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September 10, 2001
Volume 79, Number 37
CENEAR 79 37 p. 14
ISSN 0009-2347
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U.S. threat-assessment research skirts limits of bioweapons pact


"Legal but foolish" is the consensus of arms control experts about recently revealed secret U.S. bioweapons research that tests the limits of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and will likely fuel the anger of U.S. allies and foes alike.

DEADLY The U.S. plans to continue research intended to produce a more lethal form of the anthrax bacteria, shown here in a lung capillary.
"I think if schemes like those three described in the New York Times had been outlined in advance and exposed to critical comment by informed outsiders, they would have been shot down. They were too close to the edge in violating the treaty to be worthy of the U.S.," says James F. Leonard, who headed the U.S. delegation that negotiated the BWC during the Nixon Administration.

The three schemes include a Clinton-era CIA initiative that replicated a Soviet biological bomb--which the agency feared was being marketed internationally--to test its agent dispersal characteristics. The test employed a simulant, not an actual germ agent. Also on Clinton's watch, the Pentagon built a germ production facility in Nevada from off-the-shelf materials to show how easy it would be for a rogue nation or terrorist group to do so. And, finally, the Bush Administration plans to expand on a Clinton-era scheme to genetically engineer a potentially more virulent strain of anthrax to test whether the U.S. vaccine is effective against this Soviet-developed agent.

The disclosure "demonstrates how risky it is to undertake highly classified threat assessment activities without any comprehensive oversight of the scientific, legal, and foreign policy impacts of those activities individually or in combination," says Elisa D. Harris, a Clinton National Security Council official.

Barbara H. Rosenberg, chair of the Federation of American Scientists' Working Group on Biological Weapons, says these threat assessment programs "are pretty much equivalent to offensive research" prohibited by the treaty. "I think it's going to undo the ban on biological weapons if it is to continue."

"If this research was being done by a rogue state, what would the U.S. reaction be?" asks Graham S. Pearson, visiting professor of international security at Bradford University, in England. Pearson, who headed the Chemical & Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down, insists that "if you are engaged in biological defense research, you should be very transparent and open about what you are doing."

"The things they were working on are legitimate national security concerns of the U.S. and other countries. But they should have been creative enough to find ways to be more open about them," says Michael Moodie, president of the Chemical & Biological Arms Control Institute. Moodie was assistant secretary for multilateral affairs at the
Arms Control & Disarmament Agency in the first Bush Administration. "By being really stupid about it," he says, the U.S. has given its foes more ammunition to say, "Not only has the U.S. rejected the BWC protocol, but it has stepped all over the treaty."

In July, the U.S. rejected the compliance protocol designed to strengthen the BWC, in part to protect U.S. biodefense research programs from international scrutiny. This rejection angered U.S. allies, and several arms control experts believe the now-revealed secret programs will only add fuel to the fire when nations meet in November to review the treaty. Then, the U.S. plans to offer options to the protocol. "Politically," says one arms control expert, "it will be more uncomfortable for the U.S., and allies will be less inclined to look seriously at any alternatives to the protocol that the U.S. may come up with."

Matthew S. Meselson, Harvard University professor of molecular biology and a bioweapons expert, agrees. "I'm afraid that anything we offer now is a big mistake. This is not the right time."

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