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Bioterrorism, hyped

February 17, 2006|Milton Leitenberg | MILTON LEITENBERG, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland, is the author of "Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat." The book can be downloaded from the U.S. Army War College website at www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs.

THE UNITED STATES has spent at least $33 billion since 2002 to combat the threat of biological terrorism. The trouble is, the risk that terrorists will use biological agents is being systematically and deliberately exaggerated. And the U.S. government has been using most of its money to prepare for the wrong contingency.

A pandemic flu outbreak of the kind the world witnessed in 1918-19 could kill hundreds of millions of people. The only lethal biological attack in the United States -- the anthrax mailings -- killed five. But the annual budget for combating bioterror is more than $7 billion, while Congress just passed a $3.8-billion emergency package to prepare for a flu outbreak.

The exaggeration of the bioterror threat began more than a decade ago after the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group released sarin gas in the Tokyo subways in 1995. The scaremongering has grown more acute since 9/11 and the mailing of anthrax-laced letters to Congress and media outlets in the fall of 2001. Now an edifice of institutes, programs and publicists with a vested interest in hyping the bioterror threat has grown, funded by the government and by foundations.

Last year, for example, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist described bioterrorism as "the greatest existential threat we have in the world today." But how could he justify such a claim? Is bioterrorism a greater existential threat than global climate change, global poverty levels, wars and conflicts, nuclear proliferation, ocean-quality deterioration, deforestation, desertification, depletion of freshwater aquifers or the balancing of population growth and food production? Is it likely to kill more people than the more mundane scourges of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, measles and cholera, which kill more than 11 million people each year?

So what substantiates the alarm and the massive federal spending on bioterrorism? There are two main sources of bioterrorism threats: first, from countries developing bioweapons, and second, from terrorist groups that might buy, steal or manufacture them.

The first threat is declining. U.S. intelligence estimates say the number of countries that conduct offensive bioweapons programs has fallen in the last 15 years from 13 to nine, as South Africa, Libya, Iraq and Cuba were dropped. There is no publicly available evidence that even the most hostile of the nine remaining countries -- Syria and Iran -- are ramping up their programs.

And, despite the fear that a hostile nation could help terrorists get biological weapons, no country has ever done so -- even nations known to have trained terrorists.

It's more difficult to assess the risk of terrorists using bioweapons, especially because the perpetrators of the anthrax mailings have not been identified. If the perpetrators did not have access to assistance, materials or knowledge derived from the U.S. biodefense program, but had developed such sophistication independently, that would change our view of what a terrorist group might be capable of. So far, however, the history of terrorist experimentation with bioweapons has shown that killing large numbers of people isn't as easy as we've been led to believe.

Followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh succeeded in culturing and distributing salmonella in Oregon in 1984, sickening 751 people. Aum Shinrikyo failed in its attempts to obtain, produce and disperse anthrax and botulinum toxin between 1990 and 1994. Al Qaeda tried to develop bioweapons from 1997 until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but declassified documents found by U.S. forces outside Kandahar indicate the group never obtained the necessary pathogens.

At a conference in Tokyo this week, bioterrorism experts called for new programs to counter the possibility that terrorists could genetically engineer new pathogens. Yet three of the leading scientists in the field have said there is no likelihood at this time that a terrorist group could perform such a feat.

The real problem is that a decade of widely broadcast discussion of what it takes to produce a bioweapon has provided terrorists with at least a rough roadmap. Until now, no terrorist group has had professionals with the skills to exploit the information -- but the publicity may make it easier in the future.

There is no military or strategic justification for imputing to real-world terrorist groups capabilities that they do not possess. Yet no risk analysis was conducted before the $33 billion was spent.

Some scientists and politicians privately acknowledge that the threat of bioterror attacks is exaggerated, but they argue that spending on bioterrorism prevention and response would be inadequate without it. But the persistent hype is not benign. It is almost certainly the single major factor in provoking interest in bioweapons among terrorist groups. Bin Laden's deputy, the Egyptian doctor Ayman Zawahiri, wrote on a captured floppy disk that "we only became aware of (bioweapons) when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concerns that they can be produced simply with easily available materials." We are creating our worst nightmare.

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