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Germ-warfare recipes easy to get

Scientists decry the release of data that could help terrorists

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WASHINGTON — Months into an expanded war on bioterrorism, the government is still making available to the public hundreds of formerly secret documents that tell how to turn dangerous germs into deadly weapons.

For $15, anyone can buy "Selection of Process for Freeze-Drying, Particle Size Reduction and Filling of Selected BW Agents," or germs for biological warfare. The 57-page report, dated 1952, includes plans for a pilot factory that could produce dried germs in powder form, designed to lodge in human lungs.

For years, experts have called such documents cookbooks for terrorists and condemned their public release. Now, with new urgency, scientists and military experts are campaigning to have the weapon reports locked away from public access. The Bush administration is considering such restrictions, said John H. Marburger III, the White House science adviser.

Experts warn that the documents, even though decades old, contain information that could help produce the kind of sophisticated anthrax powder that killed five people and traumatized the nation last fall.

"It's pretty scary stuff," said Raymond A. Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a private group that studies germ defenses. "There's a whole bunch of literature out there that's really cookbook."

Such documents were written from 1943 to 1969, when the United States employed an army of scientists and engineers to research, develop and build a stockpile of germ weapons. Although Washington renounced germ warfare in 1969 and dismantled its arsenal, the government preserved the studies, recipes and blueprints on which the arms were based.

Hundreds of the documents have been declassified over the decades as part of an effort to make public the inner-workings of government. Today, federal agencies routinely sell the documents to historians and other researchers, mostly over the Internet and telephone. More sensitive but still unclassified reports are made available by mail after requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Critics of the disclosure policy inside and outside the government now fear that the germ warfare documents, in the wrong hands, could speed the development of weapons meant to cripple the United States, and they want new precautions.

But advocates of public access to government information are wary of the new push. Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, said that it could promote bad policy. "If these documents pose a threat, they should be controlled, if possible," Aftergood said. "But classification abuse is rampant in the government, and authority to reclassify things could wreak havoc."