Prepared Statement by Elisa D. Harris
Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland University
Before the House International Relations Committee
December 5, 2001
Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank the Committee for inviting me to testify today about the recent anthrax attacks here in the United States. In my testimony this morning, I will begin by considering the potential implications of September 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks. I will then explore possible means by which terrorists might acquire the capability to use biological weapons, either here at home or against U.S. targets overseas. In concluding, I will discuss several policy options for preventing or impeding terrorist efforts to acquire biological weapons.
Potential Implications of September 11 and Beyond
The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and subsequent anthrax attacks in Florida, New York and Washington have focused renewed attention on the threat of biological weapons use by terrorists or other sub-national groups. In a statement on November 1, President Bush declared: "... the threat is growing. Since September 11, America and others have been confronted by the evils these weapons can inflict. This threat is real and extremely dangerous. Rogue states and terrorists possess these weapons and are willing to use them."
It is certainly the case that, over the past two months, America has had a glimpse of what it can mean to use disease for hostile purposes. Before October, no American ever died as a consequence of a terrorist attack with biological agents, although some 750 people were poisoned with salmonella by the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon in 1984. Today, five people are dead from inhalation anthrax. Five others have been treated for the inhalation form of the disease and another ten are recovering from the cutaneous or skin form. In addition, tens of thousands of media, postal and government employees have been prescribed powerful antibiotics prophylactically because of possible anthrax exposure.
But whether we have crossed a threshold, whether the longstanding taboo against the use of disease as a weapon of war and terror has been irrevocably eroded, is far from clear. First, there is little evidence in the public domain indicating that the threat from national biological weapons programs has increased dramatically in the last few years or, for that matter, since the end of the Cold War. In June, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told Congress that at least thirteen countries are seeking biological weapons. This compares with statements in 1997 from Clinton Administration officials to the effect that about a dozen countries were pursuing a biological weapons capability. Most of these programs date to the 1980s, some even earlier. Some, such as Iran’s program, are more mature and thus pose a greater potential threat than in the past. However, the most serious and direct biological weapons threat to the United States, from the former Soviet Union, has all but disappeared.
Second, there is little information publicly available indicating that any sub-national group or terrorists, other than the as yet unidentified perpetrator of the current anthrax attacks, pose a real biological weapons threat today. Since September 11, much attention has been focused on the possibility of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network acquiring biological weapons. On November 11, Secretary Rumsfeld publicly stated that it was "reasonable to assume" he might very well have "chemical or biological" weapons. Rumsfeld emphasized, however, that it’s "one thing to have the chemical or biological capability. It ’s another thing to have figured out how to weaponize it or develop the ability to deliver it." According to various press reports, intelligence officials assess that al-Qaeda has a "crude chemical – and possibly biological – capability." Information obtained from Afghanistan itself in recent weeks has done little to clarify the situation.
According to the London Times, instructions for preparing ricin, a biological toxin, have been found in an abandoned house once used as a terrorist training center in Kabul. However, it has been known for a number of years that jihad or holy war manuals contain sections devoted to biological and chemical warfare, including instructions on how to prepare toxins, toxic gas and drugs. Various documents related to anthrax, including how to use it as a weapon, as well as diagrams that seem to show a possible method for dispersing some type of biological or chemical agent from the air have been found in the abandoned Kabul offices of an organization with ties to Afghanistan ’s Taliban government. According to the New York Times, however, words scribbled on the diagram appear to say "cyanide," which is a World War I era chemical agent. Central Command officials are said to have identified more than 40 potential weapons of mass destruction sites in Afghanistan and are conducting tests of samples from such sites. Thus far, however, no actual chemical or biological weapons or agents have been found.
As far as is publicly known, other than the Rajneeshee salmonella incident in 1984, the only significant terrorist effort to acquire and use biological weapons occurred in the early 1990s, when the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo tried on nearly a dozen occasions to develop and disseminate biological agents, including anthrax and botulinum toxin, among the Japanese population. Despite ample financial and technical resources, including a Ph.D. microbiologist, the Aum failed spectacularly: none of their biological attacks produced a single casualty.
The Aum Shinrikyo did, of course, have somewhat more success with chemical weapons. In April 1995, the cult disseminated the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway at the height of morning rush hour, killing a dozen Japanese citizens and injuring another 1,000. Following this attack, many experts confidently predicted that the normative and technical barriers to the development and use of chemical weapons had been dealt a fatal blow, and that it was not a matter of whether, but when, terrorists would use chemical weapons again. Six years later, those barriers are not only still in place, but have been strengthened by the entry into force and implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Potential Sources of Assistance
Although it may be too early to predict, on the basis of a single set of events, that the biological weapons threat is growing, the fact that the recent anthrax incidents here in the U.S. involved relatively pure, highly concentrated anthrax powder capable of creating an aerosol hazard from the mere act of opening an envelope is a cause for serious concern. At the present time, we do not know who is behind these attacks, how they acquired the high quality anthrax found in the letters to Senate Majority Leader Daschle and Senator Leahy, or whether they have access to additional anthrax or other biological agents. That said, both the current attacks and any future bioterrorism incidents would have to come from one of three potential sources.
