June 18, 2005
National Security Notes
TERRORISTS AND TOXIC MILK -- A REBUTTAL
In mid June controversy erupted over a paper that was to have been published by the US journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and whose publication was at least temporarily delayed by the PNAS. The paper in question was a mathematical model of the possible consequences of the malicious insertion of Botulinum toxin into the US milk supply. The decision to delay publication was made because of the concern expressed by a US government official that publication might provide applicable information for possible terrorists.
However, the paper's author, Dr. Lawrence M. Wein, did publish an Op-Ed in the New York Times on May 30, 2005 which presented the conclusions of his unpublished manuscript. Since that shorter publication is available to all for examination, its substance can be addressed. It is our conclusion that there are other issues at play that are even more important than the publication one. After all, journals reject the publication of very large numbers of submitted papers every day whose contents are substantively incorrect.
Wein's prognostication and warning in the New York Times was dire. The toll of poisoned was estimated in the hundreds of thousands. It was based upon a paper entitled "Analyzing a Bioterror Attack on the Food Supply: The Case of Botulinum Toxin in Milk." We believe Dr. Wein's paper is flawed in its understanding of terrorist capabilities, his other assumptions in error, and the conclusion therefore both erroneous and inflammatory.
For Dr. Wein's model to be plausible, one has to accept several assumptions. The first of these is that terrorists can easily brew the amount of toxin cited. But can they?
Wein's initial claim concerning terrorist knowledge on production of botulinum toxin was an alarming one. He wrote that all that was necessary would be for a single terrorist to have the jihadi manual called "Preparation of Botulism Toxin," secured from the Internet.
We have a copy of the 28-page jihadi manual. It is an oft-stated canard that terrorists, or a single one, can simply download their capabilities for mass death from the world wide web. The assistance that the manual is alleged to confer is greatly exaggerated. While its text certainly appears technical to laymen, its compiler does not explain, except in the most general terms, how to obtain a toxic strain of Clostridium botulinum in the first place. Any strain of the bacterium which produces botulinum toxin won't do, an aspect even noted in the manual. Many strains of Clostridium botulinum in nature produce very little or no toxin. Finding the right one in nature out of literally 600 or 700 strains can take a long time. For example, the task took the pre-1969 US offensive BW program many man-years of work by highly trained and competent professionals.
Wein also posited that botulinum toxin could be bought from an overseas black-market lab. In the real world no "black market" botulinum toxin
producer is known to exist. This claim can be interpreted as the equivalent of a terrorism deus ex machina -- an unconvincing event brought into the plot of a story in order to resolve an involved and complicated situation. In this case, it's furnished to sidestep the obstacles to making large amounts of botulinum toxin so that the paper can proceed with the calculation of casualties.
No real world "terrorist" group - excluding the perpetrator of the US Amerithrax events - has been recognized as having the professional capacity in personnel or equipment to even follow the instructions that the manual does contain. Following the manual's directions requires sophisticated equipment, special reagents, and substantial experience. These do not exist in "jihadi" camps.
In addition, the jihadi manual does not describe processes or professional art that would enable one terrorist to produce gram quantities of botulinum toxin. Possession of a patched-together electronic manual on botulinum toxin production does not magically make for a shortcut around the experience, education and labor involved in gaining hands-on expertise in the most lethal applications of microbiology. The portrayal of such alleged terrorist documents as true and accurate indications of what terrorists can achieve in this area is not the best assessment.
For PNAS publication, the reasoning for this was delivered in a little over a paragraph and based on three citations. The first is an article published in the Journal of Bacteriology in 1971. While it deals with the production of Clostridium botulinum toxin, it is more specifically about the preliminary characterization of another protein from the microbe which activates the toxin.
The second citation for terrorist capability was not from another scientific journal at all but, surprisingly, from a short news piece published by the New York Times on April 27, 2003 written by Judith Miller, then embedded with the US Army's Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha in Iraq. It also is not about toxin production capabilities in the hands of terrorists. It is a very brief interview with a scientist who worked in Iraq's bioweapons program and it delivers one brief and contextually meaningless claim about that country's production of botulinum toxin. Neither UNSCOM nor UNMOVIC could verify his statement, nor find verification for it in any internal Iraqi government report.
The third citation is used to bolster argument for possible advanced production methods in the hands of terrorists. It, too, is also not from a scientific publication, but a "paper for discussion" attributed to Richard Danzig, a former US Secretary of the Navy. Of course there are advanced methods for production, the question is whether these are within the capabilities of "terrorists."
Taken together, these three citations are imputed to provide credibility for the capabilities of terrorists to produce grams of botulism toxin.
In the larger work from which Dr. Wein drew his guest editorial, he recognizes that three basic assumptions that lie at the heart of his calculations are open to great uncertainty, as much as three orders of magnitude or more for each of the three. The first is the presumed
production capability of the terrorist, discussed in part above. The second is the degree of lethality of the material presumably produced. The third is the degree of inactivation of the toxin during pasteurization of milk. One of the two main recommendations offered by Dr. Wein was that milk producers should seek to increase the degree of toxin destruction during pasteurization.
The US government and the International Dairy Foods Association have in fact collaborated over the past few years in practical discussions of this problem. An internal document indicates that about 12 months ago, processors of fluid milk quietly raised their pasteurization times and
temperature, a step which would significantly reduce by several orders of magnitude the survival of any botulinum toxin that had been added to milk. Dr. Wein's suggestion has by and large already been implemented.
Thinking about the unthinkable has become a way of life in the war on terror. But too often, in our opinion, have the debates on securing the
country against the threat of bioterrorism degenerated into worst case scenarios which assume an easy and accomplished technical capability for mass killing already or soon to be in the hands of terrorists. Our assessment is that the possible variability in the three key assumptions means that, taken together, they could result in a difference of nine orders of magnitude from the numbers presented by Dr. Wein, that is produce a result only one-billionth as much.
There is therefore an extraordinary degree of uncertainty associated with Wein's estimates. The analysis of real and practical intelligence reveals a vastly different, more complicated, and much less frightening picture.
After reading the original New York Times Op-Ed and the PNAS paper, we approached the newspaper's editor with a slightly shorter version --
because of space limitations -- of this letter. It was turned down. The editor replied that "As a matter of policy, we do not publish rebuttals on the op-ed page."
While it may not be the policy of the New York Times, the paper should have been accountable and receptive to a challenging position when it chose to publish what was effectively "news" or "quasi-news" extracted from a scientific report, particularly one of extraordinarily menacing flavor at the same time as it appears to be grossly inaccurate.
--Milton Leitenberg, Senior Research Scholar, Center for International and Security Studies, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
--George Smith, Senior Fellow, Globalsecurity.org, Alexandria, VA.
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