from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2011, Issue No. 12
February 3, 2011

Secrecy News Blog:


In order to help determine the origins of microbial threats in terrorist incidents or epidemics, it would be useful to have a deep archive of various strains of lethal bacteria, the JASON defense advisory panel told the National Counterproliferation Center in a newly released 2009 report.

Because of the natural variation in the microbes of interest, "we believe that a 'Library of Congress' for microbial pathogens is needed," the JASONs said.

"This library would consist of strains collected worldwide by methods that preserve sample properties, and capture all relevant data (e.g. geolocation, local environmental conditions). It should include laboratory isolates, natural isolates, and DNA sequence data."

Actually, it seems that the nucleus of such a library already exists.

"We were impressed with the efforts of the National Bioforensic Reference Collection along these lines. The NBRC was initiated in October 2005 to receive and store reference materials for forensic analyses. It currently has more than 30,000 samples of bacteria, viruses, and toxins, from both select and non-select agents, and is authorized to handle classified materials," the JASONs said.

The JASON report assesses the current state of "microbial forensics," which refers to the characterization of microbe samples in terrorism or law enforcement cases to establish their origins.

For reasons explained in the report, the forensic task is not a simple one. In fact, "it is never possible to definitively link a sample to an attack based on genetic evidence alone."

A copy of the JASON report was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act. See "Microbial Forensics," JASON report JSR-08-512, May 2009.


There are seventeen so-called Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), such as Chagas disease, dengue fever and leprosy, that are found in some 149 countries, a new report from the Congressional Research Service explains.

"Estimates indicate that some 2 billion people are at risk of contracting an NTD, of whom more than 1 billion people are afflicted with one or more. Roughly 534,000 people are believed to be killed by an NTD annually. Although these diseases are concentrated among the world’s poor, population shifts and climate change increase the vulnerability of the United States to some of these diseases, particularly Chagas disease and dengue," the CRS report said.

Efforts to combat the diseases, and the challenges facing those efforts, are described by the CRS in "Neglected Tropical Diseases: Background, Responses, and Issues for Congress," January 21, 2011:


A January 31 Secrecy News item on "Diane Roark and the Drama of Intelligence Oversight" focused on the personal friction and hostility that are sometimes generated by the intelligence oversight process. Unfortunately, what I wrote did an injustice to Ms. Roark, the former House Intelligence Committee staffer, and to Thomas Drake, the former National Security Agency official, as well as to the larger issues involved.

I should have made it clear that I do not endorse the criticism of Ms. Roark that was expressed by Barbara McNamara, another NSA official. On the contrary, under prevailing circumstances the "intrusiveness" that Ms. Roark was accused of is likely to be a virtue, not a defect. It is the NSA, not Ms. Roark, that stands accused of mismanaging billions of dollars and operating in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Ms. Roark together with Thomas Drake and others did exactly what they should have done by bringing their concerns about NSA mismanagement to the attention of the DoD Inspector General, among other things. Significantly, they had nothing to gain for themselves. Their actions did not embody any motive of personal interest or self-aggrandizement, but something more like the opposite. They were acting in the public interest, as they understood it. That they (and especially Mr. Drake, who is now under indictment) are suffering for it is a worrisome sign of a broken system.

I also should not have repeated the insinuation from the Drake indictment which implied that he and Ms. Roark had an intimate relationship. This would be irrelevant in any case, but in this case it is also false.

My apologies to Ms. Roark and Mr. Drake.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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