Respected scientists on both sides of the Atlantic warned yesterday that the US
is developing a new generation of weapons that undermine and possibly violate
international treaties on biological and chemical warfare.
The scientists, specialists in bio-warfare and chemical weapons, say the Pentagon,
with the help of the British military, is also working on "non-lethal" weapons
similar to the narcotic gas used by Russian forces to end last week's siege in
They also point to the paradox of the US developing such weapons at a time
when it is proposing military action against Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein
is breaking international treaties.
Malcolm Dando, professor of international security at the University of Bradford,
and Mark Wheelis, a lecturer in microbiology at the University of California,
say that the US is encouraging a breakdown in arms control by its research into
biological cluster bombs, anthrax and non-lethal weapons for use against hostile
crowds, and by the secrecy under which these programs are being conducted.
"There can be disagreement over whether what the United States is doing represents
violations of treaties," Mr Wheelis told the Guardian. "But what is happening
is at least so close to the borderline as to be destabilizing."
In a paper to be published soon in the scientific journal Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, the two academics focus on recent US actions that have served to undermine
the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. In a move that stunned the international
community last July, the US blocked an attempt to give the convention some teeth
with inspections, so that member countries could check if others were keeping
Mr Dando believes Washington's motive for torpedoing the deal, which had the
support of its allies, was to maintain secrecy over US research work on biological
weapons. He said that work includes:
· CIA efforts to copy a Soviet cluster bomb designed to disperse
· A project by the Pentagon to build a bio-weapon plant from commercially
available materials to prove that terrorists could do the same thing
· Research by the Defense Intelligence Agency into the possibility
of genetically engineering a new strain of antibiotic-resistant anthrax
· A program to produce dried and weaponized anthrax spores, officially
for testing US bio-defences, but far more spores were allegedly produced than
necessary for such purposes and it is unclear whether they have been destroyed
or simply stored.
In each case, the US argued the research work was being done for defensive
purposes, but their legality under the BWC is questionable, the scientists argue.
For example, a clause in the biological weapons treaty forbids signatories
from producing or developing "weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed
to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict".
Furthermore, signatories agreed to make annual declarations about their biodefence
programs, but the US never mentioned any of those programs in its reports. Instead,
they emerged from leaks and press reporting.
The focus on Washington's biological and chemical weapons program comes at
an awkward time for the Bush administration, which is locked in negotiations at
the UN for a tough resolution on arms inspections of Iraq. According to Mr Dando,
British and US research into hallucinogenic weapons such as the gas BZ encouraged
Iraq to look into similar agents. "We showed them the way," he said.
Mr Dando added that the US was currently working on "non-lethal" weapons similar
to the gas Russian forces used to break the Moscow theatre siege. Those include
"calmative" agent which are designed to knock people out without killing them.
"What happened in Moscow is a harbinger of what is to come," Mr Dando said.
"There is a revolution in life sciences which could be applied in a major way
to warfare. It's an early example of the mess we may be creating."
He added that Britain "is implicated as well", as the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal
Weapons Directorate has worked with British officers on its research.
Jonathan Tucker, a chemical weapons expert at the US Institute for Peace in
Washington, said much of the work on non-lethal weapons was being carried out
by an institute under the US justice department but was funded by the Pentagon.
"They are trying to keep it at arms length, but it is problematic especially
for military purposes. The chemical weapons convention makes a very clear distinction
between riot control and incapacitants," he said.
While Mr Tucker believes that such knock-out gases are explicitly banned under
the treaty, Mr Dando and Mr Wheelis believe the Pentagon has exploited a loophole
that allows for such weapons for "law enforcement purposes".
But by blurring the edges of the treaty, they argue the US is inviting other
countries to do the same. The US, Mr Dando said, "runs the very real danger of
leading the world down a pathway that will greatly reduce the security of all."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002