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Public Attitudes Towards Security and Counter-
Espionage Matters in 1994 and 1996

Tom W. Smith

National Opinion Research Center
University of Chicago
This report was prepared for PERSEREC as part of
Office of Naval Research grant N00014-96-1-5034.
Defense Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC)

November 1996

The views and conclusions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect those of PERSEREC, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of
Defense, or the National Opinion Research Center.


What the general populace thinks of security, clearances and government secrecy is of great interest to policymakers and practitioners who administer the U.S. government's program. The Defense Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) has sponsored a series of studies designed to tap into various security-related opinions and the likely direction these will take in the future. In 1991 we published Security Awareness and the Climate of Public Opinion: With Special Attention to Financial and Credit Issues. This was followed in 1993 by the report, Security Awareness and the Climate of Public Opinion: An Analysis of Recent Trends. These two studied were analyses of survey data collection by other researchers around the nation.

A 1994 report, Public Attitudes Towards Security and Counterespionage Matters in the Post Cold-War Period, described the results of our own survey that probed issues thought to be particularly relevant to the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. The study was fielded by the National Opinion Research Center and was part of the 1994 General Social Survey. The survey was administered to a national sample (1500 people) of the adult household population of the United States. Questions concerned opinions regarding the need for secrecy, the extent to which secrecy is over-used, reporting adverse information about coworkers, and the appropriateness of collecting various types of personal background information before granting access to classified information.

The present study is a follow-on to the 1994 report, where the same sets of questions were asked 2 years later of a similar audience. The 1996 survey represents a PERSEREC effort to establish, first a baseline, and then a series of longitudinal surveys in order to track over a period of years the public's opinion of security issues .

Roger P. Denk


Despite the end of the Cold War, national security remains a vital concern. As the Ames and Nicholson cases underscore, espionage against the United States continues and efforts to combat such subversions must continue. In part, our ability to maintain security depends on the public's willingness to endorse appropriate measures to weed out intelligence risks and on the importance and priority the public gives to protecting secrets. Public indifference to security needs or hostility to procedures designed to maintain secrets could seriously undermine counter-espionage measures and thereby threaten national security.

To examine public opinion on security matters, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) included a battery of 11 items on its 1994 General Social Survey (GSS) and 17 items on its 1996 GSS. The items were drafted by researchers at the Defense Personnel Security Research Center in collaboration with NORC. The GSSs are nationally representative, full-probability samples of adults living in households in the United States. The 1994 GSS had a response rate of 78% and a sample size of 2992 and the 1996 GSS a response rate of 76% and a sample size of 2904. The security items were administered to a random half of the total sample in both years, a total of 1474 respondents in 1994 and 1460 in 1996. Data were collected in February- April, 1994 and February-April, 1996. Full technical details on the GSS are found in Davis and Smith, 1996.[1]

Levels of Support for Security Measures

In 1994 and 1996 overall support for security and counterespionage measures has been quite strong (Table 1). Only in terms of the classification of secrets does the majority favor the anti-security position. 55-56% believe that too many documents are classified as secret (Table 1A - Q.2 and Table 1B - Q.2). When it comes to protecting technologies with military applications, about three-quarters back maintaining a "high level of secrecy" (Table 1A - Q.1 and Table 1B Q.1). Likewise, majorities back maintaining a "high level of secrecy surrounding" diplomatic initiatives, military operations, efforts to control domestic terrorism, and the US intelligence budget (Table 1B Q.4). Support for secrecy in the first three areas is very strong (73-87%), while backing for secrecy on the intelligence budget is lower (54%).

