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Rogue Science

Researchers who aid terror regimes should face the possibility of war crimes trials

May 04, 2003|M. Gregg Bloche | M. Gregg Bloche is a professor of law at Georgetown University, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a member of the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

WASHINGTON — Six hundred years ago, invading Tatars intent on controlling Silk Road trade attacked the Black Sea port of Kaffa in unconventional fashion: They catapulted dead human bodies, victims of bubonic plague, over the town's walls. Residents of Kaffa came down with the disease. Several townspeople fled by sea, and the Mediterranean cities that accepted them suffered devastating plague outbreaks. Some speculate that the Black Death, which killed nearly one-third of Europe's population, was the product of these outbreaks -- and, perhaps, a product of the Tatars' biological attack.

At least since Roman times, invading armies have launched dead animals over city walls or dumped them into water supplies to spread disease. Medieval warlords lofted anthrax-infected beasts into the town of Les Baux-de-Provence, in France's Rhone Valley wine country. In 1763, a British army captain, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, approved of the idea of using smallpox-infected blankets to "reduce" the numbers of American Indians. Long before naturalists came up with the idea that germs cause disease, people figured out how to spread illnesses intentionally, with devastating effect.

History indicates that researchers are seldom reluctant to use what they know to make warfare more lethal. Yet, one of Saddam Hussein's leading scientists claimed a week ago that he came up with a way to transform liquid anthrax into a more potent and durable powder but didn't try it. "I kept the method secret," Nissar Hindawi told the New York Times. "History would have cursed me." Hindawi, who admits lying to U.N. inspectors to cover up his bioweapons work, says his decision prevented Iraq from producing powdered anthrax, the form used to spread terror through the U.S. mail a year and a half ago. But skeptical U.N. experts say other Iraqi scientists knew how to do so, and that Iraq imported ovens to dry liquefied anthrax spores.

We may soon know more. The arrests of several of Hussein's scientists and the manhunt for more could resolve long-standing controversies over Iraq's rogue-weapons capabilities. These arrests also raise the question of researchers' culpability for the destructive forces science can create.

No scientist has ever been convicted of a war crime because his or her research made possible the production of a terrible weapon. Concerns about scientific freedom have stood in the way. Since the Nazi war crimes trials, it has been unlawful to knowingly collude in the production of weapons for forbidden use. German industrialists with technical training were tried and convicted for manufacturing Zyklon B, the gas that killed millions in Adolf Hitler's death camps. But the research that created Zyklon B did not lead to criminal convictions.

Nazi doctors who experimented with lethal agents and techniques faced judgment at Nuremberg for their treatment of the people they used as guinea pigs. Yet, neither transnational law nor the ethics that govern science speaks to the question of researchers' accountability for others' illicit uses of their work. The ongoing roundup of Hussein's scientists presents an opportunity to create worldwide norms of legal and ethical responsibility. It is urgent that we do so. Science in rogue states poses unprecedented dangers, and scientists, by saying "no," are in the best position to avert them.

For the research community, such accountability is an awkward matter. Scientists celebrate the freedom to pursue truth without regard for social consequences. In the words of Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led America's crash program to build an atomic bomb: "If you are a scientist, you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are, that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and values." Oppenheimer justified his efforts on these grounds, figuring that political judgments about the bomb's use were for others to make -- according to their "lights and values." When, in the 1950s, Albert Einstein and other scientists called for the abolition of atomic weapons, they stopped short of urging a research ethic of restraint when science has potentially devastating applications.

We can no longer afford a scientific ethic that disregards the social consequences of research. Some of the consequences are just too scary. The Manhattan Project mobilized people and resources on a massive scale in a constitutional democracy. Even amid wartime secrecy, accountability and restraint were built in. Scientists could be confident that civilian leaders were attuned to democratic values (and electoral pressures) and would use destructive technologies accordingly.

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