Outward: Chapter 24: Hearing

Joseph Geemler folded his hands in front of him as he sat alone at the table in front of the empty seats of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was careful not to let his posture or expression betray his annoyance at having been dragged across the country to defend his crowning achievement, nor his impatience at the committee’s obviously deliberate choice to make him wait for them. Even though the audience seating area of the hearing room was sparsely populated, the C-SPAN camera was always rolling. Besides, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t had to deal with self-important government officials before. It was one of the occupational hazards of running one of the nation’s premiere defense contractors, after all.

Finally, about ten minutes after the scheduled start time — Geemler knew better than to check the clock to see — he stood up as the committee members filed in and took their seats. The rest of the room sat down, and the hearing finally began.

“I would like to motion,” Sen. Yanau said, “to ask Mr. Geemler if he would care to be sworn in before we get started.”

“As is my personal policy,” Geemler replied, leaning towards the microphone in front of him, “I respectfully decline to testify under oath when addressing the concerns of Congress as long as Congress declines to speak under oath when addressing the concerns of the American people.”

“Very well,” Sen. Jensen, the Chairman of the committee, said. “The purpose of this informal hearing is to give Mr. Geemler the opportunity to address some of the concerns made known to this committee regarding a certain weapon system currently managed by his company, Forney Junip. Mr. Geemler, would you care to offer any introductory remarks?”

“Thank you, Senator,” Geemler replied, “but I believe the public statements I have made so far regarding the Multifrequency Orbital Gigawatt Ordnance, more commonly known as MOJO, system adequately serve as my introductory remarks, and I would prefer not to bore the committee by repeating them here. However, I would of course be pleased to answer any specific questions the committee may have.”

“Mr. Geemler,” said Sen. Iopea, “many of my constituents in the great state of Vermont have voiced their concerns about having a private company essentially lease out the use of a U.S. military weapons system to the Russian and Chinese governments. Many of them are curious why their tax dollars are being used to provide access to cutting-edge weapons technology to what are, shall we say, not our closest allies.”

Talking point fourteen. “Madame Senator, I am afraid that your constituents have fallen victim to some common misunderstandings of the MOJO system. First, while it is true that military contracts were a primary source of funding for the system’s initial development, full ownership of the system remains with Forney Junip, so MOJO is not in fact a U.S. military weapons system. All parties, public or private, foreign or domestic, provide payment for their use of the system, and all ongoing operational costs are supported by those payments. No taxpayer money is going into its operation, save for the payments made by our #1 customer, the U.S. Department of Defense, for their use of the system to support ongoing operations.”

“But Mr. Geemler,” Sen. Yanau interjected, “the very fact that the Russians and Chinese have access to an orbital weapon system is deeply distressing from a proliferation standpoint. In my twelve years in the Senate representing the great state of Washington, I have worked to oppose the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.” Sen. Yanau proceeded to give a five-minute rehearsed summary of his counterproliferation efforts in the Senate, a speech which Geemler recognized as one of the Senator’s stump speeches for his current reelection campaign. “It worries me,” the Senator continued after concluding his speech, “that orbital weapons technology is shaping up to be the next proliferation concern, especially given its swifter adoption than nuclear technology.”

Talking point seven. “Mr. Senator, I share you concerns about nuclear proliferation, and I hope you will agree with me that MOJO is not the cause of but the solution to proliferation concerns. It is my fervent hope that MOJO will serve as a replacement for the nuclear arsenals of nation states. When fully realized, MOJO will be capable of providing destructive force comparable to most nuclear weapons, but limited to a very narrow blast area and with absolutely none of the fallout or radiological effects. The military is already using MOJO to great effect as an alternative to nuclear bunker-busters, and MOJO is also serving civil uses such as mountaintop removal for coal mining operations — which no doubt Sen. Greenfield, from the great state of West Virginia, can attest to. Civil uses for which nuclear detonations are simply off the table. Furthermore, there is zero risk of terrorists or rogue states getting their hands on orbital weapon technology, thanks to the physical protection of the hard vacuum of space. Loose orbital weapon satellites simply don’t exist, unlike the very real risk of loose nukes.”

“Mr. Chairman,” Sen. Yanau said, “at this time I request we move to closed session.”

“I second the motion,” Sen. Nichols added.

Sen. Jensen brought the motion to a vote, and the yeas carried it. Proceedings halted as the audience and camera crew were escorted out of the hearing room. Geemler took the opportunity to avail himself of the pitcher of water. He had an inkling of where Sen. Yanau was heading.

