Accelerating Threat, Stalled Strategy: A Call to Action on Biological Weapons
Four years ago, President-elect Barack Obama told the country that “conventional thinking has failed to keep up with new nuclear, chemical, and biological threats.” Upon taking office, he immediately began working toward ambitious nuclear disarmament goals, making his first major foreign address a vow to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Speaking before a packed public square in Prague, Obama told the world that “there is no end to what the consequences might be—for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.… One terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction.” His words were clear, his argument was compelling, and his administration’s actions since then have been consistent.
The past four years have been markedly different with regard to efforts to address the risks from biological weapons. Although it occasionally has repeated the rhetoric acknowledging the severity of the threat, the Obama administration has not shown the same willingness to counter it aggressively. Since entering office, Obama has personally remained quiet on the subject of biological weapons. In a pattern that has repeated itself across Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the issue has been entirely eclipsed by the focus on nuclear proliferation. Although a number of structural and cultural factors keep it just below the radar of the country’s top policymakers, there are urgent reasons why the second Obama administration should reconsider the current course and pursue a proactive approach to countering the threat of biological weapons.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama spoke clearly and forcefully about the need to address biological weapons. “Just as we must guard against the spread of nuclear terrorism, it’s time for a comprehensive effort” to address bioterrorism he told voters in July 2008. “And we know that the successful deployment of a biological weapon—whether it is sprayed into our cities or spread through our food supply—could kill tens of thousands of Americans and deal a crushing blow to our economy.”
As the science and technical components behind biological weapons become ever more accessible to states, groups, and even individuals, it is crucial to have a strategy that keeps pace with the evolving risk. Experts, including current and former Obama administration officials, have sounded alarms that biological weapons pose a serious threat to the country, perhaps even greater than the one from nuclear weapons.
In light of these concerns, U.S. strategy should move beyond responsive policymaking to become forward-thinking and clearly directed from the top. Encouragingly, the Obama administration has shown a willingness to lead on major issues, even when that means going against history. The Prague speech was a dramatic and inspiring departure from the nuclear status quo. Obama now must find the motivation and demonstrate the leadership to tackle the threat from biological weapons similarly and to advance bold ideas into the global debate about the risks these weapons pose.
Reinforcing the stakes that Obama recognized when running for office, the National Security Council issued its strategy document on biological weapons in November 2009, the first national strategy document to come out of the Obama administration. It starkly characterizes the impact of an attack on the United States.
The effective dissemination of a lethal biological agent within an unprotected population could place at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The unmitigated consequences of such an event could overwhelm our public health capabilities, potentially causing an untold number of deaths. The economic cost could exceed one trillion dollars for each such incident. In addition, there could be significant societal and political consequences that would derive from the incident’s direct impact on our way of life and the public’s trust in government.
Given these risks, the strategy document explicitly declares that “we must reduce the risk that misuse of the life sciences could result in the deliberate or inadvertent release of biological material in a manner that sickens or kills people, animals, or plants, or renders unusable critical resources.” It outlines a threefold prevention-based approach for minimizing the threats posed by natural and manmade biological agents: improve global access to the life sciences to combat infectious disease regardless of its cause, establish and reinforce norms against the misuse of the life sciences, and institute a suite of coordinated activities that collectively will help identify, inhibit, or interdict those who seek to misuse the life sciences.
The strategy was unveiled with no fanfare nearly a full year into Obama’s term by an undersecretary speaking to a roomful of diplomats in a nondescript conference room in Geneva, a sharp contrast to the administration’s nuclear vision and strategy unveiled on the world stage before tens of thousands in Prague just 75 days into his administration. That difference, although seemingly superficial, speaks volumes about the administration’s efforts to counter biological threats, efforts that, time and again, have fallen short of addressing the danger at hand.
A key part of the strategy is its call for “detailed guidelines” to manage the risks involved in publicizing or otherwise sharing “dual-use information of concern.” The need for such guidelines and the failure thus far to develop them became apparent last winter as the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity struggled with whether the publication of two prominent studies on the H5N1 virus, both funded by the National Institutes of Health, would result in the dissemination of potentially dangerous information on how to increase the virus’ potential transmissibility. Last December, the advisory board at first recommended that Science and Nature, the journals that were to publish the studies, censor portions on the methods used to modify the virus to enhance transmissibility. This March, however, the board reversed itself and supported publishing the studies without modification.
