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 reasons.
"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 has."
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 withheld."
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