During a December 9 speech to the annual meeting of states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in
In effect, President Barack Obama has decided not to reverse the 2001 decision by the Bush administration to reject a draft BWC compliance protocol that had been developed over six years of multilateral negotiations from 1995 to 2001. The protocol would have created a legally binding inspection regime for the BWC, which still lacks formal verification measures.
Although a few arms control advocates had hoped for a different outcome, the Obama administration’s decision did not come as a major surprise. It had already been foreshadowed by the December 2008 report of the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former Senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), which concluded that “the U.S. decision in 2001 to withdraw from the BWC Protocol negotiations was fundamentally sound and that the next administration should reject any efforts to restart them.”
In lieu of a decision to return to the negotiating table, the Obama administration released a 23-page “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats,” which was distributed to the delegations in
The release of the national strategy document made clear that, in addition to the ambitious nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament agenda laid out in President Obama’s
The decision by the Obama administration not to revive the protocol negotiations and to develop an alternative set of measures for addressing biological threats is the latest development in the long history of efforts to bolster the BWC. This article reviews the background of the decision, assesses the main elements of the new national strategy, and provides some suggestions for the way forward.
The BWC, which was opened for signature in 1972 and entered into force in 1975, bans the development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of biological and toxin warfare agents, as well as delivery systems specifically designed for their dispersal. At present, the convention has 163 states-parties and 13 signatories; 19 countries have neither signed nor ratified it. Although the BWC serves as the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent biological weapons proliferation and terrorism, it is widely considered a weak instrument. When the treaty was negotiated in the early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the
Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the BWC, the
The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 led to a shift in the
As Kenneth D. Ward, who served as deputy head of the
Beyond the serious flaws in the negotiating mandate, the Ad Hoc Group struggled with the intractable nature of the biological weapons problem. Unlike chemical weapons, which must be produced and delivered in large quantities to have a significant military effect, the efficient dispersal of a few kilograms of a biological agent, such as the dried spores of the anthrax bacterium, over a troop concentration or a major city could sicken or kill many thousands of people. The limited quantities of biological agent required for a devastating attack could be produced with small-scale equipment, occupying perhaps only a single room, and nearly all such equipment is dual-use and available throughout the world. Advances in fermentation technology have also eliminated the need to stockpile biowarfare agents. Instead, a legitimate production facility, such as a vaccine plant, could be commandeered to grow seed cultures into militarily significant quantities of agent within a period of weeks. Given these technical realities, the detection of illicit biological weapons activities poses daunting challenges for any conceivable monitoring regime.
Faced with such challenges,
The struggle between the two contending approaches to the BWC protocol lasted from 1995 until 2000, when the
In March 2001, Ad Hoc Group Chairman Tibor Tóth introduced a proposed compromise text of the BWC protocol that was designed to bridge the remaining differences and launch the endgame of the negotiation. Although this tactic had worked effectively in the past for the CWC and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the response from states participating in the Ad Hoc Group was decidedly negative. At the next negotiating session,
In view of this situation, on July 25, 2001, the recently installed administration of President George W. Bush, which had inherited the draft protocol from its predecessor, rejected the chairman’s text and abruptly withdrew from the Ad Hoc Group, triggering the breakdown of the talks. Although the administration was widely criticized for this action, Ward contends that the flawed negotiating mandate had doomed the BWC protocol to failure. “Blaming the
A year and a half after the failure to conclude the compliance protocol, BWC member states agreed in December 2002 to launch an “intersessional work program” of annual meetings of experts and states-parties prior to the next scheduled review conference in 2006. At the insistence of the
Despite its modest objectives, the intersessional work program proved useful in a number of ways. It kept the attention of the international community focused on practical measures to implement and strengthen the BWC, gradually healed the bruised feelings caused by the Bush administration’s undiplomatic rejection of the draft protocol, and engaged a variety of civil society organizations in the BWC process, including national academies of science and the International Committee of the Red Cross. In recognition of these achievements, the 2006 BWC review conference renewed the intersessional work program for another four years, until the next review conference in 2011. Even so, many of the topics of the annual meetings are being discussed for the second time, and it is increasingly clear that the process is reaching the end of its useful life and will have to be replaced by a new and more ambitious approach.
Although the Ad Hoc Group has been inactive since August 2001, it continues to exist legally, as does its negotiating mandate. In late 2007,
A Multifaceted Approach
As an alternative to a formal BWC verification regime, the Obama administration has proposed a new national strategy to counter a broad array of biological threats, natural as well as deliberate. Interagency policy development was coordinated over a period of several months by members of the National Security Council staff, who held a series of consultative meetings with U.S. government officials as well as with outside scientists, academics, and nongovernmental organizations. Setting out broad principles, the strategy document does not delineate agency roles and missions or ask Congress for the additional resources needed to carry out the proposed activities. Indeed, the document states that “[t]he implementation of this Strategy, specific actions to be taken by Federal entities, and their specific measures of performance and effectiveness will be directed separately.”
