The United States feels an imminent threat of biological or chemical
terrorist attack. How do our own policies relate to the rise of this
frightening situation? Why has our government been throwing away so
many opportunities to work with other nations to control weapons of
mass destruction? This paper, for the US peace movement and
non-profit activists, explains the key avoidable factors that have
led to this predicament, and suggests what US policy changes can be
made to help us find a peaceful way out.
Shaken and angered by cruel terrorist attacks, the United States has
announced a war on terrorism. Although no legal declaration has been
made, US leaders are emphatic that they are not using the word in a
figurative sense. This time, war really means war. Our nation's
goals include not only capturing the attacks' perpetrators "dead or
alive" and ending state-sponsored terrorism (although none is yet
proven); but ridding the globe of the threat posed by terrorist use
of biological and chemical weapons.
The latter is certainly a noble goal, although many thoughtful
citizens and peaceniks (including the author) oppose the US's
military methods. The killing power of biological and chemical
weapons is unfathomable. There is no defense but to avoid it
happening in the first place. In 1983, the US Army estimated that one
thousand kilograms (2200 lbs.) of sarin nerve gas aerosolized over an
urban area on a clear, calm night would kill 3,000 - 8,000 people, an
attack in terms of human lives roughly proportionate to that on the
World Trade Center. One tenth of the amount of anthrax spores - one
hundred kilograms - distributed under similar conditions would be
likely to result in the death of one to three million people, an
unimaginable toll two hundred to six hundred times that in New York.
Once Upon a Time
There was a time when the US arguably could muster sufficient
credibility to lead a campaign to eliminate chemical and biological
weapons. In 1973, President Nixon renounced biological weapons and
mostly dismembered the US bioweapons apparatus. It wasn't an
altruistic move so much as a way to discourage poorer countries from
developing offensive biological warfare capabilities that could rival
nuclear weapons in killing power. All without making a Manhattan
Project-sized investment in science and infrastructure.
Not produced in large quantities for so long that many are actually
leaking their deadly contents, old stocks of chemical weapons began
to be incinerated at the end of the Cold War (the process continues
today). Russian inspectors were even allowed to enter and examine US
facilities that they thought might be producing biological weapons.
The US ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and was in talks
with other nations to develop a UN system to verify global compliance
with the Biological Weapons Convention.
In short, we were cooperative and did not seem to be threatening the
world with chemical and biological warfare.
Sadly, it is no longer the case that the US can lead the world
against chemical and biological weapons. Our leaders have sacrificed
our progress in bungled attempts to address policy problems of the
present. The US may have the military muscle to stamp out the
current generation of active terrorists; but does not possess the
moral authority to spearhead a crusade against weapons of mass
destruction. Certainly not nukes. Vice President Cheney refuses to
rule out dropping the bomb on terrorists. Chemical and biological
weapons? Our actions and policy are even worse.
There has always been a shadier side to the US renunciation of
chemical and biological weapons. For example: Cuban accusations of
biological attack with agricultural pests (unproven; but stridently
alleged and not without evidence), enemies convinced that the US
maintains offensive biological weapons (incorrect as alleged; but
some biodefense research walks a razor-thin line), and refusal to
accept responsibility for the horrendous human and environmental
effects of Agent Orange, the latter most recently, shamefully
repeated by Bill Clinton in Hanoi itself.
Some problems - like Agent Orange - are ongoing moral failures.
Others, as troubling as they are, remain unproven, pertain to events
dating from years ago, or were sufficiently ambiguous (at least in
terms of the public's knowledge), to shield the US from many critics.
For problems like the Cuban allegations, it will take years for the
truth to be known with certainty, if ever. They have damaged; but in
themselves did not destroy US ability to lead the struggle against
biological and chemical weapons. At least until now.
The fact that the US maintains what is far and away the largest
biological weapons defense program in the world doesn't help either.
Even the greatest experts disagree on which specific activities are
offensive and which can be classified as defensive. The tendency
among governments has been toward classifying all "research" (as
opposed to weapons-building and testing) as the latter. The laxity
of interpretation has given rise to potential misunderstandings and
opened doors to would-be biological weapons developers. Genetic
engineering and its proliferation has made matters worse, further
blurring the line between offensive and defense and giving rise to
the technical possibility to create genetically-engineered superbugs
and even entirely new classes of biological weapons. The billions
recently authorized by Congress for homeland defense will swell this
opaque military-scientific-corporate biotechnology bureaucracy and
the instability it creates to even larger proportions.
