Posts from July, 2012

The History of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program

In 1972, the United States, the Soviet Union and other nations signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention that was supposed to ban biological weapons.  At that very time, however, the Soviet Union was embarking on a massive expansion of its offensive biological weapons program, which began in the 1920s and continued under the Russian Federation at least into the 1990s.

The astonishing story of the Soviet biological weapons enterprise is told in an encyclopedic new work entitled “The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History” by Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas (Harvard University Press, 2012).

The Soviet biological weapons (BW) program was by far the largest and most sophisticated such program ever undertaken by any nation.  It was also intensely secretive, and was masked by layers of classification, deception and misdirection.

“The program’s most important facilities remain inaccessible to outsiders to this day,” Leitenberg and Zilinskas write, “and it has been made a crime for anyone in present-day Russia to divulge information about the former offensive BW program.”  Needless to say, official archives are closed and Russian government officials are uncommunicative on the subject, or deny the existence of the program altogether.

Over a period of a decade or so, Leitenberg and Zilinskas were able to interview about a dozen former Soviet scientists who were involved in the Soviet BW program, along with dozens of other sources.  Their revelations inform the authors’ analysis and serve to advance public knowledge of the subject far beyond previous reports.  Even relatively well-known incidents like the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax epidemic are cast in a new light.  Many other aspects of the program will be entirely unfamiliar to most readers.

Much of the book is devoted to a description of the vast infrastructure of Soviet BW research and production, including descriptions of the various institutes, their history, their workforce and the nature of their research, as far as it could be discerned.  Along the way, many fascinating and sometimes horrific topics are addressed.  For example:

  •     In an effort to enhance the weapons-related properties of BW agents, Soviet scientists spent years working to create a viral “chimera,” which is an organism that contains genetic material from two or more other organisms.
  •     Other scientists worked to eliminate the “epitopes” on the surface of existing BW agents in order to make them unrecognizable to regular diagnostic techniques.  By using such a modified agent, “the Soviets would have made it considerably more difficult for the attacked population to identify the causative pathogen of the resulting disease outbreak and begin timely treatment.”
  •     A project codenamed Hunter (Okhotnik) sought to develop hybrids of bacteria and viruses such that use of an antibiotic to kill the bacteria would trigger release of the virus.  “Unlike other national BW programs, which without exception used only classical or traditional applied microbiology techniques to weaponize agents, the post-1972 Soviet program had a futuristic aspect. By employing genetic manipulation and other molecular biology techniques, its scientists were able to breach barriers separating species….”
  •     The Soviet BW program appears to have taken advantage of the declassification in the 1970s of a large number of documents from the United States BW program.  Thus, the design of the Soviet Gshch-304 BW bomblet was found to closely resemble that of the declassified US E-130R2 bomblet.  In 2001, the US Government moved to reclassify many documents on the US BW program, but “nothing could be done about recalling reports that had been distributed relatively freely for more than 35 years.”
  •     The quality of US intelligence about the Soviet BW program left much to be desired.  “Intelligence about Soviet BW-related activities is relatively thin for the pre-1972 period; meager and often of dubious value during 1970-1979; and a little less meager and of better quality during 1980-1990.” After 1990, little has been declassified.  “There is an unknown number of still-classified reports concerning the Soviet BW program produced by the CIA and perhaps by other agencies that we do not have,” the authors write.  The state of declassification is such that “we have been able to collect far more information” about the history of Soviet BW activities from interviews with former Soviet scientists and others than from declassified official records.
  •     In what the authors term “a horrendous mistake by the United States,” the US government undertook a covert deception and disinformation program aimed at the Soviet Union in the late 1960s which implied falsely that the US had a clandestine biological weapons program.  This unfortunate campaign may have reinforced an existing Soviet belief that the US had never terminated its own offensive BW program, a belief that lent impetus, if not legitimacy, to the Soviet BW program.
  •     Today, the situation with respect to BW in the former Soviet Union is “ambiguous and unsatisfactory,” Leitenberg and Zilinskas write. “There remains the possibility that Russia maintains portions of an offensive BW program in violation of the BWC.” Alternatively, “since we do not actually know what is and has been taking place within the three [Ministry of Defense BW] facilities since 1992, perhaps the situation is better than might be feared.”

In 23 chapters, the authors painstakingly examine many facets of the history, structure and operation of the Soviet BW program.  They scrupulously cite prior scholarship on the subject, while sorting out verifiable fact, plausible inference, dubious speculation, and error or fabrication.  (Thus, “No SS-18 ICBM bomblet delivery system was ever completed, none was ever tested, and obviously none could ever have been employed.”)

But even after 900 pages of often dense text, “there are large gaps in our understanding of the Soviet BW program” and “readers are cautioned that much remains to be discovered.”

