Plague Infected Mice Missing from UMDNJ Lab

This weekend it was reported that 2 mice infected with Yersinia pestis, the causitive agent of plague, were missing from a lab at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). In September 2005 it was also reported that 3 live mice infected with Y. pestis were missing from UMDNJ a lab. In this case however, the “missing mice” are actually the carcasses of mice who died during an experiment, were bagged and placed in a freezer for storage until the experiment was completed and they could be incinerated. It is believed that the missing bag of mice was accidentally sterilized along with another bag.

In both cases the FBI investigated and determined that there was no public health risk.

USAMRIID Suspends Select Agent Research

ScienceInsider is reporting that the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has suspended their research on biological select agents and toxins. Officials froze research last Friday when they realized that there were problems with the system of accounting for high risk microbes and biological materials in the laboratories at Fort Detrick, MD and have begun an inventory of select agents and toxins at the facility. Not coincidentally, this is the same facility that has been under intense scrutiny after the FBI named researcher Bruce Ivins as their main suspect in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.

“The decision was announced by institute commander, Col. John Skvorak, in a 4 February memo to employees. The memo, which ScienceInsider has obtained, says the standard of accountability that USAMRIID had been applying to its select agents and toxins was not in line with the standard required by the Army and the Department of Defense. USAMRIID officials believed that a satisfactory accounting involved finding all the items listed on its database, the Army and DOD wanted the converse; that is, all select agents and toxins needed to be matched to the database.”

The Army is clearly clamping down on their select agent research programs with very strict accounting of biological agents and, personnel in direct response to the Ivins case. Of note, on October 28, 2008 Army Regulation 50-1 came into effect. AR50-1, outlines a strict Biological Personnel Reliability Program for all DoD employees with access to BSAT. In order to be cleared to work with or have access to BSAT everyone must go through intense screening. This includes an interview, personnel security investigation, personnel records review, medical evaluation (includes mental evaluation and any medications) and drug testing.

Deputy AG-Nominee is “A Big Believer in Whistleblowers”

David W. Ogden, who has been nominated to be the next Deputy Attorney General, last week expressed strong support for government whistleblowers who help to expose corruption or malfeasance.

“I am a big believer in whistleblowers,” he said at his February 5 confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, “and in the need to make sure that people feel comfortable coming forward to make complaints.”

“I think what we need is a process that encourages whistleblowing in this administration and any other administration going forward. The business of making sure that we’re doing the right thing is an ongoing business,” Mr. Ogden said in response to a question from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

He said he would work with the Attorney General “to fashion an appropriate process that encourages whistleblowers to raise issues that need to be addressed.”

Mr. Ogden also indicated a willingness to consider public disclosure of certain legal opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Sen. Ron Wyden noted that “there are a lot of important rulings that go to the meaning of surveillance law, and I think that a lot of those kinds of judgments really could be redacted and declassified so that the country could be brought in in a more informed, a more complete way to these national-security debates.”

“I absolutely will commit to take a fresh look at this issue if I’m confirmed,” Mr. Ogden said.

FIS Court opinions that interpret surveillance law were one of several categories of “secret law” that were identified (pdf) in an April 30, 2008 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the subject.

Technology for Detection of Nuclear Weapons Advances

Technology for detecting nuclear weapons and materials “appears to be advancing faster than many have expected,” according to an exceptionally informative new report from the Congressional Research Service.

The 97-page report (pdf) by CRS analyst Jonathan Medalia explains the basics of nuclear detection — what is to be detected and how — and introduces nine illustrative new and emerging technologies for detecting nuclear materials.

“Systems now under development have the potential to reduce false positives (speeding the flow of commerce) and false negatives (improving security).”  Improved detection, besides enhancing security, also serves an important deterrent function, the author writes.

See “Detection of Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Science, Technologies, Observations,” November 6, 2008.

Senate Bill Revisits GAO Oversight of Intelligence

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and several Senate colleagues last week reintroduced the “Intelligence Community Audit Act” that would strengthen the authority of the Government Accountability Office to oversee intelligence agency programs and activities.

“GAO has well-established expertise that should be leveraged to improve the performance of the Intelligence Community,” Sen. Akaka said. “In particular, GAO could provide much needed guidance to the IC related to human capital, financial management, information sharing, strategic planning, information technology, and other areas of management and administration.”

“By employing GAO’s expertise to improve IC management and operations while carefully protecting sensitive information, this bill would reinforce the Intelligence Community’s ability to meet its mission,” he said.

Until recently, intelligence agencies have been unenthusiastic or openly hostile to GAO involvement in intelligence oversight.  Last year, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the Akaka bill, not a single representative of the intelligence community agreed to testify.

But last month, the Department of Defense cautiously acknowledged that GAO auditors may be granted access to classified foreign intelligence under some circumstances (“DoD Should Not ‘Categorically’ Deny GAO Access to Intelligence,” Secrecy News, February 4).

And at the January 22, 2009 confirmation hearing of Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Blair also seemed to endorse a role for GAO in intelligence oversight.

Sen. Ron Wyden asked him: “If the GAO is conducting a study at the direction of one of the intelligence committees using properly cleared staff, will you give them the access they need to do their work?”

Adm. Blair replied: “Senator, I’m aware that the direction of GAO studies and the terms of them are generally subject to talk between the two branches of government for a variety of reasons, and subject to having those discussions, ultimately I believe the GAO has a job to do and I will help them do that job.”

The congressional intelligence committees themselves have been reluctant to take advantage of the GAO for intelligence oversight, and it is not a coincidence that Sen. Akaka, the leading Senate proponent of the idea, is not a member of the Senate intelligence committee.  But in another sign of shifting perspectives, Rep. Sylvestre Reyes and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of the House Intelligence Committee last year asked the GAO to perform its first assessment of the intelligence community security clearance process.  It was the first request to the GAO on any topic from either of the congressional intelligence committees in six years.  (“A New Intelligence Oversight Task for GAO,” Secrecy News, April 1, 2008.)

