Interesting Crime-Facilitating Speech Incident:

It was in the news several days ago, but I missed it, and thought other readers might have, too:

The federal government has asked the National Academy of Sciences not to publish a research paper that feds describe as a "road map for terrorists" on how to contaminate the nation's milk supply.

The research paper on biological terrorism, by Stanford University professor Lawrence M. Wein and graduate student Yifan Liu, provides details on how terrorists might attack the milk supply and offers suggestions on how to safeguard it.

The paper appeared briefly May 30 on a password-protected area of the National Academy of Science's Web site. . . . [T]he Department of Health and Human Services, which asked the academy to stop the article's publication. . . .

The paper gives "very detailed information on vulnerability nodes" in the milk supply chain and "includes . . . very precise information on the dosage of botulinum toxin needed to contaminate the milk supply to kill or injure large numbers of people," [HHS Assistant Secretary Stewart Simonson wrote in a letter to the science academy chief Dr. Bruce Alberts]. . . .

The NAS did indeed pull down the paper and delay its publication, and they're apparently reviewing it further. I'm naturally interested in this as an example of crime-facilitating speech — but also as the father of a boy who drinks lots of milk.

The NAS is a private organization, and as best I can tell, this was a request, not a command or even a threat, so there's no First Amendment problem here. But it's still an interesting question about public safety, scientific openness, and what mix (and timing) of openness and secrecy is the best way to deal with potential security problems.

Wein describes the problem in the course of arguing in favor of some potential solutions, such as "that the FDA guidelines for locking milk tanks should be made mandatory, and . . . the dairy industry should improve pasteurization to eliminate toxins." To get such potentially expensive procedures implemented, one may well need to explain precisely why they're necessary, and do so publicly, so that it's harder to sweep the objections under the rug. On the other hand, there are obvious costs to public disclosure, too. A hard and important question.

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