HOME About Blog Contact Hotel Links Donations Registration
NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Monday, November 13, 2006

Biological Weapons Threat Has Shifted, U.S. Official Says

By David Ruppe, Global Security Newswire

PRINCETON, N.J. — It is doubtful that countries today possess biological weapons arsenals or would ever attack with such weapons, a senior U.S. government official said last month (see GSN, Nov. 3).

The threat has shifted to terrorists and other nonstate actors, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Mahley, longtime U.S. delegation head for Biological Weapons Convention activities.

Therefore, countries should focus on preventing such groups from acquiring relevant technologies and materials, rather than on ensuring state compliance with Article 1 of the 1972 treaty.

Article 1 forbids states from developing, producing, stockpiling or acquiring biological agents not intended for peaceful uses. It also bans biological weapons delivery equipment.

The Soviet Union was believed to have operated a massive Cold War biological weapons program and arsenal of ICBM-deliverable biological warheads. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 largely on the argument that it possessed biological and chemical weapons stocks and programs.

“In my judgment, the threat today is not necessarily states. The threat is nonstate actors, and nonstate actors don’t have the same inhibitions that states do about the prospect of using biological weapons,” Mahley said Oct. 20 at Princeton University. He cautioned that he was expressing a personal, nonofficial opinion.

Mahley said that he does not believe the global biological weapons threat has diminished with the shift he perceives from nations to nonstate actors. He disputed, though, concerns expressed by some nations that the treaty is weakening and that action must be taken at the upcoming review conference and subsequent meetings to boost Article 1 compliance.

“One of the things we want out of this review conference is to kill that myth,” he said. The sixth treaty review conference is scheduled from Nov. 20 to Dec. 8 in Geneva.

Mahley called the convention “really alive and very well.” As evidence of the international stigma against biological weapons, he noted that no rogue states have claimed to have biological capabilities, in the manner that North Korea has claimed a nuclear capability.

Some convention states reportedly are planning to propose at the conference creation of a bureaucratic structure to support the treaty, strengthening the U.N. secretary general’s authority to investigate possible biological weapons use, and allowing for decision-making at annual meetings between review conferences.

Mahley in his comments suggested the international community should focus instead on passing and enforcing national legislation and other measures, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, to make it more difficult for terrorists and other nonstate actors to acquire biological weapons. Annual Biological Weapons Convention meetings should be used as “focus groups” for discussing and encouraging such action, Mahley said.

Critics said Mahley appeared to play down challenges to the treaty posed by suspected state biological weapons programs.

“He’s wrong. … Implementation of the treaty has been significantly less strong than what he says,” said Alan Pearson, director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington, D.C.

“There are concerns, as he says in his own talk, about increasing secrecy [in biological defense programs]. … Decreasing trust among nations as to what they’re actually doing in this work, including us,” Pearson said.
Shifted Threat Asserted

Mahley said that the risk of international outrage and repercussions is likely to prevent governments today from using biological weapons. No countries maintain arsenals today of munitions containing agents such as anthrax or smallpox, he said.

“It’s not a U.S. government position, but it’s my own position, I do not believe that there’s a single country in the world today that has a biological weapons stockpile that they have sitting around ready to use,” Mahley said.

He noted that before the United States first renounced biological weapons in 1969, a military study judged such weapons not militarily useful. Still, perhaps a dozen countries are pursuing a rapid “standby” capability for biological weapons production, just “in case,” Mahley said.

“It’s my judgment that biological weapons, for a number of psychological reasons, are so abhorrent to most countries of the world that nobody, even a rogue state, can afford to say, ‘If you aren’t nice I’ll use biological weapons.’ Because they know in doing so, they would destroy any and all international support they have for their position, no matter what the provocation was. And therefore I don’t think that rogue states are an enduring issue in the biological weapons threat,” he said.

He said individuals and nonstate actors, defined as terrorists, fanatic cults and religious movements, could not be deterred in the same fashion as states and are “where I think the threat is located.”
Critics Say State Threat Underplayed

Critics said Mahley and the administration appear to be playing down the state biological weapons threat for ideological reasons, out of distaste for arms control agreements and their intrusive requirements.

“Ambassador Mahley’s remark is not serious. It is ‘spin’ suitable for an administration adamantly opposed to multilateral arms control,” University of Maryland senior research scholar Milton Leitenberg said by e-mail.