The national strategy is designed to counter both state-run biological warfare programs and efforts by terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda to acquire biological weapons. For the
Whereas the Bush administration’s biosecurity policies focused on mitigating the consequences of a biological attack through a major investment in threat-assessment research, early-detection systems such as BioWatch, the development of medical countermeasures under Project BioShield, and other domestic preparedness measures, the Obama strategy places a far greater emphasis on prevention. A major thrust involves strengthening global infectious-disease surveillance by increasing the capacity of countries to detect outbreaks and rapidly contain them close to the source, thereby reducing their public health impact. According to the strategy document, this capability is “among the most effective ways to deter a deliberate attack and to minimize the consequences should an attack occur.”
In another notable departure from past policy, the Obama strategy addresses the full spectrum of biological risks, extending from natural outbreaks of infectious disease, through laboratory accidents, to intentional state or terrorist use of biological weapons. This effort to integrate public health concerns into national security planning represents a paradigm shift from the 1990s, when natural and deliberate outbreaks were addressed in separate forums. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) focused narrowly on the public health consequences of bioterrorism and shied away from the security dimensions for fear of becoming politically tainted.
Underlining the Obama administration’s holistic approach to biological threats, Tauscher announced that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will establish the first WHO collaborating center devoted to assisting developing countries to implement the 2005 revision of the International Health Regulations (IHR). These strengthened rules require all WHO member states to acquire by 2012 the capability to detect, report, and respond to outbreaks of infectious disease on their territories that have the potential to spread across international borders. The
Other elements of the Obama administration’s strategy to manage biological risks include securing collections of dangerous pathogens and toxins in partner countries and regions, establishing and reinforcing norms against the misuse of the life sciences for harmful purposes, and restricting access to “dual-use information of concern” derived from legitimate biomedical research. According to Tauscher, the strategy “strikes a balance between supporting scientific progress and curbing and stopping the potential for abuse.” On November 27, for example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published in the Federal Register a set of draft biosecurity guidelines for the gene-synthesis industry. These voluntary guidelines for screening customers and DNA sequence orders are designed to prevent states or terrorist groups from ordering genetic material coding for dangerous pathogens and toxins over the Internet. At the same time, the guidelines avoid imposing burdensome regulations that could impede legitimate scientific research or handicap
Although none of the individual elements in the Obama administration’s strategy are new, taken together they provide a comprehensive and coherent approach to countering biological threats.
Strengthening the BWC
The portion of the
The administration’s approach to addressing allegations of noncompliance with the BWC also seems inadequate. According to the most recent Department of State arms control compliance report, published in 2005, four BWC member states—China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia—have violated their treaty commitments. Tauscher’s speech called for “pursuing compliance diplomacy to address concerns.” It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of this measure, which is normally carried out through confidential diplomatic channels. However, the experience with the U.S.-British-Russian Trilateral Agreement of 1992, under which
Another shortcoming of the Obama strategy document is that it does not directly address the “institutional deficit” of the BWC. Whereas the CWC has a highly effective implementing body in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the BWC lacks even a small professional secretariat. Although the 2006 review conference established an Implementation Support Unit consisting of three people at the UN Office in
With respect to the intersessional process, Tauscher called for the development of a “reinvigorated, comprehensive work program” for the five-year period following the 2011 review conference, including “a rigorous, comprehensive program of cooperation, information exchange, and coordination.” Topics that she suggested might be addressed during the next cycle of annual meetings include revising the CBM data-declaration forms to improve their effectiveness and working to achieve universal adherence to the BWC, which, with 163 states-parties, lags far behind the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (189 parties) and the CWC (188 parties). Tauscher also proposed making the BWC “the premier forum for discussion of the full range of biological threats—including bioterrorism—and mutually agreeable steps states can take for risk management.” For example, she announced that the FBI and the CDC have developed best practices for the conduct of joint criminal and epidemiological investigations of suspected biological incidents, to be presented at the BWC experts meeting in August 2010. The
Overall, the specific measures in the Obama strategy that are designed to address BWC compliance concerns—voluntary measures to increase transparency, revised forms for CBM data exchanges, bilateral compliance diplomacy, and a revamped intersessional work program—appear too weak to make much of a difference. Bolder, more meaningful transparency measures are clearly needed.
