by William J. Broad, The New York Times
Months into an expanded war on bioterrorism, the government is still making available hundreds of documents that tell how to turn germs into deadly weapons.
Months into an expanded war on bioterrorism, the government is still making available to the public hundreds of formerly secret documents that tell how to turn dangerous germs into deadly weapons.
For $15, anyone can buy "Selection of Process for Freeze-Drying, Particle Size Reduction and Filling of Selected BW Agents," or germs for biological warfare. The 57-page report, dated 1952, includes plans for a pilot factory that could produce dried germs in powder form, designed to lodge in human lungs.
For years, experts have called such documents cookbooks for terrorists and condemned their public release. Now, with new urgency, scientists and military experts are campaigning to have the weapon reports locked away from public access. The Bush administration is considering such restrictions, said John H. Marburger III, the White House science adviser.
Experts warn that the documents, even though decades old, have information that could help produce the kind of sophisticated anthrax powder that killed five people and traumatized the nation last fall.
"It's pretty scary stuff," said Raymond A. Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a private group that studies germ defenses. "There's a whole bunch of literature out there that's really cookbook."
One report obtained by Dr. Zilinskas from the government is "Development of `N' for Offensive Use in Biological Warfare." `N' was the code letter for Bacillus anthracis, the germ that causes anthrax. Another is "The Stability of Botulinum Toxin in Common Beverages." The germ-derived substance is the most poisonous known to science.
Such documents were written from 1943 to 1969 when the United States employed an army of scientists and engineers to research, develop and build a stockpile of germ weapons. Although Washington renounced germ warfare in 1969 and dismantled its arsenal, the government preserved the studies, recipes and blueprints on which the arms were based.
Hundreds of the documents have been declassified over the decades as part of an effort to make public the inner workings of government. Today, federal agencies routinely sell the documents to historians and other researchers, mostly by Internet and telephone. More sensitive but still unclassified reports are made available by mail under the Freedom of Information Act.
Critics of the disclosure policy inside and outside the government now fear that the germ warfare documents, in the wrong hands, could speed the development of weapons meant to cripple the United States, and they want new precautions.
"We can't get it back," Dr. Zilinskas said of papers already released. "But we can prevent further leakage of this material to the general public."
Shortly before the terror attacks, Dr. Zilinskas and W. Seth Carus, a germ expert at the military's National Defense University, wrote a report on bioterrorism that called for a group of experts to review the old literature and see which reports should be reclassified, safeguarding them with new layers of federal secrecy.
But just the opposite has been under way at Fort Detrick, Md., home of the Army's old program to make germ weapons. Two years ago, in the Clinton administration, the military post was asked to examine what other secret and confidential reports should be declassified.
With new resolve since the anthrax attacks, that work has now shifted into reverse. In an interview, the military expert evaluating 3,500 documents at Fort Detrick said he became alarmed at those already available and is calling for new barriers.
"The problem is not declassification it's reclassification," said the official, Harry G. Dangerfield, a medical doctor at Fort Detrick during the offensive germ program. Dr. Dangerfield now works for the Science Applications International Corporation, a military contractor conducting the Fort Detrick study.
"My major concern is the number of unclassified documents that need to be protected against F.O.I.A. requests," Dr. Dangerfield said, referring to the Freedom of Information Act. "They're locked up, but it doesn't do any good if people can write or call in and get them because of the law."
Dr. Dangerfield, a retired Army colonel, is preparing a report on the topic for Maj. Gen. John S. Parker, the Fort Detrick commander.
Dr. Dangerfield said in an interview that the report would call for the reclassification of more than 200 reports he characterized as how-to manuals for turning germs into weapons. His first examination of them, he said, "raised the hair on the back of my neck."
But advocates of public access to government information are wary of the new push. Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, said that it could promote bad policy. "If these documents pose a threat, they should be controlled, if possible," Dr. Aftergood said. "But classification abuse is rampant in the government and authority to reclassify things could wreak havoc."
Ronald M. Atlas, president-elect of the American Society of Microbiology, the world's largest organization of germ professionals, based in Washington, echoed those concerns.
"Once the cat's out of the bag, can you ever really put it back?" Dr. Atlas asked. And even if new secrecy is possible, he said, it would be wise to exercise caution.
"I don't think how-to manuals should be out there," Dr. Atlas said. "But if it's information that has dual purposes and can protect public health, it should be released."
Experts say several factors contributed to the original declassification of the documents.
After the germ warfare program was ended in 1969, fewer scientists were available to help assess what declassifications might be appropriate. So federal officials over the years increasingly fell back on automatic declassification steps that encourage disclosure.
That trend quickened after the cold war when the Clinton administration urged that secrets throughout the government by divulged whenever possible, experts said.
Today, the germ reports declassified by military officials are made available to the public by the Defense Technical Information Center, at Fort Belvoir, Va. The center, the Pentagon's main repository of scientific and technical data, has a comprehensive Web site that helps identify old documents.
The military center provides many of its reports to an arm of the Commerce Department known as the National Technical Information Service, in Springfield, Va. From its Web site, the service sells the pilot- factory document and many others to the public.
For instance, "Screening Studies with Variola Virus," dated 1958, describes Army studies to explore the weapon potential of smallpox, a highly contagious illness that even without military aid managed to kill more people over the ages than any other disease.
Experts judge it problematic, if not impossible, to shield reports already declassified and made public. Mr. Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, said the current executive order governing such issues, signed by President Clinton in 1995, bars reclassification. Mr. Aftergood added, however, that agencies could stop sales and try to limit disclosures to those documents that have to be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Steven Garfinkel, who recently stepped down as director of the government's Information Security Oversight Office after 21 years, said protecting the unclassified documents under the current law "would be very difficult."
Because of such difficulties, Mr. Garfinkel added, the Bush administration is considering an executive order that would allow reclassification, which the government permitted from 1982 to 1995 but is barred under the Clinton order.
Dr. Marburger, the White House science adviser, said the issue was under high-level review. He added that he was personally concerned that terrorists might obtain potentially deadly information from the government but urged a cautious approach to the problem.
Experts agree that reclassification might work fairly well for documents already declassified but not yet publicly disseminated, like some at Fort Detrick.
But Mr. Garfinkel added that, for documents already made public, reclassification might do more harm than good. "It could give visibility to information that would have been less noticed if left alone," he said.