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US Navy refuses sonar details in whale lawsuit

Opts for 'state secret' defence

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The US Navy on Tuesday played its "state secrets" joker in ongoing attempts to resist a whale-saving lawsuit by an environmental group.

The group bringing the lawsuit, the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), believes high-powered naval sonar can distress, injure, or kill whales and dolphins. It is also suggested that active sonar pulses can disorient cetaceans and cause them to become stranded or lost.

Secretary for the Navy Donald Winter said in a court filing that the plaintiffs' requests for disclosure, if complied with, "could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security".

According to the Navy, the conservationists had requested information on the latitude, longitude, time and date, duration, and name of the exercise for every non-combat use of military sonar by the US Navy anywhere in the world.

The NRDC describes itself as "the [US] nation's most effective environmental action organisation", and it doesn't intend to let the navy get away with the state secrets ploy.

"It can be challenged and we intend to," NRDC senior counsel Joel Reynolds said. "Our position here is not that the Navy cannot train with sonar, not that the Navy cannot use sonar during combat, but only that whales and other marine species should not have to die for practice.

"That's what the litigation is about and the information whose disclosure the Navy seeks to block is directly related to that concern."

The debate around sonar's effects on marine mammals has gained prominence over the last decade, as some navies have moved away from the 1980s tactic of using "passive" sonar, which merely listened for the machinery noises of Soviet submarines. The trend of late has been towards long-range low-frequency active equipment, which puts large amounts of sound energy into the water in order to generate echo returns from the quieter subs of today.

There are also other kinds of shorter-range active sonar, however, which have been used without adverse comment since WWII. ®

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