Published on Saturday, October 13, 2001 in the Boulder Daily Camera
A Timely Reprimand on Biological Warfare
by Christopher Brauchli
Expressing critical thought is considered to be favoring the terrorists. That is what I consider extremely dangerous.
-- Vaclav Havel, October 2001 comments to newspaper
The anthrax scare wasn't meant that way. But it is. It continues to be a reprimand. And as with all reprimands, one can only hope that it makes us more aware. Before Sept. 11, germ warfare was much in the news. After Sept. 11, germ warfare was much in the news. The only difference was the kind of news.
Before Sept. 11, the news was about the Bush administration's attitude toward a draft protocol that had been proposed for enforcing the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The convention has been ratified by 143 countries. It bans the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological and toxin weapons but permits work on vaccines and other protective measures. It seemed like a much needed protocol since during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union had produced quantities of germ weapons sufficient to kill everyone on earth, a signal achievement, no doubt, but one that boded little good for mankind.
The protocol was missing only two things an enforcement scheme and a clear definition of what constituted protective measures. In 1995 parties to the treaty decided that enforcement provisions were needed. That was a revelation. Unlike many revelations it did not come from above. It came from empirical data discovered during the Gulf War and from disclosures made by the former Soviet Union.
Following the Gulf War people who know about such things concluded that Iraq had developed stocks of biological weapons, including anthrax, even though such conduct was banned by the convention and even though Iraq had signed the convention. Iraq was not alone. In 1992, Boris Yeltsin admitted that the former Soviet Union had violated the accord by maintaining a long-standing biological weapons program after the treaty went into force.
According to a Sept. 4, 2001-report in the New York Times, entire cities had been built that were devoted to developing germ weapons and turning anthrax, smallpox and bubonic plague into weapons of war. In addition it was suspected that research was being conduced by at least a dozen countries including Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Israel. Iraq and the Soviet Union both said their research was purely for defensive purposes. In 1995 talks began on a new protocol to procure enforcement. As the protocol was approaching completion, the Clinton administration described it as an important tool to stem the spread of biological weapons and international negotiators hoped to have the protocol completed by November 2001.
The New York Times report did not limit itself to describing what countries other than the United States were doing. It also disclosed that during the past several years and while working to develop the protocol, the United States had embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that tested the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons. Since it was being done in secret only the administration knew the research was being conducted.
During the Clinton years, research focused on the mechanics of making germ weapons. The CIA built and tested a model of a Soviet-designed germ bomb that officials believed was being sold on the international market. At the same time the Pentagon assembled a germ factory in Nevada. When asked about these projects after the Bush administration took office, Bush officials said the projects were consistent with the treaty banning biological weapons. By contrast, other commentators said if another country were engaged in that kind of research, the United States would vigorously protest the efforts.
In early 2001 the Pentagon drew up plans to genetically engineer a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax, the very bacterium about which there is now so much concern. In response to criticism that these efforts violated the treaty, spokespersons for the administration said that all the tests were being conducted for defensive purposes. That was the same thing the Soviet Union and Iraq had said when confronted with evidence of their germ warfare efforts.
In late July the United States rejected an effort to forge an anti-germ warfare pact. At a meeting of 50 countries that took place the last full week in July, the United States pulled out from seven years of talks saying the draft protocol to enforce the 1972 biological weapons convention was so fundamentally flawed that it could not be repaired. Acknowledging that the protocol was not foolproof, Tibor Toth, chairman of the talks, said that the proposed regime of regulations would provide a "mosaic of information" to alert countries to possible possession or use of biological weapons. He said that with the pullout by the United States it would be difficult, if not impossible, to revive 10 years of work. Instead of dealing with improving the protocol, delegates to the meeting were forced to spend their time assessing the damage caused by the unilateral withdrawal from the talks by the United States. A Bush administration spokesman, Donald Mahley, said that Washington would be floating some new approaches to control biological weapons, but gave no timetable.
After Sept. 11, the news was no longer about how countries were getting around the protocol. It was about the deadly effects of anthrax. On October 5, Bob Stevens died of inhalation anthrax, a rare disease that has been considered a plausible biological warfare threat. A second case affecting one of his co-workers was reported a few days later. Something good may come out of these episodes. They may give Mr. Mahley an incentive to come up with a timetable for new approaches to controlling biological weapons. Don't count on it.
Copyright 2001 The Daily Camera.