SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 24
March 10, 2009

Secrecy News Blog: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/

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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," 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 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 Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

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 more detailed 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 Agreement date back forty years. Prior to 1968, a recent Navy Instruction 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."

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

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