What the world doesn't know about germ warfare.


The State Department’s new arms-control compliance report is out, the first since 2005, and the unclassified version shows that uncertainty about biological weapons still casts a shadow over the globe. Iran, North Korea, and Syria may have germ-warfare programs, and neither China nor Russia have come completely clean about their past.

Doubts exist not only about which states may possess biological weapons programs, but also the weakness of the main international treaty outlawing them, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. This treaty has never lived up to its original promise, and is badly in need of an overhaul. At the same time, beyond the diplomacy, there’s also plenty of uncertainty — and precious little information –about whether terrorists or crazed individuals could mess with germ weapons.

After signing, the Soviet leaders proceeded to blatantly violate the treaty, as documented in my book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. They created a vast archipelago of laboratories for developing and testing new biological warfare agents, using genetic engineering to build pathogens that the world had never known and that could be devastating to unprotected populations. They also built enormous factories for producing deadly germ agents such as anthrax bacteria. And they kept the entire thing secret, under the guise of a civilian pharmaceutical organization, Biopreparat.

Biology poses special problems for arms control because it can be "dual use." Technology that offers the promise of improved human life — better vaccines, drugs and agricultural products — can also be used at some point to exploit human vulnerability to toxins and infectious disease. The Biological Weapons Convention did not prohibit the development of defensive measures, but the line between permitted defensive research and illicit offensive weapons can be very hard to discern.

Making matters worse, tens of thousands of civilian facilities — such as vaccine plants and industrial fermenters — exist all over the world, making it exceedingly complex to spot the small fraction that might be involved in illegal activity. Test tubes and flasks can’t be easily counted like missile silos.

The State Department reports over the last decade, including the new one, have accurately captured the dilemma: To guard against cheating you have to make a judgment about not only the facilities and the activities, but also the intent of the user. The Soviets repeatedly denied it was their intent to build an offensive biological weapons program, even as they did exactly that and turned it into the dirty underside of the Cold War arms race. (The United States renounced offensive biological weapons in 1969, and destroyed its stocks, while continuing to do defensive research.)

Efforts to put some teeth into the treaty have failed, repeatedly. In 2001, the Bush administration rejected a proposal, which had been under consideration for more than six years, to strengthen the treaty with mandatory declarations and on-site inspections. At the time, the Bush administration said that the proposal "was based on a traditional arms control approach that would not work on biological weapons."

This is a contentious issue even today: Can the old methods of arms control, such as inspections and treaty requirements, have any effect against an elusive threat? Will those malicious individuals who might decide to abuse biology in a garage or university laboratory be thwarted or deterred by a global treaty? If you give up on international diplomacy, what message does that send? How do you prohibit the bad and allow for the good when both come from the same laboratory? The revolution in the life sciences of recent decades has made these questions more vexing than ever.

Today, the treaty still lacks enforcement, and suffers from global complacency.

For example, at the sixth review conference in 2006, a small request was made of the states that have joined the treaty: They were asked to identify one point of contact in each government for reports they are supposed to file by April 15 each year. The reports are known as Confidence-Building Measures, and are supposed to include information about facilities that are relevant to the treaty, such as maximum-security laboratories, and about disease outbreaks. The idea of these reports was to increase transparency in each country.

Not exactly a difficult request.

What happened? Only 70 of the 163 nations that are "states parties," or members of the treaty, have even bothered to name their point of contact, according to Piers Millet , a political-affairs officer at the Implementation Support Unit for the treaty in Geneva. Millet spoke last week at a seminar in Washington sponsored by Global Green USA, a group that works for safe elimination of weapons stockpiles.

Those "confidence-building measures" do not provide much confidence. In the 2001 State Department report, it was noted that only 37 of the then-144 states party to the treaty had submitted them. The 2005 report noted that 85 nations had submitted at least one. Some of them simply treated it like the Green Line at airport customs:  They wrote "nothing to declare."

Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told a House subcommittee in March that the process is filled with gaps. "Unfortunately, less than half of BWC states parties participate" in the process of submitting the confidence-building measures, he said, "and many of the submissions are incomplete or inaccurate." What’s more, he noted, the actual forms were last revised in 1991, "yet rapid scientific and technological advances since then have rendered them increasingly obsolete."

Tucker also pointed out that the biological weapons treaty has a tiny, three-man, temporary Implementation Support Unit, where Millet works in Geneva, but the treaty lacks a permanent secretariat, unlike the highly effective one that carries out the chemical weapons treaty in The Hague. The chemical weapons treaty also has real verification measures.

There’s plenty of work to do if the biological treaty is ever to be effective. Next year, another review conference is scheduled. Tucker said this is a make-or-break opportunity to give the pact new vitality and direction.

Even if the treaty can be modernized, the fact is that technological challenges have mushroomed beyond conventional diplomacy. Genetic engineering is no longer just the purview of states carrying out large programs, but can be achieved by small groups, acting informally, buying materials on the Internet, easily hidden and disguised.

The Obama administration, to its credit, came out with a strategy last November that focused on new directions for countering biological threats. Obama decided not to return to the failed negotiation over the 2001 proposal. The new document contained a series of broad policy guidelines, but it will take some time to see how they are implemented with concrete decisions.

Overall, the new compliance report is written with more diplomacy and less confrontation than during the Bush years. This is only the unclassified version; surely there are more details available in the secret one. Taken together, the reality is that the threat has not gone away. There have been some improvements, such as Libya giving up its weapons of mass destruction. But in other ways, the doubts keep nagging.

