Clinton Legacy Watch # 20: More Evidence of the Mounting Biological Warfare Threat and the Inadequate U.S. Response

(Washington, D.C.): With each passing day, it seems new warnings are offered about the
dangers
posed by biological weapons (BW) in the hands of potential adversary states and/or terrorists. href=”#N_1_”>(1)
Yet, the Clinton Administration seems determined to perpetuate the sorry history of
successive presidencies: systematically ignoring the threat; keeping the public unaware of
its gravity and unequipped to deal with the catastrophic effects which a biological weapons
attack could unleash on an unprotected population; and, arguably worst of all, pursuing
policies that could have the effect of exacerbating the menace of biological
warfare.

Threat Assessment

Last night, the National Public Radio program “Fresh Air” broadcast a
chilling interview with
acclaimed author Richard Preston. It addressed, among other points: the characteristics of
biological weapons; their heinous effects on human beings; the degree to which such weapons are
now in the hands of many countries hostile to, or potentially hostile to, the United States — and
possibly in the hands of dangerous sub-national groups, as well; and the ease with which BW
programs can be concealed even from intrusive inspections conducted by highly skilled personnel.
The following were among the most noteworthy of Mr. Preston’s observations:

  • There is a profound difference — a world of difference — between chemical
    weapons
    and biological weapons.
    Chemical weapons are poison gasses. They act locally and
    generally they touch your skin and they cause instantaneous death. Biological weapons are germs. They’re organisms and they’re alive. They may be
    specially engineered for purposes of warfare and terrorism. They can spread in an infectious process. So
    the biological weapon can be a strategic weapon. That is to say, it can have a terrible impact on a
    large human population very suddenly.

  • “In certain significant respects, a contagious biological weapon may be more
    powerful than
    the hydrogen bomb because it can spread.
    It may also be more control —
    uncontrollable.
  • “On about day three [following exposure to the anthrax virus], you suddenly die of anthrax
    pneumonia. The death is precipitate and it’s an absolute crash. Doctors in the Soviet Union
    who observed patients dying of anthrax during an accident in 1979 reported that they would be
    talking to a patient at bedside, and the patient would be explaining how he felt, and he would
    die in mid-sentence. He would die between breaths. The anthrax spores produce a toxin as
    they multiply — a toxin which actually causes a breathing arrest.
  • “If a major release of anthrax were to occur in an American city, say, it’s quite conceivable
    that
    50,000 or more people would be exposed to the plume of anthrax particles.
    It would be
    necessary to fly in, overnight, maybe three tons of antibiotics or a similar amount of
    vaccines, just to get them into that 50,000 people.
    If people were aware that they’d
    been
    exposed to a biological weapon, there would be a terrible public outcry for medicines
    immediately, to help calm the population and save lives.
  • At the present time, the federal government is totally unprepared to do
    this
    .
    There isn’t any stockpile of three tons of antibiotics anywhere in the United
    States and there isn’t any system to get vaccines or antibiotics into an American
    population.
    (2)

  • Ken Alibek [an anglized version of the name of a high-ranking Soviet
    official, Kanatjan
    Alibekov, who defected in 1992 from the USSR’s covert BW program] … has made the claim,
    and it is supported by some evidence, that in the early 1990s just before the Soviet Union
    broke up, researchers at a place called ‘Vector’ — which is a huge laboratory in Siberia that
    was primarily dedicated to the development and production of virus weapons — did genetic
    engineering on the smallpox virus.
  • “Now, smallpox virus, it turns out, may be quite amenable to genetic engineering. It’s
    rather easy to open up the genome or the DNA of smallpox and put other things in
    there — other types of viruses for example …. Whether they actually did this and
    whether they tested this is a matter of debate. But I think the bottom line is that
    genetic engineering is rather easy to do, and there’s plenty of circumstantial, but
    troubling evidence, that a number of countries worldwide now are using genetic
    engineering to create new viruses for the purposes of weapons.

  • “The Russian biological weapons program has hit hard times. And many scientists — no one
    knows the number — appear to have gone abroad to other countries. The world may be
    entering a kind of quiet biological arms race. And the Soviets had the most advanced and
    successful bio-weapons program on Earth. They may well have sent people — I should say
    that people may have just simply left Russia and gone to foreign countries, maybe
    carrying strains with them.
  • “One of the unexpected results of the ending of the American biological weapons program
    was
    a virtually total loss of technical knowledge of biological weapons. And a generation of
    experts in biological weapons came along — scientists — who firmly believed that Russia
    was not violating the Biological Weapons Treaty. They insisted on this passionately.
    They were absolutely wrong.
    It’s now known in the science community how wrong
    they
    were.(3)
  • “But in the meantime, there was a sense of confidence about the treaty —
    confidence that the treaty was working
    ; confidence that in any case biological
    weapons, it was believed, had never been thoroughly tested and never been
    demonstrated to work, and in fact might not be usable as weapons. They would either
    be simply ineffective — they wouldn’t kill people — or they would have this tendency to
    go so wildly out of control that they would blow back and destroy anybody who used
    them.

    While these beliefs, and they were only beliefs — not based on fact — were
    circulating in the American scientific community, a generation of talented
    and skilled researchers in the Soviet Union was moving forward rapidly with
    a highly successful biological weapons program.

