Ten years ago, the U.S. government was not feverishly trying to stanch the flow of information to bioterrorists. Rather it was trying to
unload technical reports from its offensive biowar program, which
operated from 1943 to 1969.
As recently as 2000, writes biowar observer Raymond
Zilinskas, it was "easy to find information on such topics as: how to
grow and propagate the bacterial and viral species listed in the Centers
of Disease Control and Prevention's critical agents lists; the dispersal
and fate of aerosolized particles; the characteristics of dispersal systems;
the meteorological records of cities and regions; and so forth."
Under a declassification protocol that started in
1977 and accelerated under President Clinton, results of old U.S. biowar
experiments were sold to anyone trustworthy enough to hold a credit card.
When Zilinskas searched the holdings in 1996, he found about 4,500 articles
dealing with biological weapons, many of them available to all comers.
The stuff is no longer so freely available, Zilinskas says.
While the genetic engineering techniques we've mentioned
in current scientific publications might help produce "improved" bioweapons,
the U.S. studies addressed nuts-and-bolts issues related to simple effectiveness,
"The technical studies provide, for example, microbiological studies
on how to grow and weaponize Bacillus anthracis, engineering details
of the manufacture of biological bomblets, characteristics of plant
pathogens useful for biological weapons against agriculture, and so
forth. They contain, for instance, detailed descriptions of how to:
grow Bacillus anthracis in large amounts, including the best media for
this purpose; convert cells into spores; increase the virulence of this
pathogen; dry wet biomass constitute by spores; load biomass into bomblets,
and so on. There are also detailed engineering plans on the specs of
biological bomblets developed over many years by the pre-1969 U.S. [biological
weapons] program. These sources provide not only information about biological
weapons development and manufacture, but also the know-how gleaned from
experiences of scientists who worked for years to develop recipes for
the biological weapons that constituted the U.S.'s biological arsenal;
these recipes include descriptions for overcoming the myriads of problems
that beset whomever attempts to direct microorganisms to do their bidding.
While much of this technical information would be beyond the understanding
of most terrorist groups, the few well-endowed groups and, of course,
national programs likely would find this information very useful."
Gas masks like these
-- the kind issued to military personnel during World War II -- have become
all too familiar again. Photo: City
of Stoke-Trent, U.K.
But where do we draw the
line in scientific publications?