There is even a stronger pro-security consensus when it comes to screening applicants for secret or top secret clearance (Table 1A - Q.4 and Table 1B - Q.3). Over 90% agree that the government should "have the right to ask...detailed, personal questions" about criminal arrests and convictions (97-98%), illegal drug use (96%), mental health history (95%), and alcohol use (93%). Somewhat smaller majorities endorse questioning about financial and credit history (79- 82%) and foreign relatives and friends (78-79%). For all of these reasons except for the case of foreign connections, the majority definitely thinks the government has the right to question applicants. Only on the topic of sexual orientation is the public divided, with almost half in both 1994 and 1996 both favoring and opposing questioning people about this topic. Likewise, the public believes the government should contact other people to verify information provided by the security applicant (Table 1B Q.5). 66-76% support the checking of a) financial assets and liabilities, b) ones spouse's financial assets and liabilities, and c) tax records. In addition, when asked to balance an applicant's right to privacy with the government's need to collect personal background information, the public in 1994 overwhelmingly favored the government 80% to 15% with 5% unsure (Table 1A - Q. 5). Similarly, in 1996 a plurality of 42% favored full disclosure of the details of any mental health treatments past or present) including "the specific information revealed in confidence to the mental health professional" and an additional 26% favored information on treatment and ''the general nature of the diagnosis and the counseling" (Table 1B - Q.6). Only 6% favored shielding all information about mental health treatments from scrutiny. At least when it concerns those who will be handling secrets, the public clearly and strongly favors national security over individual privacy and backs extensive background checks.

The public also places the protection of secrets above the protection of co-workers. People were asked in 1994 to consider a situation in which there is "a conflict between loyalty to one's employer and loyalty to a co-worker who is violating rules protecting secret and top secret information." In that circumstance 41% said the person should "report the co-worker to a company official" and another 41% favored asking the co-worker to stop, but reporting him or her if the misbehavior did not stop. Only 14% favored a weaker response. While people were evenly split between immediately reporting the errant coworker and giving him or her a chance to stop the violation, the relative leniency of the latter group probably reflects the fact that the co-worker was not described as acting traitorously or even actually compromising secrets, but only as "violating rules protecting" secret information.

In sum, although the public believes the government classifies too many documents, people overwhelmingly back the protection of military-related technology, diplomatic initiatives, military operations, and anti-terrorism efforts; the detailed vetting of applicants for security clearance; the verifying of information provided by applicants; and the reporting of employees who are violating security procedures.

Trends in Support for Security Measures

As Table 2 shows, there were only limited changes from 1994 to 1996 in public attitudes on national security matters. Support for the government maintaining a high level of secrecy surrounding technology with military uses did decline by 5 percentage points, but there was no change in the proportion thinking the government overclassifies documents as secret or top secret. On the seven areas about which the government might ask an applicant for security clearance, there was a small, but statistically significant, increase in support for inquiries about foreign relatives and friends (+ 1 percentage point) and another small, but statistically significant, drop in support for checking on financial and credit history (- 3 percentage points). Overall, however, there was no change in a seven-item scale of these questions asking about an applicant's background. The mean level of support was 12.05 in 1994 and 11.94 in 1996 (probability = 0.509). [2]

The Association of Security Measures

As Table 3 shows, most of the security items are inter-related. Protecting military-related technology, diplomatic initiatives, military operations, anti-terrorism, and the intelligence budget; not objecting to the amount of secret documents; asking detailed background questions; verifying self-reports with records and others; and reporting co-workers violating security procedures are all consistently related. [3] People favoring the protecting of secrets tend to support extensive background checks and do not object to the classification of documents.

However, a factor analysis with a varimax rotation does indicate that there is not a simple and general security dimension, but several somewhat distinct factors (Table 4 [not included here]). In 1994 the first factor consists of the four asking items with the highest level of support (drugs, crime, alcohol, and mental health). The second factor is made up of the three asking items with lower support (sexual orientation, foreign connections, and finances). Asking about alcohol use, which is in the middle in terms of approval, loads fairly highly on both factors. The third factor, on protecting secrets and security, consists of the remaining items (protecting military-related technology, classifying documents, reporting co-workers, and privacy vs. security checks). It is the weakest of the three factors (top loadings of only .65) and the item on individual rights to privacy has a low loading of -.43.

In 1996 four factors emerged. The first consists of the four vetting items that have to do with finances. The second consists of high consensus asking items. It is similar to the factor that appeared in 1994 except that asking about foreigners now weakly loads on this domain (.427). Third is a protecting secrets and security scale that appears conceptually similar to the 1994 scale, but because of the deletion and addition of items only the question on protecting technology with military uses is on both scales. Finally, a set of low consensus items involving the overclassifying of documents, asking about sexual orientation, and mental health history forms a fairly weak fourth factor.

