Report

The Invisible Threat

As the Trump administration talks border walls and North Korean nukes, scientists are sounding the alarm on potential biological attacks.

LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 5:  Los Angeles police officers in hazard suits secure the scene in a "hazardous material hot area" after the explosion of a "dirty bomb" during a simulated attack at a dock at the Port of Los Angeles on August 5, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. In the drill's scenario, a "dirty bomb" smuggled into the port in a shipping container exploded as a bus was driving by, releasing a plume of radioactivity. More than 850 civilian and military personnel representing more than 60 government agencies, community based and private-sector organizations are participating in the terror response drill, "Determined Promise 2004."  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 5: Los Angeles police officers in hazard suits secure the scene in a "hazardous material hot area" after the explosion of a "dirty bomb" during a simulated attack at a dock at the Port of Los Angeles on August 5, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. In the drill's scenario, a "dirty bomb" smuggled into the port in a shipping container exploded as a bus was driving by, releasing a plume of radioactivity. More than 850 civilian and military personnel representing more than 60 government agencies, community based and private-sector organizations are participating in the terror response drill, "Determined Promise 2004." (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Twenty-two years ago, during the Monday morning rush hour in the Tokyo subway, thousands of unsuspecting commuters inhaled toxic nerve gas left leaking from little plastic bags. Twelve people died, and thousands more were injured in the deadliest attack in Japan since World War II.

The attack was the work of Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, whose founder and self-proclaimed “Lamb of God,” Shoko Asahara, promised spiritual power to those who did his bidding, which included cooking up deadly chemicals and biological weapons like anthrax and sarin gas.

Richard Danzig, a former U.S. Navy secretary, interviewed imprisoned members of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan between 2008 and 2010. “I figured I could get the perpetrators of an actual terrorist group to tell me what they did,” he said.

In fact, they did, describing their success with chemical weapons and, perhaps even more concerning, their attempts to build bioweapons, he said in a recent interview with Foreign Policy. “They built a fairly large facility to generate anthrax in the 1990s,” Danzig said.

But the cult members, many of them students of science, were unsuccessful in spinning up a true biological attack. They were clumsy and unfocused and the tools too complex to pull off with ease.

They were like “kids playing in a school yard,” Danzig and several co-authors wrote in a 2011 paper about his interviews.

But those efforts were in the mid-1990s, and the tools for creating bioattacks have become more accessible. Yet even as more U.S. government officials and outside experts sound the alarm over the increasing risk of bioattacks, the funding for science needed to defend against such attacks is threatened.

Many top scientific positions in the government that could help call attention to this threat remain open, and President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 would eliminate the only federal facility devoted to tracking and analyzing potential bioweapons agents including toxins, poisons, and viruses.

In the meantime, the barriers for a terrorist group or lone wolf to create a biological threat are wearing down. Today, a bioweapon factory like the Japanese terrorists built “could be constructed in a way that was vastly smaller and less visible,” said Danzig, who served on President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which consulted with the intelligence community on biothreats.

“Imagine that the Unabomber was a biologist and not a mathematician. Instead of making pipe bombs, he’d make pathogens,” he said. “I think we’re a step away from those concerns.”

International efforts to restrict bioweapons date back to the Cold War, when 22 governments, including the United States and Soviet Union, signed on to the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention banning the use of biological and toxic weapons. (Now there are 178 states that have ratified the treaty.) Yet the Soviets employed hundreds of scientists to work on an undercover bioweapons program, and the United States ran its own secret research program to defend against such weapons.

“The risk of deliberate threats has been present … since people figured out what pathogens were,” Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in an interview with FP. “During the Cold War, multiple governments including our own had very sophisticated bioweapons programs, with pathogens that were manipulated to be either resistant to antibiotics or more persistent in the environment or capable of traveling a longer distance in the air.”

In 2001, one week after 9/11, someone mailed anthrax spores to lawmakers and journalists, killing five people and drawing attention to the threat of bioattacks. The Amerithrax attacks, as they were known, led the Department of Homeland Security to create the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick, Maryland (it was later discovered that a scientist working at Fort Detrick’s biodefense lab was responsible for the anthrax attacks). Since then, the center has worked on thousands of cases, primarily for the FBI.

But now biothreats, such as weaponized diseases, are easier to make and even harder to detect. Genome editing technology, like the CRISPR-Cas9, allows scientists to target and mutate specific genes with ease.

“What was unthinkable back in the day is now quite common and easy,” Inglesby said. “Genetic engineering is now possible with kits from boxes at younger and younger ages with less and less training.”

