Identifying Biological Agents, Characterizing
Events, and Attributing Blame
ANNE L. CLUNAN
The use of biological warfare (BW) agents by states or terrorists is one of the world’s most frightening security threats. Killers such as anthrax, smallpox, botulism, tularemia, viral hemorrhagic fevers, and plague, and incapacitating diseases such as brucella, salmonella, typhoid, and shigellosis—the diseases commonly listed as BW agents—are invisible. Their effects may take days to manifest. BW agents can vary widely in the effects they can produce on humans—from incapacitating a population to causing mass deaths—and on animals and agriculture. Those who use BW may have impact without detection, and this possibility makes it more difficult for states to deter other states and terrorists from using biological weapons.
The risk that BW attacks might never be traced back to a particular source is greater than for nuclear or even chemical attacks, in part because BW attacks may look like those of naturally occurring disease. Historically, attributing blame for BW use has been fraught with controversy and may take a very long time. Only in 2002, for example, did a court in Japan formally acknowledge the Imperial Japanese Army’s deliberate infection of Chinese prisoners and citizens with bubonic plague in 1940–42. Controversy still exists about aspects of many other alleged cases of BW, including the “Yellow Rain” episode in Southeast Asia. Even for other incidents known to be biological warfare or terrorism, such as the 2001 anthrax letters in the United States, the perpetrator remains un-