One possible source is countries that are both state sponsors of international terrorism and that have indigenous biological weapons programs. Senior Pentagon officials, including Secretary Rumsfeld, have spoken publicly about this possibility. On September 30, during an appearance on "Meet the Press," Rumsfeld noted that several nations that support international terrorists are also trying to acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and that "it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to expect that at some point those nations will work with those terrorist networks and assist them in achieving and obtaining those kinds of capabilities." Although Rumsfeld did not name names, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya are the key countries identified in U.S. government reports as both terrorism and proliferation concerns. Any one of these countries could in theory provide assistance of various kinds, including actual biological agents, to foreign or domestic terrorists. As a practical matter, however, the programs are at various levels of maturity.
On one end of the spectrum is Iraq, whose biological weapons program first began in the mid-1970s and was restarted again in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War. Although Baghdad repeatedly denied having a biological weapons program, following the defection of General Hussein Kamal in 1995, Iraq finally acknowledged having produced some 30,000 liters of concentrated BW agent, including anthrax and botulinum toxin, and having filled it into missile warheads and bombs. Iraq also admitted to having conducted R&D on a range of other agents, including ricin, clostridium perfringens, which causes gas gangrene, T-2 toxins, and camelpox, which is in the same virus family as smallpox. There have been widespread reports in the press that Iraq has rebuilt some of the dual-use facilities used to develop and produce these agents. Iraq’s expulsion of UNSCOM inspectors in December 1998 and its subsequent refusal to accept inspections from UNMOVIC, the UN follow-on organization, have precluded the international community from pursuing concerns about the status of the Iraqi program.
At the other end of the spectrum is Libya, which has not been able to move beyond the R&D phase in its biological weapons program, although it may, according to Under Secretary of State John Bolton, be capable of producing small quantities of biological agent. In between are North Korea, Iran and Syria. North Korea has been pursuing a biological weapons capability since the 1960s. In a recent speech, Under Secretary Bolton stated that the United States believes that North Korea has developed and produced, and may have weaponized, biological agents, and can produce military quantities of agent within weeks of a decision to do so. Bolton said Iran, whose biological weapons program began in the 1980s, probably has produced and weaponized biological agents. In recent years, Iran has actively sought dual-use materials and expertise from institutes formally associated with the Soviet biological weapons program. According to Bolton, Syria’s biological weapons program is believed to be in the R&D stage, although it may be capable of producing small quantities of agent.
A second potential source of assistance for foreign or domestic terrorists comes from the past United States and former Soviet Union’s biological weapons programs. The U.S. program, which began during World War II, investigated a variety of biological agents including anti-personnel agents like anthrax and tularemia, anti-crop agents such as wheat stem rust and rice blast, and anti-animal agents like foot and mouth disease. Following President Nixon’s 1969 decision to terminate the offensive biological weapons program and renounce unconditionally any future use of biological or toxin weapons, U.S. biological agent stocks, including some 220 pounds of anthrax, were destroyed and U.S. facilities were shut down or converted to public health or biological defense activities.
The Soviet program was the largest in the world, employing upwards of 60,000 personnel at its height in the 1980s. Much of the R&D and production of biological weapons was undertaken at secret facilities run by the Soviet military or at civilian facilities under the management of an organization known as Biopreparat. The Soviet program explored the full-spectrum of traditional anti-personnel biological agents, ranging from lethal agents such as anthrax, smallpox and plague to incapacitating agents such as tularemia, glanders and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. Soviet biological weapons scientists also undertook extensive efforts to develop anti-plant and anti-animal agents and used genetic engineering techniques to modify traditional agents, for example by imparting antibiotic resistance, and to explore possible cocktails or combinations of agents.
In April 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the termination of the offensive program. In the years that followed, some research and production facilities were deactivated and many others underwent severe personnel and funding cuts. However, the U.S. government continues to be concerned that some elements of the former Soviet program remain.
The final possibility is that of a purely homegrown effort, what White House press secretary Ari Fleischer described, in relation to the recent anthrax incidents, as "a Ph.D. microbiologist" with a "well-equipped microbiology lab." Clearly, both the materials and the equipment needed to make biological agents are publicly available. Seed cultures of biological pathogens can be purchased from among the more than 1500 culture collections around the world operated by commercial enterprises and research institutions. Both the nutrient media in which the pathogens are grown and the fermenters or bioreactors in which the production process occurs also are widely available, owing to their role in legitimate research and commercial activities. Finally, equipment to transform the liquid agent into a dry powder of the optimal particle size for inhalation into the lungs is also available in the pharmaceutical and other industries.
