Undermining International Bioweapons Controls

Sidebar to "The Invisible Enemy"

Just a week before the September 11 terrorist attacks, American news media reported that the U.S. government had conducted clandestine research on biowarfare preparedness. The Pentagon had secretly drawn up plans to reproduce a Russian genetically-engineered strain of the anthrax bacterium in order to test the U.S. military's anthrax vaccine. It had also built a germ factory in Nevada out of commercially available materials, in which the government apparently planned to manufacture not actual bioweapons agents but germ simulants, to gauge how easily others could do the real thing. Meanwhile, the Central Intelligence Agency had constructed a copy of a Soviet germ bomblet that the agency feared was being sold on the international market.

Many experts believe these sub rosa experiments violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The treaty, ratified by 144 countries, states that signatory nations would "never in any circumstances develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain" biological weapons. As prophylactic and defensive research, the two Pentagon programs were permissible under the BWC, says Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biologist and chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists Working Group on Biological Weapons. The CIA germ bomb, a potential delivery system for biological agents, was not.

In addition, one of the treaty provisions negotiated after 1972 compels signatory nations to annually report on their defensive research. "The U.S. government was incredibly shortsighted," says Raymond Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "This kind of research is permissible under the Biological Weapons Convention if it's carried out in the open and reported as part of the confidence-building measures -- neither of which was done. Here we are doing activities that, if we found out they were being done in Iraq or Iran or North Korea, we would probably immediately bomb the hell out of them."

"It makes it look like we're trying to get away with something," adds Rosenberg. "I don't believe the U.S. intends to develop or possess offensive biological weapons. But I think a lot of the world does, and I think this plays right into their hands."

To fortify the BWC, international negotiators have come up with a protocol which would require on-site visits to make sure nations are obeying the treaty and would allow challenge inspections when nations are suspected of violations. This summer, the Bush administration wiped out years of work on the protocol by being the only signatory nation to reject the draft text, on the grounds that surprise inspections could threaten national security or reveal drug companies' commercial secrets.

That decision, while roundly and appropriately criticized, reveals a central dilemma: Virtually all the agents and equipment needed to make bioweapons are also needed for legitimate medical and industrial purposes. Conversely, any operation that makes vaccines, antibiotics, feed supplements, or fermented beverages could be converted to making biological weapons. The razor-thin distinction is one of intent. Biowarfare materials are inherently "dual use" and thus difficult to police.

Rosenberg fears that by rejecting the protocol and conducting secret studies, the U.S. government gave license to rogue states to do their own dubious experiments -- research that may eventually find its way to terrorists like the Al Qaeda organization. "I don't think terrorists can possibly launch an attack without support from a government that's carried out extensive work on biological weapons," she says. "In turning down the treaty, the U.S. has turned down one of the very few means we have for exerting pressure on foreign governments not to get into that."