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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Cox News Service June 21, 2005

Government Request Stops Publication Of Article About Terror Threat To Milk

By Rebecca Carr

Here's a threat that the government doesn't want you to know about: a terrorist armed with a gallon jug containing a few grams of botulinum toxin sneaks onto a dairy farm and contaminates an unlocked milk tank.

The tainted milk is trucked to a dairy processing factory where it is mixed with tens of thousands of gallons of milk and then shipped out to grocery stores.

Hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting milk drinkers could fall sick or die, according to Lawrence M. Wein, a Stanford University business professor who outlined the terror threat in a scientific paper that was to have been published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious academic journal.

Or maybe the threat isn't quite so great

Some academics take issue with Wein's theory, saying it should be openly debated because it is based on faulty science.

But the government doesn't want anyone to read Wein's scientific paper. For the first time in the journal's 90-year history, a federal agency requested that it not publish one of its papers.

The journal complied because Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary for emergency preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) called the paper a "road map for terrorists."

The paper gives "very detailed information on vulnerability nodes in the cow to consumer supply chain," Simonson wrote in a May 27th letter to the head of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent society which publishes the journal.

The academy immediately removed the paper, which Wein co-authored with a graduate student, from a Web site where it posts embargoed copies of papers that will appear in its journal.

"Although we are strong advocates of scientific openness, we don't want to do anything that would jeopardize homeland security," said Bill Kearney, spokesperson for the academy.

Wein declined to be interviewed for this article, citing an impending decision by the academy about whether it will reverse course and publish his paper.

The government's action raised the ire of open government advocates inside and outside the scientific community.

"It's outrageous that the federal government would shroud this problem in secrecy," said Rick Blum, executive director of openthegovernment.org, a coalition of conservative and liberal leaning organizations concerned about government secrecy.

Scientists should be allowed to debate Wein's paper because some scientists believe his conclusions are exaggerated and unfounded, said Steven Aftergood, who oversees the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

"It should be rebutted, not censored, because the problem is drastically overstated," Aftergood said.

Some scientists who reviewed Wein's paper say they are less concerned about the government's action than they are about The New York Times publishing an opinion piece by Wein on May 30 summarizing the key points of his scientific paper.

"It (Wein's theory) is terribly mistaken," said Milton Leitenberg, senior research scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank and who also is a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "It is wrong, plus alarming."

Leitenberg and George Smith, a senior fellow at Globalsecurity.org, wrote a rebuttal to Wein's opinion piece. But Leitenberg said the newspaper told him that they do not publish rebuttals.

A spokesperson for The New York Times did not respond to questions about the opinion piece.

When asked why HHS prevailed upon the journal _ but not The New York Times _ to stop publication of Wein's scientific paper, an agency spokesperson said that the newspaper piece contained far less detail.

But don't tell that to Leitenberg and Smith. In their written rebuttal to his op-ed piece, they cite examples where they believe Wein inflates the threat in great detail.

For example, Wein suggests in the newspaper opinion piece that a terrorist could download from the Web a 28-page jihadist manual called "Preparation of Botulism Toxin."

Leitenberg and Smith obtained the 28-page jihadist manual but found that it "does not explain, except in the most general terms, how to obtain a toxic strain of Clostridium botulinum in the first place."

In addition, they wrote, "in the real world no 'black market' botulinum toxin producer is known to exist."

"There is therefore an extraordinary degree of uncertainty associated with Dr. Wein's estimates," they wrote. "The analysis of real and practical intelligence reveals a vastly different, more complicated, and much less frightening picture."

Academy officials listened to concerns from HHS and the Federal Drug Administration at a meeting held on June 7. The academy is considering now whether to publish or adhere to the government's request. A decision could be reached as early as next week, Kearney said.

Nature, a weekly scientific journal, published an editorial about the controversy that called for clear government guidelines about what research should be considered sensitive. In addition, it requested guidelines for researchers like Wein, who conduct studies that could both help _ and thwart _ terrorists.

This so-called "dual-use research" question is expected to be taken up next week when the U.S. National Science Advisory Board meets for the first time to address such concerns.


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