When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to know if terrorists could disrupt the U.S. food supply, it turned to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Today an academy panel made public its analysis--or at least most of it. Missing from the panel's report are eight hypothetical case studies that the academy excised because the material was deemed a potential security risk. The academy's self-censorship is the latest example of a dilemma many scientific publishers face in balancing security concerns with the need for open communication.
The study, titled Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism, concludes that the United States is not adequately prepared to prevent or deal with attacks on agriculture. USDA asked the academy early last year to examine how the nation might respond to "potential threats ... from a selected set of biological agents ... under different scenarios." But 15 months later--and following 11 September and the anthrax letters--when a draft of the report was delivered, USDA officials had developed second thoughts about what they had ordered. "Their general concern was about whether the information on vulnerabilities could be exploited by terrorists," explains William Colglazier, the academy's executive officer. The White House Office of Homeland Security expressed similar concerns, he adds, and "both agencies suggested removing some material." USDA officials declined comment, although a spokesperson told The New York Times last week that the agency did not request the rescissions.
None of the material is officially classified, Colglazier emphasizes, adding that NAS would not have removed the material if government officials had not objected to it. Colglazier says the academy's top officers removed eight case studies from one of the report's five chapters and put the information into an appendix. "Our intent is to give the appendix to the Administration and to Congress," he says. Everybody else, he adds, including other scientists and members of the general public, will have to settle for the edited version, which is being posted on the Web.
That tinkering frustrates some panelists, who don't think the revisions were necessary and who worry that the panel's main message will be blunted. "If you take out the case studies, that would leave a hole," says Marjorie Hoy, an entomologist at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
What remains are recommendations on how to prepare for an attack, including better training for farmers and other agricultural workers on how to recognize and report an outbreak. Researchers should monitor emerging diseases in other countries, the report says, and laboratories should be networked like the public health system for rapid testing of large numbers of samples. Government agencies also need to develop a clear and coordinated response plan, possibly including vaccinating herds or spraying pesticides.
The agroterrorism report is not likely to be the last time the academy will have to decide whether to make public potentially sensitive information, Colglazier says: "There's the potential for more of this. It's a different world out there."