A Way Forward
To its credit, the Obama administration’s new strategy recognizes the threat posed by biological weapons in the hands of state and nonstate actors and lays out a comprehensive and cooperative approach for countering the full spectrum of biological risks. Yet despite the existence of the strategy document, it remains to be seen if the administration will give the biological weapons threat the priority it deserves and whether, in a budget-constrained environment, Congress will allocate sufficient funds for the measures needed to implement the strategy effectively. Such measures would include a global pathogen surveillance bill and assistance to developing countries for IHR implementation.
Having paid lip service to the biological threat, will the Obama administration now take concrete action or will it resume the exclusive focus on the nuclear weapons agenda that characterized its first year in office? How will the White House choose to balance the greater likelihood of biological terrorism against the greater devastation of nuclear terrorism?
A key step forward would be a “Prague II” speech by the president that underlines the salience of the biological weapons threat and the recognition that major outbreaks of infectious disease, whether natural or deliberate, endanger
With respect to strengthening the BWC, the Obama administration’s reluctance to return to the protocol is understandable, given that the flawed negotiating mandate still exists and the spread of dual-use biotechnological capabilities around the globe has exacerbated the difficulty of distinguishing illicit from legitimate biological activities. Nevertheless, the recognition that traditional verification is unrealistic in the biological weapons context is not an excuse for inaction. To move beyond the legacy of the failed protocol, the administration must think seriously about building confidence in BWC compliance through meaningful transparency measures.
The goal of
In addition to devising a BWC transparency regime that includes a procedure for conducting site visits under Article 5 to address compliance concerns, it would be desirable for the member states to strengthen the existing mechanism under which the UN Secretary-General can launch field investigations of the alleged use of biological weapons and suspicious outbreaks of disease. Another possible area for international cooperation would involve increasing the capability of BWC member states to investigate incidents of bioterrorism by employing the new discipline of microbial forensics. Recent advances in this field, spurred by the FBI’s seven-year investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, have led to the development of highly sensitive and specific assays that can determine the genetic, chemical, and physical properties of a pathogen or toxin agent used in a biological attack and assist in the process of attribution, or identifying those responsible. Under the auspices of the BWC, member states might collaborate in developing strain collections and sharing microbial forensic techniques so that in the event of a bioterrorist incident, it is possible to trace the agent back to the source and, ideally, finger the perpetrators. In addition, because sampling and analysis would play a key role in any UN field investigation of alleged biological weapons use, the
The BWC’s preamble declares that the states-parties “are determined… to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons, [and] convinced that such use would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind and that no effort should be spared to minimize this risk.” Although the new strategy to counter biological threats is an important first step, it remains to be seen if the Obama administration and the Congress are prepared to follow through by taking the concrete actions needed to achieve biosecurity without verification.
Jonathan B. Tucker is a senior fellow specializing in biological and chemical weapons at the
1. Ellen O. Tauscher, Address to the annual meeting of the states parties to the Biological Weapons Convention,
2. Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, “World at Risk,” December 2008, p. 41, www.preventwmd.gov/report/.
4. Article 5 provides that member states “undertake to consult one another and to cooperate in solving any problems which may arise in relation to the objective of, or in the application of the provisions of, the Convention. Consultation and cooperation pursuant to this article may also be undertaken through appropriate international procedures within the framework of the United Nations and in accordance with its Charter.” Article 6 provides that “any State Party to this Convention which finds that any other State Party is acting in breach of obligations deriving from the provisions of the Convention may lodge a complaint with the Security Council of the United Nations. Such a complaint should include all possible evidence confirming its validity, as well as a request for its consideration by the Security Council. . . . The Security Council shall inform the States Parties to the Convention of the results of the investigation.”
7. See the analyses in Arms Control Today, May 2001, pp. 14-27, www.armscontrol.org/epublish/1/v31n4.
10. National Security Council (NSC), National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, November 2009, p. 5, www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/National_Strategy_for_Countering_BioThreats.pdf.
11. Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas, “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology,” The New Atlantis, No. 12 (Spring 2006), pp. 25-45, www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/12/tuckerzilinskas.htm.
15. Office of the Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services, “Screening Framework Guidance for Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA Providers,” Federal Register, Vol. 74, No. 227 (November 27, 2009), pp. 62319-62327.
18. Jonathan B. Tucker, “Biological Threat Assessment: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?” Arms Control Today, October 2004, pp. 13-19, www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_10/Tucker.asp.
19. David C. Kelly, “The Trilateral Agreement: Lessons for Biological Weapons Verification,” in Trevor Findlay and
23. Jonathan B. Tucker, “Multilateral Approaches to the Investigation and Attribution of Biological Weapons Use,” in Anne L. Clunan, Peter R. Lavoy, and Susan B. Martin, eds., Terrorism, War, or Disease?: Unraveling the Use of Biological Weapons (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 269-292.