plague war
Interview: William S. Cohen
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William S. Cohen is the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

How real is the threat from biological warfare both in terms of terrorism and rogue states?

It's very real. It's not only the threat of tomorrow, but it's the threat of today. More and more countries are developing both chemical and biological weapons. That number is bound to increase as technology information continues to be shared on the Internet and other means of communication. So, the threat is real both on the battlefield scenario and also direct towards civilian populations.

The DoD concluded recently that the biological warfare threat was  one area in which the US has found itself to be the most vulnerable. This was said repeatedly at a symposium on the subject  held in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 1998. More than 2,000 delegates from 70 countries were present, many of them military officers. If the threat is so serious, why do you think it hasn't happened yet?

Well, it's not for want of trying. We saw the situation in New York City for example, where the terrorists tried to destroy one of the [World] Trade Towers and they had contemplated setting off cyanide in the process. It failed to ignite and therefore the great catastrophe did not take place. We did see the sarin gas attack that took place in Tokyo a few years ago. So there are groups who are, in fact, planning to use these types of devices and will probably do so.

Do you think, personally, a biological attack is inevitable?

Well, nothing is inevitable until it happens ... however, as more information is shared and more countries start developing and experimenting with biological weapons, the probability is much greater that it will take place.

What is the defense against the so-called apocalyptic groups, and what is the defense against state-inspired threats?

Well, with respect to any of these groups, be it apocalyptic or state inspired, greater information is going to be required--greater intelligence and a sharing of that intelligence among states. It will require not only professional intelligence gathering, but also a well-educated citizen rate. We want citizens to be aware of the nature of the threat, to be observant in terms of what they might see, to be willing to come forward with information to the appropriate authorities and then for the authorities to share that information. Certainly on a national level, but on an international level as well, should it be a state-sponsored type of operation.

Isn't it really, in a sense, the counsel of despair, because what will the ordinary citizen know about biological warfare or who represents the threat?

No, but one could help identify, for example, if someone is working on a biological weapon. It could be someone who is developing a brewery. We have a lot of small micro breweries in this country today and any sort of activity which strikes an individual as being odd or somewhat different or somewhat suspect could be helpful to communicate that information to intelligence authorities who could then make a much more thorough and professional investigation. I think citizens are going to be aware of what is going on in their neighborhoods and elsewhere.

You authorized an increase in defense intelligence funding to track possible biological terrorism.

Yes, we have added roughly $1 billion to the future year's funding for our defense budget to deal with biological and chemical types of weapon threats and that's in addition to the $3.5 billion. So it's almost $4.5 billion dollars we've dedicated to this type of research development of providing protective uniforms and suits for our military personnel, providing for types of instruction to communities. We have about 120 cities that we are now cooperating with to help train their first responders to a biological or chemical type of attack. We are devoting considerable resources to this problem.

You really take it seriously, don't you?

We take it very seriously. We have developed a biological identification detection units as such. They will be deployed in regions where there might be a conflict. We deployed them to the Gulf region and to the most recent Iraq crisis. We are putting a lot of money and effort into research. The president is very concerned about this. I attended a meeting at the White House a few weeks ago in which he gathered a number of his key scientific advisors to give him some idea of the scope of the threat--what is going to be required as far as research in the scientific community, what sort of vaccines will have to be developed to provide the protection for our citizens. And the scope of it is quite enormous. I know he was very impressed and he continues to really concentrate on this issue a great deal.

One could argue that the best form of defense is a version of mutually assured destruction by which it is guaranteed that you will respond with nuclear weapons. Can you define what is understood by the Presidential Decision Directive 1297?

We have always taken the position that should we be attacked by any power with a nuclear weapon, certainly we have the capacity to respond accordingly. We have also indicated to any country who would threaten our forces or our people with chemical or biological weapons that they would be met with a devastating response that would be quite swift and overwhelming. There's no designation of what that might entail, but it's very clear that it would be a very destructive force that they would be met with.

We're talking nuclear here.

We're talking to the extent that any country were to attack us with nuclear weapons then we obviously have a nuclear response. With respect to biologicals and chemicals, we have indicated it would be a swift, devastating response and overwhelming force. We have not indicated what that might entail. We've left that deliberately open.

But one doesn't have to use too much imagination as to what it might be.

I think any country that would seek to use chemicals or biologicals against the United States would regret it.

What problems are posed by the genetic engineering of some of these biological organisms?

Well, to the extent that these various biological organisms can be genetically engineered, they can be engineered in a way that precludes any effective vaccine, so there'd be no protection, and no ability to help people recover from the disease they'd be suffering from. So the very same technology that is being used and developed to combat specific types of diseases can also be used to create them.

