Published on Tuesday, July 24, 2001 in the New York Times
Germ Warfare Talks Open in London; U.S. Is the Pariah
by Michael R. Gordon
LONDON, July 23 European nations and other major powers today urged the completion of a draft agreement to enforce the 1972 ban on biological weapons, a move that puts them at odds with the Bush administration.
Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Marc Baptist of Belgium told negotiators in Geneva that the draft accord, while not perfect, was still the best way to strengthen the ban on germ weapons.
The European endorsement, and support for the agreement by a raft of other nations, has left the Bush administration increasingly isolated on an important arms control issue.
After an extensive review this spring, the Bush administration has concluded that the draft accord is flawed beyond repair. And United States officials have traveled around the world to inform allies of the assessment.
Donald H. Mahley, the American representative to the talks, is not scheduled to address the negotiating session, which opened today, until Wednesday. But there is a widespread concern in Geneva that he will announce Washington's opposition to the monitoring accord.
In Washington today, a State Department spokesman said that more work needs to be done to strengthen the ban on germ weapons, but gave no indication of how it could be done.
The mounting debate comes at a particularly awkward time for the Bush administration. With President Bush visiting Europe, the White House has sought to counter criticism that it is relying too much on its plans for a missile shield and not enough on arms control to deal with the threat of a nuclear, chemical or germ weapon attack.
At the core of the dispute is the 1972 treaty, which 143 nations, including the United States, have ratified and which prohibits the development, production and possession of biological weapons.
When that treaty was negotiated, it had no provision for verification, a major limitation because most of the nations suspected of making biological weapons have signed the accord.
So six years ago, international negotiators began discussing a further protocol that would establish measures to monitor the ban, an effort backed by the Clinton administration. The goal was to conclude the agreement by November, and a new round of talks began today.
Throughout the talks, Washington has had conflicting objectives. While it has sought to discourage cheating it has also tried to limit foreign inspectors' access to American bio-defense installations and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in order to protect military and trade secrets.
Under the current draft, for example, a new executive council would be established and a majority vote of council members would be needed to investigate a suspicious plant.
Supporters of the accord insist that the protocol was never intended to provide an iron-clad verification but rather to increase the odds that cheaters would be caught.
But the White House review concluded that a nation that was determined to cheat would be able to find a way to do so. At the same time, the administration concluded, the draft accord would grant foreign inspectors too much access to American installations and companies.
As word of the administration's review spread, allies were quick to register their dissatisfaction. The European Union, whose members have their own pharmaceutical industries, said the draft accord, for all of its flaws, was the best way to combat the germ weapon threat..
To blunt the criticism that the United States was turning a blind eye to the problem, some American officials recommended that the White House develop an alternative approach to strengthen the protocol.
As a new round of negotiations began today, Bush administration officials said there would be many obstacles to an accord even if Washington went along. Russia and China, United States officials said, are reluctant to allow on-site inspections, while Iran has sought to use the negotiations to weaken controls on the export of biological materials.
But today, Russia, China and Iran were among the nations that called for the accord's completion, perhaps calculating that they had a rare chance to show up the Americans.
A senior United States official insisted that the administration had taken a principled, if unpopular, stance. A nation that was determined to cheat could elude detection under the accord, he said.
"There are some cases where a bad document is worse than no document," he said.
But Elisa Harris, a former specialist on biological weapons on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council and a research fellow at the University of Maryland, said the Bush administration had not presented a strategy to stop the spread of germ weapons.
"If the Bush administration does not support the protocol, how would it deter other nations from developing biological weapons?" she said. "What does this say to cheaters about the U.S. commitment to enforce the biological weapons convention?"
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company