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A bad bioweapons decision

The Obama administration needs to take another look at how to curb biological weapons.

December 12, 2009

The Obama administration has embraced many troubling national security policies adopted by the Bush administration, but in most of these cases -- such as the regrettable decision to continue the "rendition" of captured terrorism suspects to foreign countries -- it at least had a reasonable-sounding explanation. When it comes to this week's misguided ruling on biological weapons, though, administration officials couldn't even dream up a good excuse.

The Biological Weapons Convention outlaws the production and use of deadly bioweapons such as anthrax and smallpox. The United States is one of 162 nations that have signed on to the 1972 convention, which isn't particularly effective because it has no teeth. Unlike the treaties that govern nuclear arms or chemical weapons, it contains no mechanism for monitoring or enforcement. A 2001 conference aimed to change that, but the Bush administration refused to go along and the initiative collapsed.

Meet the new boss: Same as the old boss. On Wednesday, Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. undersecretary of State for arms control, announced that the Obama administration too had no interest in strengthening the convention. Although the end result is the same, the reasons differ. Bush officials, under pressure from the pharmaceutical lobby, said that allowing international inspectors to monitor commercial or military research facilities could compromise corporate or defense secrets. This made little sense. Safeguards could be put in place to protect secrecy; moreover, international monitoring of nuclear and chemical weapons has not resulted in such security leaks.

Tauscher's explanation makes even less sense. She claims that monitoring doesn't work. "The ease with which a biological weapons program could be disguised within legitimate activities, and the rapid advances in biological research, make it very difficult to detect violations," she said. Huh?

Just because it's difficult doesn't make it impossible. Monitoring programs exist in order to discourage regimes from building illegal weapons by providing a credible threat that they might get caught. A dedicated team of U.N. inspectors could stay abreast of technological advances and provide that threat. It wouldn't be 100% effective, but no monitoring program is. What's more, even if one accepts the dubious notion that it's pointless to try to prevent countries from developing bioweapons, that's no excuse for failing to probe those suspected of using them. The Biological Weapons Convention gives the United Nations secretary-general that power, but there is no existing team of U.N. investigators nor funding to create one. With the United States ducking the issue, there won't be one any time soon, either.

President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in part because of his strong efforts to combat nuclear proliferation -- yet biological weapons are potentially as serious a danger. He should put his prize-winning brain to use developing a smarter strategy.

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