Is the U.S. prepared for a chemical
or biological weapons attack?
February 11, 1998
in this forum:
Is disarmament better than expensive defenses? Would bombing weapons sites in Iraq release dangerous agents into the atmosphere ? What are the first symptoms of contact with a biological agent? How will this threat affect the design of cities and homes?
April 22, 1997
President Clinton wants the Senate to ratify the Chemicals Weapons Treaty, a document that that would ban some of the world's most dreaded killing agents.
November 11, 1996
Were U.S. soldiers exposed to chemical weapons during the Gulf War?
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of military.
Lynn Brielmaier of Houston, TX asks: Right now, we seem to be dismissing the threat of these weapons because of the difficulty of creating, assembling, and delivering these devices. Already, there are underground avenues to get the information required to build bombs and penetrate computer & phone networks via clandestine sites on the Internet. (This is easier and faster than tracking down the required published books on these subjects.) There is no doubt that this storehouse of malicious information will grow dramatically over the next few decades. Is there anything we can do about this?
Dr. Kathleen Bailey responds:
Lynn, the technological cat is out of the bag. There is no way to "disinvent" CBW or to limit the availability of the knowledge to make them. In fact, they are relatively easy to manufacture and deliver. Many people are unaware that BW can be made by one or a few people, a point which I make in my novel, Death For Cause. (See a plot description at amazon.com) This book started out as a scenario written to show U.S. Government policymakers how serious the biological threat is. The manufacture of deadly agents can be accomplished with off-the-shelf equipment and pathogens found in nature. The knowledge that is necessary to making vaccines and conducting bio-medical research is the same as that used for making biological agents.
Chemical agents are somewhat more difficult to make. But, as Aum Shinrikyo proved, they can be manufactured in a small space the size of a walk-in closet, using equipment and materials available commercially.
Given that the knowledge cannot be squelched, it is important that we not mistakenly assume that clamping down on the Internet would help. It will not. The only things that will help us meet the challenges of CBW are to work hard on developing technologies to detect the presence or use of CB agents, and to help prevent or mitigate the effects of such weapons. Additionally, it is important to support law enforcement's efforts to prevent terrorists from using these weapons, while preserving as much privacy and freedom for innocent citizens as possible.
Larry Johnson responds:
I don't dismiss the threat but I think we need to ask two questions--is it possible and is it likely? You are correct that the spread of information increases the possibility that groups not affliated with a government can create a biological or chemical device. However, we have a case study of Aum Shinryko, which shows that an organization that was secret, that had ample research and development funds, that had scientific talent and facilities, and, most importantly, wanted to create a deadly device to kill lots of people. It had enormous difficulty accomplishing its goal. I don't want to minimize the fact that 5000 people were injured during the Aum sarin attack in March of 1995. However, it did not produce the results that one would expect from a military munition. In other words, it is not just a matter of wanting to do something, it requires a substantial investment in infrastructure and personnel to accomplish.
The issue, in my view, is not controlling access to information. Knowledge is amoral. For knowledge to become good or bad it requires human action. Since we can't control knowledge--information will always seep out and, as the computer age matures, will become more accessible--we should focus on encouraging government policies and decisions that discourage development of such devices and encourage countries to work together to keep such weapons in check.