Unintended Sunshine

East Carolina tried to redact biosafety documents in FOIA request, but its botched job shows what some universities keep secret.
August 23, 2006

"A keyboard cover will need to be installed on the computer."

That doesn't sound like a state secret. But when East Carolina University turned over documents recently to a group seeking to investigate how universities are dealing with biosafety issues, the university redacted that phrase. Or at least East Carolina thought it did.

To redact documents, which colleges do when they must release papers that contain personal information or -- in this case, information that they claim would create security risks -- a two-step process is used. First, the information that is being withheld is blacked out with a marker. Then the page is photocopied, and that's what gets released. If you use the marker but release the original, anyone holding the document up to light can read what was covered up. That's what East Carolina is being reminded of -- in an incident that some critics of university information policies say shows that institutions are routinely keeping secret information that in no way is related to security.

East Carolina skipped the second step (photocopying) when responding to a recent request from the Sunshine Project for information on how the university reviews research on biological weapons. Not only did the university turn over documents in which the attempt at redaction failed, but it also turned over internal e-mail messages -- including some with another university -- about how it would respond to the Freedom of Information Request.

Now the Sunshine Project -- a group that opposes the spread of biological weapons and has been critical of some university research in that area -- has released some of the documents, saying that they provide evidence that universities needlessly keep secret details that should be public, and that universities will grasp at any rationale for keeping research secret. "We were struck by how much insipid and utterly ordinary information was removed in the name of biosecurity," the Sunshine Project said, in a statement accompanying the documents. For example, East Carolina officials accidentally gave the project drafts in which officials considered whether they could keep secret all information about research on herpes, "as if the U.S. was threatened by terrorist cold sores."

As with the redacted information about keyboard covers, other information that East Carolina tried to keep secret does not immediately seem likely to help terrorists. "No glass in the lab" was redacted as was a line that said "Misc. Typeo's [sic] in the document."

While the Sunshine Project had a lot of fun with such redactions, it said others demonstrated why public access to these records matters. For example, minutes of the university's Institutional Biosafety Committee were redacted to remove all references to a malfunctioning waste incinerator. Said the Sunshine Project commentary: "This 'biosecurity' redaction was more likely an attempt to avoid embarrassment and/or uncomfortable compliance questions about ECU's attempt to improvise a solution for the serious design flaw in its equipment."

The Sunshine Project also found that the university was trying to hide information that was already available. For instance, in three years of records it reviewed, the university generally removed references to Brucella -- a so-called "select agent," a category for highly dangerous substances. But information identical to the information blacked out is available on the university's Web site, the Sunshine Project found.

John Durham, a spokesman for East Carolina, said that a "clerical error" led to the records request being prepared in a way that made all of the information clearly visible. He said that he had not personally seen all of the documents referenced on the Sunshine Project's Web site, but that he did not believe it was misquoting any of them. Asked about the Sunshine Project's contention that East Carolina's snafu demonstrated that universities don't comply with FOIA, Durham said, "We take FOIA very seriously," and noted that as a public university, East Carolina regularly releases all kinds of information to the public.

East Carolina also released -- accidentally -- some of the e-mail correspondence used in deciding what to redact. Apparently East Carolina officials consulted with other colleges in figuring out what to do. The Sunshine Project noted an e-mail message from a lawyer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in which she said that she was redacting items because of concerns about the Sunshine Project's board. "What kind of worried me about the request was that some of the people on the [Sunshine Project] board were from foreign countries where there had been terrorist cells found, or where I think I remember some assertion by the feds that some rebel group in the country was allied with Al-Quaeda." [sic]

The Sunshine Project is an international group, with offices in the United States and Germany. It is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) public charity, and while it attracts support from left-leaning and pacifist groups, its support does not seem linked to terror cells of any sort. Major donors, for example, have included the Ploughshares Fund and the Ben and Jerry's Foundation.

The Sunshine Project's analysis expressed particular anger over the Chapel Hill advice to East Carolina. "The UNC counsel showed an appalling disregard for, and perhaps ignorance of, basic concepts of open records law, under which what is public is public, and what is released does not vary according to the institution's perception of the requester, even if that perception is an apparently paranoid and definitely xenophobic fantasy," the project wrote.

A spokeswoman for Chapel Hill confirmed the accuracy of the e-mail message sent by the counsel's office there, but said that officials did not want to comment on it.

The request made to East Carolina was among more than 400 that have been filed by the Sunshine Project with various entities required to have Institutional Biosafety Committees under federal regulations governing research involving highly dangerous substances. The majority of those institutions are universities. Edward Hammond, director of the project, said that while East Carolina provides the most dramatic example, he believes many universities are hiding information that should be public. He said that many of the minutes being received from biosafety committees are so minimal that they provide no real way of knowing whether research is being conducted safely.

Hammond stressed that his group did not oppose university research with select agents. As an organization dedicated to abolishing biological warfare, the Sunshine Project is well aware of the dangers posed by bioterrorism, he said, and understands that the United States needs to engage in "defensive" research in this area. However, he said that the only way to be sure that research is not offensive, and that local communities are being adequately protected, is for universities to be open about what they are doing and why. In some areas where this kind of research is being performed -- most notably in Boston -- local citizens and government officials have worried about the adequacy of safeguards, and questioned whether oversight is adequate.

He said that he had no problem with universities keeping secret any type of information that might be used by a terrorist to attack a laboratory or obtain select agents. But pointing to the East Carolina documents, he said it was clear that universities were redacting information that was of no use to terrorists -- and that should be part of the public record.

Tony DeCrappeo, president of the Council on Governmental Relations, a Washington-based group that helps universities navigate federal rules on research, said that he hadn't seen the East Carolina documents, but that he knew there was some uncertainty among universities over what should be made public. He said that federal officials have indicated that the minutes of biosafety committee meetings are open records, but that certain details could be redacted and that many universities were hoping for more guidance on what could and could not be held back.

Absent that guidance, he said, some universities "may be erring on the side of caution."


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