Table 5 [not included here] shows the scales constructed from the security items. For 1994 the first item is a scale made from the seven items on background checks. [4] The second scale consists of the remaining security items. For both scales low values represent pro-security responses and high scores indicate those opposed to protecting secrets and background checks. Finally, a third scale measuring support for civil liberties is also created. This item is also created in an identical manner for the 1996 data.

For 1996 the first item is the same seven-item asking scale as created in 1994. Second, there is a four-item scale asking about and checking on financial matters. Third is the new version of the protecting secrets scale. Fourth is scale of three low consensus items. Fifth is the five high consensus asking items. For each of these scales the low scores mean pro-security answers and the high scores represent those opposed to secrecy and background checks.[5]

Variables Related to Asking and Protecting Security Scales

Based on previous work in this area (Smith, 1993), we identified 12 areas that were expected to be associated with security attitudes. These are the Military, Government, Patriotism, Political Leanings, Religion, Crime and Punishment, Obedience, Civil Liberties, Personal Freedom and Deviance, Misanthropy, Work and Finances, and Demographics. These are designated as groups A-L in Tables 6 and 7[not included here]. Table 6 indicates whether there is statistically significant variation in scale means across the selected variables. Table 7 presents the breakdowns for all variables that had a statistically significant relationship with at least one of the security scales.


Support for the military is strongly associated with supporting security measures. Favoring more defense spending and having more confidence in the military are related to both more support for background checks and pro-security positions.


There is only a weak and irregular association between confidence in governmental institutions and security measures. Confidence in the executive branch of the federal government is not related to any of the security scales. Confidence in the legislature in 1994 has non- linear and inconsistent relationships with security. Background checks are most supported by those with a great deal of confidence, but those with only some confidence show the least support. On the protecting scale support is highest for those with only some confidence and lowest for those with a great deal of confidence.

In 1996 confidence in the legislature is not related to any of the scales.


Generalized patriotism or national pride is strongly associated with favoring security measures. Those who are proud of being an American are much more supportive of both extensive vetting and the other security measures. Those who think America is better than other countries also are more supportive of background checks. However, for the protecting secrecy measure in 1994 the relationship is more complex. Pro-security positions are stronger among those who think America is both better- and worse-off than other advanced countries and lowest for those who see America and others as equally well-off. Those who see America as ahead may want to maintain that lead by protecting our secrets and security and those who believe we are behind may see these measures as necessary to improve our position against foreign competition in general and espionage in particular.

In 1996 however agreement with the idea that America is better than other countries is linearly related to being pro-security on all scales.

Nativist patriotism has a weaker and less consistent association with security measures. In 1994 those who favor assimilation over pluralism and decreased immigration are more supportive of background checks, but attitudes towards government either assisting pluralism or assimilation are not related to approving of rigorous clearance procedures. Support for other protective security measures is also higher among those favoring assimilation and decreased immigration and somewhat greater among those who think groups should assimilate with governmental assistance. Similarly, the four English vs. bilingualism items show that those who favor English are more supportive of both security scales.

In 1996 those who favor assimilation are more pro-security on all scales and those favoring less immigration tend to favor more checking on security applicants. However, support for secrecy is unrelated to attitudes on the level of immigration.

Political Leanings

Political conservatives, Republicans, and Bush voters in 1992 are all more in favor of security measures than those with centrist or liberal political leanings.


Religious conservatives (those who belong to Fundamentalist denominations and those who personally believe in Bible inerrancy) and those who attend church frequently are more supportive of background checks. In 1994 the protective security scale has a weaker relationship with religion. Fundamentalists are more pro-security, but beliefs about the Bible have an irregular association and church attendance is not significantly associated with protective security measures.

In 1996 support for strong vetting measures is greater among church attenders, Fundamentalists, and those believing in the literal truth of the Bible. Attenders and Fundamentalists, but not Bible literalists, also are more for secrecy.

Religious conservatism and involvement are probably related to strict vetting because Fundamentalists believe in personal sin and think that rigorous steps have to be taken to identify and weed out sinners. Since the element of moral weakness is less apparent in the protective security scale, these religion variables do not clearly differentiate in this case.

Crime and Punishment

Those who favor the tough punishment of criminals and assisting law enforcement efforts generally back stronger security measures. In 1994 for background checks the association is less pronounced since only in the case of favoring capital punishment is the relationship statistically significant, but in 1996 it is statistically significant for both social control measures. In 1994 for the protective security scale, more stringent measures are backed by those who want tougher courts, capital punishment, and more spending for law enforcement. In 1996 the law enforcement spending scale is not significantly related on any of the security scales.


