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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat

Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat - Cover

Authored by Milton Leitenberg.

December 2005

123 Pages

Brief Synopsis

It is nearly 15 years since biological weapons (BW) have become a significant national security preoccupation. This occurred primarily due to circumstances occurring within a short span of years. First was the official U.S. Government suggestion that proliferation of offensive BW programs among states and even terrorist groups was an increasing trend; second was the discovery, between 1989 and 1992, that the Union USSR had violated the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) since its ratification in 1975 by building a massive covert biological weapons program; third was the corroboration by the UN Special Commission in 1995 that Iraq had maintained a covert biological weapons program since 1974, and had produced and stockpiled large quantities of agents and delivery systems between 1988 and 1991; and, fourth was the discovery, also in 1995, that the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group, which had carried out the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, also had spent 4 years attempting—albeit unsuccessfully—to produce and disperse two pathogenic biological agents. The distribution of professionally prepared anthrax spores through the U.S. postal system in the weeks afterwards September 11, 2001, magnified previous concerns by orders of magnitude. In December 2002, after U.S. forces had overrun much of the territory of Afghanistan, it was discovered that the al-Qaida organization also had spent several years trying to obtain the knowledge and means to produce biological agents.

These new factors shifted the context in which BW was considered almost entirely to "bioterrorism." Within 4 years, almost $30 billion in federal expenditure was appropriated to counter the anticipated threat. This response took place in the absence of virtually any threat analysis. The purpose of this monograph is to begin to fill that gap.


This monograph is comprised of six substantive sections. An opening introductory section sets the global context in which the threat of “bioterrorism” should be placed. It briefly surveys other nonmilitary challenges to national and global security that the United States and other nations currently face, and will face in the coming decades. It does so, where possible, by including the mortality levels currently resulting from these factors, particularly natural disease agents, and the levels that can be projected for them. This provides a comparative framework within which bioterrorism can more properly be assessed.

The second section, using U.S. Government sources, surveys the evolution of offensive state biological weapons programs. This demonstrates that official estimates of the number of such programs have diminished by between one-fourth and one-third, from a peak of some 13 nations in mid-2001. What is known regarding any proliferation from these programs is also surveyed, as well as state assistance to nonstate actors.

The third section surveys the evolution of the efforts by nonstate actors—terrorist groups—to obtain, develop, and use biological agents. The survey covers the entire 20th century, and up to the present day, focusing on the last 25 years. The efforts by the two groups which involved the most serious attempts to produce biological agents, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group between 1990-94 and the al-Qaida organization in Afghanistan between 1997-98 and December 2001, are reviewed in detail. Using information provided by declassified documents, as well as information from other sources, this section provides as detailed an examination as is available of the BW efforts of the al-Qaida organization.

The Japanese Aum group did not succeed in obtaining virulent strains of pathogens, nor was it apparently capable of working successfully with the strains that it did have. The al-Qaida group also appears not to have been able to obtain pathogens, nor to have reached the stage of laboratory work by the time U.S. military forces occupied Afghanistan.

As the most significant examples available, these highlight all the more the unique character of the anthrax postal mailings in the fall of 2001 in the United States. The quality of the material that was distributed demonstrates the dangerous possibilities that could be achieved. However, until the perpetrator is identified, and unless it becomes possible to exclude any links with the U.S. biodefense program, it remains impossible to assess the relevance of this event as an indicator of what might be expected from international terrorist organizations.

The fourth section reviews the public portrayal of the BW threat by U.S. offi cials. It includes a review of offi cial and unofficial exercise scenarios that have been carried out in the past half-dozen years, as well as recommended planning scenarios proposed by U.S. Government agencies. It includes a very detailed examination of several of these scenarios. Many of the exercises are predicated on the repeated use of the aerosolized pathogens which produce plague and smallpox. These pathogens are not easy to obtain, and they are relatively diffi cult to work with. Producing aerosolized formulations of them is far beyond the current or near-term capabilities of any identifi ed international terrorist group.

The fifth and final section discusses the impact of the U.S. biodefense research program on the possible future development of biological weapons. A significant issue is the interaction of constraints and limitations imposed by the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention, an international treaty which the U.S. Government was instrumental in bringing about, and the greatly expanded U.S. biodefense research program already in progress and set out in planning documents for the near future. The current lack of departmental and government-wide oversight over these programs is noted.

The monograph ends with a brief section of conclusions, including policy recommendations.




PART I. Introduction

PART II. The Evolution of State Biological
Weapons Programs

PART III. Evolution of Nonstate Actor/Terrorist Biological Weapons Capabilities

PART IV. Framing “The Threat” and Setting the Agenda of Public Perception and Policy Prescription

PART V. Costs and Consequences of the U.S. Biodefense Program

PART VI. Conclusion


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