Secrecy Is Infectious: Bill Would Shield Biomedical Research

Monday, November 14, 2005; A19

Sen. Richard Burr's cure for infectious-disease outbreaks and dangerous
bioterrorism agents includes a big dose of government secrecy.

The North Carolina Republican has introduced legislation to create the
Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, a new bureaucracy that
would help spur research and development of drugs and vaccines to blunt the
impact of a pandemic or bioterrorist attack. The agency, to be part of the
Department of Health and Human Services, would get something no other agency
has: a full exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

Burr's office says that is necessary to prevent information from falling
into the wrong hands. Open government advocates note that the 40-year-old
FOIA law allows agencies to withhold some information for national security

"It is an act of contempt for the public and for open government that
hopefully will not be adopted," said Steven Aftergood, director of the
Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "They are
asking for more of an exemption than the CIA, more than the NSA [National
Security Agency] has, more than any military or intelligence organization

Doug Heye, Burr's spokesman, said, the critics were overreacting. "It's the
intention of the agency to provide information, not to withhold
information," he said. "But," Heye added, "there will be certain times where
for national security reasons certain information would have to be

Say the agency learns that a virus could be genetically modified to become
deadly. "That's information that we wouldn't want to publicize," he said.

-- Christopher Lee

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