Germs, Viruses, and Secrets

In an awkward and disturbing irony, the most significant bioterrorism incident in the U.S. to date — i.e., the 2001 anthrax attacks — apparently originated in a U.S. military laboratory that was engaged in biological defense research.  Yet the pursuit of such research, and perhaps the associated threat, has continued to expand.

“No one in the Federal Government even knows for sure how many of these labs there are in the United States, much less what research they are doing or whether they are safe and secure,” said Rep. Bart Stupak at a 2007 congressional hearing, the record of which has recently been published.  “What we do know is that the Federal Government has been funding the proliferation of these labs on an unprecedented scale.”

See “Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States” (pdf), House Committee on Energy and Commerce, October 4, 2007 (published December 2008).

“High-containment laboratories play a critical role in the biodefense effort, offering the hope of better responses to an attack and a better understanding of the threat posed by bioterrorism,” according to a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service. “However, they also could increase the risk of a biological attack by serving as a potential source of materials or training.”

One approach to mitigating that risk would be to curtail such research.  Another approach, which is explored in the new CRS report, is to expand oversight of biodefense research facilities.  A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Oversight of High-Containment Biological Laboratories: Issues for Congress,” March 5, 2009.

New Presidential Memoranda

“If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public,” according to a new memorandum on “Scientific Integrity” that was issued by President Obama on March 9.

Another presidential memorandum promises to limit the use of “presidential signing statements” that raise constitutional objections to provisions of enacted legislation.  President Obama said that whenever he issues such a signing statement, he will “make clear the nature and basis of the constitutional objection.”  By contrast, many signing statements that were produced by the Bush White House employed broad, formulaic objections whose scope and precise application were unclear.

US, China, and Incidents at Sea

Chinese ships harassed a U.S. ship last Sunday in the South China Sea, prompting a formal U.S. government protest.  The Chinese actions were “dangerous” and “unprofessional,” according to the Pentagon.

But a Chinese government spokesman rejected the complaint.  “The U.S. claims are gravely in contravention of the facts and confuse black and white, and they are totally unacceptable to China,” said Ma Zhaoxu of the Foreign Ministry, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

“The time is long overdue for an agreement to regulate military operations” between the two countries, writes my FAS colleague Hans Kristensen in an illuminating blog post that explains the background to the confrontation, including information about the surveillance mission of the U.S. vessel.  See “US-Chinese Anti-Submarine Cat and Mouse Game in South China Sea,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, March 9.

In fact, there is a 1998 agreement between the U.S. and China that established a “consultation mechanism to strengthen military maritime safety.”  But it was evidently inadequate to meet the needs of this latest dispute.

If anything good could come out of this episode, it would be to provide a foundation for a negotiated agreement between the United States and China on “Incidents at Sea” like the one between the U.S. and the Russian Federation.

The origins of that 1972 Agreement date back forty years.  Prior to 1968, a recent Navy Instruction (pdf) recalled, “numerous [incidents at sea] involving harassment or interference occurred between units of the Soviet and United States Naval surface and air forces.”  But the subsequent Agreement, which provided procedures for orderly contact and dispute resolution, “greatly reduced friction between the U.S. and Soviet/Russian Navies.”  See “United States/Russian Federation Incidents at Sea and Dangerous Military Activities Agreements,” OPNAV Instruction 5711.96C, November 10, 2008.

The new Instruction provides a table of standard communication signals for use in navy-to-navy contacts.  Thus “TX2” means “I am engaged in monitoring sea pollution” while “UY2” means “I am preparing to conduct missile exercises.”

“ZL3” means “your signal has been received but not understood.”

US-Chinese Anti-Submarine Cat and Mouse Game in South China Sea

The Chinese military harassment of a U.S. submarine surveillance vessel Sunday occurred only 75 miles from China’s growing naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island.

By Hans M. Kristensen [updated 1:50 P.M., 3/10/09]

The incident that unfolded in the South China Sea Sunday, where the U.S. Navy says five Chinese ships harassed the U.S. submarine surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable, appears to be part of a wider and dangerous cat and mouse game between U.S. and Chinese submarines and their hunters.

News media reports cite Pentagon reports of half a dozen other incidents just within the past week in which U.S. surveillance vessels were “subjected to aggressive behavior, including dozens of fly-bys by Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft.”

The latest incident allegedly occurred in international waters only 75 miles south of a budding naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island from where China has started operating new nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines. The U.S. Navy on its part is busy collecting data on the submarines and seafloor to improve its ability to detect the submarines in peacetime and more efficiently hunt them in case of war. Continue reading

White House Web Site Off to a Slow Start

Many of the most substantive and significant documents generated by the Obama Administration to date are surprisingly absent from the White House web site.

