or legislative actions taken by the U.S. government aimed at constraining research and communication in the life sciences outside of some government laboratories where classified biological research was performed.2 But as fear gripped the nation in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11 and the anthrax attacks that followed a month later, questions began to be raised about whether publicly available scientific information could be used for malevolent purposes and what actions the government should take to constrain “dangerous” information. The security community and policy makers in the United States began to discuss whether some life science research should be categorized as “sensitive but unclassified (SBU) information,” asking whether such information needed to be constrained to protect against future bioterrorist attacks.3 Additional discussions focused on risks from international collaborations and whether research by foreign graduate students at U.S. academic institutions should be restricted.

Given the high level of anxiety about the anthrax attacks, accentuated by allegations in the news media about who conducted those attacks and uncertainties as to where the anthrax bacteria originated, questions arose

bombing, and the Aum Shinrikyo sarin chemical attack and revelations about the latter’s efforts to develop bioweapons (Wright 2007). But much of the discussion focused on the likelihood of terrorist groups’ pursuing biological capabilities and their abilities to overcome technical barriers to acquisition and use (for a review of these discussions and debates, see Frerichs et al. [2004]). It was not until after the publication of a paper by Australian researchers showing that the insertion of an interleukin gene, IL-4, into the mousepox virus could render the virus vaccine-resistant (Jackson et al. 2001) that concern about the potential contribution of publications in the open literature to enabling bioterrorism became a significant focus of concern. Advances in biotechnology have been increasingly seen as a dangerous and powerful new way to produce biological weapons.


Regulations were put in place to control the transfer of select microbial pathogens and toxins in 1996, but knowledge generated by fundamental biological research was not viewed with concern.


SBU is one of dozens of categories the federal government uses to control access to information; like many others, it has never been defined in statute. SBU has been used to denote unclassified national security information that might nonetheless be useful to an adversary. Efforts to define what constitutes SBU information provoke recurrent controversies (National Research Council [NRC] 2007a). A review of SBU and other such categories by the Congressional Research Service provides a detailed history (Knezo 2004). On May 7, 2008, the White House announced a new policy to create a single category, “Controlled Unclassified Information,” that is to apply across the executive branch (White House 2008). Many of the details of how the new policy will be implemented have not been decided or released.

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