Radio & Television News Association

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Senate moves to create utterly secret agency

WASHINGTON, November 18 (SPJ) -- A bill moving quickly in the Senate would create the first-ever federal agency totally exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

This means that, in the absence of a ruling by the head of the agency that the release of information would pose no threat to national security, every document created by BARDA every working group (the bill also categorically exempts BARDA from the Federal Advisory Committee Act), all of its activities, its relationships with industry, its advisory boards would not be subject to disclosure through FOIA.

S. 1873 appropriates $1 billion in 2006 alone from Project Bioshield to fund BARDA and no one, save for the agency, will provide accountability.Then, in a sweeping departure from constitutional norms, the bill seeks to forestall any judicial scrutiny whatsoever."Such a determination shall not be subject to judicial review," the bill adds.

SPJ Comment: While S 1873 is intended to protect public health and safety, it guts the public safety benefit that flows from citizen participation in government. The key to public health is the public, which cannot avoid transmission of epidemic or pandemic disease unless it has knowledge of the disease, and understanding of how to treat it.

Members of the public cannot identify and stop bioterrorists unless they are made aware of the bioterrorists' potential existence. Major epidemics throughout history have shown that government secrecy does more to spread disease than prevent it. One lesson of the Great Influenza of 1918, the worst flu epidemic of all time, was that its rapid spread was due, in part, to government censorship of news coverage regarding this disease.

The new agency would help spur private industry to develop and manufacture medical countermeasures for bioterrorism agents and natural outbreaks such as a possible avian flu pandemic. But the bill also makes oversight and accountability of much of America's biodefense efforts nearly impossible.

"Suspicions on the part of nations about the intent of each other's biodefense activities can lead to an arms race in biological weapons," wrote Alan Pearson, director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation's Program on Biological and Chemical Weapons, and Lynn Klotz, a senior fellow at the center, in a joint statement.


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