Science and Politics, People and Process: Coping With Biological Weapons Dilemmas

Reviewed by Michael Moodie

Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond

By Amy E. Smithson

Stanford Security Studies, 2011, 384 pp.


Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security

By Gregory D. Koblentz

Cornell University Press, 2011, 272 pp.


Biological weapons seem to have lost their appeal—as an object of policy concern, that is. From the early 1960s, when nonproliferation emerged as an international security challenge, until the 1990s, the nonproliferation agenda was dominated by nuclear issues. Chemical and biological weapons were deemed a comparatively minor matter, the province of only a small, largely technical community laboring in relative obscurity as far as senior policymakers were concerned. Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, as the product of an unusual combination of developments in Iraq, the Soviet Union, and Japan, chemical and biological weapons began to climb up the global security agenda.

For about a decade, significant amounts of time, money, and analytical capability were devoted to bolstering policymakers’ understanding of the challenges posed by these weapons, in particular biological weapons. That attention peaked after the tragedies of the September 11 attacks and the anthrax mailings in 2001. After that, attention began to wane. The biological weapons agenda became familiar, comfortable, and hardly cutting-edge. Financial resources for further groundbreaking work, especially from nongovernmental sources, began to dry up. The nonproliferation agenda reverted to the “all nukes all the time” focus of its initial decades. That is where things stand today.

Two recent books demonstrate that the situation should be otherwise. One of them, Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond by Amy E. Smithson, is another valuable product from a long-time leader of the still-small band of experts on biological weapons. The other, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security by Gregory D. Koblentz, is the work of one of the “next generation” of biological weapons analysts. It is gratifying to see that although interest in the issue has declined at least temporarily among senior policymakers, the torchbearers who have led the work on biological weapons are being joined by a new group of analysts who bring fresh and useful insights and perspectives for those policymakers willing to pay attention. More importantly, these books show that policymakers should take notice. They underline the need to understand better that challenges flowing from the misuse of the life sciences remain significant, difficult, and dangerous.

Germ Gambits is primarily an account of a key chapter in the history of efforts to rid the world of biological weapons. It details the work of the biological inspectors of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), established following Iraq’s 1991 defeat in the Persian Gulf War with the mission of finding and destroying Iraq’s non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction programs. Drawing on what is clearly remarkable access to all key UNSCOM players, Smithson allows the participants themselves to tell their story, focusing not just on their successes, but also on their failures, frustrations, and mistakes.

As in most good stories, the characters are central in Germ Gambits. This is as it should be because this book shows that people are the key to addressing biological risks successfully, especially in an environment of utmost difficulty. UNSCOM’s biological weapons experts were remarkably diverse in profession, skill, training, experience, personality, and country; but they came together as a team, not least as a result of the low-key but highly effective leadership of  the UNSCOM chairman, Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekéus, who emerges as one of the heroes of this account for his steadfastness, astute judgment, and deft political touch. They overcame enormous barriers inhibiting their ability to determine the nature and scope of Iraq’s biological weapons program, find all the places where it had operated, discover the materials and equipment it had used, identify all the military hardware it involved, and destroy the whole lot of it.

The barriers to UNSCOM’s success in rooting out Iraq’s biological weapons program began with deliberate Iraqi efforts to undermine the commission’s effectiveness. Smithson’s book relates numerous occasions on which the inspectors stood fast in the face of Iraqi lies, stonewalling, delays, destruction, “forgetfulness,” fabrication, gamesmanship, and physical intimidation. Some of these occasions would have been hilariously funny had the stakes not been so high. Smithson writes, “To wiggle out of contradictions, the Iraqis usually blamed them on a person’s drunkenness or stupidity. At times, however, their contorted tales would get them into such impossible positions that everyone would laugh.” The lengths to which Iraqis went to prevent UNSCOM from doing its job can only leave readers shaking their heads at the absurdity of it all.

Smithson’s account shows, however, that the challenges confronting the UN biological weapons team went well beyond Iraqi machinations. In particular, she does an excellent job of explaining the complex scientific and technical issues that the inspectors had to confront, and she does so in a way that nonexperts can readily grasp. However, nontechnical types should not assume that because Smithson makes it easy to understand the technological dimensions of biological weapons challenges in the UNSCOM case, those dimensions more generally are either easy or unimportant. In fact, Smithson’s treatment of technical issues, whether scientific, technological, engineering, or commercial, provides two invaluable reminders. First, success in responding to biological weapons challenges today and in the future will come only when good policy is based on good science. Second, the interaction of the scientific and technological dimensions with the political dimensions of the problems posed by biological weapons creates a multifaceted challenge whose complexity should never be underestimated.