The demolition of international confidence in the US has come more
recently, and we have nobody but ourselves to blame. Bumbling
attempts to address several post-Cold War problems were allowed to so
completely convolute chemical and biological weapons control
commitments that we sacrificed whatever moral high ground we might
have had. Now, many international critics convincingly argue the US
is a chemical and biological weapons control "rogue state".
Where did we go wrong? Three main areas: First, fear of terrorism
and "rogue states" and, particularly, their access to the military
talent and technology of our Cold War enemies. Second, missteps
retooling the US military for greater involvement in peacekeeping and
military "operations other than war" (such as Somalia). Third, a
foolish attempt to find the ever-elusive "silver bullet" to win the
Drug War that has resulted in US development of biological weapons.
In more detail:
Biological Warfare in the Name of America's Children
For more than three years the US has menaced other countries with the
threat of biological attack. Not just any countries. We've mainly
harassed two of the world's terrorism hotspots: Afghanistan and
The ostensible US motive is to prevent American kids from becoming
drug addicts by using biological weapons on Third World countries
that produce the drugs we buy and then snort, inject, and smoke. In
Afghanistan the target is opium poppy, source of heroin. Our weapon
is a dangerous fungus developed by a perverse alliance of
militaristic US drug warriors and ex-Soviet bioweapons researchers
who previously dedicated themselves to developing pathogens to
destroy US food supplies. The legal pretext includes attempts to gain
the "approval" of the Afghan government in exile (in Pakistan), a
bitter enemy of the Taliban that has no de facto power. The
environmental and human effects of use of these fungi could be
Our troops are a surprise. This biological weapon is not in our
military arsenal; but that of the State Department's anti-narcotics
division, supported by US diplomatic missions (repeat: diplomatic
missions) that provide cash, political, and intelligence support.
The US also supports using bioweapons in other conflict-torn
countries, such as Burma and Colombia, site of the largest armed
conflict in the Americas. Colombia has no fewer than three terrorist
organizations as defined by the State Department, including FARC, one
of the world's largest terrorist groups and an organization that has
repeatedly killed Americans. It is a testament to the severity of the
conflict in Colombia that it has the second largest number of
war-displaced persons in the world (after Sudan). Into this mix, the
US wants to throw biological weapons.
(In case you were wondering, it was proposed here too - to eradicate
pot in Florida - but environmental officials immediately shot it
Burning the Treaties to Save Them - Non-Lethal Weapons
Mogadishu was a harrowing disaster for the US armed forces. Sadly,
Somali civilians literally tore to pieces several US servicemen who
thought they were on a mission to help the poor and feed the hungry.
The military, understandably anxious to prevent a recurrence, vows it
will never happen again. The Pentagon's solution, of course, is not
politics; but weapons. Specifically, it started a huge program to
delve into new and controversial "non-lethal" weapons systems.
Non-lethal should not be understood as benign. In fact, these are
powerful weapons designed not to prevent death or permanent injury;
only to lessen its frequency.
Apart from microwaves to heat the skin, sound generators to vibrate
internal organs, lasers to confuse the eyes, and other non-chemical
and biological systems, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program (JNLWP)
has entertained proposals to dose people, especially rioters and
"potentially hostile civilians", with drugs. These drugs include
sedatives, "calmatives" (such as hallucinogens and ketamine, a DEA
schedule narcotic), muscle relaxants, opioids (the class of chemicals
in heroin), and "malodorants" (indescribably foul smelling
substances). JNLWP has weighed genetically engineered microbes to
destroy enemy vehicles, machinery, and supplies.
It isn't just blackboard and small-scale laboratory work. The Navy
has a genetically modified microbe to destroy plastics and, in the
words of one researcher "There is almost nothing some bug won't eat."
Delivery mechanisms under consideration or development include
backpack sprayers, land mines, mortars, and payloads for unmanned
aerial vehicles. JNLWP has planned computer simulations of the
offensive use of calmative agents, contracted with a major US
military supplier to develop an overhead-exploding chemical riot
control mortar round, and field-tested new non-lethal weapons (but
not biological ones) on humans in Kosovo.
The Pentagon claims - and desperately wants to hypnotize itself into
believing - that these arms are not chemical and biological weapons,
rather, that they are a potentially less bloody way to conduct
peacekeeping operations, isolate terrorists, and squelch civil
disobedience. But it is exceedingly unlikely that people forcibly
gassed with mind-altering drugs will view the hijacking of their
brains and bodies as a humane act. Much more probably, when their
motor control returns and hallucinations fade away, they may have
permanent psychological damage and feel enraged at the denial of
their freedom of thought and expression.
