Bioweapons — infectious agents unleashed into the environment to kill or disable people — have been around since the advent of war. In the 6th century BC, the Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot, causing the spread of fungal disease. During World War II, the Japanese created a radical biological warfare program in a notorious laboratory complex called Unit 731. There, doctors and scientists weaponized pathogens to use against their enemies, specifically China and the United States. In one instance, Japanese pilots dropped plague-infected fleas over Manchuria as they worked to perfect an aerosol bomb, which they wanted to explode over the United States. Instead, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki before it came to that.
After World War II, many nations stepped up their bioweapons programs. American research took place at several facilities around the country, including in many university laboratories. Most of the official work went on at Camp Detrick, now called Fort Detrick, which made news recently with the case of Bruce Ivins. Bioweapons work progressed steadily until 1975, when President Nixon spearheaded a treaty which prohibited the development, production, stockpiling, and use of weaponized disease agents such as anthrax, smallpox, or plague, as well as equipment and delivery systems for pathogens. But unlike nuclear non-proliferation, the Nixon treaty had no provisions for verifying or monitoring compliance.
Just four years later, in April 1979, one of the most deadly accidents involving bioweapons occurred in Sverdlovsk, Russia. The Soviets were weaponizing anthrax in a secret facility when aerosolized Bacillus anthracis spores were released into the environment. Sixty-six people died. Denied by Russia at the time, the CIA monitored the “rumors” surrounding the event but was unable to conclude exactly what had happened. “Reports of a BW accident persist but add little to our knowledge of what actually happened in Sverdlovsk,” read a top-secret CIA document labeled “Biological Warfare,” dated October 15, 1979.
Flash forward to 1992. The wall is down. Russia is no longer the enemy. Russian President Boris Yeltsin tells President Clinton that the Sverdlovsk anthrax incident did in fact occur and was related to military developments at the microbiology facility there despite their having signed Nixon’s treaty. We were, after all, at war with Russia, albeit a Cold War.
Flash forward to 2008. The twin towers are down. Al-Qaeda is the enemy. Al-Qaeda is developing bioweapons to use against the great Satan, the United States. And yet, it takes the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism — a “bipartisan” group led by former Florida Senator Bob Graham and former Missouri Senator Jim Talent — to arrive at what they seem to think is a stunning conclusion: Al-Qaeda wants to use bioweapons against the United States.
Our Commission interviewed hundreds of experts and reviewed thousands of pages of information. As this work began, it became clear that the United States faced a growing threat of biological terrorism.
Hundreds of experts? Thousands of pages! Were these former congressmen asleep during history class? They neglected to mention how many millions of taxpayer dollars were spent drawing the conclusion, which could have been identified back in 1998 when Osama bin Laden declared war against the United States. “Biotechnology Is Not Rocket Science,” the former senators say in headline. Yes, and neither is the basic premise of war: He who declares war against an enemy uses any means necessary to win that war and generally does not stop until he wins or is forced to surrender.
Still, the former senators, pitching from the podium so as to make headlines at USA Today, tell us:
First, there is the accessibility of the weapons material: highly enriched plutonium and uranium do not exist in nature, but anthrax and many other biological agents do, in almost every part of the world. Second, there is the diversity of potential weapons: there are only so many ways to build an improvised nuclear device, but there is an almost limitless array of disease-causing organisms and scenarios for their nefarious use. A third difference is the accessibility of weapons technology: engineering a nuclear weapon is a closely guarded skill, whereas every crop-dusting farmer knows the process for spraying live biological materials.
This might sound scary if you’ve been asleep for the past eleven years. But if you’ve been reading headlines ever since Osama bin Laden’s original fatwa — beginning with al-Qaeda’s twin terrorist attacks at the U.S. embassies in East Africa — then neither the threat of bioweapons, nor the ease with which they can be dispersed, comes as news.
As with any of the WMD debates involving al-Qaeda, no one threat poses any greater threat than another. That’s because, in theory, at the end of the day al-Qaeda will use whatever practical means it can to achieve its goal. Chemical, biological, and nuclear WMD plans have all been identified by intelligence agencies around the world as being in al-Qaeda’s pipeline. One could interview hundreds of experts and review thousands of pages of documents to make any number of strong cases that the White House is ill-prepared to deal with the repercussions of any WMD attack.
The focus of former and present congressmen and their committees — be they bipartisan, right, left, or center — should be finishing the war that al-Qaeda started.