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[dvd-discuss] Putting the Toothpaste Back Into the Tubes. FIrst the Public DOmain Now science....

February 17, 2002

U.S. Tightening Rules on Keeping Scientific Secrets


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

Last month, it began quietly withdrawing from public release more than 6,600 technical 
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 
more documents' being withdrawn.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 
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

But critics say the most extreme steps proposed could make it impossible for scientists to 
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 

"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 
than the information getting into the wrong hands." 

The federal reports already withdrawn, once sold freely to the public, include not only 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

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 
perhaps reclassified as state secrets. 

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

Mr. Ryan added that he did not know when such deliberations might be completed or 
made over the fate of the 6,600 withdrawn documents.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 
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 
researchers from other laboratories would need to replicate the claimed results, helping to 
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 
that smacked of censorship. They're discussing it, and I wouldn't rule out them doing 

He added that he was surprised by the number of his colleagues in academia who seemed 
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 
and fear feeds on ignorance," she said in a statement to appear in the March issue of the 
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 
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 
100 unclassified scientific papers at an international symposium on optical engineering in 
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 
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 
the government's research on and production of biological weapons. The work was done 
1943 and 1969 and was later renounced as Washington pressed for a global ban on such

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 
Researchers stumbled upon the gaps while trying to obtain reports from the National 
Information Service, an arm of the Commerce Department in Springfield, Va., that sells 
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 
be overreacting. "If it's been out there for 40 and 50 years," he asked, "how are they going to 

Cheryl Mendonsa, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department, said that 6,619 
had been pulled from circulation as of Thursday and that the figure would rise as new 
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 
Bush administration is considering an executive order that would permit it.

Steven Garfinkel, who recently stepped down as director of the government's Information 
Oversight Office, said the scale of the withdrawal was large by historical standards and 
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 
new classification levels.

Dr. Atlas of the American Society of Microbiology, who is a dean at the University of 
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 
medical school of Emory University, was more supportive. Papers about making weapons of 
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 
example. Publishing an article on the bioengineering of viruses related to smallpox might 
dangerous, he said. But such open research could greatly advance work on vaccines meant 
battle a variety of ills.

"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-
of scientific publications would be extraordinarily cost-ineffective and would stifle the
communication of important research findings."