NAS Suppresses Public Documents on Chem/Bio Weapons

Move over ENRON and Arthur Andersen, the US National Academies of Science is vying for the document disappearance award of the year… a very disturbing situation for the Sunshine Project, and one which we think other persons working in the field should know about. And, for those interested, please contact me as we would love to talk about ways to generate pressure for release.

Last year, the Pentagon Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, Naval Studies Board. The study, which is now in final preparation, is titled “An Assessment of Non-lethal Weapons Science and Technology”.

As part of the study, hundreds of documents on non-lethal weapons were deposited in the public access records file of the National Academies. These records are available for inspection and copying by the general public and form the written record of the basis of the recommendations of the panel in its report(s).

In March of this year, the Sunshine Project contacted the NAS Public Records Office and requested a bibliography of documents deposited for the non-lethal weapons study. We received this bibliography, which identified the title, date, and author of each study as well as its date of deposit, which often corresponded to the date of the Panel meeting at which the documents were apparently discussed.

We identified 77 documents from this list which suggested US interest in chemical and biological “non-lethal” weapons. These include such juicy titles as “Anti-Material Biocatysts”, “Anti-Material Chemical Agents”, “Enhanced Degradation of Military Material” (by the folks at the US Naval Research Laboratory, note the deletion of “Defense” found in the title of similar, publicly-available papers), “Metabolic Engineering”, “Legal Review of Proposed Chemical-Based Nonlethal Weapons”, “Establishment of Odor Response Profiles: Ethnic, Racial and Cultural Influences”, “Antipersonnel Calmative Agents” (by US Army Edgewood), etc… 77 documents in total.

We requested the documents on March 12th and were assured they would be quickly forthcoming after they had been retrieved from the file, copied, the pages counted, and a bill for .25 cents a page paid. Most of these documents are also found on the unclassified Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program CD-ROM, over which we have been locked in a Freedom of Information battle with the Marine Corps for over a year.

After non-responses from NAS for several weeks, today I got on the phone to find out what was happening with our request. The NAS Public Affairs Office said the documents had been checked out by the Program Staff and were unavailable, perhaps for a few more days, perhaps longer. The Program Staff – which the Public Affairs Office did not want me to call – said that this was wrong. According to the panel staff, what really happened was that the NAS National Security Office had placed a “security hold” on the file. This hold came after our request for copies was made and is somewhat disturbing to us, as we did not publicize our request and do not know how or why the National Security Office was alerted to our interest.

I called Mr. Kevin Hale, NAS Security Chief, who confirmed that he placed the “security hold” on the public documents based on “concern expressed” by someone. But Hale refused to say who requested the hold or describe the basis on which he placed it. He also refused to describe, in even the most general terms, what issues has provoked the “security hold”. Hale said the “public” documents would undergo security review and that some may be post-facto expunged from the public record, denying public access to the raw material of the scientific deliberations of the Academy panel. Disturbingly, in contrast to the NAS Public Affairs Office and the Panel staff, Mr Hale had a third story about the documents’ location. According to Hale, the documents might not ever have been physically deposited with NAS. Hale refused to say more, and referred all questions to the NAS General Counsel’s Office.

I called Audrey Mosley, the NAS Counsel handling the situation. Ms. Mosley professed ignorance of detail of the situation and refused to discuss at whose instigation or why this most unusual hold had been placed. She said the documents would be reviewed for “security markings” and reiterated that they may physically have never been in NAS possession. Paradoxically, she also said that “somebody, probably Kevin Hale; but not me” would review the documents and determine if they would be deleted from the public record. This, of course, begs the question of how Hale could review documents he says NAS may not possess!!!!

In sum, it looks like NAS is pulling sensitive documents from the public access file. I am uncertain of the legalities; but am inclined to believe that at a minimum, this will undermine the integrity of panel conclusions and of NAS itself. In addition, some senior NAS staff appear to be lying about possession/location of documents. The differing stories cannot be reconciled. In addition, the “classification” issue is a red herring because the Marine Corps has stated that the documents are not classified (but isn’t releasing them either!).

NAS cannot identify a responsible person to explain its actions. The Public Access Office refers questions to the Panel staff. The Panel staff refers questions to the Security Office. The Security Office refers questions to General Counsel’s office. The General Counsel’s office does not answer questions and refers back to the Security Office. The account of the facts by each office is both lacking in detail and, in the little detail that they provide, contradictory.

It’s all very ugly and disturbing. If these documents disappear from the public record it will be a sad day for the US National Academies and another blow to US transparency on CBW. In some ways a more disturbing one than others, because this involves expunging items previously available for public view and which form the basis of recommendations from a very high, quasi-public US scientific authority.

Let us hope that it doesn’t happen. If it does, we are considering options for fighting it. I’ll be happy to provide the NAS bibliography to anyone interested.

Edward Hammond is director of The Sunshine Project, based in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at: hammond@sunshine-project.org

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