October 27, 2005

New Biomedical Agency to Be Ultra-Secret

The United States Senate is moving a bill through its legislative process that would create a new government agency, specifically S. 1873 would "prepare and strengthen the biodefenses of the United States against deliberate, accidental, and natural outbreaks of illness."

The new agency, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA), would be categorically exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), according to the Federation of American Scientists, from which most of this report was taken.

The Federation of American Scientists reports: Ordinary FOIA exemptions place specific categories of information beyond the reach of FOIA. But the audacious new BARDA exemption would nullify the applicability of the FOIA to an entire agency.

"Information that relates to the activities, working groups, and advisory boards of the BARDA shall not be subject to disclosure under section 552 of title 5, United States Code [i.e. the FOIA], unless the Secretary or Director determines that such disclosure would pose no threat to national security," the bill states. And it says that such a determination by the Secretary or Director will not be subject to judicial review, which means that no one will be able to challenge such a decision in court.

"Even intelligence agencies and the Defense Department do not have blanket exemptions from FOIA," noted Nick Schwellenbach of the Project on Government Oversight.

"Secrecy is inappropriate when developing [drugs and other] countermeasures for natural infectious disease," wrote Alan Pearson and Lynn Klotz of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in a letter to Senators.

Why the need for total secrecy? While it is understandable that certain biomedical countermeasure efforts to defend the American people from biomedical terrorist weapons would need to be kept secret, what would be the necessity, for instance, of keeping secret what our experts are doing to prevent or curtail "natural outbreaks of illness?" Does it mean that if we found a vaccine to prevent a human variant of Avian flu, we'd keep that a secret?

Secrecy is a necessary evil in a free society, up to a point. This legislation, sponsored by among others, Republican Majority Leader Senator Doctor Bill Frist, would set an extremely bad precedent in the world of government secrecy classifications. It deserves a resounding "no" vote when it comes to the Senate floor.

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