Access to biological warfare papers alarms US scientists

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The Independent US

Hundreds of sensitive documents written by scientists for the United States biological weapons programme in the early days of the Cold War remain available to the public, despite the recent anthrax scare and increasing concern about groups such as al-Qa'ida waging germ warfare.

A report in yesterday's New York Times revealed documents accessible to the public included instructions on the production and dissemination of anthrax and other lethal toxins. A number of these documents have been released in recent years, usually in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

At a time when government departments are closing Web pages and reining in the amount of information they are willing to divulge, the continuing availability of sensitive biological weapons information is alarming scientists and military experts. They are lobbying the White House to reimpose a blanket of secrecy on hundreds, if not thousands, of documents that were once considered national security secrets but have since been declassified.

Raymond Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told The New York Times: "It's pretty scary stuff."

The documents were written between 1943, when the US biological weapons programme began, and 1969, when development of such weapons was abandoned. Experts believe it is enough to supply a would-be terrorist with the know-how necessary to launch a biological attack.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, documents are sold to historians and researchers, either over the internet or, in the most sensitive cases, by mail. The service is not free, but neither is it prohibitively expensive. A document, say, on the freeze-drying and particle size reduction of biological agents may cost no more than $15 (£10).

Even before the autumn's anthrax attacks, in which five people died and thousands were put on antibiotics, scientists were concerned that too much information was in the public domain.

The White House science adviser John Marburger said the Bush administration was considering reclassification of some documents.

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