Do you think these are the weapons of the future?

I think these are the weapons of the future, but the future is coming closer and closer to today ... this is something that I think it's hard for most people to imagine that people are actually planning and trying to develop a plague that would wipe out millions of people.

This year, there was an operation, called table top, which was reported in the papers, in which a genetically engineered version of smallpox and Marburg virus was used in a war game on a Californian town. The results were catastrophic. Can you tell me more about that exercise?

Well, basically, we're always trying to anticipate the worst possible scenario to the extent that a particular type of virus would be used against the United States and its citizens, what would be the initial response and if one could detect that it appeared to be a certain type of virus, do we have the kind of vaccine that would be available to provide the kind of protection for the American people. But if you then start to mix them and complicate the response that would be available, then you can see what could result, so we are constantly looking at various types of schemes and mischievous activities that could be undertaken to kill a lot of innocent people.

Do you believe in the threat of the chimera virus?

I believe that there are a number of threats that are posed today and there'll be many more tomorrow.

Are there dangers from pathogens that may soon be engineered to take out just certain types of people, depending on their genetic makeup?

There's been a good deal of speculation about that. We have no scientific evidence that would confirm that, and as a matter of fact, it poses a number of engineering feats that would have to be made possible through great research and development. Even if you were to have an entire class of people, a race, an ethnic group, there's enough diversity genetically within that group that would pose a number of problems that would have to be overcome ...

The whole concept is horrible isn't it?

The whole concept is horrible and Richard Preston who has written two books now, The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event has also called upon the scientific community, the biotechnology community to adopt a very strict code of ethics [because] the community has not spoken out about this type of potential that awaits mankind.

We're reasonably certain that Mr. Gorbachev didn't quite know what was going on with the Soviet Union's biological warfare program. We know that Boris Yeltsin, may inadvertently have not been told the truth about the extent of the program when he inherited it. Do you believe that Mr. Yeltsin is currently in control of the people who may be running Russia's biological warfare program?

Well, we do know that President Yeltsin has made a number of statements, a number of commitments that this type of activity had to stop. Whether or not there are individuals in his government or outside of his government who are continuing this capability, I think, remains to be determined. It's not so much whether or not there is an intent to manufacture or develop these types of weapons, but whether there is the capacity. That's something we have to continue to work at and to continue to cooperate with our Russian counterparts.

From the intelligence that crosses your desk, do you believe personally that some form of offensive biological warfare research and development continues in Russia?

Well, I never comment on any intelligence report that comes across my desk. What I have to be concerned about is whether or not there is a capacity on the part of any country to develop these kinds of weapons and as I've indicated in a report that was filed in this past year, more and more countries are devoting their resources to developing biological weapons.

Do you believe the possibility that President Yeltsin may not have total control over what's going on and perhaps that some revanchist generals continue with this program in what they may regard are the best interests of Russia?

That's always a possibility. What we also have to assume is that President Yeltsin is dedicated to eradicating this problem, dealing with it effectively and we will continue to work with him as we have a number of meetings that take place at the highest levels between President Clinton and President Yeltsin, between the vice president, myself, other individuals in the administration and in our scientific community. We work very closely to deal with this problem. Could there be rogue elements within any government? The answer is, obviously it could take place, but we have to continue to work at it on a cooperative basis.

Are you and do you believe President Clinton is concerned at a certain lack of transparency in the Russian program? You haven't been able to visit any of the military sites that are working on this.

I think we're all concerned about the lack of transparency with any of the countries who are, in fact, engaging in this type of research. We looked at countries like North Korea, a total lack of transparency there. Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria. Those countries I think clearly have raised great obstacles to any discovery of what they're doing.

Are you slightly concerned at the lack of destruction at the huge biological warfare facilities at Stepnagorsk in Kazakhstan?

Well, we are working with the Russians and Kazakhstan to eliminate those facilities that were, in fact, used to construct biological weaponry in the past. That's one of the reasons why we have the so-called Nunn-Lugar Program. It has been very helpful, not only dealing with the destruction of nuclear weapons, but also dedicated to building facilities that'll help the destruction of biological weapon facilities.

Many people I have spoken with are puzzled at why the Russians would do research on such viruses as Ebola and Marburg at the Vector Laboratories at Koltsovo. Neither of these viruses pose any public health threat in the world. Why do you think the Russians are working on this?

I really don't have a good answer as far as why they're doing this. The Ebola virus was written about by Richard Preston in his book, The Hot Zone, so it's not something that would be minor to the extent that the Russians are trying to make sure that they have a defensive capability against the outbreak of Ebola or Marburg. That may be understandable. To the extent that efforts are made to use this in an offensive way, it would be a matter of concern if that's the case.