In New Territory

Another important aspect of UNSCOM’s biological weapons work that Smithson usefully captures is the innovation and creativity of the UN team. She notes that although inspections had been conducted under other arms control agreements, those experiences held little relevance for the UN inspectors searching for biological weapons. They had no handbook on which to rely for best practices and procedures, no certainty as to what equipment would prove most useful, and no long-standing strategy to guide the sequence, focus, or timing of their activities. Smithson’s story artfully relays how, as a result, the members of the biological weapons team drew on their wits, exploited their powers of observation, learned on the fly, and adapted their approach as necessary to accomplish their mission.

“Connecting the dots” has become all the rage in national security analytical and operational circles. Smithson’s account portrays UNSCOM’s biological weapons inspectors as an important positive example of what is needed to make the connections (creativity deeply seated in experience may be at the top of the list) and what to do once the connections have been made.

Such creativity and innovation can ameliorate what Smithson calls “the encumbrances of the ‘Western’ frame of reference,” that is, the important differences between investigators and the investigated. Such differences include the experts’ thinking that everyone would put a program together as they would; culture clashes and sensitivities, for example, distinct views of the acceptability of prevarication; and the application of widely divergent safety standards under which potentially dangerous biological work is conducted. Smithson usefully explores how these “encumbrances” plagued even the experienced and cosmopolitan UNSCOM members, who compensated for them through their creative strengths.

Smithson also usefully discusses the biological weapons inspectors’ views of the interaction of politics and science, particularly as it relates to Iraq’s compliance with its obligations to disarm and destroy its biological weapons program. What catches a reader off guard, however, is the author’s sense of frustration or surprise that those on the political side, largely in the person of UN diplomats, did not always accept, acknowledge, or act on the information inspectors provided. She concludes by arguing that “policymakers and scientists alike should spare no effort to ensure that every scrap of relevant factual data can be presented to policymakers” to inform “really hard decisions about compliance” with biological weapons prohibitions.

This conclusion implies that politicians and diplomats universally place a high priority on compliance. They do not—at least not all of them and not all the time. It is not just a question of avoiding difficult decisions, although sometimes diplomats do that. At least as often, policymakers decide that emphasizing compliance is not in their country’s interest. At the very least, acknowledging noncompliance requires one to do something about it, something that states would often prefer not to do because of the interests they have in play, not least with the state identified as the miscreant. The history of nonproliferation of biological weapons as well as chemical and nuclear weapons is replete with examples of inaction in the face of strong evidence of noncompliance; the reaction too often has been an unwillingness to investigate or take action. The sad reality is that, in the nonproliferation world, politics almost always trumps science.

The issue of the interaction of politics and science is especially noteworthy here because it relates to one of the goals of Stimson’s book, to examine the UNSCOM experience for what it might imply for addressing biological weapons challenges in the future. Since UNSCOM was disbanded in 1999, there has been a debate among experts about whether it stands as a model for future efforts to investigate suspected or identified biological weapons programs, particularly under the auspices of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). What emerges from Germ Gambits is the stark realization that no cookie-cutter approach to inspections or other investigative practices will be adequate. No set of procedures, no matter how robust, intrusive, or elaborate, can guarantee success. The story of UNSCOM’s biological weapons work draws one to the reality that, in the end, it is not the process that is decisive, but the quality of the people.

Smithson reports that UNSCOM biological weapons inspectors themselves were divided on the question of whether its experience can be “extrapolated to the monitoring of the international bioweapons ban.” One group proclaimed the effort a commendable success applicable to other settings. A second group’s view was captured by a senior inspector who argued that “it is extremely doubtful that any inspection regime will or can be successful.” Smithson herself seems to agree with the former view. Noting that the BWC has been described as “inherently unverifiable,” she argues that “[t]he achievements of UNSCOM’s biological inspectors directly challenge this platitude.”

In Living Weapons, Koblentz takes a different view: “[T]he conditions that made [UNSCOM’s] accomplishment possible are not readily generalizable to the verification of the BWC…. UNSCOM had several advantages that a multilateral verification for the BWC could not have.” In Koblentz’s view, these advantages included strong support from the UN Security Council, which bolstered UNSCOM’s work with “the most comprehensive economic sanctions ever on Iraq” and which used the leverage of ongoing sanctions to force the Iraqis to change their behavior. (Smithson describes how that support waned in UNSCOM’s later years with a concomitant decline in the success of the inspectors.) He also includes as advantages the ever-present threat of the renewal of military operations, the exhaustive declarations required of Baghdad, and what Koblentz deems UNSCOM’s “extraordinary powers” that, in his view, go far beyond anything that could be agreed in a large, multilateral negotiation.

