"With modern technology, much that can be carried out in the name of biological threat assessment is indistinguishable from preparations for the offensive use of biological weapons, activities such as creating new, genetically engineered pathogens and testing how well they work as aerosols delivered under simulated battlefield conditions."
"There are no defensive measures that can protect civilian populations from biological weapons and no military countermeasures that can reverse the epidemic spread of new and uncontrollable diseases."
COMMENTARY: Who's Afraid of a Germ Warfare Treaty?
By BARBARA H. ROSENBERG and MILTON LEITENBERG
Barbara H. Rosenberg, chair of the Federation of American Scientists Working Group on Biological Weapons, is a research professor of natural science at the State University of New York at Purchase, MI
September 6 2001
Declaring that "mankind already carries in its hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction," President Nixon unilaterally renounced biological weapons in 1969. This led to international agreement on the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, which codifies the ban on development and possession of germ weapons. The United States then terminated its biological weapons program and focused on defenses.
New information has just come to light, however, that raises questions about recent U.S. compliance with the ban. In July, Donald Mahley, the chief U.S. negotiator for a new treaty to monitor the ban, admitted to Congress that more than one U.S. government agency conducts biological activities that appear ambiguous. Consequently, to protect their interests, the agencies have objected to certain monitoring measures, Mahley said. Two weeks later, Mahley stunned the negotiators from 55 countries assembled in Geneva to finalize the treaty by refusing to continue negotiating.
Some of the reasons are now becoming clear.
An obscure part of the Energy Department's annual report refers to at least three large installations for studying explosive and nonexplosive aerosol delivery of dangerous microorganisms. The underground installations aim to examine various attack modes and study their effectiveness in causing disease.
In addition, the construction and testing of a germ production plant and a replica of a Soviet "bomblet" or germ dispersal unit for combat use was reported Tuesday in the New York Times. These are the kinds of quasi-secret activities that had been terminated in the U.S. in 1969.
Similar activities in other countries have led the United States to label them biological weapon proliferators. Yet no doubt those countries would ascribe their activities to benign "threat assessment" necessary to develop appropriate military defenses and medical treatments, just as the U.S. is now describing its activities.
With modern technology, much that can be carried out in the name of biological threat assessment is indistinguishable from preparations for the offensive use of biological weapons, activities such as creating new, genetically engineered pathogens and testing how well they work as aerosols delivered under simulated battlefield conditions. Stockpiles of bacteria, viruses or toxins no longer are necessary; they can be produced rapidly on demand. That is why it is essential that biological activities be conducted in the open. There is no other way to defuse the corrosive suspicions that otherwise are bound to arise.
The aura of subterfuge and suspicion that surrounds U.S. biological activities would be dispelled if they were openly declared and subject to on-site visits by international inspectors. An effective monitoring regime would not require divulging our specific defensive strengths and weaknesses; the draft treaty rejected by the White House contains multiple safeguards for confidential national security and commercial information.
By rejecting the treaty, the Bush administration has implicitly acknowledged its value for exposing questionable activities and thus for deterring violations of the ban. Most of the countries of the world believe that the treaty is badly needed to fill a major gap in global security arrangements.
In their hostility to international treaties, administration officials like to say that only the bad guys should be subject to rules. Evidently, the administration prefers no rules to any that would bind the U.S. But the "good guys" will suffer along with the rest of the world if disease, which recognizes no boundaries, is loosed as a weapon.
Had the United States been willing to accept the minimal level of oversight required by the compromise text under consideration, it would have been virtually impossible for any other country at the negotiations to reject it. Instead, it will take great effort and perhaps a biological disaster to rebuild the necessary consensus on a treaty.
Preventing an undercover arms race to develop weapons of disease, fueled by new biotechnologies, is a primary responsibility of the international community. There are no defensive measures that can protect civilian populations from biological weapons and no military countermeasures that can reverse the epidemic spread of new and uncontrollable diseases.
There is no alternative to monitoring the ban on biological weapons.For information about reprinting this article, go to http://www.lats.com/rights/register.htm