Chemical and Biological Weapons: Prospects and Priorities after September 11

Before the terrorist assaults of September 11 and the anthrax letter attacks that followed, U.S. officials often drew a distinction between the threat posed by national chemical and biological weapons programs and the threat posed by terrorists using chemical and biological weapons. The two threats were seen as separate problems, requiring separate solutions. In the intervening months, however, it has become clear that the two proliferation problems are closely linked, in that assistance from national programs is likely to be critical to terrorist efforts to acquire and use chemical or biological weapons successfully, particularly on a large scale. This underscores the urgency of pursuing nonproliferation measures that delegitimize such weapons and complicate the efforts of both nations and terrorist organizations to acquire them.

Redefining the Threat

According to U.S. government officials, about a dozen countries are believed to have chemical weapons programs and at least 13 are said to be pursuing biological weapons. These national programs pose a direct threat to U.S. military forces and to friends and allies in the two regions where proliferation has been most widespread—Northeast Asia and the Middle East. They also pose an indirect threat as a possible source of chemical and biological weapons expertise or materials to other national or terrorist programs.

In recent months, both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have called attention to the nexus between proliferation and terrorism, warning that countries that seek weapons of mass destruction and support international terrorism may assist terrorists in getting chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. This emphasis is on the mark. And it is borne out by last fall’s anthrax attacks, which killed five people and injured some 17 others. As of May, the perpetrator of these attacks had not yet been apprehended. But the nature and quality of the anthrax—highly virulent and weapons-grade—contained in the letters sent to selected media outlets and members of Congress indicate it almost certainly originated in the U.S. biological defense program.

As the General Accounting Office concluded in a 1999 study, terrorists who lack assistance from a national program face daunting technical and operational hurdles in weaponizing and delivering chemical or biological weapons, especially on a large scale. During the early 1990s the Aum Shinrikyo’s attempts at mass terror in Japan through chemical and biological weapons had only limited success despite $1 billion in assets and access to university-trained scientists. In April 1995, the doomsday cult released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway at the height of the morning rush hour, but killed only 12 people and injured 1,000. Nine other attacks using biological agents, including anthrax and botulinum toxin, failed to produce even a single casualty.

Absent assistance from a national chemical or biological weapons program, most terrorists are likely to continue to rely on lower-tech methods of attack involving industrial chemicals or common poisons. As a report to Congress by the Central Intelligence Agency last January made clear, terrorist groups are “most interested in chemicals such as cyanide salts to contaminate food and water supplies or to assassinate individuals.” Such groups also have “expressed interest in many other toxic industrial chemicals . . . and traditional chemical agents, including chlorine and phosgene,” which are widely used in industry. Biological materials are of less interest, the report said, except for “small-scale poisonings or assassinations.” The best-known instance of low-tech biological terrorism was the 1984 effort by the Rajneeshee cult to influence the outcome of a local election in Oregon by contaminating salad bars with salmonella. No one was killed, although 750 people were injured.

One cannot rule out the possibility that terrorists will obtain chemical or biological weapons on their own. CIA Director George Tenet has warned that al Qaeda has tried to acquire some of the most dangerous chemical agents and toxins and that documents recovered from al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan show that Osama bin Laden has pursued a sophisticated biological weapons research program. This past March, U.S. military officials confirmed the discovery of a laboratory, believed to be intended to produce anthrax and other biological agents, under construction near Kandahar, although there is no evidence that al Qaeda ever produced such agents. As with other terrorist groups who have attempted chemical or biological attacks, U.S. intelligence officials reportedly believe that al Qaeda would need help from foreign experts or governments to mount an effective weapon-of-mass-destruction program.

Focusing on Prevention

Since September 11, the Bush administration has responded to concerns about the use of chemical or biological weapons against the United States with a variety of proposals to defend against and manage the consequences of such attacks. The administration has asked for $4.5 billion in new bioterrorism funds for fiscal year 2003 alone to strengthen state and local health systems, increase the national pharmaceutical stockpile, improve coordination among federal, state, and local agencies in an attack, and develop new vaccines, medicines, and diagnostic tests.

The dangers posed by national chemical and biological weapons programs, however, require a response based on more than just defense. New prevention efforts also are needed—to reinforce the international norm against chemical and biological weapons and to impede the acquisition of such weapons by those who would use them. Such a strategy should include: strengthening treaties that outlaw chemical and biological weapons, tightening international controls over chemical and biological materials, expanding nonproliferation efforts in the former Soviet Union, and criminalizing chemical and biological weapons activities by individuals.