The confusion, compounded by the fact that these studies had had government support and funding from their start, highlighted the fact that “almost at every step the system isn’t working very well for these projects,” according to one expert. “The most pressing question,” according to Nature’s in-depth report on the decision, “is why the research wasn’t flagged up earlier for scrutiny. The answer: the policy simply wasn’t in place.”
The episode reflects a persistent criticism of the strategy—that its key elements, including fostering risk awareness among the scientific community, “are conceptually flawed or too weak to make much of a difference,” according to the late biological arms control expert Jonathan Tucker. Senators Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the chairman of a 2008 panel on weapons of mass destruction, add support to Tucker’s claim. The two led a separate bipartisan review of U.S. biodefense measures that, in October 2011, found that regardless of what documents are coming out of the White House, the policies being effectively implemented are few and far between.
The Obama administration is hardly the first to be stymied by the risks posed by biological weapons. Since 1969, when the United States first struck out in an attempt to end the development and use of these weapons, one administration after another has floundered in the face of the unique policy challenges that they pose for arms control regimes. That year, President Richard Nixon unilaterally renounced biological weapons and terminated the country’s offensive biological warfare program.
His strategy had three elements: deter the use of biological weapons with nuclear weapons, commit to a global ban on the weapons, and develop robust biodefenses to hedge against the risk of noncompliance and surprise. In a telling sign, the third element was never implemented. The ban would never include verification provisions, turning Nixon’s bold new framework into little more than a nuclear umbrella and a treaty with no teeth.
Three years later, the international community agreed to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the first arms control treaty to ban an entire class of weapons. Despite the Cold War, the world’s superpowers agreed to ban the production and development of biological weapons while preserving the right to pursue biodefenses. The treaty, first heralded for its vision, was quickly mired in practical realities: When the same technologies can be used in peaceful life science research and in biological weapons development (the dual-use dilemma), how can the international community differentiate between the two in order to uphold the BWC? Lacking any organizational capacity supporting the treaty, much less any enforcement mechanism, how can the BWC detect violations and verify compliance?
With these questions lingering over the single biggest step forward in efforts to counter the spread and use of biological weapons, progress quickly stalled. Interest within the U.S. policy community diminished as well, as other security crises came to eclipse the importance of these weapons over the next several decades.
Throughout the 1990s, occasional developments sparked renewed interest in biological weapons: the recognition that the Soviet Union (before its dissolution), Iraq (before the 1991 Persian Gulf War), and various radical terrorist and apocalyptic organizations had developed or expressed interest in acquiring a biological weapons capability. Once the initial shock of those events faded, however, so too did the impetus to counter the threat. Meanwhile, the means to develop biological weapons have become more widely available. In 1969, biological weapons were limited to superpowers; by the late 1980s, any state could potentially acquire them; and since the late 1990s, terrorist groups and individual extremists have made attempts to obtain them.
The October 2001 anthrax attacks, which appear to be the work of a single scientist, mark the latest event to spur lawmakers and strategists into action. Coming so soon after the September 11 attacks, the anthrax incidents prompted a slew of presidential directives, studies, and legislation meant to bring U.S. biological weapons policy into the 21st century, largely through greater preparedness and response capabilities.
Interestingly, even as Congress has been perceived as increasingly polarized in the post-September 11 era, measures to improve biodefense and biosecurity have remained above the partisan fray, with some of the most important pieces of legislation enjoying broad bipartisan support in the House and Senate. In 2006, for example, Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) came together to co-sponsor the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which established a policy to develop medical countermeasures and boost the Department of Health and Human Services’ emergency response capabilities. Even during the harsh partisan fights today, the House and Senate have passed their own versions of the reauthorization of that legislation and are negotiating to resolve differences between the two versions.
A Stalled Treaty
In December 2009, when U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher announced the administration’s biological weapons strategy in Geneva, she put particular emphasis on the BWC, which she said was “the premier forum for dealing with biological threats” and the very basis of the administration’s strategy. She told her audience that the United States wanted to “reinvigorate” the BWC, and the treaty’s 2011 review conference—a once-every-five-years session where states evaluate treaty compliance in the preceding five years, assess ways to improve implementation, and respond to changes in the fields of biological and life sciences—offered an opportunity to do just that.
The conference was billed beforehand as a turning point in determining how to address some of the longest-lasting issues hampering the BWC’s implementation, namely, how to effectively monitor and verify compliance with the treaty. Given the challenge at hand, Tucker argued that, “to a considerable extent,” the review conference’s success would “depend on constructive leadership from the United States after several years of paralysis and drift.”
