You'd think the U.S. would be eager to embrace the goal of a summit on biological weapons that convened Monday in Geneva: to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty drafted in 1972 and since ratified by 146 nations, including this one, to ban the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons. Improvement certainly is needed; after all, as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton has pointed out, the treaty, though well-intentioned, is toothless, lacking any mechanism to verify compliance.
The impotence of the treaty is alarming because the threat posed by biological weapons, widely recognized since the anthrax attacks, has been growing. For instance, new biotechnologies have made it easy for scientists in hostile nations like North Korea and Iraq to turn harmless microbes into deadly biological agents that are impossible to counter with existing drugs.
Far from cheering on the summit, however, Bolton seems bent on subverting it. Last week, he urged summit leaders to stick to enforcing the existing treaty. He cautioned that Washington would oppose adding any stringent enforcement measures, such as an international system of independent lab inspectors who could travel at a moment's notice to suspect nations like Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Sudan and Syria, as well as to the United States, Britain and other treaty signatories.
The Bush administration objects to such measures because it fears they could compromise national security. It worries that the international lab inspectors might, on a visit to a private drug company or military lab in the United States, pick up commercial or military secrets.
But merely rubber-stamping the current weak treaty would be a big mistake. Here is a key reason: One of its many provisions supposedly bans the development of toxins like smallpox but permits research for "peaceful purposes," thus allowing dictators like Saddam Hussein to use defense "research" as a smokescreen for developing biological weapons to launch a biological attack.
The leader of the summit, Hungary's Tibor Toth, should address the Bush administration's legitimate concerns about national security. Specifically, he should propose that inspectors meet with private-sector and military officials to work out compromises on a case-by-case basis. But Toth should not accede to the administration's request that fundamental improvements to the treaty be delayed until 2006, the treaty's original "review" time.
Inspections, and the Biological Weapons Convention, are far from perfect. But however flawed, they remain our best hope of countering the growing bioweapons threat.