by David Keppel

In 2001, the Bush Administration renounced the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and dealt a devastating blow to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) by rejecting international efforts to strengthen its verification. The Administration thus virtually discarded thirty years of effort to constrain the two major weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and biological, by arms control, and instead is undertaking massive military programs. In the wake of the September 11 attacks and the anthrax letters, Congress and the public seem prepared to accept these radical steps in the name of national security.

Until last fall, few Americans beyond a small group of specialists had thought seriously about biological weapons. By contrast, the problem of nuclear weapons has been with us since Hiroshima. Yet the problems are closely connected – in part because biological weapons have been called “the poor nation’s atom bomb.” Also, there are illuminating parallels between the two dilemmas. The Bush Administration's quest for “biological defense” is twin to its quest for “missile defense." Americans new to the issue of biological weapons may find it easier to understand the nuclear and biological problems together.

Why did Richard Nixon, of all American Presidents, renounce biological weapons in 1969 and sign the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972? Why did he sign the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? Hardly an idealist, Nixon grasped – however fitfully and inconsistently – that catastrophic weapons expose us to mutual vulnerability.

Biological warfare, like nuclear war, is inherently without winners. In the nuclear case, the US and Soviets recognized in the theory of deterrence that if even a fraction of the other side’s arsenal survived a first strike, retaliation would be devastating. Therefore, neither side could afford to launch a nuclear attack. Deterrence theory was contradictory because it seemed to justify nuclear arsenals in the name of a second strike, but at least it separated “pragmatists” from unregenerate hawks, who maintained one could fight and “win” a nuclear war. (In fact, even an unanswered nuclear attack would be an ecological, political, and moral disaster, but this recognition required a Jonathan Schell, not Nixon.) The ABM Treaty banned nationwide anti-missile defenses for this reason. Otherwise, both sides might build defenses that were good enough, at least, to stop the other side’s deterrent. Fearing this, each side would have a perverse incentive to go first: sheer instability might push us over the brink.

With biological weapons, the boomerang effect does not even require retaliation. Disease – at least infectious disease – spreads. Historically, the “successful” cases of germ “warfare” were largely unconscious, although at times deliberate, such as when Europeans such as Columbus, Pizzaro, and Cortez encountered indigenous peoples without immunity to their diseases. Today, centuries of contact have made for essentially worldwide similar vulnerabilities.

Moreover, Nixon feared that poor nations might use biological weapons as a cheap counter-weight to the rich nations’ nuclear club, whose membership was limited to some extent by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It made strategic sense to eliminate this category of weapon.

The Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 bans not only the use but also the development and stockpiling of “microbial and biological agents and toxins” that “have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.” It also bans delivery systems for biological weapons. The BWC has been called the strongest disarmament treaty in existence, because – unlike nuclear and conventional arms treaties – it bans development as well as production and use. Clearly, such a ban is essential in the case of fast-breeding germs; otherwise, a country could quickly break out of the treaty.

The First Law of the Military Industrial Complex is that bad ideas never die; they just return as advanced technologies. Nuclear deterrence doctrine was undermined by cybernetics-driven improvements in missile accuracy, together with the prospect of weapons in space. Though President Reagan spoke to the public in visionary terms of an “impregnable shield” as if missiles were an alternative to nuclear weapons, his influential strategists wrote articles entitled “Nuclear War: Victory Is Possible.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, hawks claimed Star Wars had been central to our “victory” because it forced the Soviets into a spending race they could not afford.

Technology ––in this case, genetic engineering–– similarly undermined the military’s commitment to the Biological Weapons Convention. In 1986, Douglas Feith, a senior Defense Department official in the Reagan Administration, told Congress: “The major implication of the new technology is that the BWC must be recognized as critically deficient and unfixable.” He made clear that his objection was not the absence of verification provisions, but the promise of military biotechnology.

In fact, the Reagan Administration did not find it necessary to renounce the BWC: it pursued genetically engineered biological weapons research in the name of defense. This claim exploits the ambiguity of the BWC, which – although it bans even the development of offensive biological weapons – does permit defensive research.

Since the 1980’s, the Council for Responsible Genetics has challenged this alibi as scientifically fallacious. Genetic engineering under military auspices and the cloak of secrecy clearly subverts the intent of the BWC. Suppose a military laboratory creates a secret, genetically altered strain of anthrax, plague, or smallpox, and then develops a matching vaccine. This sword-and shield pair is not, in fact, medical protection against a germ that another country or terrorist group might use against us. The reason it isn’t lies in biological diversity and specificity. Even in the worst-case scenario that an enemy was secretly making “designer germs,” their strain and ours would almost surely be significantly different. Our vaccine would be unlikely to protect us from their germ. What it would do, of course, is allow us to vaccinate our troops and perhaps population and then use our own altered pathogen offensively. Note that the CRG’s analysis does not depend on attributing motives to anyone: these are simply objective characteristics of such research.

The CRG and others have worked to distinguish legitimate defense against disease – of natural or deliberate origin – from offensive research that could stimulate an arms race in biological weapons. The key difference is openness. There is no justification for creating genetically altered pathogens. All research should be conducted openly and under civilian auspices (such as the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control) and be subject to international inspection. Arms control negotiators and NGO activists have worked for years to strengthen the BWC along these lines. The Verification Protocol, rejected by the Bush Administration, was the fruit of this effort.

At the end of the Cold War, the world had an unparalleled chance to begin eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. Sober strategists such as General George Lee Butler, former Commander of the Strategic Air Command, and Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense, called for steps aimed at the global abolition of nuclear weapons. Such an initiative would have fulfilled the big powers’ obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus given legitimacy to demands that others abstain from both nuclear and biological weapons. President Clinton in fact did the reverse: he signed a Presidential Directive (NSDD-60) authorizing a nuclear strike in retaliation for biological weapons use, thus giving our nuclear arsenal a new lease on life.

Unfortunately, the Second Law of the Military-Industrial Complex is that old threats never die; they mutate into new legitimations. “Rogue states” (e.g., Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) and “international terrorism” (e.g., Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda) incarnate this threat in a way that is both tragically real and tragically misleading. It is misleading insofar as it is taken to justify the Bush Administration’s escalation of nuclear and biological warfare programs.

The anthrax-laced letter to Senator Daschle convinced Congress and the public that bioterrorism is a clear and present danger meriting at least $1.5 billion in a military-led program. Strangely, this escalation may even survive evidence that the letter is of domestic origin, probably from someone close to U.S. Government laboratories who wanted to “wake people up” to the threat and the “need” for more military spending. The Establishment will say, “It’s unfortunate a psychopath did this; we need better security for our labs. But after all, his point is well taken.” To the contrary, the real meaning of the anthrax letters is that our weapons (in this case, fine-milled anthrax) may be turned against us. Both the nuclear and biological arms races are histories of our inventions to which we then become vulnerable. It hardly makes sense to respond by pursuing new, clearly offensive research that others will try to steal or replicate.

The United States is, as of this writing, threatening to attack Iraq for refusing international inspection of its possible nuclear or biological weapons facilities. The irony is that – with President Bush’s rejection of the Verification Protocol to the BWC – the US is in the same position as Iraq. In place of transparent international agreements, the Bush Administration imposes its unilateral and arbitrary standard of the permitted and forbidden – evident also in our overlooking Israeli nuclear and biological weapons programs. (Israel is not a signatory of the BWC and is believed to pursue biological weapons research at Ness Ziona.)

On September 4, 2001, The New York Times revealed that secret US military research “pushes the limits” of the BWC. For example, the US plans to produce a strain of genetically altered anthrax, and it is making a “bomblet” to test dissemination of pathogens. The latter, in particular, is a clear violation of the treaty.

The military has found new, “good” missions for both nuclear and biological weapons. While talking about numerical nuclear reductions, the Administration is eagerly pursuing qualitative improvements – specifically, miniaturized nuclear weapons that might burrow down and destroy, say, Saddam Hussein’s bunker. Thus, the United States would – for the first time since Hiroshima – have nuclear weapons it could use offensively, rather than as a deterrent to nuclear attack. The Administration has also revived the most ambitious parts of the Reagan program for space weapons – aimed at giving the United States the ability to knock out others’ satellites and thus communications (including nuclear warning systems). It is also studying direct energy weapons that might strike Earth targets. It appears to have considered neither the effect on nuclear stability of threatening others’ satellites nor the risk to our own satellites when others launch their own anti-satellite weapons.

In a United Nations speech on October 10, 2001, Undersecretary of State Avis Bohlen indicated that the US was reinterpreting the BWC to permit even the use of biological agents so long as these were not intended to kill people. Thus, for example, genetically engineered fungicide would be permitted, even though the environmental risks to crops and humans are real and impossible to predict. (Ed. Note: see Sophia Kolehmainen’s article on page X.) The US is also developing superbugs to consume metal, plastics, and fuel, as well as hallucinatory biological agents for crowd control.

Programs undertaken to fight terrorism may themselves be vulnerable to terrorism – and, of course, accident. Hours after the World Trade Center disaster, helicopters hovered over the Army’s biological weapons laboratory at Ft. Detrick, Maryland. The government wants to upgrade an animal disease laboratory on Plum Island (just off Connecticut and Long Island), to study zoonotic diseases (shared by animals and humans – for example, West Nile virus, anthrax, and Nipah virus). Nominally under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the laboratory’s Director is Colonel David Huxsoll, former Commander at Fort Detrick. Under heavy guard, the laboratory threatens neighboring civilians, in part because researchers commute to the mainland and thus could transmit an infection, which might rapidly spread on the East Coast.

The more fixated we become on bioterrorism, the more likely we are to dangerously misunderstand the global health crisis. We do indeed face “the coming plague,” and its cause is environmental. Global climate change – made worse by the Bush Administration’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty – encourages tropical diseases to spread into temperate zones. Global trade intentionally and accidentally carries infectious diseases into new environments where they meet no resistance. If we make bioterrorism defense into a substitute for public health policy, we will not only fail to address the deeper causes of disease threats to the poor and ourselves; we also risk coming to see the world’s poor as a hostile reservoir of pestilence.

The nuclear age accustomed us to what historian E. P. Thompson called the logic of exterminism. We enter the 21st Century with leaders who refuse cooperative solutions while pursuing nuclear and biological technologies of mass destruction. It is time to challenge this threat both to our own lives and to the value of life.

A footnoted version of this article is available from the CRG office.

David Keppel, a writer and activist on nuclear and biological weapons, lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He is writing a book on creative uncertainty as a principle of living things.

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