Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror focuses on the FBI bioterrorism case against artist Steve Kurtz as well as the FBI’s present relationship with the DIYBio community. The episode also tries to analyze society’s paranoia on germ warfare, the media exaggerations that fuel it, and the myths and truths about the DIYBio community’s potential to create a pathogen.
Key words: FBI involvement, DIYBio regulatory environment, public fear & paranoia, bio-terrorism, media play on fear, media exaggerations, myths, debunking myths, biosafety
Bioterror & Bioerror features:
- Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble)
- Todd Kuiken (Synbio Project)
- Claire Pentecost (Artist)
- Rich Pell (Director of the Center for PostNatural History)
- Paul Vanouse (Artist)
- Jason Bobe (co-founder of DIYBio)
- Ellen Jorgensen (co-founder of Genspace community lab)
- Michael Scroggins (writer & anthropologist)
The Steve Kurtz investigation
In the early 2000s, Critical Art Ensemble had produced several artworks in the realm of biotechnology, transgenics, and biopolitics. From reverse-engineering Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seed products to hosting biotech workshops for the public, CAE has frequently employed the use of biological materials in their performances to draw attention to political and social issues around industrial science. Following the 9/11 attacks and threats of biological warfare, the paranoia of the United States government had grown to an all-time high. This set the stage for Steve Kurtz’ detainment and eventual trial, which the art world subsequently responded with great resistance.
The investigating FBI agents committed a laundry list of irresponsible and dishonest actions during the investigation: leaving trash around the house, locking the house cat in the attic without food for multiple days, and searching his home without a warrant. Thanks to the Patriot Act, the FBI had the right to obtain information on citizens without their notification, and subpoenaed other members of Critical Art Ensemble to appear before a grand jury. Paul Vanouse, who had collaborated with CAE, remembers the FBI coming to his door to ask him questions, “they were never interested in asking me questions when a lawyer was around.” Steve Kurtz was detained to a Marriot Hotel for a day until Paul was able to get in touch with a lawyer. The Department of Justice initially made claims that Steve Kurtz was in possession of a biological agent that wasn’t being used for “prophylactic, protective bona fide research towards educational or other peaceful peaceful purpose.
CHARGED FOR MAIL FRAUD
Eventually these charges fell through, and the Department of Justice turned to the charge most commonly used against activists and members of the mafia: mail fraud. Dr. Robert E. Ferrell, a genetics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, had sent $257 worth of bacteria to Steve Kurtz through the mail. The fact that they had communicated about the transaction over email meant that they were also charged for wire fraud. These far-fetched allegations would hold maximum convictions of up to 10 years of imprisonment.
The judge, Richard J. Arcara of Federal District Court, ruled that a mail and wire fraud indictment brought nearly four years ago against the University at Buffalo professor, Steven J. Kurtz, was “insufficient on its face.” Even if Steve Kurtz had taken the actions that the FBI alluded to, no crime had been committed. Steve Kurtz’ strong legal team, which had previously defended other art-activists like the Yes Men, demolished the prosecutions pathetic attempts at saving face. The charges against Dr. Kurtz were dropped, stopping the FBI from using the case to set a precedent in future situations.
Strange Culture (2007)
We would like to thank Lynn Hershman, director of the documentary film Strange Culture for giving us the rights to use her footage for B roll. Please check out the film to learn more about CAE and the case against Steve Kurtz.
The "New" FBI
The Steve Kurtz case had been a very public and embarrassing incident for the FBI. When DIYBio first made headlines in 2008, the FBI probably realized that villainizing DIYBio would only make the members less willing to communicate and possibly drive the movement underground. Determined not to repeat their mistakes, Ed You was appointed as the supervisory agent of the Bioterrorism Prevention Team who reached out to several members of the DIYBio community. In 2012, one of the biggest conferences was held in Walnut Creek, CA for emerging biolabs across the U.S. and Europe and the FBI, a chance for both groups to communicate their capabilities and roles. In stark contrast to the way the “old FBI” would normally handle things, the “new FBI” now presented themselves as welcoming and understanding.
WHAT CAN BE SPECULATED
... about the intentions of the FBI by reaching out to the DIYBio with open arms? It was definitely a strategic move on their part, adopting a welcoming, curious-to-learn-more attitude rather than a threatening, authoritative one. The most obvious intention, which was stated in the pamphlets they handed out to the members who attended the conference, was to educate the community on biosafety and biosecurity, serving as the Bureau’s “watchdogs” for any suspicious activity. However, the chances of a serious bioterrorist associating and practicing within the DIYBio community is rather slim, as someone engaging in criminal activity would likely avoid the public eye. Another speculation on the FBI’s intention with the DIYBio community is a surveyor of innovation, keeping tabs on any creative prototypes that would interest organizations like DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), who have definitely taken interest in synthetic biology projects that are ripe in the R&D phases.
FBI, AAAS Collaborate on Ambitious Outreach to Biotech Researchers and DIY Biologists (2011)
Perspective of the Anthropologist
Michael Scroggins, a PhD working on the validity of hackerspaces as educational institutions, has kept an objective stance on the FBI’s relationship with DIYBio. He points out the paradoxical nature of the FBI’s strategic policing of the community, noting that the last three conferences held by the FBI have actually helped tremendously in the growth and proliferation of its members. In a 2012 blog post on ethnography.com, Scroggins notes an alarming comparison that the FBI makes with DIYBio and flight school (in reference to the string of incidents leading up to the 9/11 attack). “You could be breeding terrorists along with bacteria,” as if the potential for a flight student becoming a plane hijacker was comparable to a biohacker becoming a bioterrorist. Shortly after publishing this blog post, Scroggins was approached by a shady character whom he suspected to be an agent of some sort. The most tell-tale sign was when the man asked him which projects in the DIYBio community were at their most marketable stage. When Scroggins asked the man directly if he was part of the FBI, the man sort of “laughed off the question,” and never returned to the subject.
Wave of Fear:
media uses diybio as bioterrorism scapegoat
In Attics and Closets, 'Biohackers' Discover Their Inner Frankenstein (2009)
Garage-lab bugs: spread of bioscience increases bioterrorism risks (2010)
Amateurs Are New Fear in Creating Mutant Virus (2012)
Downloadable Gun Parts, Personalized Bioterror: the Downside of Innovation (2012)
Seven Myths and Realities about Do-It-Yourself Biology
This nationwide survey was conducted in 2013 by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation's Synthetic Biology Project.