America's own secret bioweapons
by Frida Berrigan
In These Times magazine,
March 3, 2003
As the controversy rages on over how long
the United Nations should continue weapons inspections in Iraq,
questions are being raised about the United States' own stockpile
of chemical and biological weapons and new clandestine weapons
programs. Activists and scientists are calling for weapons inspections
in the United States.
On September 4, 2001, the New York Times
printed a front-page article under the headline, "U.S. Germ
Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits." While the story got
lost in the events of September ] 1, the article revealed that
the United States had initiated a secret weapons program that
could be in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, the
landmark 1972 treaty that prohibits the development, production
and stockpiling of biological agents that have no "prophylactic,
protective or other peace purpose." Signers of the treaty
pledged not to develop or obtain weapons "designed to use
such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict."
The article's revelations shed light on
why the United States, which had been the driving force behind
the treaty since announcing its intention to unilaterally dismantle
biological weapons stocks during the Nixon administration, rejected
a July 2001 protocol that would have provided for regular inspections
to verify compliance with the treaty. The Bush administration's
rejection of the protocol left the treaty dead in the water.
During the Clinton administration, the
United States initiated classified biodefense programs within
the Energy and Defense departments and the Central Intelligence
Agency. The CIA built and tested a cluster bomb that could spread
biological agents over a wide area. The Pentagon's Threat Reduction
Agency built a bioweapons plant from commercially available materials
in the Nevada desert to demonstrate the ease with which such a
project could be undertaken by terrorists or rogue states without
raising suspicions. The Defense Intelligence Agency tried to genetically
engineer more powerful anthrax to replicate a Russian strain thought
to be resistant to U.S. military vaccinations.
The United States maintains that these
programs are defensive, claiming that in order to manufacture
vaccines and develop defenses against biological attacks, researchers
must first be able to produce the weapons. In the words of one
official, the projects are "fully consistent with the treaty."
But Mark Wheelis and Malcolm Dando, authors
of "Back to Bioweapons," an article in the January/February
issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, warn that the
implications of this decision are far reaching and dangerous.
"U.S. behavior suggests that its biodefense program is even
larger than those portions that have been revealed," they
write. "This U.S. exploration of the utility of biotech for
bioweapons development is unwise, for the rest of the world will
be obliged to follow suit," creating the conditions for a
"global bioweapons arms race.''
Quite a few facilities around the country
are doing research on chemical and biological weapons. Among them
are the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases
at Fort Detrick, Maryland; the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground
in Utah; the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plum Island Animal
Disease Center in New York; and the Battelle Memorial Institute
in Columbus, Ohio. The New York Times named Battelle, a military
contractor that analyzes biological information for the Pentagon,
as a participant in the ClA's secret effort to make a more potent
While the activities of most of these
facilities are shrouded from public knowledge, a small Canadian
effort hopes to expose them. The project, called "Rooting
out Evil," is planning inspections of U.S. chemical, biological
and nuclear sites like the ones listed above. In February, the
inspection team, including Canadian and British members of parliament,
a union leader and a professor, will enter the United States and
demand "immediate and unfettered access" to chemical,
biological and nuclear weapons sites.
Citizen weapons inspections have a D long
tradition. Most recently, three Catholic nuns entered an N-8 missile
silo in northern Colorado wearing white jumpsuits with the logo
"Disarmament Specialists" stenciled on the front, and
"CWIT" (Citizen Weapons Inspection Team) written on
the back. They occupied the site for several hours, dismantling
the tracks that carry the silo lid to its firing position with
hammers. They poured their own blood on the tracks and the silo.
Despite the prayerful and symbolic nature of their action, they
were charged with sabotage and "injury to property"
and are facing a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Activists calling for and carrying out
inspections of U.S. sites are finding allies within the scientific
community. Jonathan King, an MIT biologist, says the United States
should welcome inspectors into chemical and biological weapons
programs. Scientists at the country's top universities are signing
petitions and drafting codes of ethics for work in this field;
some have even outlined a new biological weapons treaty that would
make violations a crime under international law. As Harvard biologist
Matthew Meselson, once a close adviser to Henry Kissinger, recently
told the Boston Globe, bioweapons are a "threat to the species.
It rises above considerations of national security, important
as they may be."
Maybe once the U.N. inspectors are finished
in Iraq, they can turn their attention to the United States. It
seems they would be guaranteed abundant work and generous support
from activists and scientists alike.
Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate
with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy
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