A March 19th briefing at the US Capitol brought together a panel of experts to discuss the threat of biological weapons. The briefing, titled “Deterring Biological Threats”, was hosted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and focused heavily on the historical records of the destructive potential of the Cold War bioweapons programs in the US and the USSR. With more modern threats, such as Al Qaeda’s well-documented search for Anthrax, the amount of interest in biological attacks appears to be increasing. The means of actually deterring and preventing these biological threats remain less clear.
The session opened with taped comments from Bill Patrick III, one of the last surviving members of the former US offensive bioweapons program, which was discontinued by President Nixon in 1969. Patrick, who worked on the program from 1951 through its closing, described tests conducted by the US Army to assess the viability of biological weapons. Using relatively less dangerous bacteria that are transmitted in the same way that Anthrax is, the army conducted tests in US cities that showed the potential for hundreds of thousands of infections from an attack, and significant deaths even before spread of an infection beyond people who were exposed to the initial attack.
Washington Post contributing editor David Hoffman followed up this presentation, discussing the Soviet bioweapons program during the years after the approval of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which entered force in 1975. Hoffman described his research on the covert offensive weapons program, which continued under the guise of a civilian agency, Biopreparat. The program produced the capacity to manufacture massive quantities of Anthrax and Smallpox. Though there is limited objective evidence assessing Soviet ability to deliver these weapons, the philosophy appears to have been to follow up nuclear attacks with biological and anti-crop attacks as part of a total war plan intended to leave no survivors.
Finally, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, discussed his recent report on Al Qaeda’s efforts to acquire Anthrax. Though much of this story is incomplete – many of the details are still classified – the details that have emerged show organized and persistent efforts to pursue the acquisition of the disease.
The CNAS briefing series is scheduled to continue, with the next seminar on April 16th.