Those who value obedience highly as a value to instill in children tend to favor both extensive background checks and strong counterespionage measures. The strongest association comes for the measure rating "obedience and respect for authority" as the top child values. It is likely that the "respect for authority" dimension, which does not appear in the two other obedience items, de-emphasizes parental obedience and focuses attention more on obedience in general. This is supported by the fact that the obedience/respect item is more highly associated with general patriotism than are the two other obedience items.

In 1996 on the single obedience measure more emphasis on children obeying their parents is related to more support for both asking about background and maintaining secrecy.

Civil Liberties

Those who oppose civil liberties (free speech, employment as a college teacher, and allowing a book in the public library) for political extremists and social outgroups (those who are Communists, militarists, racists, anti-religionists, or homosexuals) tend to favor extensive background checks in both years. In 1996, but not in 1994, those opposed to civil liberties also are more likely to favor protecting secrets. In 1994 those who consider free speech a more important goal than maintaining public order and those with less confidence in the press are more supportive of other security measures. The other relationships tend to lean in a similar direction, but are not statistically significant. Confidence in the press has no impact in 1996 and only a weak and irregular relationship in 1994.

Personal Freedom and Deviance

Those who oppose expressive freedom and deviant or non- traditional lifestyles tend to favor background checks and other protective security measures. People who disagree that "it is wonderful that young people today have greater freedom to protest against things they don't like and to 'do their own thing'," those opposing the legalization of marijuana, and those who think homosexuality is wrong and is a matter of individual choice are more in favor of background checks. Support for other protective security measures leans in the same directions. Marijuana legalization and morality of homosexuality have statistically significant relationships in both years.


Counter to expectations judgments on whether people are trustworthy, fair, and helpful are not related to support for extensive vetting (except on the finances scale in 1996). Moreover, the three weak, but statistically significant, associations between trust and helpfulness and the protective security scale are the opposite of the hypothesized direction. Those who believe most people are trustworthy and helpful are more supportive of security measures.

Work and Finances

Low satisfaction with one's job or finances and recent financial downturns do not relate to either security scale in 1994. In 1996 there is also no association with job satisfaction and only one weak association between protecting secrets and improvements in finances. However, in 1996 satisfaction with finances is related to both more support for background checks and maintaining secrets. This change may have to do with improvements in the economy. Satisfaction is up and the dissatisfied now tend to consist more of the least well-off and disgruntled than in 1994.


Among the nine demographics age, gender, race, and region have the largest and most consistent impact. Older adults are more pro- security on all scales except for the protecting security scale in 1994 (and even there the non-significant difference tends in the same direction). Men are more supportive of background checks and protective security measures than are women (but no difference on the high consensus items in 1996). Whites are generally more pro-security than Blacks and other minorities, but the difference is only sometimes statistically significant. Regional differences are somewhat variable, but on each scale the lowest support for security is in New England and highest in the South (usually the East South Central).

In contrast, community type, education and verbal ability, and immigration status have small and variable impacts. Community type makes little difference, but on two of the scales in 1996 people from rural areas are slightly more pro-security than people from large cities are. Education and verbal ability do not show notable or consistent differences across years. Immigration status also plays only a minor role. Country of birth in 1996 and parent's country of birth in 1994 are unrelated to any scale. In 1994 those born in the US are more for protecting secrets, but there is no difference on asking background questions. In 1996 those with both parents born in the US are slightly more likely to favor financial checks.


The various security scales share a number of attitudinal correlates in common (being conservative, pro-military, anti-crime, patriotic), but notably differ in their overall pattern of association. First, demographic associations are quite different. In 1994 gender, region, and age are related to background checks, but education and race correlate with other pro-secrecy measures. In 1996 there is more interscale agreement than in 1994, but race is related to asking about background and not to maintaining secrecy and verbal ability is associated with the latter, but not the former. Second, even when there is general consistency, the details are sometimes divergent. For example, in 1994 support for law and order is related to pro-security positions, but capital punishment is associated with background checks and favoring tougher courts is related to protective security measures. Similarly, in 1994 religiousness is associated with favoring security efforts, but more church attendance is associated with background checks, while being a member of a Fundamentalist church is related to other security measures. In 1996 the three religious measures are each related to the asking about background scale, but the protecting secrets scale is related to Fundamentalism and attending church, but not to Bible inerrancy.

