The international community’s efforts to combat the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons have not kept up with the pace of proliferation, and urgently require improvement. This was a major finding of the 2005 WMD Commission report and it was a key conclusion I reached while serving as the counterproliferation policy director for the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1998 through 2000.1 Probably the hardest challenge we faced in the Pentagon was (and probably still is) to understand, monitor, and combat the global diffusion of expertise and materials used to develop and deliver biological warfare (BW) agents. This is because biological weapons are cheaper and easier to make than nuclear weapons—and they could be more deadly. Only a handful of scientists are needed to isolate and disseminate harmful pathogens. Not much money is required, nor are specialized facilities and equipment. Almost everything needed to make and employ BW agents—from skilled people and source materials to production and dissemination technologies—is available in commercial and academic settings. Further, the manipulation of bacteria, viruses, or toxins to cause harm emits few observable signs, making it almost impossible to give policymakers timely warning that a BW development program of a given country or non-state actor is nearing a critical threshold or, more ominously, that BW agents are being readied for use against unprotected populations.
Critics argue that heightened fears about the acute vulnerability of the public and armed forces to the malicious use of pathogens have led the U.S. government to take an alarmist view of the BW proliferation threat.2 The exaggerated assessment of Iraq’s capacity to conduct biological warfare in the early 2000s is cited as a case in point. But just because many governments got Iraq wrong