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Germ-lab bill would stop al-Qaida

By Freddy Paniagua — Galveston County Daily News, May 21, 2009

On May 15, University of Texas Medical Branch president David Callender and scientists at the Galveston National Laboratory hosted a special public meeting to discuss amendments to the Texas Legislature's Senate Bill 2556.

A participant in that meeting suggested that the goal of the overall bill and its amendments is to pass a law that would permit the medical branch to avoid the disclosure of accidents in that lab. Callender was on the right track when he said: "From my perspective, that is absurd."

The goal of the newest version of the bill, however, is to prevent the public disclosure of five specific levels of information that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations could use to plan and implement chemical and biological terrorist attacks.

For example, in the newest version, "the location of a select agent" (e.g., Ebola virus, anthrax) wouldn't be revealed to the public via the Texas Government Code, Chapter 552 (Public Information). The "location" in this context refers not to the building where the lab is located but to the exact area where a given select agent is located inside that building (e.g., a refrigerator).

Why would someone use Chapter 552 to know the specific location of that agent? Only someone with the intention of engaging in a terrorist attack would want to have this information.

Additional amendments to SB 2556 include the nondisclosure of the "security and safeguard protection" of the lab, "site-specific or transfer-specific documentation," "the identity of an individual authorized to possess, use or access a select agent" and "the security and safety of premises, employees and authorized personnel."

It would be completely absurd to assume that keeping these four areas outside the public domain means secrecy or the intention to avoid reporting an accident at the GNL. These additional amendments to SB 2556 are proposed to further enhance the overall security of the lab.

For example, al-Qaida would be very interested in knowing the identity (name, address, etc.) of scientists associated with the GNL with the specific purpose of tracking them when they travel overseas (e.g., for international conferences, vacation), and then make great efforts to get information from those scientists by using terrorist tactics.

During Callender's special meeting, several individuals suggested that the newest version of SB 2556 wouldn't provide the type of "transparency" UTMB promised to the public before the GNL was approved in 2003 by the National Institute of Health. In this context, however, Galvestonians shouldn't be concerned about 100 percent transparency (i.e., seeing everything that is behind the glass) but about the mechanisms Callender and his research team are using to ensure that only information that isn't relevant to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations would be available to the public via Chapter 552.

This is, precisely, the main goal of the newest version of SB 2556.

Dr. Freddy A. Paniagua is certified in homeland security and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

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