Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/08/01/obama_bioterror_danzig/

Obama critical of Bush regime's bioterror fearmonger gap

New thinking like old thinking, but more so

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Government, 1st August 2008 12:02 GMT

In a speech on security policy a couple weeks ago, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama signaled that a change in administration probably wouldn't change the way the establishment views threats.

"In a globalized world, the power to destroy can lie with individuals - not just states," the man said. This was supposed to show some unique vision setting him apart from Republican rule, but it indicated quite a bit of the opposite.

Nuclear, biological and cyber threats - "three 21st Century threats that have been neglected over the last eight years," Obama said. "It is time to break out of Washington's conventional thinking that has failed to keep pace with unconventional threats," he added. Obama's breaking out, however, really means the opposite - adhering to groupthink that views apocalyptic attacks as only a matter of when, not if.

Anthrax needs more attention, he said, lest an attack kill "tens of thousands" and smash the economy. Keep in mind the quoted part, because it's a specific part of a well-used script.

"To protect against bioterrorism we need to invest in our analysis..." Obama added. So what analysis is that?

Father of all Fearmongers

If one had Toto to tug at the curtains, Richard Danzig would have been revealed, pulling levers. As Secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration, Danzig led the fearmongers on bioterror. And, of course, he stands to be part of the presidential cabinet if Obama is elected.

Milton Leitenberg, a biological arms expert who has been regularly critical of the fear agenda, addressed two Danzig-penned position papers in 1997 and 1999. In these, a kilogram of anthrax was said to able to kill hundreds of thousands, while biological weapons were potent and cheap, and the technology everywhere. While there were nuggets of truth in these claims, the critical caveats and qualifiers were obscured or skipped.

According to Leitenberg: "The years between 1995 and 2000 were characterized then, by - spurious statistics (hoaxes counted as biological events); unknowable predictions, gross exaggeration of the feasibility of successfully producing biological agents, except in the case of recruitment of highly experienced professionals, of which there was still no evidence as of 2000; the apparent continued absence of a thorough threat assessment; and thoughtless, ill-considered, counter-productive and extravagant rhetoric".

The change in party control, the arrival of the Bush administration and the anthrax attack itself didn't change the rhetoric. Bipartisan in nature, the national security advisors to both parties were playing the same tune, only more loudly. Attempts to inject thoughtful analysis of bioterrorism potential into the discussion, or even evaluations of what terrorists might be able to do based upon objective scrutiny of their documents and materials, were set aside in favor of what Leitenberg called "fact-free analysis."

Take two - even scarier

In 2003, Danzig repackaged the Nineties rhetoric in a pamphlet called Catastrophic Bioterrorism: What Is To Be Done? Charitably, Amazon resellers offer it for over a hundred dollars, or about four bucks a page. However, one can view it much more reasonably here.

Published through the National Defense University, the paper posited campaigns of terrorism in which attackers would launch rapid biological attacks on US cities, reloading as they went cross country. There was a slight difference: One kilogram of anthrax had gone from being able to kill hundreds of thousands to merely "tens of thousands," an estimate that persists to this day, but one that still makes 9/11 - a singular historical event - look like a walk in the park.

But although the casualty figure had been downgraded, terrorist organizations could still make ten to a hundred kilograms, using them portably, the paper explained. The magnitude of casualties in a single attack had decreased by an order of magnitude but the difference was made up by giving the theoretical terrorist organizations access to an order or two more of their deadly resource.

Four scenarios were presented, two of them mass casualty events with anthrax and smallpox. The reinforcing nature of the catastrophic bioterrorism story is observed in correlating the 2003 book with duplicate work presented by the Homeland Security Council around the same time. While the national planning doomsday scenarios were expanded to cover chemical, nuclear, cyber and biological attack, its bioterrorism attacks were for practical purposes, the same as Danzig's.

The alert reader may have noticed by this point that over the span of a decade, no terrorist attacks have remotely resembled bioterror planning scenarios. And no terrorist organizations have been identified with anything significant in the capabilities and resources needed to achieve them. Yet no one has sacrificed anything, career-wise, for being wrong.

This illustrates a couple of regular features which are now constant within the US security apparatus. First, and most obvious, is the utility of making shit up, specifically to fit preconceived notions on the nature of the enemy and the ease with which it can do bad things.

Biodefense jobs for decent fearmongers

Second, there is no critical brake on the process. If there's a threat, it's a catastrophic one. And all the "experts" consulted for their opinions agree. (For example, did you know Scooter Libby was consulted for his expertise? It's true. While he wasn't yet a convicted felon in the Valerie Plame affair, if you look close he's in the list of consultants interviewed for Danzig's book. The office of the vice-president was apparently considered a reliable source of information on capacities for bioterrorism.)

A third observation is that the list of people who are thought to be serious and smart enough to inform American policy on the face of terror isn't real big. Relatively speaking, its a few hundred regulars, this in a very large country with no shortage of highly specialized academicians. One can view it as a cast of career local yokels, specific to Washington or very familiar with its halls, all on the same page. And once they've come to their conclusions, everyone else follows.

Investing in more bioterror defense "will create new jobs" said Obama. That's certainly always been true, although not precisely in the way intended and not in any trickle-down way in which Joe Sixpack in Peoria will be sought to work at BioDefenseUSA Corp. Before the speech was over, the country was rallied to the Cold War-like cause of triumph over cyber, nuclear and bioterror - the faces of technological evil - with the "brightest scientists, engineers and computer programmers."

"We must never let down our guard, nor suffer another failure of imagination." Indeed. ®

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.