Several animal protection organizations are objecting to the Department of Agriculture's removal of reports pertaining to the use of animals in biomedical research from its Web site.
Citing security matters, the USDA in February removed from its Animal Care Division's Web site annual inspection reports of research facilities.
The research community had pushed for the change over concerns that the reports publicize what it says is sensitive information, such as inspectors' names and room locations within research facilities, which could be utilized by extremist groups.
"The (reports) have lots of critical information that researchers feel is one, unnecessary and two, possibly threatening," explained Mary Hanley, executive vice president of the National Association for Biomedical Research.
Ten animal protection organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, American Humane Association, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Doris Day Animal League, and American Anti-Vivisection Society, disagree with the USDA's decision, however, and have requested that the inspection reports be returned to the Web.
"It is clear the real reason that these (research) organizations want information removed from the USDA's Web site is to keep information that is potentially embarrassing to its institutional clients from entering the public domain," said HSUS Vice President for Animal Research Issues Martin Stephens, PhD.
A notice on the Animal Care site reads: "The availability of inspection reports electronically has been discontinued until legal issues are resolved. Hard copies of the Animal Care inspection reports can be obtained through regional offices."
The Animal Welfare Act requires institutions using animals for research to be inspected annually. These inspection reports include information about the kinds of experiments performed on animals. Under the Freedom of Information and the Electronic Freedom of Information acts, the reports had been posted on the Internet to provide the public with easy access to government data.
But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there has been heightened concern about national security and terrorism, including violence by domestic extremist groups. Radical animal rights groups such as the Animal Liberation Front and its sister organization, the Earth Liberation Front, are known to target institutions that use animals as part of research (see JAVMA, Sept. 15, 2002, page 750).
After Sept. 11, the Justice Department issued a directive ordering federal agencies to conduct self-reviews to determine whether they had made sensitive information too readily accessible.
"It was a security concern, primarily," Dr. Jerry Depoyster, a staff veterinarian with the Animal Care Division, said about why the inspection reports were removed from the site. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and the Office of Homeland Security had wanted the electronic reports to be discontinued, he added.
Although no acts of terrorism against a research facility or an employee have been linked to information available on the Web, the potential exists, and in the eyes of the USDA, poses too great a risk to take. "You can see that side of the issue," Dr. Depoyster said, "that having a person's name up (on the Web) may make them a target."
As the Animal Care Web site explains, the reports are available by request from regional Animal Care offices. Dr. Depoyster pointed out that, since the reports are frequently requested, the turnaround time can be a matter of days.
The HSUS disputes that claim, however, saying that in its experience, these requests can take up to two years to be fulfilled.
Hanley of NABR expects that, after a review by the USDA's legal counsel, the inspection reports will return to the Web. Yet the association, which represents more than 300 research-related institutions, including public and private universities, will continue to press for removing what it sees as sensitive information from the electronic and print reports.