Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/12/17/world_at_risk_wmd/

Censored scenes from the Congress WMD report

Last minute bioterror rewrites?

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Government, 17th December 2008 12:52 GMT

World at Risk, the final report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, received a good build-up. Its publicity stretched from reports outlining a draft of it in the Washington Post over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, with more news and private and public briefings the following week. We are, the general consensus went, in deadly danger.

This overriding message from the released copy was given in one sentence from the preface: "[Unless] the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013 ... The Commission further believes that terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon."

Five years till doomsday?

The Houston Chronicle was one newspaper which took the grim pronouncement and made it worse, amplifying the fear and claiming, a little imprecisely, that the commission's message was "The United States can expect a terrorist attack using nuclear or more likely biological weapons before 2013 ..."

But while many newspapers jumped on the story, it did not have quite the jolt announcements of this nature have had in the past. Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman of California, Chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence & Terrorism Risk Assessment, immediately issued a blunt press release. "Much in the report ... is important," it read. "However, it's time to retire the fear card." The American people needed to be educated about the threat, not terrified, it continued.

Even two years ago, such a statement would probably have been unheard of coming from a Congressional leader. Congress had done a lot to mitigate the threat, Harman wrote. And now it was "time for the rhetoric about the threat to calm..."

This writer hopes therefore that the rhetoric of imminent and catastrophic bioterrorism will be given quietus. During the election campaign, one of Barack Obama's chief policy advisors on the threat of bioterrorism was Richard Danzig, an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration well known for his belief that the bioterror threat is unprecedented. And the World at Risk report uses a Danzig quote that speaks for itself: "Only a thin wall of terrorist ignorance and inexperience now protect us."

Over the past few years, The Register has written about the subject quite a bit, and readers know opinion is strongly divided on the subject. Generally speaking, there are reasonable critics who have been excluded from the press when reports are delivered, their input not sought.

In the report's introduction, the Commission claims it gathered the thoughts of two hundred experts. That's a big number, so this writer emailed Milton Leitenberg, an expert on bioterrorism and one of the well-known reasonable critics mentioned above. Since Leitenberg has written widely on the subject, the question was, had he been consulted by the commission? (Full disclosure: This writer has, in the past, collaborated with Leitenberg and exchanged findings with him.)

Leitenberg replied in email that he hadn't, nor had two other experts he contacted. But a staffer on the Commission had everything that he had written. Further email discussion followed in an informal trading of comments on aspects of the Commission report, the fruits of which are discussed.

It has not been widely pointed out that the Washington Post's November 30 story on a pre-release draft of the Commission report showed differences between it and the edition released the following Wednesday.

"The biodefense research industry that sprang up after 2001 offers potential solutions to a future attack, but also numerous new opportunities for theft or diversion of deadly germs, the report says," wrote Joby Warrick for the Post.

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.