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Last minute bioterror rewrites?

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The final report deals with the first part of the assertion in some detail; the second part gets somewhat less attention. "The rapid growth in [biodefense] facilities and people handling select agents has increased the risk of accidents or intentional misuse by insiders," it states somewhat blandly.

More problematical is the draft's conclusion, as reported by the Post, on the result of attempts for a new Biological Weapons Convention accord under the Bush administration. "Efforts to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention were dealt a symbolic blow in 2001 when the Bush administration withdrew its support for a new accord that had been under negotiation for six years," it said.

But in the Commission's final report, this has been turned around. While mentioning that the Bush administration's decision resulted in "widespread international criticism," the US government's primary objection - that "acquiescing to an international control regime [would] potentially jeopardize sensitive US information" - along with two others, were valid. The Commission seems to conclude the opposite of what had been reported by the Post - that since "verifying compliance to the BWC" has only become more difficult, the decision to walk away from it was seemingly justified.

Biodefense's internationalization

"Meanwhile, the growth in biodefense research seen in the United States has spread to dozens of countries, including developing nations such as Malaysia and Cuba that are investing heavily to develop world-class biotech industries," Warrick wrote of the draft report copy's findings. While the assertion that expansion has spread to "dozens" may be a bit of a stretch, the gist of this was apparently excluded from the final report.

(Backgrounder: "There are a sizeable number of countries that have maintained biodefense labs since the 1970's," emailed Leitenberg. In the 1980's: "UK, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Netherlands, of course the USSR/Russia, Israel - the latter two probably offensive rather than 'defense' - Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the CIS states after the dissolution of the USSR in 1992. In more recent years India, Taiwan, Singapore and some others have joined, but probably the most significant aspect is that these newcomers enlarged their programs substantially since the mid 1990's.")

In any case, if accurate, such things point to a final published position at odds in major ways with the original draft. One implication is that staff analysis was inverted, "[Presumably] by the politicians making up the Commission," emailed Leitenberg.

Currently, no state-less organizations (like al Qaeda or associated jihadi groups) possess the materials or means to produce biological weapons. Over the past few years, The Reg has written of the phenomenon in which government officials and experts have asserted the opposite or claimed it was only a matter of time before they acquired them.

"We accept the validity of intelligence estimates about the current rudimentary nature of terrorist capabilities in the area..." reads the Commission's report. But it then considers that this does not preclude them from recruitment of real scientists who will not find the technical obstacles to making such weapons insurmountable. And, the argument continues, there is a new threat posed by synthetic genomics. The reconstitution of the Spanish flu is given as one example. For Newsweek magazine, Commission chair Bob Graham mentioned that one of his worst nightmares was "Should that fall into the hands of evil people with the appropriate capability for organization and technical dissemination, it could exceed the lethality of 90 years ago." But it is also worth mentioning that it has been US science and government money which brought the 1918 flu virus back.

Even prior to the Commission report, the impression has been given that the US biodefense effort has escaped from oversight. The report mentions $60 billion dollars being spent on new facility construction. Problems have cropped up - infections occurred - "exacerbated by the unbridled growth in the number of high-containment laboratories since 2001..."

"The government has recommended a site in Kansas for a new $450 million laboratory to study biological threats such as anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease," read a newspaper report on December 4.

"The Homeland Security Department’s choice of Manhattan, in central Kansas, beat out intense competition from sites in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas." ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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