10 Important Events in the Past Ten Years:  Shocks to the Regime



The Disclosure of the USSR’s Covert BW Program, Its Magnitude and Contingent Events



            There is no need to repeat here what has been said earlier in the sections on the USSR’s post-WWII BW program, and also in the introduction.  The disclosure of the USSR’s covert program was one of the critical events relevant to BW that occurred in the last decade.  And as it was one of several, all of which occurred or became apparent within two or three years of one another, each magnified the significance of the others:


The fact that the program had been secret, its very large size and advanced state of technical development, the massive production facilities it included, the stockpiles of agents maintained, including contagious agents of high lethality, and that for 30 years the program had been continually maintained and enlarged in gross violation of international treaty, all these together were extremely damaging.




These three events occurred almost simultaneously, and therefore, their cumulative impact on the perceptions about biological weapons and their future was substantial, nowhere with greater impact on rhetoric and national policies than the United States.  Ironically, the same combination of patently dangerous circumstances brought no beneficial effects whatsoever to the diplomatic efforts to achieve a negotiated Verification Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention.  Should that effort be destroyed entirely in the last half of 2001 – as now seems possible – it is difficult to foresee where the destructive effects of events in the last decade of the twentieth century will lead.


Iraq, UNSCOM, the UN Security Council Collapse and Its Implications



            In all three of the international regimes regulating weapons of mass destruction, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the responsibility for dealing with an identified violator of one of the treaties lies with the United Nations Security Council.

            On January 25, 1999, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) provided a report to the Security Council that summarized the status of seven years of its work under UN Resolutions 687, 707-715, and 1051 for those portions of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs that it was responsible for investigating and destroying.[1]  Those programs comprised chemical weapons, biological weapons, and all ballistic missiles with a range of greater than 150 kilometers.  Ascertaining the status of and destroying components of Iraq’s nuclear program was the responsibility of the IAEA, and was therefore not dealt with in the UNSCOM report.  The report integrated the result of some 21 interim and three special reports that UNSCOM had issued since its creation.  Annex C of the January 1999 report, a 58-page section, dealt with biological weapons.  It reviewed every aspect of the investigations:



Detailed tables in the Annex identified the unresolved problems associated with each of these categories of Iraq’s biological weapons program, and included detailed demonstration of the inadequacy or untruth – or both – of Iraqi submissions pertaining to them.  Iraq is a more certain violator of the UN resolutions under which the Council was operation, and of the Biological Weapons Convention, than any nation is ever likely to be under any international treaty regime, for example a Biological Weapon Convention Verification Protocol, if that were ever to be realized.

Nevertheless, the outcome of the UN Security Council – UNSCOM interaction has been a scandalous disaster.[2]  Three of the five permanent members of the UNSC defected from the provisions of Resolution 687 despite the unquestioned situation in which Iraq remained an explicit, blatant violator of UNSC provisions.  In the case of one, and at times two, of the UNSC five Permanent Members (P-5), these states acted not only as Iraq’s diplomatic supplicants before the UNSC, but in some cases as its assistant and collaborator during UNSC proceedings. During a UN Security Council debate in November 1998, for example, Russia and Iraq cooperated openly before other members of the Council in drafting letters assuring the Council of future cooperation with UNSCOM, promises of the sort that Iraq had made on at least a dozen occasions in the previous years, and reneged on in each instance, sometimes in a matter of days, sometimes after weeks or months.

Both past chairmen of UNSCOM – Ambassadors Ekeus and Butler – maintain that Iraq remained in continued violation of the UNSC Resolutions.  After France had been undermining UNSCOM and its chairmen since mid-1995, the Deputy Foreign Minister of France spoke to an international audience in Washington, DC in mid-2000 and said in great seriousness: “We must all help UNMOVIC and Ambassador Hans Blix” – UNMOVIC being the successor organization established by the UNSC to replace UNSCOM, and Ambassador Blix its Chairman. 

The implications would appear to be imponderable and enormous.  As stated, the UNSC is the ultimate and only recourse for international response to a violator of any of the international WMD nonproliferation  regimes.  Given this example, what chance is there of any significant UN Security Council response to a violator of a BWC Verification Protocol?  What is the message to any state currently violating the BWC by maintaining a covert offensive BW program, or any state that will do so in the future?