The national security community has been ramping up work to address these growing biothreats.

“State offensive [bioweapon] programs have been a target for the [intelligence community] for decades. Post-9/11, non-State biothreat efforts received increased attention,” Norm Kahn, the former director and founder of the U.S. intelligence community’s counterbiological weapons program from 2001 to 2013, wrote to FP. Kahn is now a senior consultant at Counter-Bio and advises the intelligence community on the threat on an ad hoc basis.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which was created in 2006, has been involved in studying biological warfare since its early days, and that focus has only increased in recent years.

“Our biggest increase in the last two years has been in biosecurity,” Jason Matheny, the director of IARPA, said in an interview with FP.

IARPA is currently sponsoring a number of programs to address biological threats, including one called Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats, which provides funding for scientists to scan genetic data looking out for the “accidental or intentional creation of a biological threat,” according to its website. (Its acronym, Fun GCAT, is a “nerdy biology joke,” Matheny said.)

In the past, bioterrorist efforts were “pretty primitive,” said Matheny, but that is changing now that the technology is within more people’s reach. Even just one “well-meaning but clumsy individual … could kill 1 million people” by accident, he said.

“The dual-use nature of much of biological research complicates the ability of the [intelligence community] to determine that a program is offensive rather than defensive,” Kahn wrote.

Therein lies the problem: Bioscience is also a multibillion-dollar business around the world, and only a fraction of that work may be malicious. “If you have a fermenter in the building, you have the basic tech to do X and Y. It’s not a large footprint. It doesn’t require a hangar or power plant — it’s very contained,” Danzig said.

Searching for the one criminal or terrorist among millions of commercial and academic researchers, he added, is “like trying to find a needle amidst a very large amount of hay.”

Yet even if individuals are now capable of developing bioweapons, countries with malicious programs are still a major concern. “I’ve felt for years that our greatest risk stemmed from North Korea,” Danzig said.

Danzig isn’t alone in those concerns, whether about terrorists or governments. Under Obama, the White House was interested in learning more about scientific problems, and one of the last research topics of the president’s council of advisors on science and technology was about the danger of biothreats.

But “that study came so late in the game that one cannot point to a lot of policy change that resulted from it,” John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, told FP.

As of mid-August, that advisory council has been dissolved, and there are no current plans to revive it. As for the biothreats study it produced, its fate is unclear.

“I have some hope the recommendations will survive across and into the Trump administration,” he said, “but, again, so many of the key positions are vacant it’s hard to tell at this point.”

That’s not the only challenge facing those sounding the alarm about biothreats. Government scientists worry that there aren’t enough biologists working on this problem. “We have relatively few biologists working in national security,” Matheny told FP. “This is one area where we’re just starting to catch up to the fact.”

The lack of scientific expertise could soon grow worse.

Fort Detrick’s NBACC, located about 50 miles northwest of Washington in Frederick, Maryland, is facing closure. The lab employs nearly 200 experts, who pore over nearly 15,000 samples a year, primarily for the FBI.

The Department of Homeland Security, which is under pressure to fund Trump’s proposed border wall, zeroed out funds — $21 million a year — for the facility in its proposed 2018 budget. As of early September, funding for the lab is attached to an appropriations bill in Congress, though it’s unclear what will ultimately happen.

Since the final budget has not yet been approved, we cannot speculate on the outcome and the ultimate impact on” the center, John Verrico, a DHS spokesman, wrote in an email to FP.

The lab’s employees and the FBI, which relies on the scientists to work on an average of 20 cases a year, were in panic mode when Trump’s original budget came out, and there were concerns about an exodus. Even with the congressional reprieve, it’s hard to hire new people when future funding is uncertain.

“Closing these labs will only serve to put our country at risk by creating chemical and biological vulnerabilities that terrorists and adversaries are anxious to exploit,” four Maryland lawmakers wrote in a letter to Trump in July. “The risk of biological and chemical agents being used is increasing. This is not the time to be weakening our defenses against such weapons.”

FBI spokesman Matthew Bertron told the Frederick News-Post that the lab’s capabilities are “unique and unparalleled.” However, when contacted by FP, the FBI declined to comment on the administration’s proposed budget cuts.

“[I]f this lab were to close and its staff to be dispersed — the nation would lose a scientific treasure that would be difficult if not impossible to replace,” the Frederick-News Post’s editorial board wrote in May. “Even if Congress eventually keeps the lab open, it will have been badly damaged.”

Photo Credit: DAVID McNEW/Getty Images

Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh

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