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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Tries to Kill Germ 'Cookbooks'

NEW YORK -- Months into an expanded war on bioterrorism, the U.S. government is still making available to the public hundreds of formerly secret documents that tell how to turn dangerous germs into deadly weapons.

For $15, anyone can buy "Selection of Process for Freeze-Drying, Particle Size Reduction and Filling of Selected BW Agents," or germs for biological warfare. The 57-page report, dated 1952, includes plans for a pilot factory that could produce dried germs in powder form, designed to lodge in human lungs.

For years, experts have called such documents cookbooks for terrorists and condemned their public release. Now, with new urgency, scientists and military experts are campaigning to have the weapon reports locked away from public access.

Experts warn that the documents, even though decades old, contain information that could help produce the kind of sophisticated anthrax powder that killed five people and traumatized the nation last fall.

"It's pretty scary stuff," said Raymond Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a private group that studies germ defenses. "There's a whole bunch of literature out there that's really cookbook."

One report obtained by Zilinskas from the government is "Development of `N' for Offensive Use in Biological Warfare." 'N' was the code letter for bacillus anthracis, the germ that causes anthrax. Another is "The Stability of Botulinum Toxin in Common Beverages." The germ-derived substance is the most poisonous known to science.

Such documents were written from 1943 to 1969 when the United States employed an army of scientists and engineers to research, develop and build a stockpile of germ weapons.

Hundreds of the documents have been declassified over the decades as part of an effort to make public the inner workings of government. Today, federal agencies routinely sell the documents to historians and other researchers, mostly over the Internet and telephone. More sensitive but still unclassified reports are made available by mail after requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Zilinskas and W. Seth Carus, a germ expert at the military's National Defense University, have written a report on bioterrorism that called for a group of experts to review the old literature and see which reports should be reclassified, safeguarding them with new layers of federal secrecy.

But just the opposite has been under way at Fort Detrick, Maryland, home of the U.S. Army's old program to make germ weapons. Two years ago, in the administration of President Bill Clinton, the military post was asked to examine what other secret and confidential reports should be declassified.

With new resolve since the anthrax attacks, that work has now shifted into reverse.

Harry G. Dangerfield, a medical doctor at Fort Detrick during the offensive germ program, said that a report he's preparing calls for the reclassification of more than 200 reports he characterized as how-to manuals for turning germs into weapons.

But advocates of public access to government information are wary of the new push. "If these documents pose a threat, they should be controlled, if possible," said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington. "But classification abuse is rampant in the government, and authority to reclassify things could wreak havoc."

After the germ-warfare program was ended in 1969, fewer scientists were available to help assess what declassifications might be appropriate. So federal bureaucrats over the years increasingly fell back on automatic declassification steps that encourage disclosure.

Experts judge it problematic, if not impossible, to shield reports already made public. An executive order signed by President Clinton in 1995 bars reclassification.

Steven Garfinkel, former director of the government's Information Security Oversight Office, added that reclassification might do more harm than good. "It could give visibility to information that would have been less noticed if left alone," he said.

Some also doubt that the government has a monopoly on information about making germ weapons.

"I'm no expert," Garfinkel said, "but you hear that lots is available in undergraduate textbooks. It doesn't do us a lot of good to reclassify information that's available anyway. That's a real issue."