by Tim King

A research program involving the agents used in biological weapons such as anthrax and bubonic plague is being conducted by the United States Department of Energy with reckless disregard for its employees, the public, the environment, and, possibly, an international treaty. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) is conducting an ever-expanding research program involving organisms used in biological weapons. The research program is operated out of the DOE's network of national laboratories, with the most work being done at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) in California.

The principal organisms being researched are those causing anthrax, bubonic plague, and botulism. C. botulinum is considered the most deadly organism known to humans.

In February 2001 the DOE's own Office of Inspector General cited research scientists and administrators at labs across the country for systematic carelessness in handling the highly toxic organisms. The report, entitled, "Inspection of Department of Energy Activities Involving Biological Select Agents" stated in its introduction:

. . . the Department lacked appropriate federal oversight, consistent policy, and standardized implementing procedures, resulting in the potential for greater risks to workers and possibly others from exposure to biological select agents and select agent materials.

Some of the specific infractions highlighted in the Inspector General's report include, among others, that:

* Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley, and Sandia California all had improper methods for receiving biological agents and for handling damaged packages of infectious biological agents received from vendors. At Los Alamos that resulted in an investigator studying DNA material he thought was pure anthrax for four months before he discovered the material was contaminated.

*At Brookhaven National Labs studies of intact botulism toxin were, as required, registered with the Centers for Disease Control. The registration stated that studies would be conducted in an adequate lab but some of the research was done in a facility not designed for biological agents. These studies were conducted in an open environment with as many as 30 other individuals working as close as 6-8 feet away from the toxin. According to Brookhaven, the toxin was routinely removed from its containment within the proximity of these workers. The ingestion of just one small toxin crystal can cause death. No one outside this inadequate facility knew that the toxin was routinely being improperly removed. Although handling has been improved, as of the February 2000 release of the OIG's report, the inspectors feel the handling procedures remain inadequate and, potentially, lethal.

*Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore have no safety procedures for dealing with damaged shipments of anthrax or other infectious biological agents.

The DOE's work with the agents of biological warfare is being conducted under the auspices of the Chemical and Biological National Security Program. That program is conducted within the National Nuclear Security Agency or NNSA. NNSA is the highly secret DOE arm also responsible for research and development of nuclear explosives.

According to Colin King, a researcher for the Santa Fe-based Nuclear Watch of New Mexico (NWNM), at the time that the Inspector General’s Office released its report, Los Alamos National Lab requested public comments regarding the expansion of its biological agents program. The expanded lab is called a BSL-3 (Biosafety Level 3) lab and will have the capacity to handle live anthrax. King believes DOE's expanded biological weapons research at Los Alamos is cause for alarm. "We have a high level biological research facility proposed at Los Alamos, the nation's premier and most secret nuclear weapons research and design labs," he said. Although the BSL Team Leader was quoted as stating to the director of NWNM that B division would never conduct research for offensive biological weapons, the possibility remains that it will do so, given the rumored desire of the Bush administration to withdraw from the ongoing negotiations for the verification protocols of the 1972 Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention.

The possibility that LANL could indeed conduct offensive biological weapons research in the future is of great concern to the public of Northern New Mexico and beyond and needs to be publicly addressed in a forthright manner. We believe that it is also a bad international precedent to site a biological select agent research laboratory of any kind at arguably the Nation's most premier secret nuclear weapons laboratory,

King and his colleagues at NWNM wrote in the public comments regarding the expansion of biological weapons research at Los Alamos.

But is DOE developing offensive biological weapons? Much of the research currently being conducted in the Chemical and Biological National Security Program involves developing defensive sensor technology that would recognize biological toxins in case of an attack. There is also work underway to clarify how adequate decontamination of victims would be conducted. One of the major programs embedded within the Chemical and Biological National Security Program is the Defense of the Cities Program. Under Defense of the Cities, Los Alamos has conducted extensive computer modeling and tests on the dispersion of biological agents in a simulated attack have been conducted in Washington D.C. subway stations and Salt Lake City office buildings as well as an unnamed airport terminal.

Could some of the modeling have a dual offensive as well as defensive purpose? Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, of the Federation of American Scientists, believes there is a broad continuum between developing defensive and offensive technologies and that DOE's computer modeling could fit within that overlap. Nonetheless, Dr. Rosenberg, who is Director of FAS's Chemical and Biological Weapons Program, does not believe the US has an interest in developing biological weapons.

Francis Boyle, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois and the author of the Biological Weapons Anti-terrorism Act of 1989, is not so sanguine. "The truth of the matter is that under the guise of the so-called Biological Defense Research Program sponsored by the Pentagon, the United States government has been actively involved in the exploitation of dual use biotechnology that could easily be put to weapons purposes, if it has not been done already,” Boyle said in the Summer 2001 issue of Alert, the publication of PEACE ACTION New Mexico.

When Dr. Boyle wrote those comments he was referring to biological weapons research by the Department of Defense, and not the Department of Energy. However the Chemical and Biological National Security Program's year
2000 annual report makes it clear that DOE and DOD are collaborating on numerous areas of biological weapons research including joint efforts to research biological and chemical warfare decontamination at the US Army's Dugway testing ground. Upon learning of the DOE research at Los Alamos and other prominent weapons development laboratories Francis Boyle wrote:

Why has the United States Government put this type of controversial research into acknowledged government weapons laboratories? … To me, this creates a compliance problem with the BWC (Biological Weapons Convention), especially now that Bush has repudiated the Protocol. Is the reason why the US repudiated the Protocol that it has something to hide at these weapons laboratories? How can the world know without the Protocol? Is the world supposed to trust the word of the US after its long history of abuse on biowarfare research?

Dr. Boyle's particular concern is the Bush administration's May 2001 announcement to side step the testing protocols developed to adequately implement the Biological Weapons Convention cosigned by the US a quarter of a century ago.

The suicide attacks of September 11th appear to have moved the administration away from what had been an increasingly isolationist posture in the world community regarding international agreements. That may be a fortunate effect arising from a calamitous cause. The post attack atmosphere regarding terroristic use of biological weapons is, however, approaching hysteria. That is unfortunate. Colin King, of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, says,

Los Alamos National Labs has a history of taking short cuts and compromising safety. We're concerned that the renewed climate of fear will create a lot of new funding for these biological weapons programs and increase the haste and carelessness with which they are carried out.

Whether or not the US is involved in developing an offensive biological weapons capacity, the bellicose nature of the Bush administration, along with the reckless nature of weapons research and development programs, requires an informed and alert citizenry.

Tim King is a farmer, community organizer, and freelance journalist living in Long Prairie, Minnesota.

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