The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press deplores the effort of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to create a federal agency immune from public oversight and the unfathomable failure of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to consider Freedom of Information principles in endorsing this bill.
Senator Burr introduced the Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine and Drug Development Act in late October, stating as its intention “to prepare and strengthen the biodefenses of the United States against deliberate, accidental and natural outbreaks of illness, and for other purposes.”
It would create a Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency that would not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, to the Federal Advisory Committee Act and its openness provisions or to large portions of the Federal Acquisition Regulations.
No federal agency has been given a blanket exclusion from Freedom of Information requirements in the 40-year history of the act. Even routine administrative details such as official travel expenses and costs of office furniture would be withheld under this measure.
The bill would only allow public disclosures from BARDA when a “need to know” is demonstrated, and then only when both the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the director or the new agency determine that disclosure will “not threaten national security.”
Through Freedom of Information Act disclosures, the public has in the past learned that the government has conducted questionable medical experiments on its citizens, such as injecting them with plutonium; that it has not always identified a full range of side effects from drugs such as recent smallpox vaccinations; and that its scientists have not been any more omniscient than researchers elsewhere in determining what is safe and unsafe for the public.
Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish said, “It is frightening that senators would believe that secrecy in matters of health will make us safe, and very disheartening that they would be so willing so quickly to dismiss the importance of open government laws.”
Other sponsors include Senators Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), William Frist (R-Tenn.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).