Normally, I would post this article for Wednesday, but I have decided to post it today, as there has been a new development in the Sunspot observatory story.
AURA, the entity that runs the Richard Dunn solar observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, has finally released a statement about the whole affair, and since I blogged Monday about this story, I'd be remiss not to pass along the statement and my thoughts about it.
Needless to say, the statement manages to use many words and to convey more or less nothing, so we're in more or less the same position we were before, except that there are additional details that put yet another twist into the whole affair. Here is AURA's statement "explaining" the whole episode:
On September 6th, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) made the decision to temporarily vacate the Sunspot Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico as a precautionary measure while addressing a security issue. The facility closed down in an orderly fashion and is now re-opening. The residents that vacated their homes will be returning to the site, and all employees will return to work this week.
AURA has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak. During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents. For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location.
The decision to vacate was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat. AURA determined that moving the small number of on-site staff and residents off the mountain was the most prudent and effective action to ensure their safety.
In light of recent developments in the investigation, we have determined there is no risk to staff, and Sunspot Solar Observatory is transitioning back to regular operations as of September 17th. Given the significant amount of publicity the temporary closure has generated, and the consequent expectation of an unusual number of visitors to the site, we are temporarily engaging a security service while the facility returns to a normal working environment. (Emphasis added)
Note the following things:
1) The staff was evacuated due to "a security issue", which is more or less the story we heard at the outset. But then this is added:
2) There is an "on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak," which "criminal activity" is not specified, but whatever it was "posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents." Apparently, the threat was so extreme that everyone had to be evacuated, leaving their cars, their houses, and the entire facility, unattended for several days, to the extent that people could go into the site and videotape it, as I mentioned in my blog last Monday.
At this juncture, the explanation becomes, frankly, a bit bizarre:
3) AURA maintains that their decision to vacate the facility "was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location." Ok, I can buy that, but how then does one explain the final paragraph:
4) AURA states that "in light of recent developments in the investigation", of which developments we told precisely nothing, that there are now no risks to the staff, so they will be returning to normal work this week. But on top of this, we are informed that because of "the consequent expectation of an unusual number of visitors to the site" AURA will be temporarily engaging a security service while things "return to a normal working environment."
Now, all of this makes no sense to me, because for one thing, during the initial evacuation, both local law enforcement and the FBI were apparently involved. If they were involved, then that means it may have been possible for one or the other or both to maintain security on the site, allowing staff to continue to work. To my mind, it would not have been that difficult for the local sherrif and/or New Mexico state police to maintain at least a token presence on the site, if nothing else to keep out the curious (which becomes a factor in a moment). Yet, the threat was apparently so big that even this was not judged to be sufficient for the safety of the staff, hence the evacuation. But then, we are told that because of the expected influx of tourists (presumably), temporary security has now been engaged. What is noteworthy here is that the motivation of protecting the staff has been dropped from the explanation; the reason given for the hire of temporary security is precisely the influx of sight-seers, such as the gentleman and his son who entered the completely evacuated site, to take the video I referenced on Monday. In other words, this sounds more like they are concerned with what people might see or learn, rather than protecting the staff itself.
So AURA's explanation raises as many questions as it "answers." In fact, it answers nothing.
All of this suggests to me that my initial intuitive hypothesis that the observatory may have been used to piggy-back communications. But if so, how did that constitute a threat to the safety of the staff? Did someone on the staff discover this? Or is the piggy-backed communications hypothesis simply not true, and something else is involved? What sort of "criminal activity" may have been going on? What is interesting here is that on the occasion of the evacuation, one national radio talk show host (Glen Beck) broadcast earlier today that the staff of the facility had called local law enforcement, asking them to come to the facility when the FBI suddenly showed up. If true, then that would seem to indicate that some of the staff felt as threatened by the presence of the FBI, as from whatever other threat may have existed there. The Kansas City Star posted this story:
Note the statements from AURA here dovetail with that of AURA itself. There's this:
According to the newspaper, Benny House, the sheriff of Otero County, said the FBI was involved in what he described as an elaborate shutdown process and said “the FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on.”
“There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers, but nobody would tell us anything,” House told the Daily News.
He told the Albuquerque Journal his department got a call from “folks that work at the laboratory” who asked “if we could send a deputy to stand by while they were evacuating. All the employees were packing up and leaving.”...
“However, our desire to provide additional information had to be balanced against the risk that, if spread at the time, the news would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement investigation. That was a risk we could not take,” said the statement.