But in fact, the implications reach beyond the BTWC, an individual regime against the proliferation of a WMD, or even all of them, and are far more important still.  The credibility of the United Nations Security Council has been undermined for the narrowest of domestic political reasons, pique and irritation at the United States, on the part of three of its five permanent members.


The Post-1995 Issue of “BW Terrorism” and the US Furor


In the United States, the past five years have been characterized by:


·         Spurious statistics (hoaxes counted as “biological” events)

·         Unknowable predictions

·         Greatly exaggerated consequence estimates

·         Gross exaggeration of the feasibility of successfully producing biological agents by non-state actors, except in the case of recruitment of highly experienced professionals, for which there is no evidence to date

·         The apparent continued absence of a thorough threat assessment

·         Thoughtless, ill-considered, counterproductive, and extravagant rhetoric.


The discovery in mid-1995 that the Japanese Aum group had attempted to produce biological agents produced an explosion of government and nongovernmental rhetoric and investment to avert or protect against the consequences of an anticipated domestic “terrorist” use of biological agents in the United States.  No government threat assessment was ever made to substantiate this thesis.  The President and the Secretary of Defense were further prompted by a BW-based fiction thriller and from that point on the assumption of a domestic BW threat was driven with virtually no resistance whatsoever.

All of this BW bluster and noise, much of it misinformed and propagandistic, has almost certainly had one effect that its propagators seem not to have thought about at all, and still do not.  Those who were interested in BW arms control in the late 1960’s frequently used the phrase “BW hawks” for authors who wrote approvingly of the US offensive BW program in the military journal literature.  The message of those now prophesying domestic “bioterrorism” performs a somewhat analogous role as it diffuses within the country and beyond:  it popularizes BW, extols it, dresses it up and embellishes it, touts it.  And contrary to the notion that there has been insufficient media and public discussion of the issue, the role of the media has heretofore almost universally been to trumpet and magnify misinformation and exaggeration.

A 1947 policy guidance promulgated by the US Department of Defense read as follows:

     This policy governs public information on Biological Warfare, Radiological Warfare, and Chemical Warfare and is based on consideration of the characteristics of these agents: of their possible use in offense; of the problems of defense against such agents; of the integration of an information program on BW-RW-CW with both the United States foreign policy and with United States domestic affairs.

    It is necessary that the American people understand the nature and scope of BW-RW-CW so as:


     a.  To appreciate the actual dangers which might arise from the use of BW-RW-CW and to participate effectively in defense measures against them;

     b.  To dismiss exaggerated notions and fears of the threat of BW-RW-CW ;

     c.  To support US Government policies concerning them.



     This information is specifically designed to:


    a.  Provide the American people with authoritative information concerning the nature and scope of BW-RW-CW ; with due regard for security regulations;

     b.  Give the public information which without intensifying anxiety unduly will enable Americans to act with maximum effectiveness and dispatch in the event of a BW-RW-CW attack, or threat of attack, against the United States by either secret or overt means;

                                                                          . . . . .

     8.  Official information which reaches the American public should, whenever possible, try to allay exaggerated fear.  Therefore:


a.  All information on BW-RW-CW should be designed to convey the impression that the United States must become prepared to deal with such weapons.

b.  Such information should be characterized by a tone of confidence and moderation;

c.  Indications of apprehension on the part of US Government leaders should be avoided.....[3]


In contrast, former US Secretary of Defense William Cohen made a practice of determined exaggeration and apprehension the core of the US government’s policy on public information regarding the potential of the use of biological weapons.  On November 26, 1997, the Washington Post carried a contribution written by Secretary Cohen on its editorial page.  Speaking of biological and chemical weapons, Secretary Cohen wrote that:


·         “...terrorist groups and even religious cults will seek to wield disproportionate power by acquiring and using these weapons that can produce major casualties...”


·         “We should expect more countries and terrorist groups to seek – and to use – such weapons”


·         “We have begun to treat the threat of chemical and biological weapons use as a likely – and early – condition of warfare.”


·         “Most ominous among these threats is the movement of the frontline of the chemical and biological battlefield from foreign soil to the American homeland.”


The sentences quoted, portions underlined for emphasis, are exaggerated, inflammatory, counterproductive, essentially incorrect, and even dangerous.

