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The bacteriological bookshelf

As part of the American Freedom of Information Act, hundreds of formerly confidential documents from the US bacteriological warfare program, which operated in the years 1969-1943, including plans to establish a bacteria factory, were allowed to be published. Now, following the terrorist attacks on America, the Bush administration is trying to prevent the further spread of the deadly information

Photo: New York Times
the anthrax bacterium. In American documents he was referred to by the code N

Months after an expanded war against bioterrorism began, the US government is still releasing hundreds of documents that were classified at the time as secret, explaining how to turn dangerous bacteria into deadly weapons. For $15 anyone can buy a report called "Dry Freezing, Reduction to Particle Size and Filling of Selected Factors of Bacteriological Weapons". The 1952-page report from 57 includes plans for an experimental factory to produce dried bacteria in powder form, which could penetrate the lungs of humans.

For years, experts called such documents "cookbooks for terrorists" and condemned their public publication. Now, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States, scientists and military experts are working more urgently to make sure that reports on such weapons are securely locked away and that the public is not allowed access to them. Dr. John Marburger,

^^Diagram from a former secret US document from 1952 that dealt with biological weapons^^

The White House science adviser said the Bush administration is considering imposing such restrictions. Experts warn that although these documents are decades old, they contain information that could help produce the type of sophisticated anthrax powder that killed five people in the US in recent months.

"It's scary stuff," said Raymond Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, a private organization researching ways to protect against bacterial warfare. "There is a whole pile of literature somewhere, which is actually an instruction book." One report that Dr. Zilinskas obtained from the administration was titled "Development of N for Offensive Use in Biological Warfare."
"N was the code letter for Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria. Another report is called "Stability of the poisonous substance botulinum in common drinks". This substance, derived from bacteria, is the most toxic known to science.

Documents of this type were written in the years 1969-1943 when the United States employed an army of scientists and engineers to research, develop and build a stockpile of bacteriological weapons. Washington announced in 1969 that it was renouncing the use of biological warfare and dismantled the stockpile of weapons it had developed, but the administration retained the research, prescriptions and programs on which the weapons were based.

Over the years, hundreds of such documents have been released for publication, as part of an effort to enable transparency of the internal mechanism of the government. Today, federal agencies routinely sell the documents to historians and other researchers, mostly over the Internet and over the phone. More sensitive, but non-confidential, reports are available through the mail under the Freedom of Information Act.

Critics of this policy now fear that bacteriological warfare documents could, if they fall into the wrong hands, accelerate the development of weapons designed to paralyze and harm the United States, and they want new precautions to be taken.

"We can't get them back," Zilinskas said of the documents that have already been released to the public. "But we can prevent another leak of this type of material to the public."

Shortly before the terrorist attacks on the United States, Zilinskas and Seth Karos, an expert on microbes at the National Defense University of the United States Army, wrote a report on bioterrorism, which called on a group of experts to review the old literature and determine which reports should be reclassified as classified.

But the exact opposite is now being done at Fort Detrick in Maryland, home of the US Army's old bacteriological weapons program. Two years ago, during the Bill Clinton administration, this military base was asked to review what other secret and classified reports should be released. Since the anthrax attacks this trend has reversed. A military expert in charge of evaluating 3,500 documents at Fort Detrick said he was concerned about the documents already available to the public and called for new restrictions.

"The problem is not declassification and release for publication - the problem is reclassification as classified material," said Harry Dangerfield, who was a doctor at Fort Detrick during the biological warfare program. Today he works for the "International Corporation for Scientific Applications", a military contractor that manages the research at Fort Detrick. "My main concern is the number of unclassified documents that must be protected from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They are secure, but no good comes of it, if people can write or call and ask to receive them within the framework of the law."

Dangerfield, a retired colonel of the US Army, prepares a report on the subject for Major General John Parker, commander of the Fort Detrick base. Dangerfield said the report would call for the reclassification of more than 200 reports, which he described as instructional manuals for turning bacteria into weapons. The first test he performed on them, he said, "nailed my hair."

But those who support public access to government information are suspicious of this new effort. Dr. Steven Aftergood, a privacy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, said that the new trend could promote bad policy. "If these documents are a threat, they should be monitored and controlled, if possible," said Aftergood. "But misuse of the tool of classifying documents as secret is widespread in the administration, and the authority to reclassify documents could create names."

Dr. Ronald Atlas, the elected chairman of the "American Society for Microbiology", the world's largest organization of professionals in the field of bacteria, which is based in Washington, also expressed such concerns. "Once the awl is out of the bag, can it really ever be put back in?" Atlas asked. And even if the new secrecy is possible, he said, it would be wise to exercise caution in its use. "I don't think manuals for making bacteriological weapons should be out there," he said. "But if it is information that has a dual purpose and can protect public health, it should be released for publication."

Experts say that several factors contributed to the original declassification of the documents. Since the closure of the US bacteriological warfare program in 1969, the number of scientists who could help evaluate and determine which documents could be declassified and which documents should remain classified has dwindled. As a result, over the years, federal officials have increasingly relied on automatic declassification measures, which encourage the release of documents for publication. The trend accelerated after the Cold War, and especially with the Clinton administration's tendency to allow the publication of secrets of various branches of government, experts said.

Today, reports on bacteria that have been declassified by military officials are publicly available through the Defense Technical Information Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The center, which is the Pentagon's main repository for scientific and technical data and manages a comprehensive website that helps identify old documents, provides services to an arm of the Commerce Department known as the National Technical Information Service in Springfield, Virginia. This is the service that sold to the general public the document about the experimental factory for drying bacteria and many other documents.
For example, a report from 1958, "Inspection and screening studies with variola virus", which describes military studies to test the potential of using smallpox as a weapon. It is a highly contagious disease that, even without the help of scientists, has managed to kill more people over the generations than any other disease.

Experts believe that it is problematic, if not impossible, to cover up reports that have already been declassified and have been released for publication. Aftergood said that the current presidential order dealing with these matters, signed by President Clinton in 1995, prohibits the reclassification of documents as classified. However, he added that the government agencies can try to limit the disclosure to only those documents that the freedom of information law requires to be disclosed.

Steven Garfinkel, who recently retired, after 21 years, from his position as director of the administration's "Office of Information Security Oversight," said that protecting documents that have been declassified under the current law "will be very difficult." Because of these difficulties, Garfinkel added, the Bush administration is now considering issuing a presidential order that would allow reclassification, a procedure the administration allowed in 1995-1982 but is now prohibited under Clinton's order.

Marburger, the White House science adviser, said the issue was under review by senior officials. He added that he was concerned that terrorists might obtain potentially lethal information from the administration itself, but called for a cautious approach to the problem.

Experts agree that reclassifying documents as classified could be an effective solution for documents that have already been declassified but have not yet been released to the general public, such as some documents at Fort Detrick. But regarding documents that have already been made public, Garfinkel added, their reclassification could do more harm than good. "He might stand out and draw attention to information, which he would have assumed - fewer people would have noticed him," he said.

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