These weapons are not a panacea for death at the hands of US
soldiers, they are cruel and unusual biological and chemical weapons
banned under international laws for arms control, those prohibiting
torture, and those for protection of Human Rights. This is how the
world, and especially the victims, will understand and react to these
weapons if they are used. US attempts to characterize them as
anything else are not only wrong; but run the terrible risk of
provoking a biological or chemical attack on the US and its allies.
Blunders and Backsliding on the Bioweapons Convention
As 2001 opened, biological weapons control was focused on the
completion of six years of negotiations to develop an inspection
system to verify global compliance with the Biological and Toxin
Weapons Convention, the main international law against biological
weapons. The inspection system, called the Verification Protocol,
was designed to give teeth to this important international agreement
by, among other things, mandating declaration of biodefense research
and permitting the UN to inspect suspected bioweapons facilities.
Signs early this year from the USA were ominous. At a non-lethal
weapons meeting in Scotland, US military officers left arms control
experts slack jawed when they called for the renegotiation of the
bioweapons treaty to allow the US to produce and use anti-material
biological weapons like those being investigated by the Joint
Non-Lethal Weapons Program.
Things only got worse, and Uncle Sam led the way. In July,
bioweapons negotiators were set to meet and try to finalize the
verification agreement. The day before the meeting opened, the US
press was so uninterested that a back pages New York Times headline
declared the meeting was taking place in London, more than 450 miles
away from the actual site in Geneva, Switzerland.
Unfortunately, the US diplomatic team didn't divert to London and, as
expected arrived in Geneva and trashed the Verification Protocol. Six
years of negotiations were rendered at least temporarily useless, and
perhaps permanently. The US backed away just as other countries
approached agreement. It was reminiscent - and close on the heels -
of the US's withdrawal from the Kyoto agreement to control global
warming. In this case not content to simply walk away, the US went a
big step further. Adoption of the Verification Protocol needs
consensus. The US said it will sit in the negotiations and kill the
Verification Protocol by deliberately blocking the efforts of others,
including the European Union. The United States, standing alone,
delivered what may have been a knockout punch to the world's efforts
to combat biological weapons cooperatively.
The CIA's Monstrous Mistake
Not everybody at the New York Times had been asleep. Although the
timing was unusual, in early September, a Times article made stunning
revelations about the US biodefense program. The US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) is conducting a secret program of
biodefense research that, in the opinion of many experts, violates
the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The CIA tested mock
biological bombs and built a real bioweapons production facility in
Nevada. If any other country conducted this research, it would have
drawn the US's harshest denunciations and, quite possibly, military
attack. The real reasons for the US rejection of the Verification
Protocol suddenly became much more clear.
The date of the New York Times story (September 4) was unusual
because persons close to the reporters' investigation, including US
officials, confirm that the Times was in possession of information
about the CIA's Nevada facility and bomb testing by May, 2001 - over
a month before the US trashed the Protocol. Yet the Times waited to
enlighten the rest of the world until September, altering the course
of events in Geneva. This has led to quiet accusations that instead
of printing the news when it was fit to be printed, the Times
withheld the information in order for its release to more closely
coincide with distribution of review copies of the journalists' new
book on the US biodefense program. Or, some have suggested more
ominously, somebody at the Times may have placed protecting US
diplomatic interests ahead of journalistic ethics.
It gets even worse. Much worse. The CIA's research activities were
not disclosed in annual declarations of biodefense activities to the
Bioweapons Convention. Without actually mentioning it, the Times
article incontrovertibly demonstrated that the US had flouted a UN
mechanism to enhance transparency and trust between nations. The US
remained recalcitrant, claiming the CIA was "entirely appropriate,
necessary, consistent with US treaty obligations". The diplomatic
significance of this is difficult to overstate. The most powerful
country in the world proved itself untrustworthy on biological
weapons research. The CIA research has undermined faith in voluntary
confidence building measures to promote transparency between nations.
To US enemies, the CIA's work looks like nothing short of a
biological weapons threat and means that pious declarations about the
danger of bioweapons will ring hollow and be interpreted by US
enemies as lies - or even threats.
The CIA activities not only threaten arms control; but may have
contributed to expanding the black market for bioweapons technology.