The United States sent a strong signal to the international community by sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first secretary of state to attend a BWC review conference. The Obama administration’s support of the conference was, for participants, a welcome departure from the Bush administration’s perceived antagonistic approach to its first review conference. At that 2001 conference, the administration withdrew its support for an elaborate compliance protocol, leaving the direction for future negotiations uncertain.
In spite of its welcome gestures and Clinton’s presence, the United States fell short of offering a new vision for how the BWC could remain relevant or become more effective in the 21st century. While calling for “bolster[ing] international confidence that all countries are living up to [their] obligations” under the BWC, Clinton told the conference that “it is not possible, in our opinion, to create a verification regime that will achieve this goal.” Instead, she called for new reporting requirements, more transparency, and more dialogue.
Although the Obama administration is correct in assessing the practical limitations of any potential BWC verification protocol, Clinton’s recommendations are hardly enough to fill the gap left by taking verification off the table. Ultimately, the strategy the United States laid out offered little hope and no substance for moving the global biological weapons agenda forward in a way that addresses the hurdles that have limited its progress in the past, even as key officials continue to laud the BWC for the role it plays in sustaining the nonproliferation norm.
For any number of reasons, international and domestic efforts to address the risk from biological weapons have stagnated since the boom days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those reasons help explain why, even as the Obama administration is able to pursue a paradigm-shifting nuclear strategy, its biological weapons strategy remains stalled.
Although the overlap between the technologies and materials used in nuclear power and weapons development can stymie experts, this issue of dual use is even greater for biological weapons. Unlike nuclear weapons, which can be made from only a very limited number of elements, there are dozens of potential biological weapons agents that are ubiquitous in nature. Additionally, processes to cultivate pathogens for malicious purposes are significantly cheaper and require less time and effort than nuclear weapons production, and they largely mirror the processes used to manufacture beneficial vaccines and medicines. Countries cannot simply “lock up” pathogens as they can in the case of special nuclear materials. Moreover, biological weapons development does not produce the telltale signatures that are critical for monitoring nuclear developments.
Further, new scientific discoveries and technologies are creating a new discipline in the life sciences: synthetic biology. As this field becomes more mature and available, there is an increasing risk that new or novel pathogens may be created that could circumvent traditional medical preventive approaches or treatment.
The UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) demonstrated how difficult it can be for even the most well-informed, technologically able inspectors to verify the true intent behind dual-use technologies. UNSCOM was “the most intrusive arms control regime ever devised,” but its inspectors were still limited in what they were able to learn about Iraq’s biological weapons activities. In a notable example, the testimony of Hussein Kamel, one of Saddam’s sons-in-law who defected, was required before UNSCOM had confirmation that a particular facility had been built solely for the purpose of producing biological weapons, even though inspectors had visited the site numerous times.
These critical differences between nuclear and biological weapons underscore the importance of having trained, knowledgeable biodefense experts as part of any comprehensive policy effort. Yet, nuclear weapons specialists, policymakers, and strategists far outnumber those working on biological weapons, even at crucial senior levels. Tucker went so far as to say that a main reason for the Obama administration’s successes in nuclear weapons policy and stagnation in biological weapons policy is that “the senior arms control officials in the Obama administration are all nuclear experts with little knowledge of biological and chemical weapons issues.”
This shortfall in expertise matters, especially given the influence that just one person can have on strategy. When the Bush administration took office, it dismissed the senior biodefense adviser to President Bill Clinton—arguably the first president since Nixon to focus on biodefense—until the anthrax attacks convinced the Bush administration that such a position was necessary after all. When the Obama administration came into office, however, it once again eliminated this senior advisory position.
Now, in place of a single person coordinating all biodefense work in multiple departments and agencies, there are three senior-level White House officials whose large portfolios include biodefense among many other issues. The change has left the administration in a sort of catch-22. Admiral Kenneth Bernard, the former biodefense adviser to Clinton and Bush, told The New York Times that “the only way that you can get all of those people in the room is to call them into the White House, and to have a coordinating group under a single person.” Yet, in the absence of any single person in charge of the portfolio, it seems unlikely that there will be the kind of coordination necessary to give biostrategy and its implementation the prominence and focus they require to be successful.