In an almost forgotten episode from 1982, a former GAO auditor alleged that Soviet spies had infiltrated the GAO.  The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted an investigation and then-Committee chairman Sen. Barry Goldwater reported to the Senate that the allegation was not substantiated.  There is no known instance in which classified information was leaked or compromised by GAO employees.

United States Reaches Moscow Treaty Warhead Limit Early

B83 thermonuclear bombs are offloaded from a C-17 aircraft for storage in preparation for meeting the limit of the Moscow Treaty three and a half years early.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States has reduced its deployed strategic warheads to the maximum number allowed under 2002 Moscow Treaty, three and a half years early.

As of today, a total of 2,200 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and at long-range bomber bases. The reduction was initially planned to be met in 2012, then 2010, but was achieved a few days ago.

The information is described in the forthcoming “Nuclear Notebook: U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2009,” which I co-author with Robert Norris from Natural Resources Defense Council. The article will be published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists later this month. Continue reading

President Obama on the Weatherization Program

In an interview with CBS’s Katie Couric on Wednesday, President Obama was asked about spending measures in the House version of the stimulus package that have been criticized by Sen. Mitch McConnell and others, including $6.2 Billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program. President Obama makes the case for the weatherization program as a means to jump start the economy by creating jobs immediately, saying “We’re going to weatherize homes, that immediately puts people back to work and we’re going to train people who are out of work, including young people, to do the weatherization. As a consequence of weatherization, our energy bills go down and we reduce our dependence on foreign oil. What would be a more effective stimulus package than that?”

The President is correct.

As a paper by the Federation of American Scientists demonstrates, the Weatherization Program is the longest running, and perhaps the most successful US Energy Efficiency Program. The program, which underwrites a portion of the cost for improving the energy efficiency of low-income homes, reduces heating costs by an average of 31 percent, resulting in significantly lower energy bills that are so important in trying economic times like these. The program also creates roughly 52 jobs for every $1 million of federal investment. The stimulus package’s investment of $6.2 Billion into the Weatherization program will result in roughly 300,000 jobs created.

The program carries a great potential to alleviate both the economic and energy woes our country currently faces. Investing in weatherization through the stimulus bill also provides the opportunity to create a more modern, streamlined and effective system for improving residential energy efficiency in the future. To do so, and to ensure the best use of stimulus funds, the weatherization program needs to improve the software tool that weatherization centers use to determine which retrofits are cost-effective, upgrade and standardize the training for energy auditors and weatherization crews, and start collecting data from the field about the real energy savings and costs of different weatherization measures to continuously improve the program.

FAS applauds President Obama and the members of congress for recognizing the potential of the Weatherization Program, and we look forward to seeing this potential realized.

NAS-AAAS Dual-Use Research Survey Results Released

Today the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), released their survey of Attitudes and Actions on Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences. The survey was sent to AAAS members whose primary area of research was in the life sciences in order to assess their awareness of and attitudes toward “dual-use” research-studies undertaken for beneficial purposes that could also have harmful applications. The survey also explored actions the scientists might support to reduce the risk of misuse of research, as well as steps that scientists may already be taking in response to these concerns.

David Franz of the Midwest Research Institute and Ronald M. Atlas of the University of Louisville, two of the members of the committee which reviewed the survey results and wrote the final report presented the main findings. David Franz began by defining dual-use research and its importance within the life sciences community and Ronald Atlas discussed the primary findings of the survey. Atlas noted that a low response rate and uncertainty about whether the sample is representative of the broader life sciences community limits the ability to draw definitive conclusions. Nonetheless, the survey results are useful and informative and Atlas went on to explain that the results indicate that some respondents have already been so concerned about dual-use issues that they have altered their research or experiments. Even in the absence of guidelines or government restrictions some scientists have already taken action to try to avert misuse of biomedical research.

Copies of A Survey of Attitudes and Actions on Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences: A Collaborative Effort of the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are available from the National Academies Press.

Today’s presentation can be heard via podcast from the National Academies website.

DoD Should Not “Categorically” Deny GAO Access to Intelligence

Department of Defense intelligence agencies were told last week to consider granting requests from the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) for access to classified foreign intelligence information.

A new DoD directive (pdf) states explicitly for the first time that GAO requests for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information may be granted:

“Although the Comptroller General may be prevented from compelling access to this information, such information should not be denied categorically.  Such information may be furnished to GAO representatives having a legitimate need to know.  Therefore, denials of access to such information must be carefully considered and supported legitimately.”

See “Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Comptroller General Requests for Access to Records,” Department of Defense Instruction 7650.01, January 27, 2009 (at page 6).

As of last year, 1000 GAO analysts held top secrecy security clearances and 73 were cleared for intelligence information (Secrecy News, “GAO and Intelligence Oversight,” August 4, 2008).

GAO access to intelligence information has long been a subject of dispute and controversy. By law (31 U.S.C. 716d), the Comptroller General who directs the GAO cannot compel executive branch agencies to disclose intelligence information. The Central Intelligence Agency has generally refused to cooperate with GAO auditors, while defense intelligence agencies have historically been somewhat more forthcoming.

Using GAO analysts to audit intelligence agency operations potentially offers a way to augment and improve congressional oversight of intelligence, the Federation of American Scientists and others have argued (pdf).

A bill to affirm the role of GAO in intelligence oversight was introduced by Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in the last Congress.

“It is my strong belief that the Intelligence Community could benefit from the Government Accountability Office’s expertise in reviewing organizational transformations and management reforms,” Sen. Akaka said at a Senate hearing on the subject last year.