Science, Not Secrecy

Impeding research doesn't enhance homeland security


The rising tide of government mandated secrecy in the United States imperils rather than protects us from terrorist attacks, argues the American Civil Liberties Union in its report Science Under Siege released on Tuesday. The ACLU takes the Bush Administration to task for a variety of sins including the increasing overclassification of information as secret. (Full disclosure: I am a card carrying member of the ACLU.) President Bill Clinton ordered that agencies presume that government documents and information should not be classified unless there was a good reason they should be. After the atrocities of September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration essentially reversed that presumption. As a result, in the mid-1990s, about 200 million pages of previously secret government documents were declassified annually. By 2004, the number of pages declassified had dropped to around 30 million per year. Meanwhile classification rates are now twice what they were during the Clinton years.

Even more disturbing is invention of a new category of restricted information, "sensitive but unclassified." Relying on this vague category, various government agencies are now restricting public access to all types of information. By February 2002, more than 6,600 technical documents once freely available to the public had been withdrawn by federal agencies. Now agencies regularly stamp once available information with restrictive designations such as "For Official Use Only," "Sensitive Homeland Security Information," and "Sensitive Security Information." The ACLU notes, "The vagueness of these terms means that there are no criteria for identifying or challenging what may be deemed 'sensitive'."

The Bush Administration has also imposed a wide array of restrictions on foreign researchers and their access to research results. For example, in 2003, the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued regulations aimed at forbidding the editing and publication of work by any authors, including scientists, from countries against which the U.S. has trade embargoes. The OFAC eventually backed down when it was challenged for trying to forbid the publication of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iranian human rights activist's Shirin Ebadi's memoir in the United States. OFAC nevertheless maintains that it has the right to establish future restrictions. The ACLU notes, "The notion that a publisher would have to ask permission of the government as to what can be published and how it can appear could not be more clearly in violation of the First Amendment."

New restrictions on foreign students and researchers are also harming the American scientific enterprise. The ACLU report notes that more than half of the students enrolled in science and engineering programs in the U.S. are foreigners. Also, 40 percent of U.S. engineering faculty and engineering, math and computer science graduate students are foreign-born. American scientific research and our economy have benefited tremendously from this openness to foreign scholars. More than one-third of U.S. Nobel laureates are foreign-born; 38 percent of science and engineering doctorates in the workforce are foreign-born; and nearly 30 percent of the scientific and medical professionals at the National Institutes of Health are foreign nationals. Now various restrictive visa programs based on the notion that potential terrorists can be successfully profiled are choking off this source of future scientists. In 2003, foreign student enrollment fell by 2.4 percent, the first decrease in more than 30 years. In 2004, foreign applications to American graduate schools declined by 28 percent, and admissions fell by 18 percent.

The ACLU notes that the U.S. government is now imposing restrictions on access to scientific research materials and technologies. Of course, dangerous substances do need some regulation, but the fact is that a lot of scientific equipment and materials have dual uses. They can be used to harm or to heal. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now regulate select agents (various toxins and disease organisms) under the authority of USA PATRIOT Act and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. Some 200,000 institutions in the U.S. that use such select agents in their scientific research must cope with a whole new slate of regulations about registering research and determining who can access these materials. The Department of Health and Human Services has also established a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity with the aim of regulating dual use biotechnologies.

The ACLU is not saying that the government cannot keep some secrets, but that in a democracy, the presumption should always be in favor of openness and transparency. That is the only way citizens can keep their officials accountable for what they do. As an illustration of how government agencies can duck responsibility by classifying something as secret, the ACLU cites example of where the government claimed in 1948 that releasing the details of a military flight accident would endanger national security. When the information was declassified in 2003, it turns out that government officials were hiding the fact that the crash was due to faulty maintenance.

Let's face it; nothing can stop determined terrorists from eventually pulling off some kind of attack here in the United States. The perpetrators of the September 11 atrocities did not resort to the peer-reviewed scientific literature to find out how to use jetliners as guided missiles. Certainly, they used our technologies against us—perhaps demonstrating that, in a sense, all technologies are dual use. After all, the September 11 terrorists didn't use exotic biotech bugs or novel explosives to attack us; they used telephones, computers, automobiles, and box cutters.

In general it is our technological and scientific openness that has increasingly protected us against diseases, natural disasters, industrial accidents, foreign enemies and, in the future, terrorist attacks. Unless we cripple our capacities by accepting the imposition of misguided restrictions on research, our scientific and technological prowess is what will allow us to recover and heal quickly from the effects of any future attacks.