Unauthorized Brucellosis Experiments, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Brucella sp
Brucella (Credit: CDC)

Professor of pathobiological sciences, Gary Splitter, DVM, PhD, was suspended from laboratory work above BSL-1 until 2013 because unauthorized work was conducted with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Brucella, a select agent, by his graduate student in 2007. The University was also fined $40,000 because this work broke federal regulations.  Brucella bacteria can cause the disease brucellosis, which presents as  a prolonged non-specific febrile illness in humans accompanied by chills, sweats, headache, fatigue, myalgias (muscle pain), arthralgias (joint pain), and anorexia.  The Wisconsin State Journal reports that Dr. Splitter, a member of UW-Madison’s Biosafety Committee, denies knowledge of his graduate student’s experiments – but email records indicate otherwise.   Continue reading

Invest in FAS Efforts at this Critical Time


Thank you for your interest in the work of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration released the total number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. stockpile — 5,113 — a number that was classified for decades. In February 2009, FAS expert Hans Kristensen published an estimate that now turns out to have been only 87 warheads off. Over the past two weeks, Kristensen’s estimate and FAS efforts on nuclear security have gained widespread recognition in the mainstream media.

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Does Candor Require Secrecy? A Critical Review

When the Supreme Court ordered the Nixon White House to comply with a subpoena for the Watergate tapes in the 1974 case of United States v. Nixon, it also endorsed the general proposition that secrecy is essential to presidential deliberations since it permits greater candor and therefore promotes a superior policy outcome.  “A President and those who assist him must be free to explore alternatives in the process of shaping policies and making decisions and to do so in a way many would be unwilling to express except privately,” the Court said.

The premise that candor is incompatible with disclosure has become a cornerstone of the edifice of government secrecy, and an axiom of freedom of information policy, which provides an exemption for deliberative records.  Yet it is mistaken, according to an iconoclastic new law review paper (pdf), and should be corrected.

It seems intuitively obvious that private discussions lend themselves to greater candor than do public ones.  In private, anyone might be more willing to reveal ignorance or uncertainty, to express personal emotion, or to consider risky or improbable alternatives.

But this is “a highly contestable view of human nature,” write Eric Lane, Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr., and Emily Berman, and it has little empirical basis.  What’s worse, they say, is that the equation of candor and confidentiality fails to take into account the corrosive effects of secrecy.

In practice, according to the authors, secrecy may actually discourage candor.  “When policy deliberations are deemed likely to remain secret, dissenters from the majority view might be more reluctant to give voice to their concerns…. And decision makers themselves might feel freer to silence dissenters when they do not expect their decision-making processes to be subject to scrutiny.”  This was often reportedly the case during the George W. Bush Administration when, according to multiple accounts cited in the paper, presidential advisors declined to question or to challenge confidential policy judgments.

Furthermore, secrecy is not necessary for candor.  Congress rarely invokes secrecy in its deliberations, though it is constitutionally authorized to do so.  As is demonstrated in many political contexts, it is perfectly possible for policy discussions to be both open and candid, with no detrimental effect.  (Under San Francisco’s unusually bold 1999 Sunshine Ordinance, observed Joseph Lorenzo Hall of UC Berkeley, deliberative material is entirely subject to disclosure.)

Finally, the authors write, candor itself does not necessarily promote good decision making.  “While candor may have allowed the president to explore the possibility of engaging the CIA to interfere with an FBI investigation, surely such candor should not be encouraged by the promise of secrecy…. In many of the contexts in which candor is used as a justification for secrecy, the candor that is being shielded is candor that disserves the public interest.”

The authors emphasize that they do not categorically oppose confidential deliberations nor do they advocate that every official meeting be broadcast on live television.  Rather, they argue that the presumption of deliberative secrecy adopted by the Nixon Court is unjustified by principle or practice, and that it should be replaced by a general presumption of openness, especially with respect to congressional requests for access to executive branch records.

“The presumption established by the Nixon Court endorsed and furthered a particular perception of the nature of government decision making — that it is a process whose details should remain hidden behind a veil of secrecy…. It gives presidents and their advisors reason to believe that secrecy is standard operating procedure.”

“Dismantling the Nixon canon — as this Article advocates — would instead foster a culture where the expectations were reversed, where ideas about what is appropriate for public discussion are expanded, and where secrecy must be justified by a risk of significant harm — not harm to the political prospects of the incumbent officials, but to the interests of the nation as a whole.”

See “Too Big a Canon in the President’s Arsenal: Another Look at United States v. Nixon by Eric Lane, Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr., and Emily Berman, George Mason Law Review, volume 17, no. 3, Spring 2010.

Necessary Secrets: Panel Discussion

The Hudson Institute will host a discussion of the new book “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law” by Gabriel Schoenfeld on Tuesday, May 25. The book is a provocative account of the history and significance of “leaks” of classified information to the news media. The author laments the growing number and impact of such leaks, and generally argues for more vigorous enforcement of laws against them. The May 25 discussion will feature Mr. Schoenfeld, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, and myself. There will be a keynote address by former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden.

JASON: Basic Research at the Pentagon is “Broken”

Basic scientific research sponsored by the Department of Defense has suffered a precipitous decline in recent years, according to a newly disclosed 2009 report (pdf) from the JASON defense advisory panel.

“Basic research” refers to the investigation of fundamental phenomena, and contrasts with “applied research” that aims to meet a specific mission requirement or to solve a specified problem.

“Over the past decade, there has been an exodus of scientific and technical expertise from the U.S. government and, in particular, from the DoD [basic] research enterprise,” the JASONs said.