“Mr. Geemler,” Sen. Yanau continued once the hearing resumed, “I am afraid I do not share your lack of concern about proliferation of orbital weapon technology. Your statements just now were limited solely to bad actors physically gaining access to such weapons, which I agree is unlikely at best. However, I have much stronger doubts about their inability to simply use the weapons system that your company has constructed.”

Geemler thought so. He watched as Sen. Yanau began passing a stack of papers down the row of committee seats.

“According to these documents which I was able to obtain from a reliable source,” Sen. Yanau continued, “two weeks ago there were two unexpected firings of the MOJO system by an unknown party. Is that correct?”

“Strictly speaking, Mr. Senator,” Geemler replied, “they were not unplanned, as the requests passed through the same operations planning process that all MOJO taskings do. They could not have entered the system otherwise.”

“But they were unanticipated, yes? I have here a copy of the list of planned firings for the day in question, and the two events do not appear anywhere on that list.”

“That is correct.”

“I would call that unexpected, Mr. Geemler.”

“The incident did identify a minor flaw in our review process for approving MOJO activations. However, allow me to underline a few key points. First, there was no danger posed to anybody by the events, as both times the satellites were not fired in the direction of Earth at all. Second, the events were immediately identified and reported by MOJO watch staff, as part of the continuous monitoring performed on the system to identify exactly this sort of anomaly. Third, the underlying bug in the mission planning workflow has been corrected, ensuring that all requested activations, regardless of target, must go through human review before being sent to firing control. And fourth, the effectiveness of the correction has been verified by the rejection of an attempted third away-from-Earth firing requested two days later.”

“Mr. Geemler,” asked Sen. Greenfield, “am I understanding correctly that it had been possible for someone to fire orbital weapons with no human review.”

“Let me be clear,” Geemler replied. “From day one we instituted human review for all requested firings, based on the target coordinates and beam trajectories, to make sure all activations of MOJO were in compliance with local, national, and international law. We had done this by dividing the space on and around the planet according to the authorities responsible for each. The two events Sen. Yanau pointed out bypassed this review because the targets and bean trajectories were completely outside those territorial volumes.”

“But Mr. Geemler,” Sen. Yanau prodded, “were you able to identify the party who requested those two firings?”

“Since such identification would be made and verified during human review, no, I suppose not.”

“And you haven’t gone back to investigate after the fact?” Sen. Yanau asked incredulously. “Aren’t you even the least bit curious about who wanted to fire your satellites into deep space?”

“Our focus has been on ensuring the complete safety of the system going forward,” Geemler replied. “An investigation to identify the party in question would not have furthered those goals and would have taken resources away from those efforts.”

“Isn’t anyone looking into this?” Sen. Yanau pressed.

“It’s possible that whoever leaked that information to you is attempting one now, if I were forced to speculate. But given the nature of our business, I am sure you understand the need for us to maintain strict confidentiality of our clients’ information.”

“It’s seeming to me,” Sen. Greenfield said, “that legislation may be in order to regulate the activity of orbital weapons systems.”

“If I may, I would like to remind the Senator of Forney Junip’s right to bear arms, covered under the Second Amendment. I doubt the courts would look favorably on an attempt to restrict those rights, especially in the clear absence of any harm yet to occur.”

“A company’s right to bear arms?” Sen. Nichols asked doubtfully.

“The courts have recognized a corporate right to free speech under the First Amendment,” Geemler pointed out. “Attempting to regulate our newest line of business could force Forney Junip to divest itself of it, and under such a regulatory regime there would likely not be any U.S. entities interested in taking it over. As I’m sure each of you is aware, current U.S. treaty obligations preclude it from possessing space-based weapons, which was part of the motivation for my company to retain ownership of it. Having to shut down the system entirely would have a devastating impact on U.S. jobs. Sen. Yanau, I believe the onboard software is developed in your state. Sen. Iopea, the subcontractor creating our solar panels is in yours. Sen. Greenfield, the high-energy capacitors are in West Virginia. I could go on, but I don’t wish to bore the committee by pointing out the roles workers in the other 47 states play in supporting MOJO.”

Geemler had learned the hard way the importance of making sure any expensive or controversial system has at least part of it made in all 435 congressional districts. No self-respecting member of Congress was going to risk causing their own electorate to lose jobs, especially not in an election season.

“In short,” Geemler concluded, “MOJO is safe, secure, effective, and generates thousands of American jobs. I caution the committee not to undertake any legislation that could jeopardize any of those qualities. Especially given the current economy.”


Chapter word count: 1,834 (+167)
Total word count: 42,459 / 50,000 (84.918%)

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