Biodefense Blackout: Texas BSL-4 Lab Keeps Records Secret

From The Sunshine Project, March 1st 2007

Biodefense Blackout: Texas BSL-4 Lab Keeps Records Secret
UTMB Resists Attorney General’s Ruling, Case Moves to the Courts

The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), the largest university center of research on biological weapons agents in the US, is refusing to obey the Texas Attorney General and release documents requested by the Sunshine Project. Instead, UTMB has sued the Attorney General in a bid to block his ruling and keep the paperwork secret. The Sunshine Project has intervened in case, and has asked a Texas judge to order UTMB to turn over the documents.

The Sunshine Project made its Texas Public Information Act request on 24 October 2006. The request was for nine separate categories of information, including: details on accidents in UTMB’s biosafety level four (BSL-4) and BSL-3 labs, records related to the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB), and contracts of UTMB’s federally-funded regional biodefense center, among other items.

UTMB, which is located in Galveston, strenuously objected to handing over many of the papers, which total between nine and ten thousand pages. It filed a lengthy briefing seeking the Attorney General’s permission to deny major elements of the Sunshine Project’s request. Some of UTMB’s partners, including the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, a BSL-4 lab in San Antonio, Texas, also fought to keep information
under wraps. The Sunshine Project submitted comments to the Attorney General explaining why it believes that the records should be public.

On 11 January 2007, the Attorney General’s Office issued its ruling. It rejected most of UTMB’s arguments and determined that the University must release many biodefense records that it sought to keep secret.

But instead of following the ruling and making the papers public, on January 22nd UTMB filed suit against the Attorney General. The case is in the 419th District Court in Austin (Travis County), Texas. UTMB’s filing does not clarify which elements of the
Attorney General’s ruling it is contesting and, to date, it has made none of the requested records available.

The Sunshine Project has intervened in the case and on 16 February asked the judge to order UTMB to release the records. The Sunshine Project is represented by Joseph Larsen of Ogden, Gibson, Brooks, and Longoria of Houston, Texas. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Ironically, the Sunshine Project’s decision to file the request was influenced by a March 2006 Science op-ed co-authored by one of UTMB’s leaders, Dr. Stanley Lemon. A member of the NSABB, Lemon’s editorial criticized an unspecified group of “politicians and their constituents” who are said to favor restricting the flow of information about research involving biological weapons agents. Lemon claims that “such measures won’t reduce risks and may cause a false illusion of security.”

The Sunshine Project, and most bioweapons experts, agree that transparency is critical for biological security. But according to Sunshine Project Director Edward Hammond, there can be a gap between rhetoric and reality: “Talk can be cheap when it comes to biodefense transparency. We’ve asked UTMB’s leadership to put its paperwork where its mouth is.” So far, UTMB is flunking the transparency test, undermining the credibility of its public
commitment to openness. “UTMB has some explaining to do for its secretive actions,” says Hammond.

The Sunshine Project is the largest biodefense-related Freedom of Information Act requester in the country. Hammond concludes “This case reflects what the Sunshine Project’s Freedom of Information program is all about: applied transparency. Abstract
endorsements of biodefense transparency in policy circles don’t necessarily translate into openness in practice. Real-world transparency is what matters most.”


For More Information:

Attorney General’s Open Records Ruling OR2007-00489:

The National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB)

UTMB’s Institute for Human Infections and Immunity and “Galveston National Laboratory”:

Ogden, Gibson, Brooks, and Longoria

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Clare Swinney

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