The presidents of the National Academies said yesterday that the Bush administration
was going too far in limiting publication of some scientific research out of concern
that it could aid terrorists.
Specifically, they said, the administration's policy of restricting the publication
of federally financed research it deemed "sensitive but unclassified" threatened
to "stifle scientific creativity and to weaken national security."
The category of "sensitive but unclassified" was poorly defined, the presidents
said in a "Statement on Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism."
"Experience shows that vague criteria of this kind generate deep uncertainties
among both scientists and officials responsible for enforcing regulations," the
Indeed, the policy, experts said, had already resulted in the administration's
withdrawing of thousands of reports and papers from the public domain.
The National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and
the Institute of Medicine were created by the federal government to advise it
on scientific and technological matters. But the academies are private organizations;
they do not receive direct federal financing, but appropriations from the federal
agencies for whom they conduct their research.
The presidents' statement is at least partly a reaction to the institutions'
own clash with the policy. Last month, the National Academy of Sciences published
a report on agricultural bioterrorism over the objections of the Bush administration.
In publishing the report, the academy said, it hoped to help American scientists
identify ways to bolster the nation's biological defenses.
"That's one example," said E. William Colglazier, the executive director of
the National Academy of Sciences. "There are others."
The general problem, Mr. Colglazier added, "is not having clear guidelines
about what constitutes this sensitive area, because people have different opinions
on what should or shouldn't be included. Right now, it's vague and poorly defined.
But it shouldn't be just in the eye of the beholder."
More broadly, the academy presidents said, the government should reaffirm
a principle laid down in 1985 during the Reagan administration: that no restrictions
are placed upon the conduct or reporting of federally financed fundamental research
that is unclassified.
A successful balance between security and openness, the presidents said, "demands
clarity in the distinctions between classified and unclassified research."
Yesterday's statement was signed by Bruce Alberts, president of the National
Academy of Sciences; William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering;
and Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine.
Responding to the statement, Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the White
House Office of Homeland Security, said: "We continue to work with the scientific
community to strike the appropriate balance between national security information
that must be held close and scientific information that should be available for
The tensions began early this year as the Bush administration began taking
wide measures to tighten scientific secrecy in hopes of keeping terrorists from
obtaining weapons of mass destruction. In January, the administration quietly
began withdrawing from public release more than 6,600 technical documents that
dealt mainly with the production of germ and chemical weapons.
Then, in a memorandum to all governmental agencies on March 19, Andrew H.
Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, urged them to redouble security safeguards.
Special attention, he said, should be paid to "sensitive but unclassified information."
The need to protect information from inappropriate disclosure, Mr. Card wrote,
"should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis, together with the benefits
that result from the open and efficient exchange of scientific, technical and
Soon afterward, the National Academy of Sciences became entangled in the new
policy. The administration asked that an unclassified report it was writing
"Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism" be kept from the public. The report,
a two-year, $400,000 study, was being prepared for the Department of Agriculture.
The report warned that inadequate inspections at the nation's borders and
gaps in intelligence data on foreign plant and animal pathogens raise the chance
that a terrorist armed with, say, the foot-and-mouth virus, could enter the country
and spread diseases that might cripple the nation's livestock and plants.
After months of discussions, Dr. Colglazier said, the academy published the
report in September. He said a few detailed examples of the threats to the nation's
food supplies were removed from the published report and placed in an appendix
that was not made public.
"We made our own decision" on what to remove, Dr. Colglazier emphasized.
In their statement yesterday, the academy presidents called for a dialogue
among scientists, engineers, health researchers and policy makers to develop criteria
for determining when to classify or restrict public access to scientific information.
Among their recommendations, they suggested that a determination be made of
what research bears on possible new security threats. Principles for researchers,
they said, need to address questions like whether some areas of currently unclassified
research should be classified in the new security environment.
The academies, Dr. Colglazier said, "have recognized that it makes sense to
restrict public access to some areas of sensitive information that is unclassified,"
like information about national infrastructures that could be disrupted by terrorist
"But the concern," he said, "is that there should be clear guidance on what
information would fall into this category."
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