The Danger of Biological War
Lucier, James P., Insight on the News
Russia has enough anthrax to kill the world's population four times over. Iraq stockpiles weaponized neurotoxins. Can homeland defense hold up against these weapons?
It was a low-tech attack with box-cutters and plastic knives. But suppose it had been a low-tech attack with even more murdered across a broader territory? In the weeks before the airline disasters, Washington officials were thinking a lot about that. But they were not thinking nuclear -- they've been thinking biological.
Since Sept. 11, they've been thinking about it even more intensely. Among the workers immediately sorting through the rubble were biohazard specialists, alerted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quietly taking samples to see if biological agents had been secreted in the baggage of the terrorists.
More disturbing still was a report by Bill Gertz of the Washington Times that Mohammed Atta, one of the dead terrorists, had been seen a year ago in talks with a high-level Iraqi intelligence official. Specialists long have known that Iraq possesses chemical and biological weapons, although U.N. inspectors in postwar Iraq, buffaloed by Saddam Hussein's game of three-card monte, did not find any. Intelligence sources tell Insight that Saddam simply hired scientists from the Russian biological-weapons complex called Biopreparat.
Ken Alibek was deputy chief of Biopreparat when he defected in 1992. The program had the highest security classification, and the Russians routinely denied that it existed. Alibek was told that it was necessary because the United States was preparing such weapons. Then he was sent on an official arms-control inspection team to examine U.S. biological facilities. Russian intelligence experts had primed him to look for hidden facilities for making biological weapons, but what he found instead was rusted machinery that had been decommissioned for years.
Alibek was disillusioned when he realized that the rationale for the Soviet/Russian programs was a lie. He personally had seen the signature of Mikhail Gorbachev on orders to develop various biological weapons.
Alibek revealed that Russia had produced 80 tons of weaponized smallpox -- a virus everyone believed had been eliminated from Earth. He reported that the Russians had several bacterial weapons ready for use: brucellosis, tularemia, anthrax, glanders and plague. Rickettsial weapons included epidemic typus and Q fever. Viral weapons besides smallpox included encephalitis and Marburg, a hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola. When Alibek left, Biopreparat was working to weaponize Ebola, too, as well as Japanese encephalitis.
In February the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, with William Schneider Jr. as chairman, warned that "the remaining superpower, the United States, has become a target for both countries and transnational actors. Potential adversaries are more likely to use asymmetric warfare in the future. The threat of an asymmetric attack poses danger not only in the physical effects of such an attack but in the psychological fear and damage it could beget as well." Was anyone listening?
The board warns that Iraq has stockpiled 19,000 pounds of botulinum toxin, with more than one-half of it weaponized. And it reports the Russian program has enough anthrax stockpiled to kill the world's population four times over. It states that four people can produce anthrax simulant in three weeks with an investment of $250,000. Moreover, it finds that the U.S. civilian health-care and pharmaceutical system operates at 95 percent capacity -- meaning that it has virtually no ability to absorb a mass-casualty event.
"The BW [biological warfare] task force found that this nation does not have an effective, early capability to assess the BW threat and, as a consequence, cannot prevent such a crisis," the board says. "The infrastructure does not exist to execute the desired consequence-management measures."
Finally, the board adds: "An attack on a city with 100 kilograms of bioagent would kill 1 to 3 million people, twice the number of fatalities that would result from a one-megaton nuclear weapon."
Of all the biological threats, smallpox perhaps has the greatest potential as a terror weapon because it is highly contagious. One victim passes it to another and, as panic sets in, persons who don't realize they are infected flee immediate danger only to spread it to others. Smallpox was a scourge of mankind from the beginning of time until vaccination was discovered around 1800, and its use became a standard of health throughout the world. The World Health Organization has declared that the last person to die of smallpox passed in 1977, with the result that vaccination for this disease was discontinued. This means millions of persons now are extremely vulnerable if smallpox is released into the environment.
A senior-level war game code-named "Dark Winter" was conducted June 22-23 to simulate a smallpox terror attack on Oklahoma City. Participants included Oklahoma Republican Gov. Frank Keating and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Witnesses observed the breakdown of the public-health response, the lack of an adequate supply of smallpox vaccine, the roles of the state and federal governments, and potential military responses. As the game played out, the disease simulation was spread to 25 states and 15 countries.
