Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has spent at least $44 billion on biological "defense" without ever making made a true needs assessment. In the early 1990s the Kremlin shut down their huge, Soviet-era germ warfare operation and, while Israel, Iran, and North Korea are known to have biological weapons research facilities and India, China, and Cuba are said to be building high-security labs to study lethal bacteria and viruses, these initial or potential programs are disproportionately behind the massive efforts underway in the United States. In the words of Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, an Austin, Texas-based group that tracks research involving biological agents: "Our biowarfare research is defending ourselves from ourselves. It's a dog chasing its tail."
Milton Leitenberg is an arms control authority and a member of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and UM's Center for International and Security Studies. In his 2005 book, Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat, Leitenberg writes that the risk of terrorists and nonstate actors using biological agents "has been systematically and deliberately exaggerated," particularly after the 2001 anthrax attacks on Congress and media outlets. He contends that U.S. officials undertook a concerted effort to promote their view on the international stage and that an "edifice of institutes, programs, conferences, and publicists" continues to spread what he calls exaggeration and scare-mongering.
What's more, while floating extravagant tales of terrorists planning to launch deadly germ attacks on the United States, the Bush administration has been diverting dollars from urgent medical research against real threats, such as avian influenza, to the creation of new strains of extinct killer diseases like Spanish flu. Upon his retirement in December 2004, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson cited pandemic flu as the greatest threat to the nation. Yet according to Leitenberg, Washington policymakers instead have focused on bioterrorism and biodefense.
Leitenberg posits it might take just such a pandemic to demonstrate to the public that Washington "has been using the overwhelming proportion of its relevant resources to prepare for the wrong contingency." From 1977 to 1999, he notes, flu killed 788,000 people in the United States, about 36,000 a year. Even if there is no outbreak of pandemic flu, one could project 360,000 American deaths from flu over the next decade. When these figures are contrasted with the five deaths from the 2001 anthrax attacks, it is little short of amazing that in fiscal year 2006 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received $1.76 billion for biodefense but only $120 million to fight influenza.
If taxpayers are slow to recognize that billions of their tax dollars are being poured into hundreds of biological cesspools, some scientific bodies are not. According to the nonprofit Center For Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CAC) in Washington, DC, in 2001 the U.S. government spent $1.6 billion to address the threat of biological weapons. By 2006 total spending had reached $36 billion, with a record $8 billion more earmarked for FY 2007. As noted, one of the leading agencies allocating such funds is the NIH, billed as "the steward of medical and behavioral research for the Nation." Two years ago, the growing slice of the NIH budget being shifted to biodefense research--money that has traditionally gone to fighting diseases such as cancer--prompted 750 of the 1,143 NIH-funded scientists studying bacterial diseases to write an open letter to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni charging that the research center's emphasis on biodefense had diminished their efforts to achieve basic research breakthroughs.
The public has good reason for concern. In the introduction to Francis Boyle's 2005 book, Biowarfare and Terrorism, MIT molecular biology professor Jonathan King writes: "the Bush administration launched a major program which threatens to put the health of our people at far greater risk than the hazard to which they claimed to have been responding." Bush's policies, he continues, "do not increase the security of the American people" but "bring new risk to our population of the most appalling kind."
From Washington State to Florida and from Massachusetts to California, the United States has broken out in a rash of federally funded biological warfare operations with as many as four hundred labs involved in research related to pathogens that could be used as bioweapons agents. According to the Sunshine Project, most states have a facility of some sort, ranging from an open-air testing location to aerosol test chambers to Biosafety Level 3 or Level 4 operations, the latter being one in which the pathogens being tampered with are deadly, easily transmissible, and have no known cure. Additionally, there are laboratories in a number of states whose activity is classified as secret. Beyond the NIH, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the military are heavily engaged in such work, some of it conducted abroad, such as the Navy's labs in Egypt, Peru, Indonesia, and Germany.
