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Averting Bioterrorism Begins with US Reforms
Published on Saturday, September 22, 2001
Averting Bioterrorism Begins with US Reforms
by Edward Hammond
 
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.

The Present

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.

Demolishing Cooperation

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 Colombia.

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 devastating.

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 down.)

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 Milton Leitenberg:

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 Exchange.

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: hammond@sunshine-project.org) is Director of the US office of the Sunshine Project, an international non-profit organization dedicated to biological weapons control. Online at www.sunshine-project.org.

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