Even so, it long was thought that the difficulties of manufacturing weaponized smallpox were so great that terrorist groups would not be able to produce it. In March 1999 the CIA told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in an unclassified report that "the preparation and effective use of BW by both potentially hostile states and by nonstate actions, including terrorists, is harder than some popular literature seems to suggest."
A 1999 report of the General Accounting Office (GAO) on the threat of chemical and biological terrorism thought it improbable. "In most cases terrorists would have to overcome significant technical and operational challenges to successfully make and release chemical or biological agents of sufficient quality and quantity to kill or injure large numbers of people without substantial assistance from a state sponsor," Harry Hinton Jr., assistant comptroller of the GAO, told Congress.
David Franz, a former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., and now a vice president of the Southern Research Institute, tells Insight: "The reason the GAO report says this is that with the classical agents we worry about, you have to grow them, purify them, spray them in a liquid form [which isn't too easy to do for a number of technical reasons] or dry them like talcum powder. And that's not easy to do because it's pretty easy to kill them while you are drying them. So I can agree with what the GAO says unless we are dealing with a state sponsor. If we are dealing with Iraq, or with some of these other countries that we know are producing them, then that's another story."
It's this other story that is bothering Washington. The new buzzwords in the capital are "homeland defense." For the last two years the term has been batted around in think tanks and the Pentagon, but it acquired a high profile when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began using it on TV talk shows after the first attack on the continental United States since 1812.
It also was used in the announcement of the call-up of the National Guard. In a Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers, the term appeared 118 times in the week following the attack, up from 41 references for the rest of 2001.
One of the analysts developing the concept is Randy Larsen, former chairman of the military department at the National War College. He has established the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security specifically to energize thinking about defending U.S. territory, sovereignty, population and infrastructure. (The parent ANSER public-policy research group itself was a spin-off from the RAND Corp. in 1958.)
Larsen says conventional thinking about defense, which dates back to the 1960s, is out of date. "We've had a biological revolution since then," he says. "People with as much money as Osama bin Laden can buy the Russian scientists they need. My point is, this stuff can be made with equipment bought from LABEX.com. It is not difficult to do anymore -- it has changed the international-security equation. Still, I put it in the category of low probability, high consequence. What we need is some insurance to make us better prepared for this. We don't need to run around and be paranoid and wear masks."
RELATED ARTICLE: U.S. Food Supply Susceptible to Terrorist Attacks
As the stark reality of the attack on the Pentagon swept over Washington, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and her top aides headed for the Agriculture Department's secure facility, ready for emergency operations. But when she got there, inside sources tell Insight, the telephones were dead.
As it was, the glitch didn't matter. But what if terrorist attacks on the nation's food supply had been coordinated with the attack on the financial and military infrastructure? "The total food supply for the nation is about five days," says Bronius Cikotas, who happened to be giving a lecture on attacks on the nation's infrastructure in Salt Lake City on Sept. 11. Cikotas is a member of the Florida-based American Civil Defense Association.
"We are talking about total food supply -- what's available in supermarkets and on trucks going to supermarkets, and whatever people have at home," he says, "We've been trying for some time to get the government to take on the ag threat. When [the National Security. Council] wrote Presidential Decision Directive 63 [on preserving critical infrastructures] in 1998, it did not even have food on the critical list. We finally got them to put it in eight months after the list came out."
Thomas Frazier, president of The National Consortium for Genomic Resources Management and Services (GenCom) has been trying to coordinate government responses to an attack on the U.S. food supply for some time. "If food shipments were interrupted, it would only be a matter of a few days until many kinds of foods became unavailable," Frazier says. "Hoarding would occur. And introducing a deadly zoonotic pathogen into a large number of meat animals could destroy domestic and foreign markets. Attacking critical infrastructures with biological agents is quite feasible today.
"What we need is a commission of experts -- genetic scientists, epidemiologists, veterinarians, biologists and the like. What we don't need is a commission formed to subsidize former politicians."
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Danger of Biological War. Contributors: Lucier, James P. - Author. Magazine title: Insight on the News. Volume: 17. Issue: 38 Publication date: October 15, 2001. Page number: 22. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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