A week earlier, Secretary Cohen had dramatically placed a five-pound bag of sugar on the table during a Sunday morning network TV program and stated that if released in the air over Washington, DC, an equivalent amount of anthrax would kill half the city’s population, that is, 300,000 people.  In March 1998, four of the most qualified experts on anthrax serving in the US government published a paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine which used a different estimate: 112 pounds of anthrax released over a city of 500,000 people could kill up to 95,000 people, and possibly many fewer, depending on urban atmospheric conditions.  That is certainly horrific enough, but Secretary of Defense Cohen’s estimate was approximately 100 times higher. 

As for Secretary Cohen’s sentences quoted above, first there was no evidence available to the US government in 1997 that supported them; second, they are dangerous because by trumpeting a perception of US national vulnerability to chemical and biological weapons – whether or not that is actually the case – they are likely to induce and to stimulate both the interest of other states and terrorists in such weapons.  They suggest that chemical and biological weapons are desirable, that they will be used on the battlefield and by terrorist groups, and that US authorities expect that to happen.  None of these possibilities is necessarily the most likely outcome, and the way in which one portrays them is in fact likely to affect what that outcome will be.  It would not have been difficult to conceive of language that would rather have been designed to deter the interest of other states and non-state actors in both the development and the presumptive use of biological or chemical weapons.  Such language would have stressed the defensive measures being undertaken by the US government, as well as the likely consequences to any state or non-state party that used BW.  As regards any state that should be found to have used biological weapons against the United States, either covertly or overtly, US deterrent capabilities are formidable.  (One has only to recall the US response to its suspicions – possibly mistaken – that the Sudanese Al-Shifa facility was producing chemical agent precursors.)

It is notable that no other government apart from the United States – none of the European allies of the US, most of whom maintain analytic and defensive BW research establishments (UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden among others) – assess the likelihood of a BW domestic terrorism threat as the US does, despite several years of US government efforts to get them to adopt a similar view point, or at the least, to profess a similar rhetoric.  In the United States, however, official influence and funding largess have had a profound effect.  Many pages could be filled with a record of the past five years of contracted studies, conferences, media reports, and fictional popularizations.  The examples below are typical:


US policy-makers now say that the threat of biological or chemical attack against a major American city is a reality that must be taken into account – especially with the rise of extremist political and religious groups.  That dire message is being sounded this week at Stanford University, where senior US officials, academics and security analysts, as well as a former secretary of state, are meeting to debate the rising risk that biological and chemical warfare poses to the public...The conference at Stanford’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace sought to improve intelligence-sharing on developments in biological and chemical weaponry and on ways to prevent its use.  Across the board, however, the message was the same: There is a real possibility of massive civilian casualties in the near future caused by a superplague, a new lethal gas or even a sprinkling of genetic “time bombs” that no one has yet figured out how to stop.[4]


Terrorists will likely attack the United States with the smallpox or anthrax viruses within the next five to 10 years, says an expert who warns the country is unprepared. “We are a long way away from being even modestly prepared,” D.A. Henderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, said Friday at a conference on bioterrorism.[5]


These more professional meetings, of which there were many others, vied with more popular fare for the general public, such as the notorious Ted Koppel series that lasted nearly a week, a CBS Evening News “Eye on America” special “report on the biological terrorist threat,”[6] and a steady stream of fictional dramatizations, such as one in which a female secret agent “learns her alma mater is a training school for female agents and will unleash a strain of smallpox.”[7]


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[1]   “Report:  Disarmament,” UNSCOM, Report to the Security Council, January 25, 1999.


[2]   Maria Wahlberg, et al, “The Future of Chemical and Biological Weapon Disarmament in Iraq:  From UNSCOM to UNMOVIC,” Armaments, Disarmament and International Security.  SIPRI Yearbook 2000, Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press for SIPRI, 2000, pp. 560-574.  See analogous chapters in SIPRI Yearbooks for 1999, and so on.  See also Brian Urquhart, “  ,” New York Review of Books, 2000.


[3].  “Public Information Policy on Biological Warfare, Radiological Warfare, and Chemical Warfare,” SECRET, Department of Defense, 1947. [Declassified, April 6, 1992]

[4].  “US Faces Rear Chemical,” CNN/Reuters, November 17, 1998.

[5].  “US Ripe for Anthrax Attack, Expert Warns,” APB News/Associated Press, February 5, 2000.  (Anthrax is, of course, not a virus.)

[6].  CBS Evening News/Eye on America, February 7, 2000.

[7].  “Secret Agent Man,” UPN/WDCA TV, Washington, DC, March 14, 2000.