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U.S. Is to Veto Plan on Germ Weapons

Security: White House calls measure to enforce 1972 treaty too weak but admits biological attack is a major threat. Action would further isolate Washington from allies.

July 25, 2001|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will veto a measure to enforce a 1972 treaty banning germ weapons, even though a biological attack by "rogue" states or terrorist groups is the premier threat of the 21st century, White House officials said Tuesday.

Verification measures under the draft enforcement mechanism are too weak to spot cheaters, said three officials, who spoke to a small group of reporters on the understanding that they would not be identified by name. In addition, they said, the mechanism would give a "veneer" of respectability to countries such as Iran that Washington claims are pursuing offensive biological weapons programs but that have indicated they will sign the proposal.

At the same time, the officials said, the inspections that are required under the plan would fall most heavily on the U.S. biotechnology industry because it is the largest in the world. The officials said U.S. industry is concerned that trade secrets might be compromised.

Donald H. Mahley, chief of the U.S. delegation to the international committee meeting in Geneva to draft the enforcement protocol, willannounce Washington's opposition today, the officials said. Under the rules of the meeting, all decisions must be unanimous, meaning that the U.S. objection will shelve the enforcement plan.

By opposing the proposal, drafted after seven years of work, the United States isolates itself from much of the rest of the world--including some close allies.

The European Union's representative has already announced support for the proposal, which he said would be an improvement given the current absence of verification provisions for the 29-year-old Biological Weapons Convention.

The White House officials said the administration strongly supports the 1972 pact, which establishes an international standard against germ weapons. They said the United States is determined to develop a better way of enforcing the pact.

"There is absolutely no basis to the claim that this administration does not support multilateral approaches to weapons of mass destruction and proliferation," one official said.

Instead of the proposed enforcement mechanism, which the officials said could easily be evaded, the administration will advance several essentially voluntary steps such as a code of conduct for laboratories studying germs, prohibitions on shipping pathogenic agents to places other than certified laboratories, and some sort of "international legal instrument" to prosecute biological terrorists.

But the officials conceded that the administration has not yet discussed the ideas with its allies and that it has not settled on the details.

Although the officials said there were differences between the biological weapons enforcement plan and the treaty on global warming that the U.S. abandoned, there is one striking similarity: President Bush told the Group of 8 summit last weekend that Washington will propose a new plan to check "greenhouse gases," but he admitted that he did not yet know how it would work.

The White House officials said the biological weapons enforcement plan was patterned after the measure to enforce the ban on chemical weapons. But the officials said the classes of weapons are very different.

Production of chemical agents leaves telltale residues that cannot be completely obliterated. But "you could produce biological weapons in this office, and you could get rid of the evidence in five minutes," one official said. "All you'd need is 50 gallons of bleach."

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