Do you see a danger of proliferation continuing as the technology becomes more widespread and do you believe there is any evidence of Russian scientists having moved out of Russia into rogue states to help them with biological programs?

The short answer is that it is my opinion that the threat is likely to increase as the technology becomes more available and widespread. With respect to Russian scientists, I really don't have any information that I could communicate ... we're always concerned whenever you have individuals who have this kind of expertise and knowledge traveling or visiting countries that seem dedicated to acquiring that kind of capability.

There have been several reports that look at the vulnerabilities both of the United States and here at the Department of Defense. Vulnerabilities such as supply bases overseas being subjected to a sneak attack and the Defense Science Board spoke of a notable shortfall in U.S. technology and troop equipment. Can that be remedied or must we remain vulnerable?

There'll always be some degree of vulnerability. What we're doing is moving as quickly as we can to reduce the level of that vulnerability. As I indicated before, we have now appropriated large sums of money dedicated to providing defensive equipment; detection equipment so that it can be quickly detected in the field; and protective clothing for our soldiers who have to deal with this in a wartime scenario. We provided anthrax vaccinations to all of our forces, but principally those who were deployed in the Gulf region because of the crisis with Iraq. We will have all of our men and women in our military vaccinated over a relatively short period of time. We're also taking steps to protect our civilian populations, to educate them, to have response teams in place, to stand up our National Guard, to have ten specialized units as such that could be rapidly deployed to any region in the country to deal with a chemical or biological attack.

So we're taking a number of measures. Will they ever be 100% sufficient? The answer is, no. But, in addition to that, we have our deterrent capability. We need greater intelligence ... information so that we can detect those who may be planning a terrorist attack or those countries who are developing weaponry that could be used against us. We're trying to pre-empt those individuals in those countries from taking action.

There are about 48 organisms that could be used offensively--25 viruses, 13 bacteria, 10 toxins. Is it impossible to defend against all of these?

It would be a task, yes, defending us all. I think what we have to do is, once again, unite the world community against the countries who are thinking of using chemical or biological weapons. We have to educate the public in all of our countries about the dangers in transferring dual use technology to those countries that appear to be committed to developing their capability. We have to gather more intelligence against individuals who may be part of the groups who are simply non-associated with states that are acting on their own from whatever malevolent motives or mad motives they might have. So, yes, it's a great task, but one we have to address. We can't simply throw our hands up and say all is lost.

You are the first secretary of defense who has made biological warfare almost a private fiefdom. Is that a personal revulsion or what else lies behind it?

It's simply coming to accept the reality of the world today. There are very few countries who are going to be willing to take the United States head on in a conventional type of conflict and therefore it goes back to the day of Sun Tzu and The Art of Warfare. You seek the weaknesses and strength of your opponent and if you look at our Achilles' Heel and that of any Western nation you would say, "How would I expend very little effort and get a very significant result." If you look at the impact that a biological weapon can have, in terms of its cost and consequence, you will find that it does not take a great deal to develop it in terms of money. It has a major consequence if you were to, for example, take roughly a 100 kilograms of anthrax and you were to properly disperse [it], that would have the impact of something like two to six times the consequence of a one megaton nuclear bomb. So we're looking at something that could be dispersed properly and have an impact far beyond our imagination at this point.

But that would require optimum conditions, it would require a light plane flying here over Washington. Isn't that just a little bit in the future?

I don't think so. It doesn't take a great deal to have an aerial spray hooked up, you could have a crop sprayer and have a plane flying over, it doesn't have to be Washington DC, [it can be] any city in America. A small plane virtually unnoticed, lays down a very thin mist of biological substance, flies off, lands in either another part of the United States or another country and several days later you have a major plague that breaks out. That's not something for tomorrow, that's something that's here today.

How vulnerable is the United States today?

Well, the United States is probably less vulnerable than most other countries. I would say the world at large is vulnerable to biological weaponry, but the West and the United States especially, we are taking a number of measures in order to protect our soldiers in the field and also to educate and help protect our citizens at home. We are devoting billions of dollars to research and development for protective equipment for our soldiers, detection equipment for them in the field, but also to train the first responders, those who would have to respond at the local level. Plus, we have vaccines for anthrax for our military personnel and undoubtedly we'll be required in the future to develop various types of vaccines for other types of threats that we're likely to face in the future.

But you clearly see this as the West's Achilles' Heel?

I do as a matter of fact. We could reasonably anticipate that all the other countries who are developing biological weapons are doing so because they see it basically as a poisoned arrow into the Achilles' Heel of the West.

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