A Call to Action
Obama entered office with an ambitious agenda to tackle the threat of unconventional weapons in the 21st century. Although his administration’s biological weapons strategy was grounded in good intentions, its implementation has fallen short of the whole-of-government approach it recommended. Moreover, in spite of lauding the BWC, it reaffirmed the Bush administration’s position on verification while offering no clear alternative of how best to ensure compliance. In his second term, Obama must take measures to strengthen domestic biosecurity and biodefense and to revitalize international cooperation on the ongoing challenges facing the BWC.
First, it is essential that Obama establish, both in words and deeds, that the risk from biological weapons is commensurate with the threat from nuclear weapons. Obama could offer no clearer signal than establishing a senior biodefense adviser within the White House to ensure overall leadership for a whole-of-government approach across the health, security, diplomacy, and life sciences communities. Such an effort simply cannot succeed without a prominent representative at the top overseeing the wide range of biodefense and biosecurity efforts being undertaken by any number of departments, agencies, and offices. The adviser will need to take stock of current efforts to determine which ones are ineffective, duplicative, or outdated and must play a central coordinating role for ongoing and future work to counter biological threats. An advocate in the White House could build the kind of issue awareness, commitment, and focus that puts policy at the cutting edge. More broadly, the creation of this position could help bring the risk of biological weapons out of the shadow of nuclear policy, focusing increased attention on what has become a rapidly evolving threat.
The Obama administration also will need to strengthen its scientific capacity to tackle the biological threat. Government alone cannot do this; it simply is not equipped to stay at the scientific forefront of the field on its own considering how quickly the landscape of biological risk is changing. Every few months, there is a “bio-Sputnik,” a dramatic advance that leaves the policy community scrambling. Just this year, U.S. and Dutch scientists published groundbreaking research on the how to make the deadly H5N1 virus more transmissible; the Human Microbe Biome Consortium announced that its researchers had mapped microbial DNA; and scientists in Silicon Valley brought down the cost of mapping the human genome to its lowest level ever by using widely available commercial technologies.
To adapt to that rapid pace, the government must do more to promote a public-private partnership with the life sciences community to build a culture of responsibility. Much of the focus so far has been on keeping dangerous pathogens locked up in secure facilities. Security is an important element but is not by itself sufficient. The approach must ensure ethical, safe practices in this rapidly expanding field. More and better cooperation with academia and industry would not only help prevent misuse, but also could help contribute to U.S. defenses against possible biological attacks. Denying an adversary the intended effect of biological weapons use remains an important priority in any comprehensive approach. Advances in human immunology and in the development and manufacture of medical countermeasures, such as more-effective vaccines and broad-spectrum antibiotics, now permit enhanced defenses that were impossible even as recently as the 1990s.
There is a wealth of successful and unsuccessful experience on which to draw as the next administration works to bolster public-private cooperation. Since 2001, the Department of Health and Human Services has worked with industry to stockpile enough smallpox vaccine to protect the entire country in case of an attack. The effort has greatly reduced the risk of smallpox. With further cooperation, the threats posed by anthrax, plague, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers could be mitigated as well. Unfortunately, attempts to engage private industry in developing new medical countermeasures often have been limited by economic realities: The profit margins are slim, and contracting with the government is not easy. Importantly, those hurdles have not proven universal. The government was able to build the necessary partnerships with the commercial pharmaceutical industry to develop medical countermeasures and build the capacity for manufacturing vaccines for pandemic influenza in response to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak.
Clearly, more could and should be done to improve cooperation and consultation on biological threats across industry, academia, and government. The new administration should therefore ensure that the president’s science adviser is someone from the life sciences community, to act as a bridge between private knowledge and public interest. He or she must work with industry and academia and do so in a manner that is sufficiently clear and transparent to minimize conflict-of-interest concerns. Effectively bridging the confidence gap will be essential but difficult, given the growing divide that has spread between government and the life sciences field over the past several decades, with private industry closely guarding its scientific prowess and the government fumbling in past attempts to engage academia and industry.
Finally, in addition to strengthening its hand at home, the United States must pursue international cooperation under the BWC more aggressively. In an interconnected world, a pathogen can cross borders and bring an international dimension to a formerly domestic problem in an instant. Encouragingly, through the biological security component of the historic Cooperative Threat Reduction program that Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) launched two decades ago, the Obama administration has emphasized working with countries to improve their ability to manage and secure their pathogen collections and to detect, diagnose, and report disease outbreaks.
