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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 60, September 2001

News Review

Controversial US Biological Warfare Research

On September 4, the New York Times reported that the United States was conducting "secret research on biological weapons" which, according to a number of US officials, "tests the limits" of the Biological Weapons Convention. According to the report, the research, commenced under the Clinton administration, mimics "the major steps a state or terrorist would take to create a biological arsenal." The paper stated that the project involved plans to create a "more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax". The BWC only permits research and development of means of counteracting the effects of biological attack. As Alexander Gorbovsky, a senior official in Russia's Munitions Agency, stated on September 5: "It's not prohibited to develop vaccines against biological weapons, but developing a new strain of anthrax would be a violation of the ban".

On September 4, Defense Department spokesperson Victoria Clarke fielded questions on the story, insisting: "All of the work is consistent with US treaty obligations. All of the work is thoroughly briefed and [has] gone through a heavy consultation process, both interagency and the appropriate legal reviews and the appropriate congressional briefings. ... The purpose [of the research] is to protect the men and women in uniform and the American people from what we see is a real and growing threat."

Asked about the allegations of a possible new strain of anthrax, Clarke noted: "In 1997 there was a journal called Vaccine which reported on a new or modified anthrax strain that the Russians may have been developing. We have a vaccine that works against...all of the known anthrax strains. What we want to do is make sure we are prepared for any surprises, [that] we're prepared for anything else that might happen that might be a threat. So about in the early part of this year, the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] started to look into the feasibility, and doing all the legal consultations, doing all the appropriate interagency consultations to look into how we could develop that modified anthrax strain so we could test our vaccines against it and make sure we prevent against any surprises... Right now there is no work going on on the modified anthrax strain. The director [of the DIA] has made it very clear that he wants further interagency consultation work done..."

Clarke denied that a desire to keep the research secret was a factor in the administration's withdrawal from efforts to negotiate a verification protocol to the BWC. She added: "The protocol has lots of problems recognized by lots of people other than us. Foremost among them, it would make it very hard to do biodefense."

Clarke also revealed that the Defense Department is working with the State Research Centre for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk, Russia, on research related to protecting against anthrax: "In August 2001 the State Research Centre applied to the Russian Export Control Commission for a license to transfer the anthrax strain to the US Centers for Disease Control. The application is currently pending a decision of the Russian Export Control Commission, and the US government will seek Russian approval of the export license."

Also speaking on September 4, White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer told reporters: "Countering the threat of biological weapons is an administration priority, and has been a priority of the United States government for a number of years. Unfortunately, the biological threat around the world is growing... The United States does have a programme, it's been around for a while, to develop vaccines and protective measures in case we are attacked. ... It's purely defensive. We are honouring the treaty."

Reports: US germ warfare research pushes treaty limits, New York Times, September 4; White House defends germ-warfare work, Associated Press, September 4; US plans to produce anthrax strain for defense, Reuters, September 4; Defense Department Report, September 4 - biological warfare, Washington File, September 4; Excerpt - Defense Department spokeswoman on biological weapons, Washington File, September 5; US anthrax plan worries Russians, Associated Press, September 5.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.