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US WMD report: Dirty bombs, chem weapons are bunk

But the bioterrorists will strike by 2013! Aiee!

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Indeed, the Commissioners seem to be aware that they don't really have much here. The US intelligence community certainly seems to have told them that there isn't much to worry about on the bioweapon-terror front. But they see it as being a threat on a par with nukes nonetheless.

The cases of the Rajneeshees, Aum Shinrikyo, and al Qaeda underscore not only the dangerous potential of bioterrorism but also the technical difficulties that terrorist groups seeking such weapons are likely to encounter. Aum’s failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack, despite its access to scientific expertise and ample financial resources, suggests that one should not oversimplify or exaggerate the threat of bioterrorism. Developing a biological weapon that can inflict mass casualties is an intricate undertaking, both technically and operationally complex ... the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists.

We accept the validity of intelligence estimates about the current rudimentary nature of terrorist capabilities in the area of biological weapons but ... the terrorists are trying to upgrade their capabilities and could do so by recruiting skilled scientists. In this respect the biological threat is greater than the nuclear; the acquisition of deadly pathogens, and their weaponization and dissemination in aerosol form, would entail fewer technical hurdles than the theft or production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and its assembly into an improvised nuclear device. The difficulty of quantifying the bioterrorism threat to the United States does not make that threat any less real or compelling.

The Commissioners also suggest that rapidly advancing genetic and biotech capability could in some way lead to much, much deadlier bioweapons than anything seen so far, though they don't say precisely how.

As DNA synthesis technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, it will soon become feasible to synthesize nearly any virus whose DNA sequence has been decoded — such as the smallpox virus, which was eradicated from nature in 1977 — as well as artificial microbes that do not exist in nature. This growing ability to engineer life at the molecular level carries with it the risk of facilitating the development of new and more deadly biological weapons. The only way to rule out the harmful use of advances in biotechnology would be to stifle their beneficial applications as well — and that is not a realistic option. Instead, the dual-use dilemma associated with the revolution in biology must be managed on an ongoing basis ... the risk that biological weapons pose to humanity must not be minimized or ignored.

At one point the two senators seem to hint that biotechnology will have to start operating under the same almost paralysing security and safety regime that the nuclear industry does.

The nuclear age began with a mushroom cloud—and, from that moment on, all those who worked in the nuclear industry in any capacity, military or civilian, understood they must work and live under a clear and undeniable security mandate. But the life sciences community has never experienced a comparable iconic event ... It is essential that the members of the life sciences community — in universities, medical and veterinary schools, nongovernmental research institutes, trade associations, and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies — foster a bottom-up effort to sensitize researchers to biosecurity issues and concerns...

Even so, if the Ivins and Aum Shinrikyo cases are any guide, the threat of a bioweapon attack within the next five years probably needn't cause too much lost sleep.

But what about the big one, the undeniable danger - nukes? What should be happening there?

Well, it seems that the US must make more use of "soft power" and diplomatic efforts, seeking to stop countries from pursuing nuclear weapons programmes or civil nuclear power programmes which are dual-purposed as weapons production. In particular, nations should generally not be allowed to enrich their own nuclear fuel or reprocess spent fuel - the necessary equipment can also be used to produce weapons-grade material.

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