A Chronology of Officially Sanctioned Cognitive
Dissonance

In today’s editions, the Wall Street Journal — a publication that has done more
than any other to
challenge the See-No-Evil orthodoxy that has governed American attitudes (official and
otherwise) about proliferating chemical and biological weapons threats — offers a valuable, if
demoralizing, accounting of this syndrome. The attached op.ed.
article
by intelligence expert and
noted author Joseph Douglass describes a litany of instances dating back to
1969 in which the
U.S. government ignored evidence of Russian involvement in illegal BW programs. Mr. Douglass
summarizes the forces animating this cognitive dissonance as follows:

    “U.S. defense planning for chemical and biological weapons has been the unwanted
    stepchild of the U.S. national security apparatus since 1969. Intelligence has
    generally been poor, since key officials did not want to find a threat that might
    breathe new life into U.S. offensive programs. The subject was also a no-no
    because it would embarrass the Russians and interfere with arms control efforts.

    (Emphasis added.)

When In Doubt, Seek More Bad Arms Control

Mr. Douglass correctly observes that “adding more arms control treaties, such as the new
Chemical Weapons Convention, won’t solve the problem [posed by proliferating BW
capabilities].” The same can be said of efforts to enhance the verification and enforcement
provisions of the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention (BWC), which is one of — as Mr. Douglass
puts it — the “existing treaties [that] are being flagrantly violated.”

Last night’s “Fresh Air” program also illuminated some of the reasons why the BWC is fated
to
remain ineffectual, unverifiable and unenforceable. Mr. Preston’s interview was followed by a
conversation with Jonathan Tucker, a former UNSCOM inspector who
currently directs the
Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-proliferation project of the Monterey Institute of
International Studies. During his 1995 inspection of Iraq’s vast Al Haqem BW facility, Mr.
Tucker discovered that:

    All of the equipment at this site was dual use, which means that it
    was legitimately
    engaged in production of civilian products, but could also be used to make biological
    weapons in the very same fermentation vessels. And in fact, this is a problem with
    verification of any treaty to ban biological weapons because much, if not all, of
    the equipment does have potentially civilian applications.

He added, moreover, that among the equipment found in modern pharmaceutical and
biotechnology plants are the means that could be used to eliminate all traces of covert biological
weapons activity:

    “In a more sophisticated facility, it is easier to clean up the fermentation vessels, for
    example. In the most sophisticated fermentation facilities, there is what’s called ‘clean
    in place’ technology where the fermentation vats can actually be sterilized in place
    (rather than disassembling them) over a period of hours or days.”

For these reasons, even inspections as intrusive as those employed in Iraq (which are far
more rigorous than can be expected under a negotiated arms control regime), are unlikely to
prove the existence of concealed BW programs. They can be reliably predicted,
however, to
expose immensely valuable proprietary information and manufacturing techniques to
commercial espionage and compromise
— a matter of legitimate concern for American
pharmaceutical and biotech firms that currently dominate their respective world markets. No less
worrisome is the fact that the conduct of such inspections by nationals of BW wannabe
states
— and the training involved in conducting them — can contribute powerfully to the
proliferation of biological warfare techniques.

Unfortunately, the Clinton Administration has, to date, seemed largely indifferent to these
concerns. For example, at a meeting last Tuesday with National Security Advisor
Samuel
Berger
, Commerce Secretary William Daley and ACDA
Director John Hollum
, industry
representatives were given no indication that the President would abandon the BWC enhancement
agenda that is likely to prove prodigiously expensive for American companies and substantively
valueless for the Nation, and agenda he had announced without prior warning or consultation in
his State of the Union address.

The Bottom Line

The Clinton Administration must get real about the biological weapons threat. This means
leveling with the American people that it exists, and is getting worse. It means taking
practical
steps to prepare for emergencies involving the use of such weapons of mass destruction (i.e.,
going well beyond training the “first responders” in the 120 largest U.S. cities); and eschewing
arms control initiatives that will be very costly and make no appreciable contribution to the
national security.

– 30 –

1. See, for example, Guess Who Else Is Cooking Up
Biological Weapons? Russia
(No. 98-D
35
, 25 February 1998) and Clinton Legacy Watch # 18: Assured U.S.
Vulnerability In the Face
of a Burgeoning Biological Warfare Threat
(No. 98-D
30
, 20 February 1998).

2. Interestingly, the CBS program “60 Minutes” last weekend aired a
segment about the danger
the citizens of eastern Oregon — and, for that matter, other communities downwind from U.S.
chemical weapons storage sites — face in the event of an accidental release of deadly chemical
agents. The report showed a truly shocking story of official inattention to the need to protect
American citizens against such an eventuality, complete with allegations that some $25 million
appropriated for that purpose had been frittered away, with little more to show for the
expenditure than some sirens, electronic billboards, coveralls and flashlights. And yet, as
damning as this indictment is, the far more scandalous reality is that the city of Hermiston,
Oregon
(the focus of the “60 Minutes” essay) and other localities in proximity
to these
chemical arsenals are better equipped to deal with the consequences of chemical or
biological attack than are most American communities.

3. Perhaps the most prominent of these now-discredited scientists
was Harvard University’s
Matthew Meselson. For more on Meselson’s role in the deluding of Americans about Russian
biological weapons programs (among other arms control violations), see Guess
Who Else Is
Cooking Up Biological Weapons? Russia
(No. 98-D
35
, 25 February 1998) and ‘No More Lies’
Monitor: C.P.S.U. Trial Offers Yeltsin Opportunity to Honor Commitment to New
Transparency
(No. 92-D 77, 10 July 1992).

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