Thursday, June 10, 2004

Strictly Defensive 

But you know the old saying: the best defense is a good offense. From the Oakland Tribune:
The Bush administration is ramping up bioterrorism research that will press beyond traditional defenses against natural biowarfare germs to explore genetically engineered superbugs, as well as the means to mass-produce and disseminate them.

After spending almost $10 billion on biodefense research, defense scientists say broader studies of bioterror threats are needed to weigh the chances of certain attacks, tell U.S. intelligence what to look for and shore up defenses.

A classified presidential directive and other documents offer a roadmap for the new research as part of the first effort at coordinating all federal biodefense research since the October 2001 anthrax attacks by mail . . . .

The rapid spread and dropping costs of basic biotechnology raise the specter that terrorists eventually will tinker with naturally deadly germs to make them more virulent, impervious to drugs or tough to detect. But is it a real threat? Is it likely enough that the United States needs to develop special vaccines, antidotes and detectors to thwart it? . . . .

[A]rms-control advocates worry the secrecy of the Bush administration's plans could hamstring the 1972 global ban in bioweapons development. They say biologists in China, Russia and rogue nations will gain a new argument for secretly studying new germs and delivery methods under the rubric of biodefense.

"If any other country set forth a program like this, U.S. intelligence undoubtedly would call it an offensive program," said Edward Hammond, head of the Sunshine Project, a group in Austin, Texas, that tracks bioweapons and biodefense issues.

"Our enemy now is not the Russians or Saddam. It's biotech itself. It's imagining what we can do to fight the technology," he said. "If you generate that mentality, it's sort of no-holds barred."

Three experts in biological arms control recently published an essay questioning the Department of Homeland Security's plans for biothreat-assessment research, to be based at the Army's Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., but likely to use scientists and labs nationwide, Lawrence Livermore among them . . . .

The critique was triggered by a February presentation to military officers about the Homeland Security Department's new National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. Among research thrusts, it tasked scientists to study how to "acquire, grow, modify, store, stabilize, package (and) disperse" bioweapons and to run computer simulations of large-scale production.

It called for "red teaming" operations, in which scientists would figure out how to execute terrorist attacks.
A quick question about "red teaming" operations: if the red team is not using live bioweapons in the simulation, how could the defense team know that its countermeasures were genuinely effective in containing the threat? And if the red team is using live bioweapons, and containment measures fail . . . then what?

According to director Edward Hammond, the Sunshine Project, through FOIA requests, has obtained proposals by the Naval Research Laboratory and the Armstrong Laboratory to develop bioweapons for straightforwardly offensive purposes -- such as genetically-engineered microbes that would degrade fuel, asphalt, and plastics. (The US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act prohibits development of all biological weapons, including those that attack materials.) Hammond also notes that, while the Bush administration has been memorably aggressive in accusing other nations of bioweapons development, the US itself has consistently rejected a legally-binding system that would allow the UN to inspect American facilities.

And Julian Borger of the Guardian reported back in 2002 that the US was hard at work on hallucinogenic and "calmative" agents, such as the knockout gas lethally deployed by Russian troops in the Moscow theatre siege earlier that year:
Jonathan Tucker, a chemical weapons expert at the US Institute for Peace in Washington, said much of the work on non-lethal weapons was being carried out by an institute under the US justice department but was funded by the Pentagon.

"They are trying to keep it at arms length, but it is problematic especially for military purposes. The chemical weapons convention makes a very clear distinction between riot control and incapacitants," he said.

While Mr Tucker believes that such knock-out gases are explicitly banned under the treaty, Mr Dando and Mr Wheelis believe the Pentagon has exploited a loophole that allows for such weapons for "law enforcement purposes".
Nice of Mr. Ashcroft to assist Mr. Rumsfeld in working his way around the letter of the treaty; one can only hope he'll get to share in the fruits of the research should domestic circumstances demand.

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