Here are some of the highlights:

Russia. A decade ago, in the 2001 report, the State Department raised rather bluntly the issue of what had become of the Soviet program. It noted that while some aspects of Biopreparat had been revealed and shut, others still remained in place and potentially could be doing weapons work. The United States accused Russia of filing incomplete reports each year, and concluded in 2001: "Russia continues to maintain an offensive BW program in violation of the BWC." In 2005, the United States said talks with Russia about biological weapons had become "strained" and the report identified some facilities that still remained closed to outsiders, "including Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Health facilities believed to have been associated with the Soviet offensive BW program." In the 2005 document, the United States again said that Russia continued to maintain an offensive program in violation of the treaty.

This year, the State Department report said that Russia is still carrying out some dual-use biological research activities, "identifying factors that enhance the virulence, toxicity, or antibiotic resistance of pathogens; and examining biological aerosols." But, the United States added, "There were no indications that these activities were conducted for purposes inconsistent" with the treaty. At the same time, the report noted that Russia has not come clean about the Soviet past and its annual reports "since 1992 have not satisfactorily documented whether this program was terminated."

I think it would be smart for President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to just say "heave-ho" and once and for all reveal the dirty business of the Soviet years. But there has long been something holding Russia back from a full airing of this dark period in history.

Iran. In 2001, the State Department report said Iran had developed biological weapons:

The Iranian BW program has been embedded within Iran’s extensive biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries so as to obscure its activities. The Iranian military has used medical, education, and scientific research organizations for many aspects of BW agent procurement, research, and production. Iran has also failed to submit the data declarations called for in the CBMs. The United States judges, based on available evidence, that Iran has an offensive biological weapons program in violation of the BWC. Iran is technically capable of producing at least rudimentary biological warheads for a variety of delivery systems, including missiles."

In 2005, the report reached a similar verdict.

The most recent document says:

Available information indicates Iran has remained engaged in dual-use BW-related activities. The United States notes that Iran may not have ended activities prohibited by the BWC, although available information does not conclusively indicate that Iran is currently conducting activities prohibited by the Convention."

North Korea has been accused in every report of having an offensive germ warfare effort. The 2001 report:

North Korea has pursued biological warfare capabilities since the 1960s and continued its program despite having become a State Party to the BWC in March 1987. Pyongyang’s resources include a rudimentary (by Western standards) biotechnical infrastructure that could support the production of infectious biological warfare agents and toxins such as anthrax, cholera, and plague. North Korea’s only BWC data submission pursuant to the BWC-related Confidence Building Measures was in 1990. It stated that North Korea had nothing to declare. The United States believes this declaration to be false. North Korea is believed to possess a munitions-production infrastructure that would allow it to weaponize biological warfare agents and may have biological weapons available for use."

And today:

Available information indicates that North Korea may still consider the use of biological weapons as a military option, and that it has continued its past effort to acquire specialized equipment, materials, and expertise, some of which could support biological weapon development. North Korea has yet to declare any of its biological research and development activities as part of the BWC confidence-building measures."

China. In 2001, the State Department report was suspicious:

The United States believes that China had an offensive BW program prior to 1984 when it became a State Party to the BWC, and maintained an offensive BW program throughout most of the 1980s. The offensive BW program included the development, production, stockpiling or other acquisition or maintenance of BW agents. Since 1984, China consistently has claimed that it never researched, produced, or possessed any biological weapons and never would do so. Nevertheless, China’s declarations under the voluntary BWC-related declarations for confidence building purposes are believed to be inaccurate and incomplete, and there are some reports that China may retain elements of its biological warfare program. China’s CBM declarations have not resolved U.S. concerns about this program, and there are strong indications that China probably maintains its offensive program."

Then in 2005, the report was more detailed, and accusatory:

The United States reaffirms its judgment that China maintains some elements of an offensive BW capability in violation of its BWC obligations. Despite China’s BWC CBM declarations to the contrary, indications suggest that China maintained an offensive BW program prior to acceding to the Convention in 1984."

The new State Department report is far more diplomatic:

Available information indicates China engaged during the reporting period in dual-use biological activities. Available information did not indicate these involved activities prohibited by the BWC. The United States continues to note that the voluntary BWC CBM declarations China has submitted have neither documented the offensive BW program it possessed prior to its accession to the BWC in 1984, nor documented that China has eliminated the program or any remaining biological munitions in accordance with the BWC."

What happened? The report says there were "discussions" with China in 2006. And this:

China has expressed support for improving the effectiveness of the BWC, including expanding BWC membership and controlling the export of biological materials without hampering international cooperation for peaceful purposes. China has also continued to reject the view that it is not meeting its BWC obligations."

Syria signed the treaty but did not ratify it. The 2001 report said:

Syria’s biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting agent development. However, the Syrians are not believed to have begun any major effort to put biological agents into weapons. It is believed that the Syrian offensive BW program is in the research and development stage."

There was little change in 2005, but this year the report turned tougher:

During the reporting period, Syria’s President stated that Syria was entitled to defend itself by acquiring, inter alia, its own biological deterrent. Available information does not indicate that the Syrian Government subsequently modified or rescinded this statement, or that Syria has abandoned all intent to acquire biological weapons. The United States notes that, if Syria were a State Party to the BWC, BW-related activities in which it has engaged would have been prohibited by the Convention."

What does it all add up to? The world is not free of countries that would play dangerous games with the basic building blocks of life, and international diplomacy has fallen flat. We’ve been sleepwalking for a long time, and it is time to think again about what can be truly effective at reducing these dangers.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook