Seeking Biosecurity without Verification: The New U.S. Strategy on Biothreats

Article excerpt

During a December 9 speech to the annual meeting of states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in Geneva, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen O. Tauscher declared, "The Obama administration will not seek to revive negotiations on a verification protocol to the Convention. We have carefully reviewed previous efforts to develop a verification protocol and have determined that a legally binding protocol would not achieve meaningful verification or greater security."1

In effect, President Barack Obama has decided not to reverse the 2001 decision by the Bush administration to reject a draft BWC compliance protocol that had been developed over six years of multilateral negotiations from 1995 to 2001. The protocol would have created a legally binding inspection regime for the BWC, which still lacks formal verification measures.

Although a few arms control advocates had hoped for a different outcome, the Obama administration's decision did not come as a major surprise. It had already been foreshadowed by the December 2008 report of the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former Senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), which concluded that "the U.S. decision in 2001 to withdraw from the BWC Protocol negotiations was fundamentally sound and that the next administration should reject any efforts to restart them."2

In lieu of a decision to return to the negotiating table, the Obama administration released a 23-page "National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats," which was distributed to the delegations in Geneva. This strategy seeks to reinforce the objectives of the BWC through a variety of indirect measures, including efforts to enhance the security of laboratories that work with dangerous pathogens and to improve global disease surveillance - the ability to detect and rapidly contain outbreaks of infectious disease, whether they are natural, accidental, or deliberate in origin.

The release of the national strategy document made clear that, in addition to the ambitious nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament agenda laid out in President Obama's Prague speech of April 5, 2009, the White House is seriously concerned about biological threats. Indeed, Tauscher's speech included the rather hyperbolic statement that "a major biological weapons attack on one of the world's major cities could cause as much death and economic and psychological damage as a nuclear attack."3 On a personal note, she recalled that as a member of Congress during the fall of 2001, when letters contaminated with anthrax bacterial spores were mailed to Senators Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), she had experienced firsthand the pervasive fear and uncertainty caused by even a smallscale bioterrorist incident.

The decision by the Obama administration not to revive the protocol negotiations and to develop an alternative set of measures for addressing biological threats is the latest development in the long history of efforts to bolster the BWC. This article reviews the background of the decision, assesses the main elements of the new national strategy, and provides some suggestions for the way forward.

Historical Background

The BWC, which was opened for signature in 1972 and entered into force in 1975, bans the development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of biological and toxin warfare agents, as well as delivery systems specifically designed for their dispersal. At present, the convention has 163 states-parties and 13 signatories; 19 countries have neither signed nor ratified it. Although the BWC serves as the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent biological weapons proliferation and terrorism, it is widely considered a weak instrument. When the treaty was negotiated in the early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States had strong reservations about intrusive on-site inspections. …