Koblentz’s discussion of UNSCOM is far less detailed than Smithson’s, as one would expect given the broader scope of his book. However, it is still useful because he uses it to elaborate on the extremely knotty problem of verifying compliance with arms control obligations dealing with biological weapons. Although a reader may disagree with his conclusions, one cannot but admire the careful consideration he brings to this complex issue and the conscientious research he has conducted to support that discussion.

Facing Complex Issues

Indeed, these are strengths of the book more generally, particularly Koblentz’s willingness to take on several of the most problematic issues, such as verification, at the core of the challenge of responding effectively to the constantly evolving and increasingly complex set of biological risks. One is the management and oversight of biological weapons programs in a realm where secrecy is paramount and transparency stands about as far from common practice as one can get. In this chapter, Koblentz illustrates with examples from the Soviet Union, Russia, and South Africa the “range of pathologies” that the unusually high level of secrecy that has traditionally attached to biological weapons programs can introduce into the decision-making and supervision of such programs. In particular, Koblentz contends, the strict compartmentalization that is a central feature of such secrecy restricts the information available to senior officials about the nature and conduct of the program and limits the range of knowledge of participants. As a result, such programs often achieve a high degree of autonomy, thereby escaping review by senior officials and creating a “dissonance between the military means and political ends in a state’s grand strategy.”

A second issue relates to profound problems associated with collecting, evaluating, and exploiting intelligence related to biological risks. In Koblentz’s view, those intelligence-related problems are so great that “intelligence on biological threats will most likely not be sufficient to prevent surprise.” Koblentz describes well the impact of operating with inadequate intelligence: complicating the development and deployment of effective defenses, hampering efforts to verify state compliance, increasing the challenges of rallying domestic and international support for diplomatic efforts when states are noncompliant, hindering military action, and engaging in worst-case planning that leads to exaggerated reactions to perceived threats.

A third difficult question he addresses is the dimension of the biological risk spectrum that has emerged relatively recently, the potential misuse of the life sciences by nonstate actors, particularly terrorists. Koblentz provides a balanced assessment of the problem, neither hyping the challenge nor conveying complacency. He rightly argues that today the problem may not be as severe as some public commentators contend. He suggests, however, that there is no guarantee the future will resemble the past and, for a variety of reasons, the prospects of terrorist misuse of the life sciences in the future represent a worrisome contingency.

For each of these issues, Koblentz draws on a rich research foundation to map out clearly and concisely the contours shaping the conceptual and policy terrain of the challenge. He then provides a variety of useful examples drawn from the experiences of the last three decades to help readers navigate their way to an appreciation of just how difficult it will be to combat this challenge in the years ahead.

Each of these books is valuable for readers who are interested in future international security challenges, but each also can be vexing. Some of the introductory material in Living Weapons on the nature and characteristics of biological weapons has been well covered elsewhere in a wide variety of sources. Germ Gambits can overload the reader with overwhelming and perhaps unnecessary details of virtually every biological inspection UNSCOM conducted.

Moreover, although the value of the inspectors themselves telling their story is apparent, the account in Germ Gambits would be enriched by discussion of the political context within which their work proceeded, especially the politics in play at the UN Security Council. These developments are not ignored, but their mention is relatively perfunctory and leaves the reader asking such questions as why a key member country of the council took the decisions it did to advance or inhibit the work of the inspectors.

Finally, even as both books conclude with recommendations for addressing the daunting challenges they so articulately lay open, they do so without seriously addressing a central question that will shape the effectiveness of any future efforts to manage biological risks. The biological realm is evolving at an astonishing pace. The changes in the life sciences and associated technology are so profound that they are leading some respected observers to label the next hundred years “the century of biology.” In neither case do the authors of these admirable books systematically examine their otherwise well-considered suggestions in light of this remarkable phenomenon or explore how the utility of such measures might be affected by it. Most of the policy tool kit for combating biological risks was assembled in the 20th century. Only a decade into the 21st, the utility of those tools is beginning to be seriously questioned. It can only be hoped that these two experts will turn their prodigious talents to examining the implications of that future and that policymakers will be paying attention as they do. ACT


Michael Moodie is assistant director for foreign affairs, defense, and trade at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). He is a former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and president of a policy research center, in which capacities he focused on chemical and biological weapons issues. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent positions or policies of the Library of Congress or CRS.