Biological warfare involves the use of living organisms for military purposes. Such weapons can be viral, bacterial, and fungal, among other forms, and can be spread over a large geographic terrain by wind, water, insect, animal, or human transmission. Among the most dangerous pathogens under study are anthrax, tularemia, plague, and ebola virus, as well as toxins (living organisms such as fungi). Using genetic engineering, U.S. government scientists are purportedly concocting new strains of lethal microbes for which there are no cures. Bacteria, for example, can be made resistant to vaccines. Indeed, they can be made more virulent, easier to disseminate, and harder to eradicate. Some pathogens are even being injected with genes to make them resistant to antibiotic drugs.Words fail to describe this "achievement," coming from the same country that gave the world the Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin polio vaccines.
As part of its buildup, in January 2005 the Army authorized construction of a new facility at the already sprawling U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. According to a July 31, 2006, report in London's Guardian, Fort Detrick's National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), due to be completed in 2008, "will house heavily guarded and hermetically sealed chambers in which scientists simulate potential terrorist attacks." The scientists will dress in full-body spacesuits and use aerosol-test chambers to expose animals to deadly pathogens. To do so, the Guardian reported, the world's most lethal bacteria and viruses would have to be produced and stockpiled. Questions of international law violations and the hastening of a biological arms race persist.
In December 2006 Battelle National Biodefense Institute hooked the $250-million, five-year DHS contract to run the NBACC. According to the Washington Post, much of what transpires at that center may never be known as the government intends to operate the facility largely in secret. In its July 30, 2006, article, the Post reported:
- The heart of the lab is a cluster of sealed chambers built to contain the world's deadliest bacteria and viruses. There, scientists will spend their days simulating the unthinkable: bioterrorism attacks in the form of lethal anthrax spores rendered as wispy powders that can drift for miles on a summer breeze, or common viruses turned into deadly superbugs that ordinary drugs and vaccines cannot stop.
University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle charges that the Bush administration is spending more money in inflation-adjusted dollars to develop illegal, offensive germ warfare than the $2 billion the United States spent on the Manhattan Project to make the atomic bomb. That weapon's development was, at least, driven by the realistic fears that Nazi Germany might develop it first. Today, no comparable enemy exists.
Peculiarly, the only significant deadly germ warfare attack on the United States appeared to have come from the government's own Fort Detrick site. A month after 9/11, the mysterious anthrax attacks killed five, sickened seventeen, and alarmed the nation. The perpetrator was never found (a poor showing for a country that spends $40 billion a year on intelligence), but the anthrax-laced letters to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) prodded Congress to rubberstamp an expansion of spending for biological defense through the Patriot and Project BioShield acts.
Project BioShield is a $5.6-billion plan under which the Department of Homeland Security is stockpiling vaccines and drugs to fight anthrax, smallpox, and other germ warfare agents. There is considerable dispute as to whether the plan's activities open the door to aggressive use of such agents. According to Boyle, pursuant to two national strategy directives adopted by Bush in 2002, the Pentagon "is now gearing up to fight and 'win' biological warfare without prior public knowledge and review." The Pentagon's Chemical and Biological Defense Program was revised in 2003 to implement those directives, endorsing "first-use" strike of chemical and biological weapons in war. Boyle calls the directives the proverbial smoking gun and further points to President Bush's Homeland Security Presidential Directive, HSPD-10, of April 28, 2004, which states:
- We are continuing to develop more forward-looking analyses, to include Red Teaming efforts, to understand new scientific trends that may be exploited by our adversaries to develop biological weapons and to help position intelligence collectors ahead of the problem.
"'Red Teaming' means that we actually have people out there on a Red Team plotting, planning, and scheming how to use biowarfare," says Boyle. The Army has stated its work is, and will continue to be, solely defensive in nature. But when it comes to biowarfare and the agents involved, how do you prepare to defend against such threats without developing them?
According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century, "it is widely acknowledged that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between defensive and offensive research in the field." Still, as a signatory to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (entered into force in 1975), the United States is officially bound to the treaty, the scope of which is defined in Article 1:
- Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.
University of Maryland's Leitenberg, a long-time authority in the arms control field, contends the government is not developing germ warfare weapons. However, in a monograph published by his organization, he does question whether ongoing research crosses the line:
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