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U.S. Lays Out Plans to Address Biothreats

Daniel Horner

The Obama administration unveiled a revised U.S. strategy for dealing with biological weapons proliferation and terrorism Dec. 9, altering the Bush administration’s approach in some ways but keeping the focus on the threat from bioterrorism and reaffirming the decision not to pursue a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Some diplomats questioned the emphases of the U.S. approach and the casting of the decision on the verification protocol.

Details of the U.S. approach came in the 23-page “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats” and in remarks by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen O. Tauscher. She delivered the remarks during the annual meeting of parties to the BWC Dec. 7-11 in Geneva.

In summarizing the strategy, Tauscher said one key element was international cooperation “to combat infectious diseases regardless of their cause,” that is, whether they are “of natural, accidental or deliberate origin.”

She also said the United States would “work toward establishing and reinforcing norms against the misuse of the life sciences.” Another piece of the strategy is to “implement a coordinated approach to influence, identify, inhibit, and interdict those who seek to misuse scientific progress to harm innocent people,” she said.

When the Obama administration came into office, it conducted a review and found that the United States did not have in place a “comprehensive strategy to address gaps in our efforts to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons and scientific abuse,” Tauscher said. The strategy document emphasizes that nonproliferation efforts are not intended to interfere with legitimate uses of life sciences. “Consistent with [the BWC] and other obligations under domestic law and international agreements, we will seek to pursue policies and actions that promote the global availability of life science discoveries and technologies for peaceful purposes,” the document says.

Article 10 of the BWC establishes the right of all parties to “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes.” Article 3 bans any kind of assistance relating to “agents, toxins, weapons, equipment or means of delivery” that are part of a biological weapons program.

The Obama strategy document gives credit to the Bush administration for having “significantly expanded” programs to “recognize and respond to acts of bioterrorism or other outbreaks of infectious disease” since 2001, when, shortly after the September 11 attacks, anthrax-filled letters were delivered to congressional offices and media outlets. The document says, however, that work on preventing such threats “has received comparatively limited policy focus or substantive guidance at the National level” and needs to be increased, in particular by greater efforts to “reduce the likelihood that such an attack might occur.”

The strategy cites a range of methods for combating biological threats, including “technology watch” efforts that “provide cutting edge insight and analysis” by experts in the relevant scientific fields, export controls, and law enforcement.

In a Dec. 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a diplomat from a key country in the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) said the new strategy puts too much weight on “law enforcement and Article III,” considering that “the response to bioattacks (terrorism or otherwise) is based on good primary health care systems, which is more related to Article X.”

Varying Risk Assessments

In her remarks, Tauscher said that “while the United States remains concerned about state-sponsored biological warfare and proliferation, we are equally, if not more concerned, about an act of bioterrorism, due to the increased access to advances in the life sciences.”

Other diplomats, however, questioned that general emphasis, as well as the specific connection to advances in life sciences. In a Dec. 18 interview, a European diplomat said science developments since the mid-1990s deal primarily with activities and technologies that are feasible for governments but not for terrorist groups.

The NAM diplomat made a similar point, saying that “the concerns with regard to new scientific developments are not addressed at all and these developments will be relevant to state programmes in [the] future.”

In her Geneva remarks, Tauscher said the Obama administration wants to “reinvigorate” the BWC as “the premier forum for global outreach and coordination.”

The European diplomat responded skeptically to that statement. The actions that Tauscher listed to achieve that goal are, for the most part, “exactly what we are doing,” he said. Some of the proposed steps actually might undermine that goal, he added. For example, “engaging in more robust bilateral compliance discussions,” a step Tauscher mentioned, could be seen as “undermining the convention as the international platform,” he said.

Another element of the U.S. strategy is to build “new, broader coalitions of ‘like-minded’ BWC States Parties.”

Some of the language in the strategy document suggests possible reasons that the Obama administration feels the need to rely on subgroups of the BWC membership rather than on the membership as a whole. “[C]oncerns remain that some treaty partners may be developing biological weapons,” the document says. In the past, the United States has raised concerns about the compliance of China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, which are parties to the treaty, and Syria, which is not.

The strategy document also says that there is a “plurality of perspectives in the international community as to the severity of the risk and mitigative actions that nations should take” in response.

Verification Issues

Tauscher also told the annual meeting of BWC parties that the United States has “carefully reviewed previous efforts to develop a verification protocol and [has] determined that a legally binding protocol would not achieve meaningful verification or greater security.” Discussions on a verification protocol collapsed in 2001, in part because of the Bush administration’s strong opposition. (See ACT, September 2001.)

In announcing the decision, Tauscher said she hoped “this will not be a surprise to anyone” and cited the difficulties of verifying compliance. “The ease with which a biological weapons program could be disguised within legitimate activities and the rapid advances in biological research make it very difficult to detect violations. We believe that a protocol would not be able to keep pace with the rapidly changing nature of the biological weapons threat,” she said.

The European diplomat agreed that “there was no surprise on substance” in Tauscher’s statement on verification, but he said he thought the statement about the inability to keep pace was “not correct.” Since 2001, there have been no discussions on how scientific or other advances could help strengthen monitoring capabilities, he said.

He noted that the statement delivered at the December meeting by Sweden on behalf of the European Union recalled the EU commitment “to the development of measures to verify compliance with the Convention.” The EU’s “long-term position” is to put verification “back on the table,” although not necessarily in the form of a protocol, he said.

The NAM diplomat said he believed that “such an instrument is necessary” and that a protocol “would be able to pace with new developments in the same manner that the Convention is able to keep pace.” However, he said he did not think any “real steps will be taken towards any other legally binding instrument in the short term” because “the climate is not right for such a process.”