When the FBI Asks, Should Scientists Tell?

Working with dangerous pathogens soon may become a hazard to intellectual autonomy with new laws that widen federal scrutiny of university labs and other research centers, according to scientists and policymakers. Already the FBI has queried academic scientists about their use of anthrax and other biological materials. The U.S. Attorney General's office is also using criminal, immigration, and national security databases to determine whether people possessing, using or transferring such agents a

Jan 21, 2002
Willie Schatz
Working with dangerous pathogens soon may become a hazard to intellectual autonomy with new laws that widen federal scrutiny of university labs and other research centers, according to scientists and policymakers. Already the FBI has queried academic scientists about their use of anthrax and other biological materials. The U.S. Attorney General's office is also using criminal, immigration, and national security databases to determine whether people possessing, using or transferring such agents are restricted from doing so or are named in warrants issued by law enforcement agencies for participation in international terrorism.

A provision in the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act, (S. 1765), which the Senate passed Dec. 20, would allow the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish new security restrictions for people possessing or transferring biological agents and toxins. Lawmakers also may codify new limitations on information exchange that have a significant impact on sharing and releasing information.

"The problem won't be regular FBI visits to universities," warns Ron Atlas, president-elect of the Washington, DC-based American Society of Microbiologists (ASM.) "It's going to be increased scrutiny by law enforcement of anyone doing dangerous pathogen research. That alone won't compromise intellectual freedom. But that combined with the public and political backlash certainly will."

Courtesy of John Hopkins University

Sharon Krag

Atlas cautions that new laws could severely affect researchers' working conditions so that few would work under the increased scrutiny. These laws compound the problems already faced by universities that have experienced FBI visits and queries, requiring many to rethink their policies toward official investigations in general. "We haven't had much experience with the FBI except when it came for information about the anthrax scare," says Sharon Krag, associate for graduate education and research at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "So, we don't have a blanket policy saying what we'll do when the FBI or another government agency comes. We make sure our select agents are accounted for and we try to be proactive. But we're establishing response procedures as we go."

Prudences Take Precedence

Like Johns Hopkins, most facilities visited by the bureau practice a take-it-as-comes philosophy. Institutions and labs had so little experience with law enforcement, they had little choice but to let prudence dictate their course, says Abigail Salyers, outgoing ASM president. That organization recently released a list of 41,000 members to federal investigators. "I think we were ethically obligated to provide the list," Atlas says. "When an appropriate law enforcement agency asks questions, we respond."

Officials at the University of New Mexico's Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque leaned on prudence during the height of the anthrax scare. The center's lab has the infamous Ames strain of anthrax, but it is not a production facility and cannot make a weapon from the bacillus, according to public relations director Sam Giammo.

Still, FBI agents dropped in to assess the facility's progress on a three-year $5.1 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract to investigate biosignatures of infection. "The agents wanted to look at the lab in general and the scientists had no problems," Giammo says. "They were glad to have an outside agency take a look. It validated their procedures and processes. And it had no impact on their research."

The agency's visit to the Chicago-based Illinois Institute of Technology's Research Institute was equally harmless to its scientific inquiries, according to Robert Sherwood, the institute's division manager of microbiology and immunology in the life sciences department. His response to agents was a no-brainer: They ask; you tell. "We gave them everything they asked for on their list," says Sherwood, who also admitted the institute had worked with anthrax but could not confirm or deny what strains its scientists had used because of confidentiality agreements with its clients. "Complying with the FBI's request does take time, and time is money. But we're not worrying about whether it will affect a project. We just try and deal with it."

Getting an Education

Barbara Rosenberg, chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists' biological weapons verification project, says that if the FBI agents had known more about basic scientific issues, they would have asked fewer questions. Agents attempted to educate themselves last month by visiting Rosenberg, whose paper, "A Compilation of Evidence and Comments on the Source of the Mailed Anthrax," proposed that a federal government program must be the original source of either the mailed anthrax or the information and materials to make it. "I think the FBI ought to be consulting scientists because it has no clues of its own about basic science," says Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York at Purchase. "I think the FBI's ignorance is serious. It's certainly hurt its ability to investigate the anthrax case."

The agents may not have approved of what they heard from her. But they might have been happy to hear anything, because, unless they had a subpoena or a warrant, Rosenberg didn't have to open the door. "The FBI or any other government agency can't force any private organization to give up its membership list or any other documents unless it's a legitimate grand jury investigation and the agency has gotten a subpoena from a court of competent jurisdiction," says Washington, DC criminal defense attorney Jack King.

Researchers unsure of the appropriate response to the FBI can do what Krag says she will do the next time agents come to campus: "I'll call the vice-provost for research to find out our response."

Willie Schatz (willie@his.com) is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.