That said, knowing what is needed to make a biological agent is not the same as knowing how to do it, as was demonstrated by the Aum Shinrikyo’s failed biological weapons attacks in the early 1990s. To be successful, an aspiring bioterrorist would have to: select the right strain (some are more virulent and thus more effective at producing casualties than others); produce and purify the required amount of material; and dry and mill the agent or take other steps to reduce the particles to the optimum size and maximize their ability to create a sustained aerosol hazard. The technical challenges would not, however, end there. The terrorist would also have to select a delivery system for the agent and then disseminate it without either contaminating himself or degrading or killing the agent (some agents are highly vulnerable to meteorological conditions such as UV light, heat and humidity).
Whoever is behind the recent anthrax attacks has demonstrated an ability to disseminate a small quantity of high quality anthrax on a limited scale. Whether a "biological Unabomber" could effectively mount a large-scale attack is unclear. In 1999, the General Accounting Office deemed it unlikely, concluding that terrorists working outside a state-run laboratory infrastructure would have to "overcome extraordinary technical and operational challenges to effectively and successfully weaponize and deliver a biological agent to cause mass casualties."
The anthrax incidents have shown how much needs to be done to improve our ability to defend against and manage the consequences of the use of biological weapons. However, it would be a grave mistake to stop there. The catastrophic potential of biological weapons in the hands of national or sub-national groups is so great that the first line of defense must be prevention, specifically, trying to deny such groups the ability to acquire biological weapons. I would like to suggest four policy options that can help achieve this goal.
First, strengthen the international ban on the development and possession of biological weapons, as embodied in the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). As you know, the BWC lacks enforcement provisions, but efforts have been underway since 1995 to conclude a legally binding protocol to strengthen the Convention. In July, the Bush administration rejected the draft protocol, arguing that it was both too weak and too strong – too weak to catch cheaters; too strong to avoid putting at risk sensitive U.S. trade secrets or biological defense activities. In its place, the administration has proposed, at the Review Conference for the Convention currently underway in Geneva, an alternative package comprised primarily of recommendations for national measures to be undertaken by individual BWC parties.
The administration’s proposals for measures to increase national control over activities that could be misused for biological weapons purposes are a useful first step, but they can and should be made more robust. For example, in addition to national legislation criminalizing activities prohibited under the BWC, the U.S. should propose and other parties support the Harvard-Sussex Program’s proposal for a multilateral convention that would make it a crime under international law for any persons knowingly to engage in prohibited biological weapons activities and would subject such individuals to prosecution or extradition.
The Bush administration has also proposed international measures to clarify concerns that another party is violating the BWC and for investigating suspicious disease outbreaks or the alleged use of biological weapons. However, these proposals do little to advance existing mechanisms in the BWC itself or that have been agreed internationally. As such, they fall seriously short of what is required.
Given the very real potential for national biological weapons programs to be a source of technical and material assistance to aspiring biological terrorists, more effective international measures to enforce the BWC’s prohibition on the development and possession of biological weapons clearly are required. Ultimately, these international measures, whether related to criminalization, the exchange of information, or on-site activities, must be embodied in a legally binding form. Institutional arrangements will also be needed to ensure that these measures are implemented effectively.
It is critical that BWC parties make provision at the Review Conference to continue their efforts toward a more effective regime. Clearly, this matter cannot wait for the next Review Conference in five years. I hope the Bush administration will abandon its opposition to an ongoing process so that both the U.S. and other proposals for strengthening the Convention can be discussed and acceptable solutions evolve over time.
Second, strengthen oversight of laboratories conducting research involving dangerous biological pathogens. Various rules, disclosure requirements and monitoring arrangements exist in the biological area. However, almost none are geared toward preventing the deliberate or inadvertent misuse of biotechnology research for destructive purposes. Within the United States, federal oversight of activities involving biological pathogens is focused largely on the safety of laboratories and the manufacturing process and the safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical products themselves, as opposed to the potential implications of the scientific research that ultimately results in those products. For example, there are OSHA regulations governing the safe handling and containment of pathogens in laboratories and FDA requirements for Good Manufacturing Practices at facilities that produce drugs and other products being licensed for human use. There also are FDA requirements for prior notification of human clinical trials and for oversight of those trials by Institutional Review Boards, and for reviewing documents and research to ensure the safety and efficacy of biological products licensed for human use. In terms of basic research, however, only a narrow set of facilities working with biological pathogens -- those engaged in certain types of recombinant DNA research that receive NIH funding for their work -- are subject to mandatory federal prior approval requirements.