President Obama recently ordered the reorganization of the National Security Council through a Presidential Policy Directive.  But the unclassified Directive is not even mentioned on the White House web site, much less posted there.  Secrecy News obtained a copy of the signed directive PPD-1 (pdf).

Another directive, Presidential Study Directive-1, mandated a review of the organization of homeland security and counterterrrorism activities.  Its existence is likewise unreflected on the White House web site.  A signed copy is here (pdf).

A new White House report on the interdiction of aircraft engaged in drug trafficking is similarly unmentioned on the White House web site.  It was published by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is available here (pdf).

The White House web site does notify Americans that the First Lady visited Miriam’s Kitchen last week to help feed the homeless, which is good to know.  But its web page about the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board does not provide meaningful information about the Board, not even a list of members.

In short, the current White House web site does not present a reliable or complete record of Presidential actions or activities.  For that, one still has to turn elsewhere.

Federal Employees Pursue Knowledge Management

An ad hoc group of several hundred federal employees and others has convened online to advocate improved “knowledge management” in the federal government.

Knowledge management refers generally to the production, preservation and exchange of knowledge in such a way as to maximize the sharing of information and to optimize its use.

“Although most federal agencies have some knowledge management activities, there is no centralized federal resource for knowledge management.  There is no government-sponsored support function for knowledge management.  There is no clearinghouse for data on extant activities, no library of best practices, and no consulation available,” according to the new Federal Knowledge Management Initiative.

“Over 700 Federal employees, contractors, academicians and interested members of the public have mounted a campaign to enhance collaboration, knowledge and learning in the Federal Government.”

“The objective is to establish formal knowledge management across government,” said Neil Olonoff, an Army employee contractor who started the new initiative on a volunteer basis.

The initiative is developing its developing its policy proposals along with educational and promotional materials on a public wiki site hosted by NASA.

President Obama Overturns Bush Stem Cell Ban

During a ceremony at the White House today, President Obama signed an Executive Order to overturn President Bush’s 2001 restrictions on using federal funds for research on embryonic stem cells. The Executive Order is focused on stem cell research, but it signals a desire by the Obama Administration to return scientific integrity to its policy decisions. Accompanying the Executive Order will also be a Presidential Memorandum to ensure that the government’s scientific decisions are insulated from political influence. This is a welcome change after 8 years of the Bush Administration ignoring or distorting science to further its political agenda.

The President and the DCI: Ten Audio Records

Audio recordings of ten conversations between President Richard M. Nixon and Director of Central Intelligence Richard M. Helms are now available online.

The conversations, which took place in 1971 and 1972, addressed topics including Vietnam, the India-Pakistan War of 1971, the Soviet Union, China, the Bay of Pigs, and more.  Several of the recordings are still partially censored for national security reasons.

The materials were selected and prepared for online publication by Texas historian Dr. Luke Nichter.

Secrecy Shuts Down Briefing on 2008 Chem Accident

Government safety investigators canceled a public briefing about an August 28, 2008 explosion that killed two persons at a chemical plant in Institute, West Virginia after operators of the plant said that public discussion of the accident could jeopardize “sensitive security information.”

Bayer CropScience, which runs the plant, told the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that relevant information about the plant is protected from public disclosure under the terms of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, as interpreted by U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

The Board, which is an independent federal agency that investigates industrial accidents, canceled the March 19 public meeting while it seeks to evaluate the Bayer secrecy claims.  See “Board Cancels Hearing Under Bayer Pressure” by Ken Ward, Jr., The Charleston Gazette, February 25, 2009.

On their face, the Bayer secrecy claims do not seem well-founded.

The Maritime Transportation Security Act (pdf) invoked by Bayer states (at section 70103) that certain facility security information “is not required to be disclosed to the public.”  That apparently means its disclosure cannot be compelled under the Freedom of Information Act, but it doesn’t say that disclosure of such information is prohibited.

Coast Guard regulations (pdf) implementing the Act state that the plant information could be “sensitive security information,” which is protected from public disclosure.  But compliance with those regulations is binding only on “covered persons,” a category that does not include the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

So these provisions would appear to have little relevance to this case, and to impose no non-disclosure obligations on the Chemical Safety Board.

“The whole purpose of these homeland security rules is supposed to be to increase public safety, not to reduce it,” said one federal official who expressed skepticism regarding Bayer’s reading of the secrecy requirements.

“We deserve the right to know in a timely manner what is happening in our community that could have such major effects on our health and safety. We also deserve the right to tell you our concerns and so inform the remainder of this investigation,” wrote Maya Nye of People Concerned About MIC [methyl isocyanate] and a coalition of other citizens groups in a letter to the Board this week.

A decision on how the Chemical Safety Board will proceed in this case is pending.

Meanwhile, the Bayer CropScience plant was cited last week for multiple violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  See “Bayer Plant Cited for 13 Serious Violations Including Safety Issues” by Tony Rutherford, Huntington News, February 27, 2009.