In a continuing trend of science fiction becoming reality, the Washington Post (which also deserves the photo credit) is covering the US National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC, pronounced EN-back). As has become the trend under this administration, the potentially dangerous/dubiously legal/very scary facility is kept under maximal secrecy with minimal oversight…
The heart of the lab is a cluster of sealed chambers built to contain the world’s deadliest bacteria and viruses. There, scientists will spend their days simulating the unthinkable: bioterrorism attacks in the form of lethal anthrax spores rendered as wispy powders that can drift for miles on a summer breeze, or common viruses turned into deadly superbugs that ordinary drugs and vaccines cannot stop.
In an unusual arrangement, the building itself will be classified as highly restricted space, from the reception desk to the lab benches to the cages where animals are kept. It is this opacity that some arms-control experts say has become a defining characteristic of U.S. biodefense policy as carried out by the Department of Homeland Security, NBACC’s creator.
Since the department’s founding in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, its officials have dramatically expanded the government’s ability to conduct realistic tests of the pathogens and tactics that might be used in a bioterrorism attack. Some of the research falls within what many arms-control experts say is a legal gray zone, skirting the edges of an international treaty outlawing the production of even small amounts of biological weapons.
“Where the research exposes vulnerability, I’ve got to protect that, for the public’s interest,” said Bernard Courtney, NBACC’s scientific director. “We don’t need to be showing perpetrators the holes in our defense.”
Tara O’Toole, founder of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and an adviser to the Defense Department on bioterrorism, said the secrecy fits a larger pattern and could have consequences. “The philosophy and practice behind NBACC looks like much of the rest of the administration’s philosophy and practice: ‘Our intent is good, so we can do whatever we want,’ ” O’Toole said. “This approach will only lead to trouble.”
Critics of NBACC fear that excessive secrecy could actually increase the risk of bioterrorism if the lab were to foster ill-designed experiments conducted without proper scrutiny or if its work fuels suspicions that could lead other countries to pursue secret biological research.
A computer slide show prepared by the center’s directors in 2004 offers a to-do list that suggests the lab will be making and testing small amounts of weaponized microbes and, perhaps, genetically engineered viruses and bacteria. It also calls for “red team” exercises that simulate attacks by hostile groups.
The CIA has assigned advisers to the lab, including at least one member of the “Z-Division,” an elite group jointly operated with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California that specializes in analyzing and duplicating weapons systems of potential adversaries, officials familiar with the program confirm.
Courtney, the NBACC science director, acknowledged that his work would include simulating real biological threats – but not just any threats. “If I hear a noise on the back porch, will I turn on the light to decide whether there’s something there, or go on my merry way?” Courtney asked. “But I’m only going to do [research] if I have credible information that shows it truly is a threat. It’s not going to be dreamed up out of the mind of a novelist.”
That novelist would almost certainly be Tom Clancy. “Red Team”? “Z-Division”? We bet if you press the big red button on the wall, all the lights turn red, an “aaa-ooo-gaa” horn goes off continuously and doors start closing on their own.
This paragraph could contain some insight about congressional or international oversight in the interest of building credibility, but dammit Jim, we’re engineers and doctors, not political scientists.
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