SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 48
May 28, 2002

REGULATING BIOLOGICAL AGENTS AND TOXINS

In the latest move to impose national security restrictions on scientific research, a congressional conference committee last week approved new measures to regulate biological agents and toxins that pose "a severe threat to public health and safety."

The Bioterrorism Preparedness Act (H.R. 3448) mandates a national database for registration of all persons or institutions that possess, use or transfer certain highly dangerous bio-agents and toxins. It directs that new safeguards be established to prevent access to such materials by unauthorized persons. And it exempts information about locations and users of the materials from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

See excerpts from the May 21 conference report (H.Rpt. 107-481) on the bill here:

The bill does not impose any restrictions on scientific publication. Nor does it prevent official disclosures of information outside of the context of the FOIA.

"None of this looks very surprising or controversial except maybe to people who had hoped to use FOIA to embarrass institutions into not doing research with select agents," said one executive branch scientist.

Questionably, however, the bill would also exempt from public disclosure information about the accidental release, loss or theft of a proscribed biological agent or toxin.


SECRECY OR SECURITY

Military censorship in Israel that is intended to conceal vulnerabilities may instead perpetuate them, writes journalist Aviv Lavie in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

The military censor recently prevented publication of a story about the hazards of the Pi Glilot fuel depot near Tel Aviv on grounds that "we don't have to give any ideas to the terrorists."

This had the effect of blocking a planned media campaign by the mayor of Tel Aviv that was supposed to promote corrective action at the fuel depot. But terrorists attacked the site anyway last week.

"It appears to have been a classic example in which narrow security considerations can cause harm -- including life-endangering damage -- when the short term is regarded as more important than the long term," writes Lavie.

"A public debate, which forces the security services into energetic action, can sometimes prevent disaster better than many secrets that get shelved in the offices of the censor."

An identical argument for security through disclosure is increasingly made by environmentalists and others opposed to the post-September 11 rush to remove official information from public access in the U.S.

See "Sensing the Censor" from the May 27 Ha'aretz here:


USAF REPORTS ON PALOMARES, THULE ACCIDENTS

The Air Force Medical Service last week released two reports on the health consequences of nuclear weapons accidents in Palomares, Spain in 1966 and in Thule, Greenland in 1968.

The reports reflect Air Force efforts to collect radiation exposure data and perform dose reconstruction analyses. They generally conclude that the health consequences from the two accidents were not significant. See:


ROWLEY MEMO: CLASSIFIED, BUT NOT SECRET

The explosive memo from FBI Special Agent Colleen M. Rowley to FBI Director Mueller lambasting the Bureau's pre- and post-September 11 performance was obtained by Time Magazine and posted on its web site in edited form last weekend. See:

Notwithstanding the urgent public importance of the memo and its contents, the document has been classified by the FBI.

The state of the national security classification system is such that whoever classified the Rowley memo did nothing wrong. But whoever provided it to Time Magazine violated his or her classified information non-disclosure agreement, and possibly one or more regulations and laws. It may be that a leak investigation is underway even now.

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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