“Gone are many of the technically literate program officers who plied the streets of the scientific community to find those remarkable people who could help shape the future. Gone too are many of the scientists and engineers in the academic community [who were supported by DoD basic research contracts] and who contributed to revolutionary advances that changed the landscape of modern war fighting. And most importantly, lost is the opportunity to develop the next generation of scientific talent who would otherwise have been trained and capable of carrying the research enterprise forward.”

“Despite the importance of DoD Basic Research, we believe that important aspects of the DoD basic research programs are ‘broken’ to an extent that neither throwing more money at these problems nor simple changes in procedures and definitions will fix them,” the report said.

The JASONs nevertheless offer a series of recommendations concerning program organization and personnel recruitment to strengthen basic research. Among other things, they say that DoD should reject the “peer review” model for evaluating funding decisions, since that tends to reinforce the status quo, and should instead provide funding to exceptional individuals. They favorably cite Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez saying: “In my considered opinion the peer review system, in which proposals rather than proposers are reviewed, is the greatest disaster to be visited upon the scientific community this century….”

The JASON report was originally marked “for official use only.” When the Federation of American Scientists requested it last year under the Freedom of Information Act, most of the document was withheld as “deliberative.” But upon appeal, DoD agreed this month to release the entire report. To accompany the release, Alan R. Shaffer, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, issued a cover memorandum stating that the JASON report was “one perspective” among several and that it was not based on a comprehensive data set.

See “S & T for National Security,” JASON Summer Study, completed May 2009, released May 2010.

The Rise of a New Smallpox Vaccine

Reuters is reporting that the US Strategic National Stockpile will begin acquisition of a new smallpox vaccine.  The new product, Imvamune, promises reduced side-effects and potentially improved protection for patients who are treated after exposure to the virus.  These traits could make the vaccine much more effective as a countermeasure against a biological attack using smallpox.

Though the story of Imvamune ultimately demonstrates that improved countermeasures to biological threats can be developed, the story also illustrates some of the challenges involved in the process.

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Reform of “Secret Holds” Derailed in Senate

A long-term, bipartisan effort to eliminate the Senate custom of using “secret holds” to anonymously block pending legislation or nominations was scuttled just as it was on the verge of approval last Thursday after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) attempted to insert an unrelated amendment at the last minute.

“I cannot recall another instance where the cause of open government took a beating… like the cause of open government took this afternoon,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who led the initiative, along with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and others.  Their proposal would generally have required Senators to file a notice of intent whenever they had an objection to Senate proceedings.

“We did not win this afternoon because I think we got kneecapped,” said Sen. Wyden.  “I do not know how to describe it any other way.”

“I can tell you, I have never seen anything like this in my time in the Senate: one Senator coming in, at the last moment, with no notice, trying to derail the cause of open government,” an angry Sen. Wyden said May 13.

A spokesman for Sen. DeMint told the Washington Post that it was not his intent to block the reform of secret holds, but only to get a vote on his own measure, and that he too supported an end to secret holds.

The practice of secret holds is “one of the most pernicious, most antidemocratic practices in government,” said Sen. Wyden.

Only one Senator has publicly disagreed.  Sen. Robert Byrd (D-VA) said that in his view, “there are situations when it is appropriate and even important for Senators to raise a private objection to the immediate consideration of a matter with the leadership and to request a reasonable amount of time to try to have concerns addressed.”

Taping Intelligence Interrogations, and Various Resources

A new Department of Defense policy memorandum requires the videotaping of intelligence interrogations of prisoners in DoD custody, including interrogations that are performed by the Central Intelligence Agency.  “As a condition of having access to conduct strategic intelligence interrogations, individuals representing other U.S. Government agencies, interagency mobile interrogation teams, and foreign governments must comply with this [policy] when conducting strategic intelligence interrogations,” the DoD memorandum states.  See “Videotaping or Otherwise Electronically Recording Strategic Intelligence Interrogations of Persons in the Custody of the Department of Defense” (pdf), Directive-Type Memorandum (DTM) 09-031, May 10, 2010.

Background on recent upheaval in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan is presented in “The April 2010 Coup in Kyrgyzstan: Context and Implications for U.S. Interests” (pdf), Congressional Research Service, May 7, 2010.

The nuclear research reactors that were constructed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during its 66-year history, only one of which is still operational, were described and illustrated in “An Account of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Thirteen Nuclear Reactors” by Murray W. Rosenthal, August 2009 (revised March 2010).

Intelligence community policy on preparing independent cost estimates in support of the National Intelligence Program budget was set forth in “Independent Cost Estimates” (pdf), Intelligence Community Directive (ICD) 109, April 26, 2010.

The U.S. Army’s vision of the future development of unmanned aircraft systems for situational awareness and combat operations was presented in “U.S. Army Roadmap for UAS 2010-2035” (pdf), April 2010.

FAS Conference Call: A Conversation With An Expert – Thursday, 5/20

On Thursday, May 20, 2010, FAS will hold a conference call with members on the technical aspects of Iran’s enrichment program, and the recently issued FAS report– The Twenty Percent Solution: Breaking the Iranian Stalemate.

Dr. Ivan Oelrich, Vice President of the Strategic Security Program, and FAS Researcher Ivanka Barzashka will speak about their proposal to break the Iranian stalemate by reaching a deal to refuel the Tehran research reactor. They will also discuss their assessment of Iran’s enrichment capability, the fuel enrichment plant in Fordow, and Iran’s plan to build ten more enrichment facilities.

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