As a result of these variations, one must be careful not to overgeneralize. However, a few clear patterns do emerge. With multivariate controls support for pro-security measures is greater among males, older adults, political and religious conservatives, and, in 1994 only, Southerners. Rigorous vetting is more favored by those who are for the military, law and order, patriotism, and, in 1994, obedience and respect for authority. It is less supported by those who are more in favor of civil liberties, personal freedom, and deviant and permissive life styles.


Despite the end of the Cold War and widespread cynicism about government, there is substantial public support for strong security measures. Majorities support background inquiries for all topics except sexual orientation; the public believes that information given by an applicant should be cross-checked with other people and records; security is seen as outweighing concerns about individual privacy and loyalty to co-workers (although many favor giving errant co-workers a chance to mend their ways); and the public supports the protection of military-related technology and the secrecy of diplomatic initiatives, military operations, anti-terrorism efforts, and, to a lesser extent, the intelligence budget. Only regarding the over-classification of documents does the public look askance at security efforts.

For the nine items asked in 1994 and 1996 there has been little change in attitudes, although the public is now somewhat less supportive of the protection of military technology.

Most members of the public value security highly, favor prudent steps to maintain security, and even back intrusive and restrictive government policies where secrets and national security are involved. However, in most of the items examined here the public is assessing what security measures should be allowed in regard to those who handle or want to handle secrets. In such cases it tips the balance in favor of security and away from individual privacy and personal freedoms. In other circumstances the public would probably give more emphasis to these concerns (Smith, 1993). The majority that agrees that the government classifies too many documents as secret and the near majority that opposes the secrecy of the intelligence budget represent such shifts away from security in favor of public access to information.

Security is not one simple dimension in people's minds. In 1994 among the 11 items, three related, but distinct, factors appeared: a high and low approval of background checks and other protective security measures. In 1996 among the 17 items four factors emerged: financial items, protecting secrecy items, high consensus asking items, and miscellaneous low consensus items. Moreover, the complexity of security attitudes is demonstrated by the distinctive pattern of associates that the security scales have.

The clearest general pattern is that pro-security positions are taken by those with a high degree of patriotism in general and a favorable view of the military in particular, while anti-security positions are adopted by those concerned about civil liberties and those who approve of non-traditional lifestyles.


1. This report draws upon Smith, 1994.

2. The scale is described below and in Table 5.

3. The negative signs in Table 3 reflect items coded in the opposite direction. When coded in a consistent manner, all but one of the correlations are positive, and nearly all of the correlations are statistically significant.

4. While the asking question in 1994 form two factors, they differ essentially between items with high approval (drugs, crime, mental health, and drinking) and those with low to medium approval (sexual orientation, foreigners, and finances). Since these factors inter-correlate at .46-.47 and do not differ greatly in their association with other variables, they are combined together into a single asking scale.

5. The seven-item asking scale overlaps in part with the high consensus asking scale and the miscellaneous, low consensus scale. Results from all three of these scales are presented below.

A. 1994 Findings

Table 1A
Question Wordings and Distributions

1. In order to maintain America's leadership in the world, the government should maintain a high level of secrecy surrounding technology with military uses. Do you...

2. Given the world situation, the government protects too many documents by classifying them as SECRET and TOP SECRET. Do you...

3. When faced with a conflict between loyalty to one's employer and loyalty to a co-worker who is violating rules protecting SECRET and TOP SECRET information, a person should...

4. Before giving an individual a SECRET or TOP SECRET clearance, the government should have the right to ask him or her detailed, personal questions in the following areas:

		Definitely	Probably 	Probably 	Definitely 	Don't
  		Should 		Should 		Should Not 	Should Not 	Know
Financial and
credit history 	54.9%     	26.9       	10.9      	5.8     	1.4

Criminal arrests
and convictions	89.8%      	8.4       	0.6        	0.4     	0.8

Illegal drug 
use 		84.7%     	11.6       	1.9       	1.0     	0.8

Mental health
 history       	76.9%      	17.9       	3.3  		0.7     	1.1

Foreign relatives
and friends 	47.2%      	30.7      	12.7       	7.2          	2.2

Alcohol use 	68.5%      	24.1      	 4.6       	2.1          	0.7

orientation  	28.7%      	18.7        	24.8		25.5         	2.3


5. When faced with the conflict between an individual's right to privacy and the government's need to collect personal background information before giving a SECRET or TOP SECRET clearance, the government should...

