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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
International Reaction to Secret U.S. Bio-Weapons Research Muted

Seth Brugger

Recent revelations regarding secret U.S. biological weapons research have met with little international reaction despite concerns over whether the programs violate U.S. commitments under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

The disclosures, which were first reported in the September 4 New York Times, detailed U.S. development of a biological-agent production facility and a model biological bomb, as well as plans to produce a new strain of anthrax. The BWC outlaws development and possession of biological agents and weapons for offensive purposes but permits defensive activity.

The reports came just weeks after the United States rejected an internationally negotiated enforcement protocol intended to strengthen the BWC, instead saying that it would present alternative proposals for increasing compliance with the treaty. (See ACT, September 2001.)

European states, which have staunchly supported the protocol, have remained silent about the reports. According to a European official, the European Union has not yet officially discussed the recent disclosures.

But another European official said that many Europeans are concerned about the revelations, which the official said are “going to make it much easier for others to claim that work they are doing is legitimate biodefense work.”

The official added, “If the U.S. administration had seen such work underway in other countries, then it would be the first to point the finger that this is questionable. And what this does is makes the gray areas grayer still between offense and defense, and that doesn’t help.” The official said that Western governments would bring up this point privately despite assurances from Washington that its programs are “legitimate and permitted under the convention.”

The official also said that the disclosures could make it difficult for the United States to sell its promised proposals on how to move beyond the protocol process at an upcoming BWC review conference, scheduled to begin in November. However, the September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington could decrease criticism of U.S. proposals, the official said.

According to The New York Times report, the United States embarked on an effort to develop a modified anthrax strain after it learned of a reported Russian effort to develop the anthrax but failed to subsequently obtain the strain from Moscow. At a September 4 briefing, Defense Department spokesperson Victoria Clarke said that the U.S. request for the anthrax is still pending a decision by Russia’s Export Control Commission.

Clarke also said the Defense Department plans to use the anthrax strain to test it against U.S. anthrax vaccine. She said that the department has not yet produced the strain and that it does not plan to begin work until interagency consultations, legal reviews, and congressional briefings are concluded. Clarke added that the reviews completed so far indicate that the work would be BWC compliant.

In another project, the Defense Department built a biological-agent production facility in Nevada using commercially available parts, reportedly to demonstrate how easy it would be for others to construct such a plant. The project also apparently aimed to assess whether small production facilities produce “signatures” that could be used for identification purposes. Clarke said that the Nevada plant produced only simulated biological agents, which are benign.

In a third program, the CIA reportedly built and tested a model of a Soviet-designed biological bomb to see how well it dispersed agents. The agency had feared the bomb was for sale on the international market and decided to build its own model after efforts to obtain the bomb on the market failed. The model did not have a fuse or other weapons-related parts that would make it an operational bomb, intelligence officials told The New York Times.

When asked whether maintaining the confidentiality of the U.S. programs was related to the United States’ rejection of the draft protocol, Clarke said, “Absolutely not.” She maintained, “The protocol has lots of problems recognized by lots of people other than us. Foremost among them, it would make it very hard to do biodefense.”

At a September 4 briefing, White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer argued that the U.S. “defense” effort is “fully in accordance with the Biological Weapons Convention.” To this, Clarke added, “All of the work is thoroughly briefed and gone through a heavy consultation process, both interagency and the appropriate legal reviews and the appropriate congressional briefings.”

Mary Elizabeth Hoinkes, former general counsel of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, disputed this reading of the BWC, telling The New York Times September 5 that it is a “gross misrepresentation” that “risks doing serious violence” to the convention.

Ambassador James Leonard, head of the U.S. delegation to the BWC negotiations, said that, even if the U.S. activities were illegal, it would not have much of an impact on the course of events. “Marginal violations of a treaty, where it’s arguable whether it has been violated, don’t really become big issues unless they are picked up by some party for rather extraneous reasons,” Leonard said.