircraft. Rogets and other members of the crew were exonerated and given combat-action ribbons. In a final irony, Ronald Reagan wrote this: "The only US interest in the Persian Gulf is peace, and this tragedy reinforces the need to achieve that goal with all possible speed." (Source: 1988-89 PPPUS 920 .)


The millions of dollars which pour into the Hopkins lab for military research are tax dollars better spent on projects that enhance life. But our government has created a permanent war economy, and the military beast must be fed. In response, a number of us have protest- ed the APL’s weapons research over the years. 


In 1998, Dick Ochs released MEMOIRS: Forty Years in the Fray, which he self-printed through his Workers Action Press, Inc. One chapter is entitled Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and it details several of our anti-APL protests.  


With the Jonah House, the Baltimore Emergency Response Network got active in challenging the lab.  I was arrested there on a number of occasions, and did some time in the Howard County Detention Center, as did Dick. 


The protests involved dropping banners off roofs at the APL, and once off the Eisenhower Library roof on the Homewood campus.  We also blocked entrances at the APL, and in a remarkable action, Phil Berrigan, Sister Margaret McKenna, and I managed to get into the director's office and tape the Nuremburg Principles, doused with blood, on his door.


Dick especially liked the action where we spoke out during a graduation ceremony: "The most sensational action, however, was when we disrupted the commencement speech by Lee Iacocca at Homewood. As Chairman (sic) of Chrysler, he facilitated the manufacture of the main battle tank and lots of other military hardware. We wanted to expose the military- industrial- academic complex at Hopkins, including the APL and Chrysler."


A graduate student allowed us to use his third-floor office near the commencement stage. Dick, Phil Berrigan, Greg Boertje, and I barricaded ourselves in the office, hung a banner outside the window and used a bull horn to condemn the APL. Security then broke down half the door and came rushing in.  Joining them was a Young Republican upset with our audacity. And then a student who supported us joined the melee. Of course we were arrested, as was the student who showed his support.  Security, however, forgot to arrest the Young Republican.  


Even though the APL also functioned as a college campus, we were arrested for leafleting, and the Howard County judges were apt to send protesters to jail.  One of them sentenced Phil to jail for five years when he spoke out during his wife Liz McAlister’s trial.  We then protested at the judge’s home and the courthouse, and the ACLU got Phil released and the sentence negated. Because many of us got involved in protesting the wars in Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, and demonstrating at the National Security Agency, we have not been to the Applied Physics Laboratory in several years. If any readers have interest in visiting the Death Lab, let me know. It is easy to condemn the Nazi death camps today, but where is the indignation for the APL's research on mass murder weaponry? As Maryland citizens suffering during this recession/depression, we should not tolerate misguided priorities where money is wasted on funding for research on weapons used to dominate the world. Let us get fired up and take note of what Albert Einstein wrote decades ago: "It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder."


BecaustestingWhitewashing the war machine: APL website in 2005 (top) and after an update in 2010 (bottom)

Max Obuszewski is a Baltimore activist, labeled by the Maryland State Police and other members of Maryland's Joint Terrorism Task Force as a terrorist.