Bioterrorism—and how to prevent it

The following is part of a series of articles from Chris Tolworthy reposted here with kind permission. The articles together ask many questions about the September 11 atrocity and its aftermath, as well as looking into it from numerous angles. The articles are split into a number of pages on this site (which you can follow using the links at the bottom).

Bioterrorism - and how to prevent it.
Chris Tolworthy
March 2002

Bioterrorism, like all other forms of crime, can be best prevented by the law. When we choose other "solutions" we just make things worse. The following material is mainly from New Scientist magazine, in a series of articles on bioterrorism. New Scientist, though "popular" in its style, is a serious magazine, read by close to 100% of scientists in the UK and many others around the world.

On this page:

  1. The fear of biological weapons is encouraged by governments
  2. US isolationism encourages unfounded fears
  3. The Anthrax problem was exaggerated
  4. What about Iraq?
  5. America opposes legal measures to end bioterrorism
  6. How easy is it to develop biological weapons?
  7. How easy is it to spread biological weapons?
  8. Where is the greatest threat of biological weapons?
  9. Footnotes

The fear of biological weapons is encouraged by governments

"Biophobia is gripping the US. It started in February 1998 with a host of scare stories about biological weapons, as Washington DC mobilised voters for an air strike against the anthrax-wielding Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Then it took on a life of its own. A lucrative 'preparedness' industry of seminars and civil defence exercises aimed at preparing for bioterrorist attack sprang up. Spending on biodefence R&D has skyrocketed. Anthrax hoaxes abound."(1)

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US isolationism encourages unfounded fears

"There was something sinister underlying the scenario [of 'Biowar,' a fictional anthrax attack dramatized by Nightline, a current affairs programme on US television network ABC]. When the fictional city ran out of antibiotics, other US cities, fearing similar attack, refused to send theirs-and people went untreated. Couldn't they just ask Canada for some? Or Europe? The show made not one mention of any other part of the world.

"Parochialism is hardly unknown in American reporting. But it is striking that the week 'Biowar' was aired, the US Senate was killing a treaty banning nuclear tests because they didn't trust foreigners not to flout it. …

Washington now wants to defend the US against missiles, instead of scrapping them under treaties. It continues to obstruct serious verification of the treaty banning bioweapons. That is isolationism. It is fed by television that tells people they will be attacked, they will die and no one else will help. The US, or at least an influential part of it, has decided to forget the rest of the world…"(1)

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The Anthrax problem was exaggerated

So far, five people have died of anthrax in the USA. This is a tragedy, but far more people die from minor everyday diseases. The biggest problem is the mass panic encouraged by the government.

"[Simon] Wessely [of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London, co-author of a paper in the British Medical Journal (vol 323, p 878)] says that biological and chemical weapons are less effective than bombs and guns, but can inspire more fear and uncertainty: 'Anthrax is a lousy weapon. But it is the hidden menace.'

"Others agree that the terrorist attacks should not cause undue concern. 'Any serious scientist is going to say when you look at the figures it is out of proportion,' says Leslie Carrick-Smith, an independent UK expert on the psychologist effects of disasters. 'A few people have been affected and 50 million have become very anxious.'

"Wessely believes that the public must treat the threat of biological and chemical attack as minimal. 'The solution is to remember that we can deal with it, unless we overreact, as they seem to be doing in America,' he says."(2)

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What about Iraq?

Any discussion of biological weapons leads to the question of Iraq1. In the west, Iraq is believed to be developing biological, chemical, nuclear, and other weapons of mass destruction. However, much of the evidence2 is weak or ambiguous at best.

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America opposes legal measures to end bioterrorism

The international community agreed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), aimed at various measures to prevent bioterrorism, and took six years to get it right. But this was blocked by the United States in July 2001.

"[The American representative] charged that the inspections would 'put national security and confidential business information at risk' without catching wrongdoers. That objection has been voiced repeatedly by the US pharmaceutical industry. … 'They say the provisions are too weak,' says Meier [Oliver Meier of VERTIC, an arms control think tank in London] - 'Yet they were weakened during the negotiations to try and satisfy the US."(3)

In October, America was targeted by its own anthrax weapons. In November, the Unites States decided to agree to the inspections, as long as they were watered down.

"The protocol rejected by the US had taken six years to negotiate. It required governments to allow international inspectors to check any facilities suspected of being used to produce bioweapons, and to declare in advance any legitimate activity that might raise such suspicions… Instead of coming up with new ideas, say experts, the US has simply revived some sections of a protocol that it rejected earlier this year, while ignoring crucial parts that it doesn't like. … It's what has been left out or watered down that will most annoy countries involved in past negotiations. Among the measures the US wants to weaken are those involving inspections and information exchange. Countries would not have to routinely declare biological research and manufacturing activities, information which is essential to guide inspectors, should suspicions arise."(4)

The other 143 countries were still willing to compromise, but eventually the US killed the agreement again.

