BOOK REVIEW: Playing Offense and Defense on Biological Weapons

July/August 2015

Reviewed by Kavita M. Berger

Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development
By Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Cornell University Press, 2014, 240 pp.

American Biodefense: How Dangerous Ideas About Biological Weapons Shape National Security
By Frank L. Smith III, Cornell University Press, 2014, 208 pp.

Scientific advancement in any field depends on five primary factors: the purpose of the science; the quality of the science; knowledgeable researchers; organizational structure, culture, and dynamics; and external influences. The interplay among these factors often determines the overall success of a scientific initiative. 

For example, in the early 2000s, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) established regional academic consortia to conduct research on biodefense and emerging infectious diseases. The goals of this initiative were to better understand the dynamics between humans and particularly harmful pathogens and to develop or inform the development of medical countermeasures. Although scientists learned a lot about pathogens and their effects in humans, very few vaccines, drugs, or diagnostic tools were developed by consortia members. The members were subjected to increasing regulatory restrictions, which increased the administrative and financial burdens and the political dissatisfaction with the lack of progress toward vaccine and drug development. 

In 2014 the NIH ended this program on biodefense and emerging infectious disease and created new Centers of Excellence for Translational Research that drew on the established consortia but focused more on translating scientific knowledge to development of vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tools. In this example, regulatory environment, political influences, and scientific purpose may have been the primary determinants of the program’s fate.

Two new books build on this idea that several factors influence scientific progress, whether for peaceful or destructive purposes. In Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley argues for nuanced assessments of potential biological weapons threats based on a more complete understanding of the challenges that faced the Soviet and U.S. offensive biological weapons programs. The second book, American Biodefense: How Dangerous Ideas About Biological Weapons Shape National Security by Frank L. Smith III, argues that the U.S. military biodefense effort was doomed from the outset because it was inappropriately placed under the control of units that focus on chemical defense despite “evidence” of the Soviet Union’s offensive biological weapons capabilities.

Readers of these and other books on the U.S. and Soviet offensive and defensive biological weapons programs should keep in mind that much of the current knowledge about these programs emerged after 1991. Very little was known between 1972, when the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was opened for signature, and 1989, when the first Soviet biological weapons scientist defected to the United Kingdom. Recognizing this chronology is critical to understanding whether and how the United States perceived the threat of biological weapons after it ended its offensive program in 1969 and signed the BWC in 1972.

In Barriers to Bioweapons, Ben Ouagrham-Gormley pieces together a picture of the U.S. and Soviet offensive biological weapons programs through a literature review and interviews of former biological weapons scientists from the two countries. She argues that the combination of internal and external factors created a scientific environment that either permitted knowledge transfer and creativity—an essential attribute for overcoming technical problems and developing new, effective products—or promoted compartmentalized knowledge and very little creativity. She associates the former environment with the pre-1969 U.S. offensive biological weapons program and the latter with the post-1972 Soviet offensive biological weapons program. She concludes by advocating for a new threat assessment process that incorporates an evaluation of internal and external factors of potential biological weapons programs.

Ben Ouagrham-Gormley describes internal organizational factors—such as explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge (knowledge that cannot be transferred through written or verbal communication), and approaches for transferring both types of knowledge between scientists and institutions—to provide the reader with a clear picture of how different institutions in the Soviet Union and the United States operated and how these differences contributed to or hindered scientific progress. She recounts interviews with former Soviet biological weapons scientists who described instances of falsification and fabrication of results to prevent punishment for lack of scientific progress. One former facility director described his role in preventing higher political influences from adversely affecting research at his facility and in promoting an open environment where scientists could interact with one another, solve technical problems creatively and collectively, and communicate with foreign scientists. Still other scientists described doing what they were told to do despite knowing that the directives were unrealistic or not technically feasible.

In general, many of the biological weapons facilities of the Soviet Union did not enable the transfer of tacit knowledge among scientists within or between institutions. Governmental leaders created this barrier primarily to ensure secrecy of the program. In certain instances where specialized knowledge was required, a small group of scientists was permitted to assist in achieving the goal, whether it was the development of specific types of biological weapons or the scaling up of production of certain biological weapons.

Unlike the Soviet experience, the U.S. offensive program promoted scientific progress and transfer of tacit knowledge by encouraging interaction among scientists within and outside the biological weapons institutions and fostering creative and critical thinking by those scientists. They had opportunities to interact with their colleagues within their own institutions, with scientists in other military institutions in the United States and among its allies, and with researchers in academia and the private sector. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley attributes this permissive environment to the era in which the U.S. program existed and biological weapons were not restricted—that is, after World War II and before the signing of the BWC, which categorically banned all offensive biological weapons development, production, and stockpiling.

Ben Ouagrham-Gormley continues her assessment by describing various external factors that further counteracted or supported the internal structures of biological weapons institutions in the Soviet Union and the United States. These external factors included political interference, funding, change in mission or movement of people, and need for secrecy. She describes significant political interference by Soviet leaders. Her interviewees described the practice of placing KGB agents in their facilities to inform political leaders of the progress made toward development of biological weapons.

Ben Ouagrham-Gormley also describes the high levels of investment made in building the facilities and supporting the research and development efforts of the Soviet program. In the United States, the role that biological weapons might play in military operations was highly debated, which contributed to high-level military and political disagreements about the utility of biological weapons. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley attributes some of these disagreements to poor communication between scientists and policymakers.

Ben Ouagrham-Gormley considers the “heterogeneous engineer” a critical part of a biological weapons program. This individual would be able to integrate basic and applied research and development to enhance the translation of basic research into weapons development. She states that such individuals often were missing in U.S. offensive biological weapons facilities, whereas they were present in Soviet facilities. This situation suggests that the Soviet Union’s offensive biological weapons program was intensely focused on product development even though its scientific environment did not foster creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. 

