Biological Warfare Warning

Article excerpt

Mr. President:

Sunday's New York Times reveals you have become personally seized with the nation's vulnerability to biological warfare. If that is the case, you have the potential to create a legacy that could be as profound and positive as any of your presidency. But to do so, you must take care to grasp the true magnitude of the problem and to avoid counterproductive actions.

According to the Times' report, your concerns about bioterrorism have been catalyzed by Richard Preston's novel "The Cobra Event" and by a recent, secret interagency exercise in which a bioterrorist attack was simulated. In both, terrorists use a genetically engineered viruses to inflict mass casualties and to sow mayhem on American society.

You evidently were particularly, and properly, alarmed by the conclusion of the civilian "war-game." As the New York Times put it: "The United States, despite huge investments of time, money and effort in recent years, is still unprepared to respond to biological terror weapons." The game showed state, local and federal government representatives were quickly overwhelmed and found themselves at odds over how to deal with the resulting catastrophe - and whose responsibility it was to do so.

As a result, you are now said to be preparing two Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs) aimed: (1) at putting the country on a better footing to prevent biological, chemical or computer attacks on its people or infrastructure and (2) if all else fails and they occur, to mitigate their effects. To maximize the benefit of these PDDs, I would respectfully urge that you consider two points:

First, the problem with which you are now grappling - namely, the United States' dangerous susceptibility to biological weapons attack - is, of course, just one manifestation of a much larger problem. This is what might be called our posture of "assured vulnerability."

Ever since 1972, when President Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union, it has been the policy of the U.S. government to leave its people deliberately exposed to destruction by missile-delivered nuclear weapons. Having done so in a world in which the Soviet Union had a virtual monopoly on such a threat, the idea gradually took hold that it made no sense to invest the vast sums required to protect Americans against Soviet bomber-delivered weapons, either. If there would be no defenses against these delivery systems, it seemed unnecessary (not to say virtually impossible) to mitigate the effects on the population of the weapons they carried. So civil defense went over the side, as well.

Thus, the vulnerability you are now concerned with, is a direct by-product of the inexorable, if bizarre, logic that says keeping America at risk of assured destruction is a good thing and defenses that might prevent, or at least mitigate, such destruction are bad things. If you are committed meaningfully to rectifying our present posture, you must also correct its intellectual underpinnings.

Unfortunately, until now, your administration has adamantly insisted it is committed to perpetuating the ABM Treaty. If this policy were to persist, you would be seriously compromising your new PDDs by addressing attacks with biological weapons if they are made possible by suitcase bombs, aerosol trucks or Cessna crop-dusters, but not if they come via ballistic missile. …