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Genetic Soldiers? Advisory Group Urges Pentagon To Map Genes Of All Personnel

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ARMY WRESTLERS
US ARMY

It sounds like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel, but it's not.

A new report from a secretive, highly influential group of scientists is urging the Department of Defense to begin collecting and mapping the full genome of all military personnel -- a move that could well give the Pentagon the ability to select for certain genetic predispositions.

Noting the dramatic decrease in the cost of fully mapping individuals' genomes, the report suggests that some traits relevant to war-fighting "are likely to have a strong genetic component, for which better understanding may lead to improved military capabilities."

And, possibly even more attractive to the Pentagon brass, gene-mapping could even lead to "medical cost containment."

What traits -- or "phenotypes" -- are we talking about here? The report, which was web-published on Thursday by Steven Aftergood on his Secrecy News blog, explains:

These phenotypes might pertain to short- and long-term medical readiness, physical and mental performance, and response to drugs, vaccines, and various environmental exposures, all of which will have different features in a military context. More specifically, one might wish to know about phenotypic responses to battlefield stress, including post-traumatic stress disorder, the ability to tolerate conditions of sleep deprivation, dehydration, or prolonged exposure to heat, cold, or high altitude, or the susceptibility to traumatic bone fracture, prolonged bleeding, or slow wound healing.

As if the Pentagon wasn't sitting on enough data already, the report envisions a huge new database (more likely than not run by some massive defense contractor). "The DoD will benefit by organizing personnel data into phenotypes of relevance to the military, then correlating those phenotypes with genetic information," it says.

The report also ominously and vaguely alludes to the possible weaponization of genetic information. "It may be beneficial to know the genetic identities of an adversary," the report says.

The report was submitted by an anonymous group of high-level scientists known as the Jasons. Founded in 1960, the Jasons are a group of top-flight scientists who spend each summer solving problems for the government. Some of their previous, unclassified reports can be found here.

The official overseeing the distribution of the report within the Pentagon told HuffPost on Thursday that it is only one contribution to the deliberations within the Defense Department about how to adjust to advances in genetic technology.

"The Jasons are one of many inputs that we take in, trying to get a variety of thoughts and ideas that are not all necessarily mainstream," said Melissa Flagg, the director for technical intelligence in the Pentagon's research and engineering department. "We don't want to be hostage to groupthink.

"But it doesn't necessarily mean that, just because a group of smart people thought it, that it is the future or will happen."

The report barely touches on the ethical ramifications of its recommendations. But, Flagg said: "This is not our only input. And why would you ask a bunch of scientists to talk to you about something they're not qualified to talk about?"

Ann Finkbeiner, a science writer and blogger, who wrote a book about the Jasons in 2006, told HuffPost that many have been Nobel Prize winners.

"My feel for the track record is that they are taken very seriously," she said. "And I think a lot of their ideas sort of end up in programs," she said, even if their fingerprints aren't obvious.

"They are not a bunch of crackpots at all. They occasionally get a little blue-sky, but they're taken seriously."

They also treasure their anonymity, Finkbeiner said.

Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, said she worries that the report overstates science's capacity to predict things based on genes. "This is really hard and complicated, and may not be predictive at all," she said. "Sequencing isn't analysis, and the key is analysis. This report is about the cheapening of the sequencing, but it's not about the acuity of the analysis."

And then there are the moral hazards. "The problem is not collecting information and analyzing it, it is using the information for evil, to harm innocent people, or to discriminate against persons simple because of the physical circumstances of their birth," Zoloth said.

The report does includes some caveats. For instance, it warns that "[a]cting on genotype information that is not convincingly linked to specific phenotypes could lead to erroneous and detrimental decision making."

But it concludes with great urgency:

DNA sequencing is already cheap enough to initiate the era of personal genome sequencing and further reductions in cost will make human genome sequencing increase in scope from hundreds of people (current) to millions of people (probably within three years)....

[T]he DoD and the VA should affiliate with or stand up a genotype/phenotype analysis program that addresses their respective needs. Waiting even two years to initiate this process may place them unrecoverably behind in the race for personal genomics information and applications.

"That's a very direct and unambiguous piece of advice," said Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "There's no beating around the bush; they tell you exactly what they think."

But is it called for?

"Questions about control and exploitation quickly become front and center," Aftergood said. "I think all of us should be concerned about the advancing state of genetic research and its susceptibility to improper or thoughtless use."

Furthermore, he said: "It lends itself to corporate control and for-profit exploitation of genetic data, which is the most intimately private information there could possibly be. Your genetic code is more private and more unique to you than anything else in the universe."

Aftergood noted the report's mention of what it called a "particularly noteworthy project" in Hong Kong that "involves the sequencing of 2,000 school children to look for markers that correlate with educational test scores."

That smacks of eugenics.

Many of our traits, after all, do not correlate directly to our genes, but are a function of our environment, and of our choices.

Zoloth said there are many ways the genetic information could be used by the Pentagon in a protective way, for instance by reducing certain soldiers' exposure to chemicals to which they are particularly sensitive.

Nevertheless, the report clearly raises the specter of a future military in which assignments are based on genetics rather than ability, or training, or effort, or choice -- or free will.

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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.