Bolton Hearings Highlight Internal Differences on Cuba's Biological Weapons

Miles A. Pomper

During April 11-12 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the confirmation of John R. Bolton to be U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, a major controversy involved the use of intelligence on alleged Cuban efforts that might lead to biological weapons.

Senators dissected in minute detail the drafting of a May 2002 speech that Bolton delivered to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative interest group in Washington, DC, and cleared by members of the intelligence community.

According to senators at the hearing, administration officials, recorded testimony by Department of State officials, and a previous Senate Intelligence Committee report, there were important if subtle differences between the speech that Bolton had first drafted and the one that he delivered.

Aides have testified to the committee that Bolton’s initial draft placed considerable weight on an intelligence document that he received in early 2002 from the CIA and did not fully take into account the views of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). A row between Bolton and INR chemical and biological weapons analyst Christian Westermann over the clearing of the speech was a focal point of the Senate hearing and related recorded testimony by State Department officials.

According to a number of accounts, Bolton’s initial draft read, “The United States believes that Cuba has a developmental offensive biological weapons program and is providing assistance to other rogue state programs.” It also called for international inspectors to monitor Cuba’s biological facilities.

The speech that Bolton delivered read, “The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support [biological weapons] programs in those states. We call on Cuba to cease all [biological weapons]-applicable cooperation with rogue states and to fully comply with all of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.”

The remarks that Bolton ultimately delivered closely paralleled those that Assistant Secretary of State Carl Ford, then head of the INR bureau, had made before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2002. (See ACT, June 2002.)

Bolton’s initial call for biological weapons inspections in Cuba is particularly striking, given that only months earlier he had led the Bush administration’s effort to reject a verification and enforcement protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The administration contended that the protocol, which had been negotiated over a six-year period, was insufficient to ensure compliance and could harm U.S. commercial and national security interests.

In recorded testimony to Senate aides, Westermann said he suggested striking that section because “it was the Bush administration policy at the time not to support the BWC verification protocol, which would have called for inspections. There was real concern that inspections would not provide the kind of detection and visibility into hidden office programs, and so there was real concern that inspections were not an appropriate tool.”

Indeed, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in a May 2002 television interview questioned the usefulness of such inspections in Cuba. “I will say that you can show someone a biotech lab and be assured that they’re not creating weapons of mass destruction. That’s not how biological weapons work. They’re actually very easy to conceal.”

In subsequent testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee in June 2002, Ford elaborated on what he viewed as another key difference in the two remarks, the distinction in intelligence terminology between a “program” and an “effort.” He maintained that Cuba has a biological weapons effort, not a biological weapons program.

Ford characterized a weapons program as being more substantial and having more elements, including test facilities, production facilities, and specialized military units. By contrast, he said, in citing a Cuban “effort,” the intelligence community was only indicating that Cuba was believed to have engaged in some of the research and development that would be needed to create biological weapons.

Two years later at a House International Relations Committee hearing in March 2004, Bolton asserted that “Cuba remains a terrorist and [biological weapons] threat to the United States.”

However, the New York Times reported in September 2004 that a new National Intelligence Estimate further scaled down the perceived threat from Cuba. According to the article, the assessment concluded that the intelligence community ‘’continues to believe that Cuba has the technical capability to pursue some aspects of an offensive biological weapons program.’’

Moreover, Bolton later acknowledged that “existing intelligence reporting is problematic, and the intelligence community’s ability to determine the scope, nature, and effectiveness of any Cuban [biological weapons] program has been hampered by reporting from sources of questionable access, reliability, and motivation.”