Just how serious are the threats of bioterrorism and biological weapons? Since Sept. 11, public anxiety has spread in the wake of anthrax contaminations in New York, Washington and elsewhere. To properly assess the current predicament and the threat biological weapons pose, a little history is useful. There are four reasons--aside from the obvious--why biological weapons development compels serious attention among policy-makers and ordinary citizens.
* Between 1989 and 1992, two senior-level research and managerial officials in the Soviet Union's biological weapons program defected to the West. Their detailed disclosures, and additional information which subsequently became available, revealed their country's enormous, covert and illegal biological weapons program, which probably continued at least until early 1993. By contrast, the United States' biological weapons program was unilaterally ended under President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 and had been dismantled by 1972. That year, more than 100 nations signed the Biological and Toxins Weapon Convention, with the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom as initial signers and treaty repository nations. The treaty banned the development and possession of biological weapons. Nevertheless, the Soviet biological weapons program expanded enormously, a violation of the treaty, the only instance in the postwar period that Moscow so utterly and blatantly violated an arms control treaty it had signed.
* Despite having signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of either chemical or biological weapons, Iraq used chemical weapons extensively in its war with Iran, particularly between 1984 and 1988. This fact was well known. Nevertheless the international community was silent and did nothing. At the time of the Gulf War, in 1990 and 1991, intelligence agencies of several countries were convinced that Iraq was producing biological weapons, but details and evidence remained hidden until the summer of 1995, when the United Nations Special Commission discovered the specifics of Baghdad's biological weapons program.
* That same summer, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese quasi-religious group, released a chemical agent, a poor grade of the nerve agent Sarin in the Tokyo subway. Twelve people died, and of the 5,000 or so who went to hospitals, between 400 and 900 suffered varying degrees of injury. The same group had also released the same agent a year before in the city of Matsumoto, killing seven and injuring several hundred. Aum Shinrikyo had apparently spent four years attempting to produce two biological agents, botulinum toxin and anthrax. It was a very serious attempt: no financial limitations, well-equipped laboratories, some technically trained staff, concerted efforts to purchase knowledge. Fortunately, their efforts to produce biological agents failed. Nonetheless, the group's initiative prompted concern. Many U.S. policy-makers believed that bioterrorism was not "a matter of if, but when," with many predicting its use "within five years."
* When the 1972 biological weapons treaty was signed, four nations had offensive biological weapons programs (the Soviet Union and three other unidentified countries). Arms control specialists believed proliferation could be curbed, even eliminated. However in 1988 and 1989, U.S. government officials reported to Congress that in the intervening years, six nations had joined that list, making 10 in all. Several of those nations, such as Iraq, were signatories of the 1972 treaty. Today, the U.S. government claims there are 13 countries with offensive biological weapons programs. It has released the names of 10; the remaining three have yet to be publicly identified.
It isn't clear, however, whether the problem is getting worse. Most of the nations now believed to have embarked on offensive biological weapons programs began their research and development 20 or so years ago. Even the three added since 1997 are not "new." It is not always easy for the intelligence community to decide if a suspect nation's biological weapons program is a legitimate and permissible defensive program under existing international law or an illegal offensive one, as was the case with the three newly included nations. It was not that their programs were new, only that U.S. intelligence agencies had reached a consensus assessment after years of internal debate.
The renewed attention to the subject has produced many books: Ken Alibek on the Soviet program, Ed Regis on the U.S., Brian Balmer on the United Kingdom, Tim Trevan and 23 United Nations Special Commission reports on Iraq, Jonathan Tucker on smallpox, Gina Kolata on the 1918 flu pandemic, an edited volume by Joshua Lederberg and another by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In addition, dozens of monographs and reports were written, more than 20 from the General Accounting Office, as well as several Presidential Commission reports.