Three developments in recent years highlight the ambiguities and risks posed by certain types of biological research, including the potential for biotechnology research to be misused for hostile purposes. They also underscore the critical need for oversight arrangements in this area. In 1997, scientists at a once-secret military research center near Moscow published an article describing the development of a new type of anthrax that could overcome the standard Russian and American vaccines. Earlier this year, Australian scientists exploring ways to sterilize mice revealed that they had discovered how a new, highly dangerous pathogen might be made. And this past fall, the New York Times reported on secret American biological defense research, including plans to replicate the Russian work on a genetically modified version of anthrax. Each of these developments raises legitimate questions and concerns.
To be effective, new oversight arrangements for biotechnology research must be developed and implemented with input from and support by the scientific community. Such arrangements should include agreed rules to govern work with dangerous pathogens, disclosure requirements to permit independent scientific review of that work, monitoring requirements to provide confidence in the accuracy of the information disclosed, and legal rules and institutional procedures to specify legitimate uses and assure protection of proprietary aspects of that information. Ultimately, such an oversight regime would have to be global in scope, given that arrangements set only within the United States or among a limited group of countries would not provide adequate protection or be politically acceptable. Work to develop a prototype regime for preventing destructive applications of biotechnology research is being carried out under the direction of Dr. John Steinbruner at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland.
Third, strengthen controls over biological pathogens themselves. Following Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian military forces and its own Kurdish population during the Iran-Iraq War, the United States and other Western countries imposed export controls on equipment and materials that could be used to make chemical, and subsequently biological, weapons. Today, 33 countries participate in the so-called Australia Group, an informal multilateral body that seeks to harmonize national export controls over chemical and biological-related exports.
In addition to this informal multilateral arrangement, since 1997 the United States has required facilities that send or receive particularly dangerous pathogens – the 36 microbes and toxins on the so-called Select Agent List – to be registered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to report all domestic transfers of such materials. However, as the recent anthrax incidents have shown, U.S. facilities that sent or received dangerous pathogens before 1997 are not subject to this reporting requirement. Moreover, most of the more than 1500 culture collections around the world make biological cultures available to researchers with few restrictions or controls.
In October, the Congress moved to tighten domestic controls over access to biological pathogens by passing legislation prohibiting felons, illegal aliens, individuals from terrorist countries and other restricted persons from possessing or transferring biological pathogens on the CDC Select Agent List. The blanket restriction on access to pathogens by individuals from terrorist countries working in the United States has been criticized by scientific organizations, which rightly fear that specific individuals may be prevented from undertaking work that could result in important public health or national security benefits. The ability to waive this provision should be added to the legislation.
More broadly, the U.S. should extend the current regulations governing facilities that transfer pathogens to cover facilities that also possess Select Agents. We should also given the CDC the resources it needs to be able to conduct the necessary inspections of registered facilities. In the five years since adoption of the original regulations, only about 60 of the approximately 250 registered labs reportedly have been inspected. Finally, we should seek support for stronger international measures to safeguard culture collections and other sources of dangerous pathogens around the world from terrorists or national biological weapons programs.
Fourth, expand efforts to prevent the proliferation of expertise and materials from the former Soviet biological weapons program. Since 1994, the United States has utilized a variety of nonproliferation assistance programs to prevent former Soviet biological weapon scientists, relevant equipment, and pathogens from contributing to foreign biological weapons activities. Under these programs, managed by the Departments of State, Defense, Energy, HHS, and Agriculture, more than 5,000 scientists have received funding for collaborative research both on public health threats and on biodefense related projects. In addition, the world’s largest anthrax production facility, at Stepnogorsk in Kazakhstan, has been dismantled. Efforts have also been undertaken to tighten the security at the various culture collections around the former Soviet Union. Much more, however, remains to be done.
During the Crawford summit last month, Presidents Bush and Putin agreed, in a Joint Statement, to expand their cooperation to prevent and defend against the threat of bioterrorism. No concrete manifestations of this enhanced cooperation have, however, been announced. One obvious area would be to build upon the programs begun by the Clinton administration to prevent the proliferation of capabilities from the former Soviet biological weapons program. Senator Kennedy and his staff have been working on this issue, and have developed a number of valuable ideas. They include dismantling and redirecting additional former biological weapons production facilities, expanding collaborative research on global diseases such as HIV and TB, broadening work with U.S. scientists on vaccines and other medical countermeasures to biological weapons, facilitating commercialization activities at former biological weapons facilities, and strengthening the security at culture collections and other sites that maintain dangerous pathogens. A comprehensive program of this type would not come cheap – upwards of $750 million would be required over the next five years. However, given the very real potential for critical elements of the former Soviet program to contribute to national or terrorist biological weapons efforts, such an investment would be a prudent step.
This concludes my prepared statement. I would be happy to try to answer any questions you might have.