In American Biodefense, Smith explains his views about the lack of scientific progress in military biodefense in the United States. He uses open-source information and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to help provide a picture of U.S. biodefense efforts, and he extrapolates military and political intent from these documents. Yet, he does not corroborate his findings with military and political experts from the 1950s through the 1980s. His interviewees are contemporary biodefense experts who could describe the intent of current programs but may not know about the rationale for decision-making several decades ago. In addition, the book includes some technical statements that, in the absence of further supporting evidence, seem surprising. For example, Smith describes biosurveillance tools from the mid-1990s that supposedly have better response times than the ones in current use. 

Based on his assessment of the biological weapons threat during the Cold War, Smith argues that the United States did not adequately support biodefense efforts. Throughout the book, he states that the placement of the U.S. biodefense program under the Chemical Corps—a part of the Army that was tasked in the 1940s with defending against chemical and biological weapons—doomed the mission to failure because chemical defense and biological defense are fundamentally different.[1] He argues that placing the U.S. military biodefense program in the “chemical frame” contributed to the lack of scientific progress by preventing the most appropriate expertise from being applied to the problem. To support his argument, he highlights differences between chemicals and pathogens, stating the scientists with experience and knowledge of chemistry do not have the requisite knowledge of pathogens. He attributes this mismatch to a conflation of chemistry and biology and a fundamental lack of understanding of the biodefense problem by military leaders. 

Although some characteristics of chemical and biological weapons are different—for example, the sensitivity of biological agents to heat and the ability of contagious pathogens to propagate naturally—the differences between chemistry and biology are rapidly shrinking. During the past 10 to 15 years especially, new scientific advances have produced a convergence of chemistry and biology that has led to the development of new or enhanced methods, tools, and processes for peaceful purposes. Examples include bioprocessing of chemicals, synthetic biology, and bioprinting. Some of these tools are being used to develop new measures to counter biological threats, such as the J. Craig Venter Institute’s development of a new platform technology—a technology that enables the development of several products—for influenza vaccines using synthetic biology.

In another part of the book, Smith states that the United States had evidence of the Soviet offensive biological weapons program throughout the Cold War. This premise, however, is inconsistent with other historical assessments. According to The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History by Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas, the United States had very little knowledge of the Soviet weapons program prior to 1989. Although some information existed, not enough was known to provide a detailed picture of the existence and scale of the Soviet program. Other biodefense experts have suggested that the Soviet Union’s role in the BWC could have signaled its commitment to upholding the treaty. (The Soviet Union was one of three depositary countries along with the UK and the United States.) 

The different accounts and the dearth of open-source information about the degree to which Washington knew about Moscow’s program from the 1970s and 1980s does not support Smith’s statement that “the United States was aware of the Soviet [biological weapons] program throughout the Cold War.” To support his claim, he cites documents and communications from the 1950s and 1960s and U.S. intelligence assessments of the 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk as an accidental release of anthrax from a Soviet biological weapons facility. Yet, he does not describe the broader debate that took place in the early 1980s, which cast doubt on the accuracy of the intelligence assessments. Focusing on some but not all relevant information can lead to a misunderstanding of the rationale for investment in, support for, and organization of certain defensive efforts undertaken by the United States during the height of the Cold War. 

Also missing from Smith’s evaluation is a robust discussion of the role and prominence of other military organizations that contributed to surveillance of unusual outbreaks and biodefense research, including the Air Force Institute of Pathology and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). Although the history of USAMRIID is described in the book, Smith’s focus on biodefense being placed in the “chemical frame” suggests he considers USAMRIID and other agencies with relevant expertise to be a very minor part of the former U.S. military biodefense complex.

In sharp contrast to his views about military biodefense, Smith writes favorably about recent U.S. investments in civilian biodefense. He contrasts the knowledge base and roles of various civilian agencies involved in biodefense with those of the military. Although he is correct that civilian agencies have the requisite knowledge and expertise to study pathogens and to develop vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tools, few of these agencies have the explicit mission of biodefense, a point that Smith does not address. For example, biodefense research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is grouped with emerging infectious diseases because the overwhelming majority of outbreaks are of natural origin. 

The modern history of offensive biological weapons and biodefense is complex, and scientific progress in these areas depends on several organizational and external factors as described in the books reviewed here. In her book, Ben Ouagrham-Gormley tries to unpack and individually evaluate the relative influence that these factors had on the success of the U.S. and Soviet biological weapons programs. In doing so, she presents an interesting picture of the prevailing scientific environments in which offensive biological weapons research was conducted in the two countries. From this evaluation, she recommends looking at the internal and external influences on the environment in which research is conducted to assess potential biological threats.

Smith takes a more academic approach to evaluating the rationale for biodefense investment by the U.S. military throughout the Cold War and by civilian agencies in recent years. He tries to argue that viewing biodefense through the lens of defense against chemical weapons was detrimental to the success of U.S. military biodefense efforts. In doing so, however, he provides partial information that may result in misunderstanding of the rationale for biodefense investments and decisions.

Kavita M. Berger is a scientist at Gryphon Scientific working on biological security projects. Prior to joining Gryphon earlier this year, she spent nine years at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where she led projects on biological security, emerging biotechnologies, and other issues. She received her Ph.D. in genetics from Emory University and conducted postdoctoral research on the preclinical development of HIV and smallpox vaccines. 


1. Today the Chemical Corps’ mission includes radiological and nuclear defense in addition to chemical and biological defense. For more information on the corps’ history, see Fort Leonard Wood, “The U.S. Army Chemical Corps History,” n.d.,