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Army must disclose records on HIV vaccine investigation

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  1. Freedom of Information
Army must disclose records on HIV vaccine investigation 08/11/97 WASHINGTON, D.C.--A federal judge ruled in mid-July that the Army must…

Army must disclose records on HIV vaccine investigation

08/11/97

WASHINGTON, D.C.–A federal judge ruled in mid-July that the Army must disclose records of flawed HIV vaccine research conducted in 1991-1993.

U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green granted in part and denied in part the Army’s motion for summary judgment, mandating disclosure of project records except those that would violate the privacy of witnesses.

The judge said the testing of gp160 as a potential HIV vaccine, for which the Army received a $20 million appropriation, was a controversial public issue. The research project, conducted by Lt. Col. Robert Redfield at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), was investigated by the Army after two senior military doctors charged that Redfield used misleading data. Redfield’s ties with a group that lobbied Congress for funding for the drug were also investigated, and the Army recommended that Walter Reed terminate any relationships with the group.

In July 1994, Dr. Peter Lurie and the Public Citizen Health Research Group requested disclosure of records from the investigation under the Freedom of Information Act. In September 1994, the Army released some records but withheld others, invoking exemptions covering information involving a deliberative process, personal privacy, and law enforcement records. Though the majority of Redfield’s statements in the investigation were released, some findings and recommendations were withheld. Other records, such as witness statements, were heavily redacted.

The Army denied an appeal in April 1995, and Lurie sued in federal court. The court found there was a public interest in the inquiries about the research, including the Army’s methods of AIDS testing; personnel’s role in promoting the vaccine before Congress and internally; and alleged misrepresentations and scientific misconduct regarding results of testing, among other interests.

The “substantial” public interest outweighed Redfield’s “generally minimal” privacy interests, the court ruled. Redfield’s privacy interest was also diminished by previous Army disclosures, because Redfield had made numerous public statements on gp160 vaccine research. In addition, the Army failed to specifically justify its chosen redactions, the court said.

An army move to withhold information in witness statements compiled in the course of a law enforcement investigation was upheld because it could subject witnesses or others to embarrassment, harm or retaliation.

Information identifying private citizens “may be withheld even though the individual’s identity might be pieced together independently or as a result of previous disclosures,” the court added. (Peter Lurie v. Department of the Army; Counsel: Eric Glitzenstein, Washington, D.C.)