from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2004, Issue No. 6
January 21, 2004


How should the nation structure its defenses to detect the release of lethal biological agents in an act of bioterrorism?

"It is not realistic to undertake a nationwide, blanket deployment of biosensors," according to a study performed for the government last year by the JASON scientific advisory group.

Fortunately, however, "the most important component of an effective biodetection architecture" is already in place: that is, the American public.

The public constitutes "a network of 288 million mobile sensors with the capacity to self-report exposures of medical consequence to a broad range of pathogens," the study said, allowing other, conventional types of "sensors" to be deployed in a more focused manner.

Reliance on public vigilance for this purpose implies and presupposes public access to relevant information, however.

"There is an obligation to educate the public regarding biodefense because a prudent response by the public is critical to minimizing the consequences of a bioterrorism attack," the authors wrote.

Yet government information policy on such matters is marked by arbitrary withholding practices, including the continuing refusal to release an unclassified Defense Department report on the 2001 anthrax attacks (SN, 08/19/03).

A copy of the JASON report on "Biodetection Architectures," dated February 2003, is posted here (44 pages, 1.9 MB PDF file):


The JASON advisory group was established in 1960 to harness non-governmental scientific expertise in the service of national defense.

Its studies traverse the frontiers of defense science and technology, from quantum computing to maintenance of the nuclear weapons stockpile to detection of underground bunkers. Yet given the difficult subject matter, they are written with unusual lucidity.

A selection of recent unclassified JASON studies is now available here:


A catalog of genetic information related to the use of viruses as biological weapons has been prepared for the U.S. Army by University of Alabama scientists.

"In response to the potential use of viruses as biological weapons, we have established the Viral Biological-threat Bioinformatics Resource (VBBR) that collects, catalogs, annotates, and analyzes genetic information related to potential viral threats," according to a recent report on the initiative.

The VBBR is available online, but access to the unclassified data is restricted. "Only individuals and groups designated by the granting agency (U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command) can utilize these resources."

See "Development of a Viral Biological-threat Bioinformatics Resource" by Elliot J. Lefkowitz, October 2003:

"Tremendous progress" has been made over the past year in the biodefense research agenda, according to an August 2003 report from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID):


Saddam Hussein's Iraq was engaged in "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," President Bush declared awkwardly in the State of the Union address on January 20, without acknowledging that he was again redefining the magnitude of the former Iraqi threat.

The President should have confronted the clear disparity between the pre-war intelligence on Iraq and the post-war findings, said Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

"If 9/11 was a failure to connect the dots, it appears that the Intelligence Community, in the case of Iraq's WMD, connected the dots to the wrong conclusions," Rep. Harman said in a speech last week.

"If our intelligence products had been better, I believe many policymakers, including me, would have had a far clearer picture of the sketchiness of our sources on Iraq's WMD programs, and our lack of certainty about Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities," she said.

See her January 16 speech "The Intelligence on Iraq's WMD: Looking Back to Look Forward":


In other national security secrecy-related program activities, Space Imaging today released a high resolution satellite image of Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas, site of the upcoming Super Bowl on February 1.

The image, which also features the (former) Houston Astrodome and vicinity, was collected by Space Imaging's Ikonos satellite on January 19. See:


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

To SUBSCRIBE to Secrecy News, send an email message to [email protected] with "subscribe" (without quotes) in the body of the message.

To UNSUBSCRIBE, send a blank email message to [email protected].

OR email your request to [email protected]

Secrecy News is archived at: