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America Steps-Up Biodefenses
Critics question rationale, fear breaking of treaties
Bright B. Simons (baronsimon)     Print Article 
Published 2006-12-27 17:32 (KST)   
In the short-term aftermath of the carnage on 9/11 it became evident to senior analysts of American national security that terrorists could now pose a strategic threat, and that indeed it was no longer clear when, where or how tactical concerns could escalate into strategic nightmares.

Since 1969 the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has been the recognized cornerstone of America's biodefense research capabilities. But 9/11 prompted a serious rethinking and reordering of almost every aspect of national security in the United States, and biodefense was not spared.

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For instance, the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services' civilian biodefense research spearheaded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases exploded from less than $2 million dollars in 1998 to $1.5 billion in 2005. It is estimated that in the years following 9/11, in excess of $20 billion have been expended on civilian biodefense goals.

USAMRIID's role had focused on shielding American military forces from harmful biological agents on the field. With the growing recognition of the potential for mass terror posed by so-called "asymmetric threats" came also the realization that a complement to USAMRIID's infrastructure was needed.

That complement is the NBACC: the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, the end product of the Homeland Security Presidential Directive "Biodefense for the 21st Century," and the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The NBACC is the first DHS laboratory dedicated to biodefense research.

The Department of Homeland Security sees the $128 million price-tagged NBACC facility as a key node in the sprawling Homeland Biodefense Complex. Hence, it is to be housed within the National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick, Maryland, a military base long associated with USAMRIID.

According to the DHS, the "NBACC will provide knowledge of infectious properties of biological agents, effectiveness of countermeasures, decontamination procedures, and forensics analyses" to inform the actions of major stakeholders tasked with the design and implementation of America's biodefense policy.

It is likely the NBACC will have two constituent divisions by the time the facility is completed in 2008. The two divisions, according to Dana Shea of the Congressional Research Service, are the National Bioforensic Analysis Center (NBFAC) and the Biological Threat Characterization Center (BTCC). Contrary to some reports, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center will not become an integral part of NBACC, even though it will collaborate strongly with the former.

NBFAC has already commenced operations in makeshift facilities while it awaits the completion of its permanent sites to house its eventual staff of 120. Laboratory work on the other hand is being carried out as a joint federal effort involving the FBI, Army and DHS personnel on the USAMRIID premises at Fort Detrick. When the NBACC site is completed both the BTCC and the NBFAC will relocate there.

One other entity that may be incorporated into NBACC, according to Shea, is the Biodefense Knowledge Center (BKC), already operational since September 2004 at the Department of Energy's world-renowned research facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Of the three -- the NBFAC, BTCC and BBKC -- the NBFAC by most accounts the most central to the active biodefense policy being pursued by the Bush Administration. The Presidential Directive "Biodefense for the 21st Century" identifies it as the lead federal facility in the mitigation of biological threats in the areas of evidence analysis and intelligence gathering, processing, and utilization, following an attack.

But it is its second role, that of assessing bioaggresive agents -- i.e. bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. -- and researching into antidotes, relying on the laboratory efforts of the BTCC to overcome their effects, that has given rise to the most vocal consternation, since, as has always been the case, the dividing line between developing antidotes and developing offensive agents is thin to non-existent.

There are concerns that the U.S. may be in breach of its obligations under international conventions prohibiting the development of bioweapons it has signed and ratified.

History of bioweapons conventions

Some international disarmament specialists have expressed the opinion that a significant range of the activities being carried out at the NBACC will contravene the 1925 Geneva Convention which prohibits the "first use" of biotoxic weapons -- i.e. enjoins signatories not to be the first to deploy such weapons in war -- and its 1972 successor, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which is believed to prohibit the development of such weapons.

Experts who have grave reservations about biodefense research include Richard Spertzel, who was part of the U.N. team that disarmed Saddam of his offensive bioweapons, and who has himself worked on biotoxin research at the USAMRIID. There is also Milton Leitenberg, a longtime observer of Western bioweapon policies. He is especially critical of what he considers unsophisticated analyses of the bioweapon threat to Western interests. James Leonard's disapproval would have been taken for granted had he not expressed them, seeing as he was one of America's chief negotiators during the 1972 UN talks to ban bioweapons.

The clamor over whether NBACC will or does contravene the major conventions is inevitable, and derives directly from the history of those treaties themselves, which has been tortuous and snaky in a way that belies their lack of public attention.

It was the United States, with strong support form the Poles and the French that, actually, made the first efforts at consolidating the various prohibitions embedded in peace agreements against biological and chemical weapons, motivated by Germany's copious use of poison gas, and relentless dabbling in germ warfare, during the First World War. This consolidated treaty was duly signed in Geneva in 1925, and many nations ratified it during the inter-war years.

By the time of the outbreak of World War II, only the U.S. and Japan of all the principal nations had failed to ratify it, even though President Franklin D. Roosevelt assured the world that the U.S. believed the weapons had been outlawed by the "general opinion of the civilized world." Many who signed, it, however also insisted on various modifications upon accession to the treaty. In particular, Arab nations such as Kuwait, Jordan, Libya, Syria and Iran (and bizarrely the Netherlands too) were resolute that exceptions had to be made in the case of war with Israel.

After WWII, the Soviet Union tried to update the convention to more comprehensively deal with emergent geopolitical concerns, but it was unable to secure the support of the Western powers. The Communist bloc, however, continued to push the matter culminating in Hungary's famous 1966 denunciation of U.S. use of bioherbicides (or so-called mycoherbicides) in Vietnam.

Resistance to the idea of a comprehensive treaty hinged on a very clear premise: verification. Western powers, particularly the United States, felt that they would be at a disadvantage should they enter into a treaty of such nature, since accountability was much more pronounced in their domestic circumstances. Independent democratic institutions and a free press was likely to prove a much more effective monitor, as they saw it, than any international inspector. Hence, in their view, while they would be hamstrung by a comprehensive ban, the Communist states would be free to cheat with little risk of detection.

These concerns notwithstanding, President Richard Nixon did announce a unilateral American prohibition of bioweapons in 1969, and renewed efforts by the White House to get the Senate to ratify the treaty begun. On Jan. 22, 1975, President Gerald Ford ratified the Geneva Convention and its protocol. America subsequently also ratified the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, believed to be the first treaty to outlaw an entire class of weapons.

Global consensus that a comprehensive ban on biological and chemical weapons ought to be preferred to any alternative, despite the weaknesses of any such prospective ban, reached an apogee with the wanton use by Saddam's Iraq of poison gas during its war with Iran in the 1980s.

By the end of the 20th Century, 144 nations had ratified the 1972 BWC. This convention expressly enjoins states not to "develop, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain" weapons or their active ingredients "of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic (preventive medical measure), protective or other peaceful purposes."

But therein, of course, lies the treaty's predicament.

Even though negotiating a ban to chemical weapon development and use has always been held up as being much more contentious, enforcing the much easier to obtain biological bans is even thornier.

Bioweapons imply simply the harnessing of disease -- a "very natural" horror -- as an instrument of war. It is virtually impossible to determine where the exact lines between useful research to help the sick and abominable tinkering with nature to sow death lie.

Exploiting this dilemma can be ridiculously easy, as Saddam proved. Before his Al Manal and Al Hakam laboratories were destroyed in 1996, his alchemists of death cooked up to 19,000 litres of botulinum toxin and about 8,250 litres of anthrax in remarkably short time, relying on technologies easily procured in the West because they are also widely used in civilian medical research. The fact that just 100 liters (that's less than 25 gallons) of the raw stock can produce about ten billion infectious doses of anthrax each week obviously helps. As did the ease with which Saddam could conceal his operations behind a harmless animal feed factory.

Secretive regimes and juntas will have absolutely no hassle hiding their bioweapon operations from prying eyes if they want to. This is the knowledge that drives perceptions in defense policy circles in Washington, despite the relative lack of media attention, that the bioproliferation efforts of countries like Iran and Syria could be engrafted onto the terrorist threat to pose a graver danger to American interests.

After all, Iran in 1929 was one of the earliest signatories to the Geneva Convention prohibiting the development of bioweapons, and has since signed the various chemical weapon conventions as well. Yet it reportedly sustains intense activity in both proliferation areas.

With regards to chemical weapons, the CIA is adamant that the country "has manufactured and stockpiled chemical weapons -- including blister, blood, choking, and probably nerve agents, and the bombs and artillery shells to deliver them." It can be safely assumed that this view reflects official thinking in Washington.

But there does appear to be more to it than perception, though. Russia's FSB intelligence service has also expressed similar opinions, most forcefully in their 1993 document, "A New Challenge After the Cold War: Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction."