"The treaty banning biological weapons is in disarray, after the US disrupted a meeting of treaty members in Geneva with a last-minute demand it knew other governments would reject. … In the December issue of Arms Control Today, Elisa Harris of the Center for International and Security Studies in College Park, Maryland predicted that such an outcome 'would send a very bad signal to proliferators that the international community lacks the will to enforce compliance with the BWC'"(5)

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How easy is it to develop biological weapons?

Ken Alibek is perhaps the world's foremost expert on biological weapons, He defected from the Russian bio-weapons programme, and believes that biological warfare is possible, even likely. However, terrorists do not have the know-how to make the stuff, and the danger comes from stealing stuff that governments (particularly the collapsed Soviet Union) have already made.

"I know from personal experience that the US would never be interested in developing biological weapons for one very important reason: there are not enough people with enough knowledge to do that. The only person in the US with a sophisticated knowledge in this area of biological weapons is Bill Patrick (who helped run the US's biological weapons programme from 1948 to 1969)."(6)

So, despite having access to all the information on the Internet, despite having the world's most advanced equipment, an American terrorist could not develop these things even if he wanted to. If a American terrorist cannot, how could a foreign terrorist? When asked what we can do to protect ourselves from this threat, Alibek says nothing about bombing (after all, who would we bomb?) He also has no faith in treaties, but he knows exactly how to protect people: use good organisation and science!

"We need a special government board overseeing this work, which covers everything from detection, identification, protective garments and disinfection, to the organizational tactics of medical services, diagnostics issues, treatment, re-treatment, and urgent prophylaxis."(6)

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How easy is it to spread biological weapons?

When assessing a nation's biological weapons capacity, it's important to remember that the weapons may be harder to deliver than to produce. Thisis according to Raymond Zilinskas, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, who participated in two United Nations biological weapons inspections in Iraq

"Even the Iraqis, working with a full blast effort, have not been able to get that right … You can take a five-pound bag and say this is enough anthrax to kill the whole world. The big trick is how you deliver it to the target population."(7)

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Where is the greatest threat of biological weapons?

"As anthrax continues to turn up in US postal facilities, and postal workers, evidence is emerging that it is an American product. Not only are the bacteria genetically close to the strain the US used in its own anthrax weapons in the 1960s, but New Scientist can reveal that the spores also seem to have been prepared according to the secret US 'weaponisation' recipe. ...

"At its peak, the US bioweapons programme made 900 kilograms of dry anthrax powder per year at a plant in Arkansas. That stockpile was destroyed when the US renounced bioweapons in 1969. But small samples might have been saved without being noticed…. [the American anthrax weapon was] probably the most sophisticated anthrax weapon ever produced."(8)

It started when journalists began asking why the American authorities had begun to "drag their feet" over the anthrax investigations. It appeared that they had good evidence about who was likely to be involved, but did not want to go further. The following may look like a classic conspiracy theory, but it is based on a responsible piece of investigative journalism by the BBC "Newsnight" team:

"A Newsnight investigation raised the possibility that there was a secret CIA project to investigate methods of sending anthrax through the mail which went madly out of control. The shocking assertion is that a key member of the covert operation may have removed, refined and eventually posted weapons-grade anthrax which killed five people."(9)

America has not created chemical and biological weapons for offensive use since the 1960s. However, it still develops them for "defensive" use.(10) Remember that every state that has such weapons claims that they are "defensive." And every nation believes that it is only the other nations who pose a threat.

"In September last year, the New York Times reported that 'the Pentagon has built a germ factory that could make enough lethal microbes to wipe out entire cities'. The factory's purpose was defensive: your employees wanted to see how easy it would be for terrorists to do the same thing. But it was constructed without either congressional oversight or a declaration to the biological weapons convention, in direct contravention of international law.

"We could, perhaps, agree that if the US had discovered a similar undisclosed plant in a poor nation, then that country's government, if it survived your [America's] initial response, would have a good deal of explaining to do."(10)

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Please note: HTML links were created between January-March 2002. Some of these links may have expired when you read this.

1. "Prophets of doom3" - New Scientist 20 November 1999.

2. From New Scientist4 Online News 10:09, 19 October 01

3. "US rejects bioweapons agreement5" - New Scientist 21 March 1998

4. "Try again, Mr President - Bush's ill-conceived bioweapons proposals won't win any friends.6"

5. "Biological weapons treaty in disarray7" - New Scientist Online News 14:07, 10 December 01

6. "Prepare for the worst8" - from New Scientist 14 July 2001

7. From "The Why Files9"

8. "Anthrax preparation indicates home-grown origin10" - New Scientist

9. "Anthrax attacks11" - BBC programme guide, 14/3/02

10. "America's bioterror12" by George Monbiot. The Guardian, Tuesday March 19, 2002

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