U.S. TIGHTENING RULES ON KEEPING SCIENTIFIC SECRETS 



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13 Dec 2002

Source: New York Times, February 17, 2002.

U.S. Tightening Rules on Keeping Scientific Secrets

By WILLIAM J. BROAD

The Bush administration is taking wide measures to tighten scientific secrecy in the hope of keeping weapons of mass destruction out of unfriendly hands.

Last month, it began quietly withdrawing from public release more than 6,600 technical documents that deal mainly with the production of germ and chemical weapons. It is also drafting a new information security policy, to be released in the next few weeks, that officials say will result in more documents' being withdrawn. It is asking scientific societies to limit what they publish in research reports.

"We're working hard for a set of guidelines so terrorists can't use information that this country produces against us," Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, said in an interview. "This will have to be a dynamic process." He added that scientists were being closely consulted on any new guidelines.

But critics say the most extreme steps proposed could make it impossible for scientists to assess and replicate the work of their colleagues, eroding the foundations of American science. They fear that government officials eager for the protections of secrecy will overlook how open research on dangerous substances can produce a wealth of cures, disease antidotes and surprise discoveries.

"It comes down to a risk-benefit ratio," said Robert R. Rich, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "I think the risk of forgone advances is much greater than the information getting into the wrong hands."

The federal reports already withdrawn, once sold freely to the public, include not only declassified ones from the 1940's, 50's and 60's but also modern ones that were previously judged to contain nothing that had to be kept secret. Experts say the sweeping withdrawal has few if any precedents.

R. Paul Ryan, deputy administrator of the federal Defense Technical Information Center, the Pentagon agency that has custody of the reports, said panels of scientific experts would be assembled to see whether the documents should once again be made available to the public or perhaps reclassified as state secrets.

The expert panels, he said, will determine "if we need major, minor or no revisions" to security guidelines.

Mr. Ryan added that he did not know when such deliberations might be completed or decisions made over the fate of the 6,600 withdrawn documents.

Since Sept. 11, the administration has sought to clamp down on the flow of information on several fronts. In October, for example, Attorney General John Ashcroft told federal officials that the Justice Department would support them if they resisted freedom-of-information requests. But science has now become the leading edge of the crackdown.

For instance, the White House has asked the American Society of Microbiology, the world's largest group of germ professionals, based in Washington, to limit potentially dangerous information in the 11 journals it publishes, including Infection and Immunity, The Journal of Bacteriology and The Journal of Virology.

One White House proposal is to eliminate the sections of articles that give experimental details researchers from other laboratories would need to replicate the claimed results, helping to prove their validity.

"That takes apart the whole foundation of science," Ronald M. Atlas, president-elect of the society, said of omitting methods. "I've made it reasonably clear that we would object to anything that smacked of censorship. They're discussing it, and I wouldn't rule out them doing something."

He added that he was surprised by the number of his colleagues in academia who seemed willing to discuss publishing limits. "I think it undermines science," he said.

Abigail Salyers, the society's president, offered a more pointed rebuff. "Terrorism feeds on fear, and fear feeds on ignorance," she said in a statement to appear in the March issue of the group's magazine. The best defense against anthrax or any infectious disease, Dr. Salyers added, is information that can bolster public safety.

Experts say such issues are being debated at the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the federal government.

Mr. Ridge said the critics were overreacting. "I can understand their concern, but I'm not sure the alarm bells should be rung just yet," he said.

"Let's first do the work" of producing the new guidelines, Mr. Ridge said. He added that the scientists "have to remember what we're up against": terrorism with exotic weapons that could maim or kill millions of people.

Scientists and the White House have clashed before over the flow of scientific information. In 1982, the Reagan administration, eager to thwart Soviet spies, blocked the presentation of about 100 unclassified scientific papers at an international symposium on optical engineering in San Diego. The move was loudly protested, and the administration soon dropped such restraints.

Last fall, after five people died from anthrax spores contained in letters, a new debate arose over the need for curbs on information and materials that terrorists could use to make weapons that are especially deadly. The main worries centered on lethal germs, chemicals and radioactivity.

The Bush administration, already a strong advocate of federal secrecy, quickly pulled much information on arms and national vulnerabilities from government Web sites. But to the astonishment of many experts, it continued to permit the sale of old federal documents that detailed the government's research on and production of biological weapons. The work was done between 1943 and 1969 and was later renounced as Washington pressed for a global ban on such weapons.

This year, critics called with new urgency for such reports to be locked up. "It's just plain stupid to be making this kind of sensitive information so readily available," The Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., editorialized last month.

Late last month the administration began withdrawing the documents from sale, officials said. Researchers stumbled upon the gaps while trying to obtain reports from the National Technical Information Service, an arm of the Commerce Department in Springfield, Va., that sells military and other kinds of federal documents.

"It's amazing," said Matthew Lesko, the author of more than 100 books based on federal information. "Everything that's being asked for is classified." He added that the government might be overreacting. "If it's been out there for 40 and 50 years," he asked, "how are they going to stop it?"

Cheryl Mendonsa, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department, said that 6,619 documents had been pulled from circulation as of Thursday and that the figure would rise as new candidates were identified for security review. "The process is ongoing," she said.

After requesting a withdrawn document, visitors to the service's Web site see the message: "Selected product is not available for online ordering."

Current federal policy generally bars the reclassification of formerly secret documents, but the Bush administration is considering an executive order that would permit it.

Steven Garfinkel, who recently stepped down as director of the government's Information Security Oversight Office, said the scale of the withdrawal was large by historical standards and unusual because all the documents were already in the public domain.

He added that attempts to obtain the reports would still be possible under the Freedom of Information Act, but that "purposeful delays" would be likely until federal officials decided on the new classification levels.

Dr. Atlas of the American Society of Microbiology, who is a dean at the University of Louisville, said he was skeptical of the recall's merit. "Either the reports crossed a line they shouldn't have," he said, "or they've just removed information that would help the advancement of science."

Dr. Rich of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, who is a dean at the medical school of Emory University, was more supportive. Papers about making weapons of mass destruction, he said, should be promptly removed from public circulation.

But Dr. Rich cautioned that the benefits of basic research far outweighed any risks. He cited an example. Publishing an article on the bioengineering of viruses related to smallpox might look dangerous, he said. But such open research could greatly advance work on vaccines meant to battle a variety of ills, including the human immunodeficiency virus.

"There is very little that comes out of university labs that could conceivably be considered sensitive," he said. "So to set up any kind of blanket policy that would require general pre-review of scientific publications would be extraordinarily cost-ineffective and would stifle the communication of important research findings."