The Obama administration should continue this kind of partnership, but it should not let such bilateral efforts eclipse the importance of continued progress through the BWC. The United States simply must do more to strengthen the treaty. For too long, numerous administrations have failed to show leadership in tackling the persistent challenges facing BWC implementation.
Such challenges persist because they are incredibly complex to resolve, especially within the current framework that brings states-parties together for binding negotiations only once every five years. The BWC intersessional process—annual meetings of country representatives that lack binding authority and have limited mandates—has shown promise in keeping the BWC relevant to 21st-century threats.
Whether there should be a permanent BWC treaty organization is part of that future agenda. The establishment of a fully funded and staffed organization tasked with actively carrying out the requirements of the BWC and with maintaining its influence in a changing world could be an important adjunct. A permanent Biological Weapons Convention Organization could evaluate practical, technical, and scientific lessons already learned—for example, by UNSCOM in Iraq, the trilateral process that addressed the former Soviet Union’s offensive biological weapons program, and the United States’ own experience evaluating on-site inspection measures with private industry—to develop best practices for potential compliance and inspection measures.
It may seem that more bureaucracy is hardly the bold, game-changing leadership that the situation requires. The simple reality of biological weapons is that Obama cannot call for an end to biological threats the same way he called for an end to nuclear weapons. No one can outlaw or lock up pathogens; it is impossible to end their proliferation because their proliferation is a fact of nature. Addressing the risks that they pose is the only course. Providing clear leadership at home, harnessing the power of the life sciences community, and reinvigorating the international community will do just that.
Katharine Diamond is a program assistant with the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Robert P. Kadlec is managing director of East West Protection, LLC, a consulting firm that advises communities and countries on issues related to the threat of weapons of mass destruction and natural pandemics. He served as special assistant for homeland security and senior director for biological and chemical defense policy under President George W. Bush and as the Office of the Secretary of Defense representative to the Biological Weapons Convention under President Bill Clinton.
1. “Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q&A: President-Elect Barack Obama,” Arms Control Today, December 2008.
2. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama [As Delivered],” April 5, 2009.
4. Katharine Jose, “Obama Adds ‘Cyber Security’ to National Defense Plan,” New York Observer, July 16, 2008.
5. Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, World at Risk (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), p. xv; Ellen Tauscher, Address to the annual meeting of the states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, December 9, 2009, http://www.state.gov/t/us/133335.htm (hereinafter Tauscher BWC address); Conor Friedersdorf, “It’s Biological Weapons That Keep James Steinberg Up at Night,” Atlantic, July 1, 2012.
6. National Security Council (NSC), “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats,” November 2009, p. 1.
7. Ibid., p. 31.
8. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Obama Releases National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats,” December 9, 2009.
9. NSC, “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats,” p. 13.
10. Brendan Maher, “Bird-Flu Research: The Biosecurity Oversight,” Nature, May 23, 2012 (quoting David Fidler of the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University-Bloomington).
12. Jonathan B. Tucker, “Is Washington Prepared to Lead at the BWC Review Conference?” Arms Control Today, January/February 2011.
13. Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center, “Bio-Response Report Card,” October 2011, http://www.wmdcenter.org/?page_id=183.
14. At their review conference in December 2006, the parties to the BWC established an Implementation Support Unit (ISU) to provide organizational support to member states. The ISU is tasked with providing administrative support, bolstering confidence-building measures (an integral part of strengthening cooperation and compliance with the treaty in the absence of official monitoring and verification provisions), assisting in national implementation, and expanding treaty membership. To carry out those sizable tasks, the ISU has a staff of three and is dependent on funding from countries that are parties to the treaty.
15. Tauscher BWC address.
16. Tucker, “Is Washington Prepared to Lead at the BWC Review Conference?”
17. Amanda Moodie, “Lucky Number Seven? The 2011 Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, December 23, 2011, http://cns.miis.edu/stories/111223_bwc_revcon_2011.htm.
18. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Remarks at the Seventh Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference, December 7, 2011, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/12/178409.htm.
19. Advances in uranium-enrichment technologies have complicated detection of covert nuclear proliferation, but the problem still arguably is more severe in the case of biological weapons.
20. Gregory Koblentz, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), pp. 53-105.
22. Tucker, “Is Washington Prepared to Lead at the BWC Review Conference?”
23. Wil S. Hylton, “How Ready Are We for Bioterrorism?” New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2011.
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