Easy to Build, Hard to Detect: How to Track Biological Arms?

Article excerpt

Iraq's prolonged cat-and-mouse game over its biological arsenal has thrown the spotlight on the difficulties the international community faces in trying to eliminate these weapons of mass destruction.

Since 1972, some 140 nations have signed a cold-war-era pact that bans the development, production, and stockpiling of biological arms.

But recognizing that the Biological Weapons Convention went into effect without any mechanism for monitoring or enforcing compliance, and amid growing fears of proliferation, countries began working several years ago to strengthen the global agreement. As the fourth year of closed-door negotiations begins, it is becoming clear that Saddam Hussein is far from alone in holding out on biological weapons. As many as 15 countries, including Iraq, Russia, Syria, Iran, Israel, China, North Korea, and Taiwan are known or suspected to be trying to develop the ability to build biological arsenals. President Richard Nixon unilaterally ended America's biological weapons program in 1969. The reality of germ warfare became apparent in 1992, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin publicly admitted Moscow had conducted an offensive biological program for 20 years, and ordered the effort terminated. While there are doubts that Russia has completely abandoned its program, the disclosure drew attention to the global dangers of biological weapons - even though germ warfare is not new. Old idea, new technology In the 14th century, the Tatars catapulted plague victims' bodies into the besieged city of Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula. In Colonial America, the English deliberately gave Indians blankets used by smallpox patients. What is new is the technological advances that allow lethal microbes to spread rapidly and widely, according to Graham Pearson, who formerly headed Britain's Porton Down chemical and biological defense operation. "Iraq has a very real capability" to produce and deliver some of these biological agents, according to what United Nations weapons inspectors have so far uncovered, says Dr. Pearson. Among other substances, Iraq has produced anthrax and botulinum toxin, Person said in a report for the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center, which studies such matters. Iraq had spray tanks, remotely piloted vehicles, aerial bombs, rockets and missiles, able to deliver such substances, according to Pearson's study, which was based on UN inspectors' reports. Iraq did not belong to the international agreement when it was developing its biological industry, notes Amy Smithson, an arms control verification expert from the Stimson Center. …