Part of the CIA effort involved (failed) attempts to buy and then
test small biological bombs ("bomblets") manufactured by the Soviet
Union in its final years. According to University of Maryland expert
CIA operatives would have had to inform various networks of
essentially criminal elements -- smugglers and middlemen in Russia --
of what it was that the Agency was seeking. Those criminal networks
would then have tried to obtain the item. If they did not succeed
this time, as was apparently the case, they have learned that it is a
sought-after commodity, and they may be motivated to continue that
effort on their own, understanding that there will be an interested
purchaser sometime later. The next time the interested buyer might
not be the US CIA. This duplicates the process that occurred in the
mid-1990s when covert operations by German intelligence agencies
[seeking] sellers of fissionable materials [i.e. fuel for
constructing nuclear weapons] in former East European nations
produced a flow of items of varying quality. When it was understood
that this program had stimulated individuals in Russia to find things
to sell, the operation was quickly shut down. Since these events
occurred only a half dozen years ago, one might have imagined that
the vaunted CIA might have remembered the lesson.
The Bang of Big Buried Biological Bombs
Next, in mid-September, Dr. Barbara Rosenburg of the Federation of
American Scientists dropped another (figurative) bomb detailing the
US's disregard for bioweapons control. Rosenburg found Department of
Energy documents stating that the US is planning (and might already
have begun) to test biological weapons loaded with live agents in two
large underground aerosol chambers at the Army's Edgewood Chemical
Biological Center in Maryland. A similar facility is suspected to
exist for use by researchers pursuing similar aerosol projects at
Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. Its precise location is
unknown. Not by coincidence, Sandia is headquartered at Kirtland Air
Force Base near Albuquerque, a major research center for the Joint
Non-Lethal Weapons Program.
To the initiated in the technical world of bioweapons research, the
kind of research planned is a big no-no. It is of a scale
unnecessary for defensive research and apparently designed to yield
the exact kinds of data needed to build new biological weapons.
Unfortunately Not the End
Before the Twin Towers crashed to the ground, America's international
reputation on control of chemical and, especially, biological weapons
was punched full of holes and sinking fast. Staunch allies are
appalled. Before September 11th, UK officials made less than
complimentary remarks to the US press. Australia's Foreign Minster
upset Colin Powell's otherwise warm and cuddly kangaroo-hop Down
Under by blasting US rejection of bioweapons verification at a press
conference. If the US's most obedient international lap dogs are
biting, it's hard to fathom what could be running through the mind of
leaders of many other political persuasions - Iran, Libya, Israel,
Sudan, Egypt, Iraq (all accused by the US of developing biological or
chemical weapons). Not to mention terrorists. A fašade of cooperation
between most of these states has been achieved; but very deep
suspicions on weapons of mass destruction lurk just beneath the
surface and will come out, sooner or later.
What happened in New York and Washington was truly terrible. The
authors of the attacks and those that can be proven to have knowingly
assisted them should be tried in a court of law and face punishment.
But the war on terrorism isn't going to do anything good for
Americans' security from biological and chemical weapons attack. To
the contrary, there are many things that may actually heighten the
risk, like spraying pathogenic fungus on Colombia, gassing people who
disagree with us with inhumane chemical weapons, or continuing to
flout international commitments on biological weapons.
After thinking about the victims, it's also useful to think about
Mohammed Atta, who is alleged to have flown the first plane into the
World Trade Center. If what the FBI says is true, Atta was nothing
like the stereotyped "Arab terrorist". Atta reportedly was a
disenchanted urban planning student alienated during his time in
Hamburg, Germany. He smoked, drank and, supposedly, enjoyed video
games. He raised no suspicion in the US because he knew how to fit
in. More so than many isolated Americans, Atta was a product of
globalization and knew both sides of rich and poor, powerful and
passive. He also knew from whence so many unpopular; but
global-imposed economic and social policies come, and whose will
prevails when they are at issue. Which might explain why he didn't
fly an Airbus into the Brandenburg Gate, or even the Frankfurt Stock
Which isn't the slightest justification for his alleged actions. But
don't be fooled for a minute into thinking that waging war against
terrorism will do anything to improve the long-term prospects of
avoiding the use of biological and chemical weapons. Key elements of
the solution to those problems lie inside our own institutions.
Edward Hammond (Email:
firstname.lastname@example.org) is Director of the US office of the Sunshine Project, an
international non-profit organization dedicated to biological weapons control. Online at