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The Secretive Fight Against Bioterror
In addition to the department's internal review boards, the agency will bring in small groups of "three or four scientists" on an ad-hoc basis to review certain kinds of potentially controversial experiments, Courtney said. The review panels will be "independent," Courtney said, but he noted that only scientists with government security clearances will be allowed to participate.
Some experts have called for unusual forms of oversight, including panels of well-respected, internationally known scientists and observers from overseas. While allowing that the results of some experiments should be kept confidential, O'Toole, of the Center for Biosecurity, argues that virtually everything else at NBACC should be publicly accountable if the United States is to be a credible leader in preventing the proliferation of bioweapons.
"We're going to have to lean over backward," O'Toole said. "We have no leverage among other nation-states if we say, 'We can do whatever we want, but you can't. We want to see your biodefense program, but you can't see ours.' "
In recent weeks, NBACC's first officially completed project has drawn criticism, not because of its methods or procedures, but because heavy classification has limited its usefulness.
The project was an ambitious attempt to assess and rank the threats posed by dozens of different pathogens and delivery systems, drawing on hundreds of studies and extensive computer modeling. When delivered to the White House in January, it was the most extensive survey of its kind, and one that could guide the federal government in making decisions about biodefense spending.
Six months later, no one outside a small group of officials and advisers with top security clearances has seen the results.
"Something this important shouldn't be secret," said Thomas V. Inglesby, an expert at the Center for Biosecurity who serves on a government advisory board that was briefed on the results. "How can we make policy decisions about matters of this scale if we're operating in the dark?"
Tomorrow: A new era of engineered microbes.