Strengthening Existing Treaties

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, the cornerstone of the chemical weapons nonproliferation regime, requires parties to eliminate all stocks of chemical weapons and permit international monitoring of both government and commercial facilities to verify compliance. In force for only five years, the treaty has already made progress toward reducing the threat from national chemical weapons programs. Nine of the countries previously identified by the United States as chemical weapons proliferation concerns—Russia, China, Iran, Ethiopia, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Sudan, and Vietnam—have become parties to the convention. Two countries that had not acknowledged possessing chemical weapons, South Korea and India, have now declared stockpiles, and 11 countries, including Russia, China, Iran, South Korea, and India, have declared current or past production facilities.

But numbers tell only part of the story. The Chemical Weapons Convention also faces several critical challenges. Of most immediate concern is the crisis in its implementing body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). This past April, the United States succeeded in removing the director general from office, accusing him of mismanaging finances and proposing ill-considered initiatives related to the war on terrorism. Other concerns focus more squarely on the integrity of the treaty itself—particularly whether some parties have made inaccurate declarations or are continuing offensive activities. Russia, Iran, China, India, Pakistan, and Sudan have all been identified by the United States as having not divulged the full extent of their chemical weapons programs.

Both the management problems and the concerns about treaty noncompliance must be addressed. For its part, the United States must acknowledge that much of the OPCW’s budget problem is a consequence of the nominal-growth budget imposed on it by the United States and other major funders. Delays in payment (and nonpayment) of annual assessments and inspection costs by many of these same countries have exacerbated the budget problem, ultimately resulting in major cuts in planned verification activities. The United States should work with the OPCW and other parties to ensure adequate funds for carrying out all necessary verification activities. The United States also should be prepared to use challenge inspections to address serious compliance concerns, especially in countries where bilateral consultations have been unsuccessful or are not appropriate.

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was widely viewed as a milestone in the history of arms control, because it was the first international treaty to outlaw an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The treaty, however, included no provisions for enforcing compliance. At the time, little was known about other countries’ biological weapons programs.

Based on defectors’ reports and other information, we now know that the Soviet Union breached the treaty from the outset. During the early 1970s, it launched a massive effort to supplement its existing work on biological weapons at military facilities with research and development at civilian facilities managed by an organization known as Biopreparat. Three other countries—North Korea, Egypt, and probably Israel—also had biological weapons programs at the time the treaty was concluded. Iraq began its program in the mid-1970s, South Africa in 1981. By the late 1980s, China, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Taiwan had been publicly identified by the United States as also having biological weapons programs. Except for Israel, all were either signatories or parties to the treaty.

In 1994, with the support of the United States, an Ad Hoc Group was established to develop new measures, including a legally binding protocol, to strengthen the convention. In July 2001, the Bush administration announced that it opposed not only the draft protocol introduced the previous April but also any subsequent protocol effort. The administration argued that such an approach was both too weak and too strong—too weak to catch cheaters, too strong to avoid putting at risk U.S. biological defense or trade secrets. At the treaty’s five-year review conference in November 2001, the United States emphasized the need to develop more effective ways to deal with noncompliance, but the proposals it put forward focused largely on voluntary, national efforts. On the last day of the conference, the United States stunned and angered its allies by trying to force through a decision to disband the Ad Hoc Group and terminate its mandate. Desperate to avoid a complete collapse of this meeting aimed at bolstering the convention, parties agreed to suspend work until November 2002, having done nothing about the noncompliance problem.

Ironically, the Bush administration’s determination to kill both the biological weapons protocol and the Ad Hoc Group has prevented even its own proposals from being considered by the international community. At the meeting this coming November, Washington should abandon its opposition to multilateral discussions and agree on a way to explore both U.S. and other national proposals for strengthening the treaty. Pending international agreement on legally binding enforcement measures, the United States should support a recent British proposal to expand the UN secretary general’s authority to investigate allegations of the use of chemical and biological weapons to include suspected development, production, or possession of biological weapons.

Tightening Controls on Chemical and Biological Materials

Following Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian military forces and its own Kurdish population during the Iran-Iraq War, the United States and other Western countries imposed export controls on equipment and materials that could be used to make chemical, and subsequently biological, weapons. Today, 33 countries make up the so-called Australia Group, an informal body that seeks to harmonize national export controls over chemical and biological-related exports. The Australia Group’s success has led proliferators to turn increasingly to other suppliers, particularly companies in India, Pakistan, and China, for equipment and materials.

