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National Security - or Covering His Ass?
February 20, 2002
by Alan Landis

In the last week, the Bush administration pulled from public websites and other resources more than 6,000 public domain scientific documents that covered research in a broad number of areas (including biological and chemical abstracts that could possibly have been used to create weapons of mass destruction). This action, while typical of the way that Bush has acted with regards to the history of administrations past and present, conjures the spectre of an all too repressive security state.

The reason given for the withdrawal of these documents (some of which have been available for decades) has ostensibly been so that the information involved would not fall into terrorist hands. Of course - terrorists, gotta stop those foreign terrorists from getting more anthrax. However, the anthrax scares in October seem to point to the fact that the anthrax was in all likelihood taken from a federal military research facility by someone who knew exactly what he or she was doing; even if the documents could be withdrawn retroactively in time, it would have made absolutely no difference.

Okay, so this will stop future terrorists from figuring out how to create potential biotoxins or chemical agents, right? Well, no, not really. There are any number of research universities in the United States that have this information, and any number of research universities outside of the United States that also have this same information. Will the federal government start compelling them to destroy their own collections? They may try, but short of armed guards coming in with orders to burn libraries to the ground, if a terrorist were truly determined enough, they WILL find the information they need.

So what does Bush gain by taking this action? If you only look at it as a way of cracking down on potential foreign terrorism, not much. On the other hand, if you look beyond that, things get very worrisome indeed. First of all comes the question of being able to slow any investigation into where the anthrax really came from. Government documents contain more than just scientific information - they can also be used to provide an audit trail for when specific advances were made, where they were made, and what support was given, public and private to make these advances possible. Audit trials like this could prove potentially embarassing, especially if the anthrax was not the work of a single madman but was in fact employed as a potential weapon (or at least inciting event) by someone within government.

The probe to find the source of the anthrax seemed to be moving towards a very small number of potential sites, and then all of a sudden investigators proclaimed that the case was not going anywhere. Having this material available to researchers might very well have meant that academics or doctors familiar with the pathogens could have aided the investigation - a very patriotic thing to do after all, not to mention a feather in the cap of anyone who did so. Thus, withdrawing this material begs the question - is Bush trying to protect the country, or possibly himself?

This could also very well be the start of a much more exhaustive attacks on free speech - a point which Bush has consistently had problems with since being elected. If you are an academic, and the potential exists that work you are doing could arbitrarily be considered classified, then you can either try to protest (and risk losing your job) or shifting away from that line of research. This will in turn mean that increasingly knowledge about certain biologically or chemical advances (or maybe other areas, such as large scale computer systems or nanotechnology) will only be in the hands of the government (though it could also be sold off quietly to companies with enough money). It also has a very deleterious effect on the development of potential vaccines or antidotes, which in turn makes these technologies into increasingly dangerous weapons. It also has the inadvertant side effect of shifting technological development in these areas out of the US and to other countries, such as England, which has openly encouraged genetic scientists to relocate to that country because of the limitations in this country on stem cell research.

Finally, such actions continue the precedent that the Federal government (in the person of the president) can suppress the free flow of information in the name of "national security." Lovely phrase that, a term beloved of all political leaders, because it means that evidence can be destroyed, illicit activities can be pursued and shady fortunes can be made under the banner of protecting the country from harm. In general, we tolerate a certain degree of this because most people know that there are some things that happen in government that are necessary, but not necessarily pretty. Bismarck's assertion about not looking too closely into the making of sausage or politics is as true today as it was in the 1880s

Yet when a leader wraps himself and all of his activities in the banner of national security, then it is time to become justifiably suspicious. It is a short hop from securing scientific documents to suppressing academic dissent, a quick jump from creating "Free Speech Zones" to cracking down on protests of any sort deemed counter to the interests of the administration. This country retains its liberty by balancing the totalitarian impulses of three institutions against one another. When that balance goes awry, it is indeed a short road to the next imperium.

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