from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 6
January 15, 2002
DO DECLASSIFIED BIOWEAPON DOCUMENTS POSE A THREAT?
- DO DECLASSIFIED BIOWEAPON DOCUMENTS POSE A THREAT?
- CONTROLLING BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS RESEARCH
- RECLASSIFYING DECLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS
The New York Times reported on January 13 that the U.S. government offers for sale hundreds of declassified documents that amount to "cookbooks" for manufacturing biological weapons, prompting calls for reclassification of the documents.
But while the sensational storyline of irresponsible government officials declassifying sensitive secrets and endangering public safety is irresistible, there are reasons for skepticism and for opposing a knee-jerk response.
To begin with, the "cookbook" metaphor is misleading. A regular cookbook will enable you to bake a cake, more or less well. But it is difficult to reduce the manufacture of biological weapons to a "recipe" since it involves the kind of tacit knowledge that cannot be readily captured in a technical report.
Moreover, the technologies involved in production of biological weapons -- from the growth of bacterial cultures to the milling of desired particle sizes -- overlap to a significant extent with technologies used in non-weapons research, including various medical and industrial pursuits.
This means that attempts to classify or reclassify information about such technologies could be illusory or futile.
"The techniques used for drying and stabilizing bacterial products are not proscribed or arcane science," said George C. Smith, a microbiologist who writes The Crypt newsletter on security policy. At the same time, he said, "The 'art' of doing it for specific microorganisms, or very dangerous products of them, is a complicated matter that cannot easily be completely defined by a scientific paper."
Smith did not dismiss the possibility that the documents cited in the New York Times might be truly sensitive, but he cautioned that no such determination could be made based on the titles of the documents alone, no matter how inflammatory they might seem.
"The best assessment might be made by people with an exacting knowledge of the hands-on work," he suggested. "There is a misperception, I think, that only people who have worked in classified programs have this acumen."
Significantly, some of the best informed scientists stopped short of endorsing calls for blanket reclassification and urged a more measured response.
"I don't think how-to manuals should be out there," said Ronald M. Atlas, president-elect of the American Society of Microbiology. "But if it's information that has dual purposes and can protect public health, it should be released," he told the New York Times.
See "U.S. Selling Papers Showing How to Make Germ Weapons" by William J. Broad in the January 13 New York Times here:
See The Crypt Newsletter homepage here:
CONTROLLING BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS RESEARCH
New restrictions on particular historical documents concerning biological weapons may or may not turn out to be necessary. But current and future biological weapons research poses policy challenges that are far more complex.
"The potentially catastrophic consequences of a biological attack call not only for improved preparedness to mitigate the effects of such weapons, but also for robust measures to impede their development, acquisition, and use," writes Gerald L. Epstein, now of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
"Our ability to deny access to these weapons, however, is fundamentally limited," Epstein says in a newly published analysis.
"Much of the relevant equipment is in widespread commercial use and internationally available; the pathogens involved can typically be found in the environment; and the underlying research and technology base is available to a rapidly growing and thoroughly international technical community."
"This means not only that a sophisticated adversary willing to devote sufficient time and resources to developing biological weapons is likely to succeed, but that policy measures to frustrate such developments are likely to affect many legitimate activities outside of the ones they are intended to address."
"At the same time, however, not all those who contemplate developing biological weapons will be sophisticated, patient, or rich. Increasing the difficulty and the visibility of any attempt to acquire such weapons -- particularly by a less capable or less committed actor -- is potentially valuable."
Epstein carefully examines the competing interests affecting proposed restrictions on access to pathogens. And he explores the need for, and feasibility of, controls on what he terms "contentious research," referring to biological or biomedical research that could have immediate weapons implications.
"Controlling Biological Warfare Threats: Resolving Potential Tensions Among the Research Community, Industry, and the National Security Community" was just published in Critical Reviews in Microbiology, vol. 27, no. 4 (2001). It is not currently available online.
RECLASSIFYING DECLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS
The question of whether documents, once declassified, can be or should be reclassified has been asked on a number of occasions over the years, and then answered in different ways.
Nuclear weapons information, once declassified, cannot be reclassified, according to the Department of Energy's interpretation of Section 142 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2162). (DOE officials sometimes finagle this restriction by withholding the declassified information as Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information.)
Under President Reagan, officials were permitted to reclassify declassified information and documents under certain conditions. This authority was exercised on numerous occasions, but these do not seem to have been publicly reported. See Section 1.6(c) and (d) of President Reagan's Executive Order 12356:
President Clinton permitted reclassification of declassified information only if it had not been officially released to the public. Once it was officially released it could not then be reclassified. See Section 1.8(c) and (d) of President Clinton's Executive Order 12958, which remains in effect today:
A review of this executive order is now underway by the Bush Administration and may include consideration of expanded authority to reclassify declassified information.
FAS has urged that any such reclassification authority be narrowly circumscribed and that agency proposals for reclassification actions be subject to independent approval or rejection by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.
Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.
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