B. 1996 Findings.

Table 1B

1. In order to maintain America's leadership in the world, the government should maintain a high level of secrecy surrounding technology with military uses. Do you...

2. Given the world situation, the government protects too many documents by classifying them as SECRET and TOP SECRET. Do you...

3. Before giving an individual a SECRET or TOP SECRET clearance, the government should have the right to ask him or her detailed, personal questions in the following areas:

			Definitely	Probably	Probably	Definitely 	Don't
 	 		Should 		Should 		Should Not 	Should Not 	Know
Financial and
credit history		51.3%    	27.7      	10.8        	7.7        	2.5

Criminal arrests
and convictions        	88.7%      	8.3        	1.3        	0.3 		1.5

Illegal drug use       	85.8%      	9.9        	2.2        	0.6 		1.4

Mental health
history      		79.2%     	16.1        	2.6       	0.4         	1.7

Foreign relatives
and friends  		49.2%     	29.6       	13.1       	4.9         	3.3

Alcohol use  		70.9%     	21.6        	4.0       	1.8         	1.7

Sexual orientation   	29.2%      	19.4           26.1     	22.1		3.3


4. Should or should not the government maintain a high level of secrecy surrounding:..

			Definitely 	Probably 	Probably 	Definitely 	Don't
  			Should 		Should 		Should Not 	Should Not 	Know
a. Diplomatic
initiatives  		33.9%     	39.7       	11.8      	4.9         	9.7
b. Military
operations   		58.2%     	28.8        	6.7      	3.1         	3.3
c. Efforts to control 
domestic terrorism   	57.2%      	25.8      	8.1         	5.0		4.0
d. The US intelligence 
budget         		26.4%      	27.4      	24.4       	16.2		5.6
5. Before giving an individual a SECRET or TOP SECRET clearance, the government should contact other people and verify information provided by the individual concerning his or her:

    			Definitely 	Probably 	Probably 	Definitely 	Don't
                        Should 		Should 		Should Not 	Should Not 	Know

   a. Financial
    assets and
    liabilities		47.5%		28.6		11.9		8.8		3.3
   b. Spouse's
    assets &
    liabilities		36.5%		29.7		18.6		12.0		3.2
   c. Tax records       45.8%        	30.6		12.1 		8.2		3.2

6. Please tell me which one of the statements on the card best describes what the government has a right to know. Before giving an individual a SECRET or TOP SECRET clearance, the government should have the right to know:

Table 2

Trends in Support for Security Measures

% Approving of Security Measures

							1994 		1996 		Change*

Government should maintain a high level of
secrecy surrounding technology with
military uses**						75.5		70.2		-5.2*

The government protects too many
documents by classifying them as SECRET and 
TOP SECRET (Disagree)					34.6		35.1		+0.5

Government has right to ask

	Financial and credit history			81.8		79.0		-2.8*

	Criminal arrests and convictions		98.2		97.0		-1.2

	Illegal drug use				96.3		95.7		-0.6

	Mental health history				94.8		95.3		+0.5

	Foreign relatives and friends			77.9		78.8		+1.1*

	Alcohol use					92.6		92.5		-0.1

	Sexual orientation 				47.4 		48.6 		+1.2

* Changes that are statistically significant are marked with an "*". 
**The full wordings and distributions are presented in Table 1.


Davis, James A. and Smith, Tom W., General Social Surveys, 1972-1996: Cumulative Codebook. Chicago: NORC, 1996.

Smith, Tom W., "Public Attitudes towards Security and Counter-Espionage Matters in the Cold War Period," Report prepared for the Office of Naval Research, November, 1994.

Smith, Tom W., "Security Awareness and the Climate of Public Opinion: An Analysis of Recent Trends," Report prepared for the Office of Naval Research, August, 1993.

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