SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2005, Issue No. 55
June 14, 2005

ASSESSING THE TERRORIST THREAT TO MILK

A scientific paper discussing the possibility of a terrorist attack on the U.S. milk supply was scheduled for publication in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last month until the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) intervened, calling it a "road map for terrorists," and asked the journal to withdraw the paper. In response to the HHS objections, PNAS agreed to delay publication for an indefinite period.

But some scientists who have reviewed the paper say it should be rebutted rather than censored, since it is based on a series of alarmist assumptions that are objectively unsupported.

Despite the HHS concerns, one of the paper's authors, Stanford business professor Lawrence M. Wein, went on to make his case on the New York Times op-ed page on May 30 in a piece entitled "Got Toxic Milk?"

According to the scenario presented by Prof. Wein in the New York Times, "a terrorist, using a 28-page manual called 'Preparation of Botulism Toxin' that has been published on several jihadist Web sites and buying toxin from an overseas black-market laboratory, fills a one-gallon jug with a sludgy substance containing a few grams of botulin. He then sneaks onto a dairy farm and pours its contents into an unlocked milk tank, or he dumps it into the tank on a milk truck while the driver is eating breakfast at a truck stop."

Hundreds of thousands could die, he warned.

But this is a grotesque exaggeration, argued scientific critics Milton Leitenberg and George Smith.

For one thing, the jihadi manual cited by Wein, which they reviewed, "does not explain, except in the most general terms, how to obtain a toxic strain of Clostridium botulinum in the first place."

Moreover, "in the real world no 'black market' botulinum toxin producer is known to exist."

Based on their review of the unpublished but widely circulated PNAS paper, Leitenberg and Smith concluded that Wein may have overstated the consequences of his proposed terrorist scenario by a factor of one billion!

"There is therefore an extraordinary degree of uncertainty associated with Dr. Wein's estimates," they wrote. "The analysis of real and practical intelligence reveals a vastly different, more complicated, and much less frightening picture."

Leitenberg and Smith prepared their own critique of Wein's op-ed and submitted it to the New York Times op-ed page. The Times declined to publish it, since "As a matter of policy, we do not publish rebuttals on the op-ed page."

A copy of that rebuttal, with the authors' introduction, is posted here:


EXTREME SECURITY PROPOSALS FLOURISH

With the breakdown of the deliberative process on every level -- from Congress to the New York Times op-ed page -- there are fewer and fewer venues for identifying errors of fact or judgment in policymaking, and correcting them. The result is an efflorescence of weirdly inflated threats and half-baked proposals to combat them.

There is the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat, whereby a nuclear explosive detonated in the atmosphere could disable unshielded electrical systems.

"Ninety-nine percent of Americans may not know very much about EMP," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) on the House floor last week, "but I will assure you, Mr. Speaker, that 100 percent of our potential enemies know all about EMP."

"Terrorists could steal, purchase, or be provided a nuclear weapon and perform an EMP attack against the United States simply by launching a primitive Scud missile off a freighter near our shores."

From that it supposedly follows that the US should spend untold billions of dollars to harden our infrastructure against such an attack. See Rep. Bartlett's June 9 statement on the subject here:

Then there is the fertilizer threat. Legislation introduced by Sen. Thad Cochran last month would regulate the sales of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Such fertilizer was infamously used as an explosive in the Oklahoma City bombing ten years ago.

But OKC bomber Timothy McVeigh used nearly five thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate in his 1995 attack. Senator Cochran's proposed legislation would require monitoring the sale of even the smallest quantity of such fertilizer sold by innumerable vendors to any home gardener.

"I believe this important legislation will effectively enhance ongoing security measures and will help to keep ammonium nitrate out of the hands of those who wish to harm our nation," Sen. Cochran said.

See the text of the "Secure Handling of Ammonium Nitrate Act of 2005" (S. 1141), May 26, here:

See also "Cochran Wants Homeland Security to Clamp Down on Fertilizer, a Powerful Bomb Ingredient," CQ Homeland Security, June 6:


DEFENDING SCIENTIFIC OPENNESS

Openness in scientific research is vital to national security and must be preserved, argued a distinguished panel of senior scientists and former national security officials in a new report.

With the exception of research that is properly classified for national security reasons, dissemination of other scientific research should remain unrestricted as far as possible, the Commission on Scientific Communication and National Security said.

This policy "does not assert that the open dissemination of unclassified research is without risk. Rather, it says that openness in research is so important to our own security -- and to other key national objectives -- that it warrants the risk that our adversaries may benefit from scientific openness as well."

The authors discuss in turn each of the five mechanisms of control of scientific information: classification, export controls, "sensitive but unclassified" controls, statutory restrictions, and self-imposed restraints on publication.

The result is a concise and clear-eyed perspective on a perennially contentious issue.

See "Security Controls on Scientific Information and the Conduct of Scientific Research," a White Paper of the Commission on Scientific Communication and National Security, Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2005:

See also "Eminent panel calls for continued openness on basic research" by Lois Ember, Chemical and Engineering News, June 13:


NATIONAL BIODEFENSE ANALYSIS CENTER (CRS)

"The construction of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), with an estimated construction cost of $128 million, will be the first Department of Homeland Security laboratory specifically focused on biodefense," according to a recent report of the Congressional Research Service.

The report describes the Center's mission and budget and discusses related policy issues, including oversight of the Center's activities.

See "The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center: Issues for Congress," April 25, 2005:


WHO LOVES THE SUN?

The Village Voice featured the FAS Project on Government Secrecy and interviewed me in a column published online last week.

See "Who Loves the Sun? Speaking with Steven Aftergood, activist against government secrecy," by George Smith, June 10:

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

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