Leitenberg questioned Mahley’s view of a diminished state threat. “For nearly 20 years, the majority of which has been under Republican administrations, U.S. government officials have been telling the international community that the BW threat was constantly increasing. The trends they described concerned primarily state programs. That probably was incorrect, and the trend was in fact flat.”

“The U.S. government rarely or never claimed that states that it named as being ‘noncompliant’ with the BWC had ‘biological weapon arsenals.’” Leitenberg added. “It did claim that they maintained offensive BW programs, and in some cases it referred to quantities of produced agents. The U.S. government has never retracted those claims, or presented evidence that the remaining state programs that it claimed to exist and be in violation of the BWC have been disbanded. If the U.S. government believes that to be the case it would be extremely important that it say so.”

Pearson similarly said that Mahley was too narrowly defining behavior by governments that would challenge the treaty. Mahley “seems to restrict it just to stockpiling,” he said.

There are increasing concerns about Russian biological weapons activities, Pearson said.

“I’m hearing from the people I speak with, and it’s multiple people, increasing concerns of what’s going on in Russia, increasing secrecy and Russian scientists saying increasing secrecy is a good thing,” he said. “I imagine, if I put on my Russian hat, they have some of the same concerns about us.”

He also cited concerns about North Korea and China. The U.S. Defense Department recently announced it would require mandatory vaccinations against anthrax for personnel deployed to the Korean Peninsula and other hot spots (see GSN, Oct. 17). The State Department on Sept. 14 said it suspects China was developing sophisticated biological and chemical weapons.

The State Department in annual reports in recent years has concluded that China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Russia, Syria and possibly Cuba potentially have offensive biological weapons programs, though it has acknowledged uncertainties about such activities and whether they actually violate the treaty. The United States has also concluded in recent years, as access was gained to Iraq and Libya, that those countries had previously abandoned significant biological weapons work.

Mahley and observers noted that several dozen countries have yet to sign or accede to the treaty, which entered into force in March 1975, and that many have not passed legislation to implement the pact internally. The United States and the Soviet Union approved the convention in 1972.

Pearson said the prospect remains for regional, state-to-state biological weapons use.

“I think [Mahley’s] looking at this with U.S. eyes. Our troops are fairly well defended with vaccines … and nobody would use these against us because they know the consequences. … He’s got his blinders on, what matters to the world is only what matters to the United States.”

Mahley seems to be underplaying treaty-problematic behavior such as development of ‘just-in-time’ capabilities for rapid biological weapons production, and unnecessary biodefense work that could give governments biological warfare capabilities, Pearson said.

A proposal for the review conference that might help, he said, would be to strengthen confidence-building measure submissions, which could “create an environment in which there is an expectation of transparency, so that the very issue of being not transparent raises concerns.” Official U.S. analyses have assessed annually that CBM submissions by states such as China have been inaccurate and misleading.

Some critics say the United States needs a more balanced strategy for biological security that addresses state programs, as well as threats from naturally occurring infectious diseases and nonstate actors. Some governments maintain that a treaty inspections protocol allowing for investigations of suspected state activities would have been a useful component of a comprehensive strategy. Years of negotiations to produce such an entity ended in failure in 2001 in the face of opposition from the Bush administration.

The administration argued that inspections were not likely to uncover illicit activities, which it said could be easily concealed, but that they could give potential adversaries compromising details about U.S. biological defense programs, as well as proprietary commercial activities.

Mahley maintained that inspections would uncover little useful information and said that the Bush administration remains opposed to the idea.
U.S. Focus

Mahley stressed he was expressing personal views and not official U.S. policy when discussing a diminished state biological weapons threat. Still he indicated the Bush administration shares the view that nonstate biological weapons threats, rather state programs, currently demand action by countries, and that the Biological Weapons Convention offers a useful forum for promoting such action.

“So what we have said is … ‘Wait a minute folks, let’s look beyond Article 1 of the convention. … Let’s look at Article 4, in which [you] have promised that you will not allow a biological weapons capability to get to anybody else,’” he said.

Mahley said the administration would like to see three things come out of the review conference: recognition of the value of previous and future intercessional meetings to encourage and follow up on national implementation efforts; a refocusing on measures for addressing the biological weapons threat the administration perceives; and an end to idea held by some countries that the convention is in trouble.
Web IntelligenceSummit.org
Webmasters: Intelligence, Homeland Security & Counter-Terrorism WebRing
Copyright © IHEC 2008. All rights reserved.       E-mail info@IntelligenceSummit.org