“We have not been able to resolve definitively some of the most important questions,” they observe.  Unanswered questions involve basic issues such as the motivation and purpose of the program.  Why did the Soviet Union pursue the development and acquisition of biological weapons?  Who was to be targeted by Soviet biological weapons – the US?  China?  Europe? – and under what conceivable circumstances?  And what happens now?

Following a brief period during the Yeltsin years during which Russian officials acknowledged this activity, “Russia’s current official position is that no offensive BW program had existed in the Soviet Union.”

*    *    *

The History of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program was reviewed by author David E. Hoffman in Foreign Policy last month.

In 2010 the US Government signed an agreement with the former Soviet Republic of Armenia to cooperate in the control or destruction of dangerous pathogens, and in other efforts to prevent proliferation of biological weapons.  The agreement, one of several such documents, was published earlier this year.

FY2013 Defense Authorization and Appropriations, and More from CRS

New and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following.

Defense: FY2013 Authorization and Appropriations, July 13, 2012

The Unified Command Plan and Combatant Commands: Background and Issues for Congress, July 17, 2012

LIBOR: Frequently Asked Questions, July 16, 2012

The 2001 and 2003 Bush Tax Cuts and Deficit Reduction, July 16, 2012

Guatemala: Political, Security, and Socio-Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations, June 26, 2012

Publishing Scientific Papers with Potential Security Risks

The recent controversy over publication of scientific papers concerning the transmissibility of bird flu virus was reviewed in a new report by the Congressional Research Service. The report cautiously elucidates the relevant policy implications and considers the responses available to Congress.

“Because of the complexity of dual-use issues, analysis of a topic according to one set of policy priorities may lead to unforeseen complications due to its intersection with other policy priorities,” the report says. “For example, maximizing security may lead to detriments in public health and scientific advancement, while maximizing scientific advancement may lead to security risks.”

See Publishing Scientific Papers with Potential Security Risks: Issues for Congress, July 12, 2012.

China and Internet Freedom, and More from CRS

Among the latest Congressional Research Service reports that have not been made readily available to the public are the following.

China, Internet Freedom, and U.S. Policy, July 13, 2012

Department of Defense Implementation of the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative: Implications for Federal Information Technology Reform Management, July 12, 2012

Confirmation of U.S. Circuit and District Court Nominations in Presidential Election Years
, July 12, 2012

Congressional Liaison Offices of Selected Federal Agencies, July 12, 2012

Hydraulic Fracturing and Safe Drinking Water Act Issues, July 12, 2012

An Analysis of Charitable Giving and Donor Advised Funds, July 11, 2012

ISCAP to Provide Increased Disclosure of Its Decisions

The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) is preparing to provide improved public notification of its declassification and disclosure decisions.

The ISCAP, among its other duties, considers and rules on appeals from the public to declassify records that agencies have refused to release.  The Panel, which was established by executive order in 1995, has actually succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations, declassifying information in the majority of cases presented to it.  (My own requests were not among those that were decided in favor of disclosure.)  According to the latest annual report from the Information Security Oversight Office:

“Since May 1996, the Panel decided upon a total of 1,195 documents. Of these, the Panel declassified additional information in 64 percent of the documents. Specifically, 291 documents (24 percent) were declassified in their entirety and 477 documents (40 percent) had some portions declassified while the classification of other portions was affirmed. During this time frame, the Panel fully affirmed the classification decisions of agencies in 427 documents (36 percent).”

Last week, the ISCAP issued revised bylaws, including a new section on “dissemination of ISCAP decisions” (sec. 2003.14).

This section corresponds to the so-called “fourth function” assigned to ISCAP by President Obama’s executive order 13526 that required the Panel to “appropriately inform senior agency officials and the public of final Panel decisions….”  That provision did not exist in previous Administrations’ executive orders, which listed only three functions for the ISCAP.

Another revised provision of the bylaws puts the ISCAP at the President’s disposal to carry out other unspecified advisory functions, as needed.  In language oddly reminiscent of the 1947 National Security Act section that was understood to authorize CIA covert action (by which the Agency is “to perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct”), the ISCAP bylaws (sec. 2003.15) state somewhat evasively:

“As directed by the President through the National Security Advisor, the ISCAP performs such additional advisory functions as are consistent with, and supportive of, the successful implementation of the Order.”

The Due Process Guarantee Act

The Due Process Guarantee Act (S. 2003) is a bill that was introduced last year by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and colleagues to explicitly prohibit the indefinite detention without trial of United States citizens who are apprehended within the United States on suspicion of terrorism.

The bill was crafted due to a residual ambiguity in last year’s defense authorization act that seemed to leave it an open question as to whether Americans could be so detained or not.

The Due Process Guarantee Act has not progressed to a vote in the House or the Senate.  But the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on it last February 29.  The full record of that hearing has recently been published.