Furthermore, Tehran has also been unable to debunk assertions by the country's main opposition that the Hemmat Missile Industries Complex in the northeast of the country is a front for the mass production of bio-chemical WMD, stating only that it dismantled all its offensive biological capabilities after its war with Iraq, during which it was forced to develop such capabilities following Saddam's monstrous use of poison gas (chemical weapons). This claim comes despite Iran's own Speaker of Parliament firmly exhorting in 2000 that the acquisition of such weapons were vital to the country's national security.

The many credible reports of Iranian scientists seeking to obtain deadly biotoxins from Western colleagues reinforces the view that what Iran has probably been replicating what it has done so far on the chemical front in the biological weapons context too. For instance, the respected Middle East Expert, Michael Eisenstadt, believes the country has significant quantities of military-grade botulin and anthrax.

In fact, unlike the case with its supposed nuclear ambitions, Iran's biothreat capabilities have been assessed by too many independent, highly respected and highly credible analysts -- of whom Anthony Cordesman is only the most widely known -- to be dismissed as another neocon "witch hunt." In particular, academic research facilities mysteriously assigned to Revolutionary Guards' oversight are highly suspect by any measure, since that organization has long been known to conduct nearly all of Iran's "plausible denial" schemes.

In the case of Syria much less is known, but American and Israeli intelligence officials have said that the Arab nation has developed biological weapons with assistance from North Korea.

So, while a number of rather reputable analysts have dismissed, or expressed serious scepticism, about the biothreats posed by unfriendly regional powers to Western, particularly American, interests, it is unlikely that efforts to accelerate biodefense policy will be rolled back even in the face of increased concern about possible breaches of the bioweapon conventions.

Dr. Brian Jenkins, a widely cited expert on terrorism, in an article written for the Futurist magazine in July 1987 entitled "The Future Course of International Terrorism," expressed the following opinion:
"What about chemical or biological weapons... Although there have been isolated incidents, neither chemical nor biological warfare seems to fit the pattern of most terrorist attacks. These attacks are generally intended to produce immediate dramatic effects.

Finally, the terrorists retain control. That is quite different from initiating an event that offers no explosion but instead produces indiscriminate deaths and lingering illness, an event over which the terrorists who set it in motion would have little control."
The position Jenkins epitomizes is the most potent rebuttal to approaches of NBACC's ilk to addressing prospective biothreats. The argument goes 1) bioweapon development, handling and deployment is incredibly complex and resource-consuming because getting hold of the agents is the easy part; transforming them into a truly effective means to kill is the real, and excruciating, task. 2) Even successful deployment does not guarantee results, since the deadliness of bioweapons cannot be strictly calibrated like so many other weapons -- witness for instance the lack of casualties in the biological attacks conducted by the Japanese death cult Aum -- the same group that later poisoned the Tokyo Subway with the chemical agent sarin. 3) If a terrorist is going to go to all that trouble to get hold of a bioweapon, (s)he would probably be smart enough to know that (s)he can get much quicker, deadlier, results from a conventional explosive.

However, this is flawed in at least one respect. All three arguments misunderstand the terror logic. The idea is to instil panic, confusion and terror. It is designed to break the will of the enemy.

For obvious reasons, most people have an ingrained dread of disease. Of all the four horsemen of the apocalypse, none terrifies like Pestilence. Because bioterror emanates, or seems to emanate, from the very environment around us, because it grows within our very tissues and promises the possibility of contagion, reaction to the mere thought of a bioattack is likely to be much more irrational than to an attack which, notwithstanding horrific causalities, seems still to be confined in space and time in the manner of a conventional explosion.

Indeed, even in the case of nuclear scenarios, the expectation always remain that an evacuation from the affected zone is possible. With a "weaponized disease", the chief thoughts are contagion and self-propagation. Think the bubonic plague transported into the information age. Thus, even the crudest bioattack will almost certainly exert a greater impact for prolonged periods than a conventional attack such as 9/11.

In sum, my feeling is that NBACC is as much a confidence-building measure as it is a concrete countermeasure exercise. The expectations that parts of its work will be classified and certain elements of its budget put beyond public scrutiny all contribute to that feeling "the government can look after us." It has means of which we know nothing about.

The hope rarely admitted, and despite the cringing of libertarians, is that there is more substance than hot air to this belief.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Bright B. Simons

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