Since 1997 the United States has also required facilities that send or receive particularly dangerous biological materials—the 36 microbes and toxins on the Select Agent List—to register with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and to report all domestic transfers of select agents. As the anthrax incidents last fall have shown, however, U.S. facilities that sent or received select agents before 1997, or that simply possess them, are not subject to the reporting requirement. Moreover, most of the more than 1,500 culture collections worldwide make biological cultures available to researchers with few restrictions or controls.

Last October Congress tightened domestic controls over access to biological materials by passing legislation prohibiting felons, illegal aliens, people from terrorist countries, and other restricted individuals from possessing or transferring items on the Select Agent List. Other curbs on biological agents, including a requirement that facilities that possess select agents register with the CDC, were enacted into law in late May.

The United States should capitalize on new relationships it has forged with New Delhi, Islamabad, and Beijing since September 11 to shut down the alternative suppliers that have emerged in the wake of the Australia Group’s success. The United States should also take advantage of the heightened international concern about biological weapons to secure tighter international controls on culture collections and other repositories of biological materials and to strengthen oversight of laboratories to prevent deliberate or inadvertent use of biotechnology for destructive purposes.

Expanding Nonproliferation Efforts in the Former Soviet Union

Since the early 1990s, the United States has used a variety of nonproliferation assistance programs to ensure that former Soviet chemical and biological weapon scientists, equipment, and materials do not contribute to foreign chemical and biological weapons efforts. Under these programs, the United States is helping design and build Russia’s first nerve gas destruction facility, at Shchuch’ye, and dismantle or convert to peaceful purposes former chemical weapons production facilities at Volgograd, Russia, and Nukus, Uzbekistan. The world’s largest anthrax production facility, at Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, has been dismantled, and thousands of former biological weapons scientists have received funding for collaborative research with U.S. scientists on both public health and biodefense-related projects. Security has also been tightened at culture collections around the former Soviet Union. But much more remains to be done.

Russia has already informed the OPCW that it cannot meet its April 2007 deadline for destroying its chemical weapons stockpile. If Russia is to have a chance at meeting the April 2012 extension deadline, work at the Shchuch’ye facility will need to be accelerated and expanded. Efforts also should be undertaken to dismantle or convert other chemical and biological weapons production facilities, expand collaborative research on global diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, broaden collaborative work on vaccines and other medical countermeasures to biological weapons, facilitate commercialization activities at former biological weapons facilities, and strengthen security at culture collections and other sites that maintain biological materials. The task will not be cheap—upwards of $1 billion in additional funds will be required over the next five years. But keeping critical elements of the former Soviet programs from facilitating national or terrorist chemical or biological weapons efforts is essential.

Criminalizing Chemical and Biological Weapons Activities

Although both the chemical and the biological weapons conventions require parties to prohibit on their territory any activities that are banned under the treaty, both conventions focus principally on the actions of states, not individuals. And neither requires parties to establish criminal jurisdiction over foreign nationals on their territory who have engaged in prohibited activities elsewhere or to conclude extradition arrangements.

To help fill this gap, the Harvard Sussex Program has drafted a treaty making it a crime under international law for anyone knowingly to acquire or use chemical or biological weapons or to help others do so. At the end of April, the British government endorsed the negotiation of such a treaty. As provided by treaties on aircraft hijackings, hostage taking, and the theft of nuclear materials, anyone committing a prohibited act would be subject to prosecution or extradition if apprehended on the territory of a party to the treaty. The United States should work with the UK to press for an international convention criminalizing chemical and biological weapons activities by individuals.

If Prevention Fails

Prevention may not always work, particularly if the party in question has already shown a willingness to use chemical or biological weapons or no longer requires outside assistance. Under such circumstances, the United States should be prepared to use force to degrade chemical or biological weapons programs that pose a direct threat to its national security interests. Iraq, of course, is the most obvious case in point, given its use of chemical weapons in the 1980s and the near-certainty that it has reassembled key parts of its chemical and biological weapons programs since UN inspectors left in December 1998.

Washington must meet several criteria, however, before taking this path. First, it should exhaust all reasonable diplomatic efforts, particularly those outlined in international treaties or UN resolutions. Second, it should have solid evidence about both the nature and the location of the weapons activities. Third, it must be reasonably sure that military force will achieve the desired result. Finally, it must keep collateral damage to a minimum to avoid exposing others to the very weapons its use of force is designed to suppress.

Used judiciously, military force, like other defense efforts, can help reduce the threat from national and terrorist chemical and biological weapons programs. But as outlined above, prevention efforts also have a critical role to play, both in delegitimizing chemical and biological weapons and in impeding the acquisition of such capabilities in the first place.