The full hearing volume presents some new material including answers to questions for the record provided by Steven Bradbury, the former head of the Bush Administration Office of Legal Counsel.  It also includes a flinty exchange of letters between Mr. Bradbury and Sen. Al Franken, who said that Mr. Bradbury was unsuited to be be a witness before the Committee because of his “contemptible” legal advice regarding enhanced interrogation during the Bush years.

Further background related to the subject matter of the hearing can be found in Detention of U.S. Persons as Enemy Belligerents by Jennifer K. Elsea of the Congressional Research Service.

Army Intelligence on Language and Cultural Competency

“Language and cultural competency” is the theme of the latest edition of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin.

Topics addressed include cultural relativism, ethnography, “patron-client relations,” the stand-up of AFRICOM (US Africa Command) from an African perspective, and “operational culture training for the French military in Africa.”

The Army does not make the Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin routinely available to the public.  But upon request, the latest issue was released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Former ISOO Director Again Asks Court to Release NSA Documents

Last May, J. William Leonard, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, asked a federal court for permission to disclose and discuss declassified National Security Agency documents that had been cited in the prosecution of former NSA official Thomas Drake.  The documents represented a particularly “egregious” and “willful” case of overclassification, Mr. Leonard said, that needed to be publicly addressed.

Last month, government attorneys said there was no basis for action by the Court, and they suggested that Mr. Leonard could submit a Freedom of Information Act request to NSA for the documents instead.

Yesterday, Mr. Drake’s attorneys fired back in support of Mr. Leonard, who served as an expert for the Drake defense. They said Mr. Leonard is properly seeking relief from the Court because it was the Court that issued the Protective Order that limits his ability to discuss the issue.

“The Protective Order remains in effect today. It was not voided or mooted when judgment was entered last year. It has not expired,” wrote public defenders James Wyda and Deborah L. Boardman, Mr. Drake’s attorneys. “Although the United States may not take the terms of its own Protective Order seriously, Mr. Leonard does.”

The government’s suggestion that Mr. Drake file a FOIA request is unsatisfactory in two ways, Mr. Wyda and Ms. Boardman wrote.  First, NSA has failed to release these documents in response to previous FOIA requests, including one filed by me last year.

“Given NSA’s track record and its failure to respond to prior requests [...], Mr. Leonard had no reason to believe his FOIA request for the same document would have been successful.”

But even if NSA did release the documents under FOIA, that would not solve Mr. Leonard’s problem, the defense attorneys explained.

“Even if Mr. Leonard had received the documents pursuant to a FOIA request, he would still be bound by the terms of the Protective Order that prohibit him from disclosing and discussing the documents.  It would do Mr. Leonard no good to merely receive the documents pursuant to a FOIA request if he cannot discuss the documents because he is bound by a Court Order that prohibits such discussion.”

The good news, they said, is that NSA has already prepared lightly redacted versions of the documents that are suitable for public release.  “These redacted versions are acceptable to Mr. Leonard,” Mr. Wyda and Ms. Boardman wrote.

Now it will be up to the Court to rule.

The deeper question raised by Mr. Leonard’s action — how to respond to “egregiously” mistaken classification actions — remains open.

Polygraphs and Leaks: A Look Back at NSDD 84

“I’ve had it up to my keister with these leaks,” President Reagan complained in 1983 after a series of unauthorized disclosures.  “Keister is slang for buttocks,” the Associated Press helpfully explained at that time.

One of President Reagan’s responses to the flood of leaks was to direct the use of polygraph examinations in leak investigations. (The Director of National Intelligence reflexively responded in a similar way last month.)

National Security Decision Directive 84 of March 11, 1983 directed that “All departments and agencies with employees having access to classified information are directed to revise existing regulations and policies, as necessary, so that employees may be required to submit to polygraph examinations, when appropriate, in the course of investigations of unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

Amazingly, this policy was denounced by then-Secretary of State George Shultz, who threatened to resign rather than submit to a polygraph examination.  He was excused from the test.

“Management through fear and intimidation is not the way to promote honesty and protect security,” Secretary Shultz said in a January 9, 1989 valedictory speech, explaining his opposition to the polygraph.

But management through fear and intimidation seems to be a recurring theme in security policy.  And polygraph testing is part of that, judging from a remarkable story published this week by McClatchy Newspapers.

“One of the nation’s most secretive intelligence agencies is pressuring its polygraphers to obtain intimate details of the private lives of thousands of job applicants and employees, pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of a program that’s designed instead to catch spies and terrorists,” wrote McClatchy reporter Marisa Taylor.

“The National Reconnaissance Office is so intent on extracting confessions of personal or illicit behavior that officials have admonished polygraphers who refused to go after them and rewarded those who did, sometimes with cash bonuses, a McClatchy investigation found.”  See “National Reconnaissance Office accused of illegally collecting personal data,” July 10.  (More here.)

“The US is, so far as I know, the only nation which places such extensive reliance on the polygraph,” wrote convicted spy Aldrich Ames in a November 2000 letter from prison. “It has gotten us into a lot of trouble.”