America’s Bioterror

If President Bush is serious about waging war against weapons of mass destruction, he should start at home.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 19th March 2002

Dear President Bush,

In commemorating the victims of the attacks on New York and Washington last week, you called for disputes to be “settled within the bounds of reason.” You insisted that “every nation in our coalition must take seriously the growing threat” of biological and chemical weapons. You assured us that on this issue “there is no margin for error, and no chance to learn from mistakes … inaction is not an option.” These are sentiments with which most of the world’s people would agree. While many of us believe that attacking Iraq would enhance rather than reduce the possibility that weapons of mass destruction will be used, few would dispute that chemical and biological agents present a grave danger to the world.

So those of us in other nations who have followed this issue are puzzled. Why should you, who claim to want to build “a peaceful world beyond the war on terror”, have done all you can to undermine efforts to control these deadly weapons? Why should the congressmen in your party have repeatedly sabotaged attempts to ensure that biological and chemical agents are eliminated?

In December, your negotiators tore the Biological Weapons Convention to shreds. The 1972 convention, as you know, was impossible to implement. While the treaty banned the development and production of bio-weapons, it contained no mechanism for ensuring that its rules were enforced. So for six years, the 144 signatories had been developing a “verification protocol”, which would permit the United Nations to examine suspected bio-weapons facilities. In July, your government refused to sign the protocol. In December, you deliberately scuttled the negotiations by insisting, at the last minute, that the resolution be re-written. One European delegate, referring to the commitments your delegation had made before the meeting, observed, “They are liars. In decades of multilateral negotiations, we’ve never experienced this kind of insulting behavior.” Your actions have rendered the convention useless, leaving the world unprotected from the very weapons you say you want to eliminate.

Four years ago, Republican members of Congress, working alongside the Clinton government, voted to inflict similar damage to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This treaty already possessed the means to force nations to open their laboratories to inspection, which is the key determinant of effective weapons control. But in 1998, your party decided that the United States should not be subject to these provisions. By passing legislation banning the removal of chemical samples from the US by international weapons inspectors; limiting the number of laboratories which the US needs to declare and permitting the United States president to refuse “challenge inspections” of its chemical plants, Republican congressmen effectively hobbled the convention worldwide. Under your presidency, even routine verification has been vitiated, as government officials have told the inspectors which parts of a site they can and cannot visit, just as Saddam Hussein has done in Iraq. Other countries have used your intransigence as an excuse for undermining the convention themselves.

The United States has also withheld both the money required by the chemicals weapons inspectorate, and the funds needed to remove and disable the vast arsenal of warheads loaded with nerve agents in western Siberia, some of which are lying in warehouses secured only by bicycle padlocks on the doors. It was your own senator Pat Roberts who argued that the promised funding should not be issued, on the grounds that these weapons “pose more of an environmental threat to Russia than a security threat to the United States.” Yet security at the dumps is so lax that no one even knows how many warheads they contain.

You should not be surprised to learn that many of us have been wondering why your professed intentions and your policies diverge so widely. Nor should you be surprised to discover that some of us suspect that the US might have some deadly secrets of its own, which your government hopes to shield from public view.

In September last year, the New York Times reported that “the Pentagon has built a germ factory that could make enough lethal microbes to wipe out entire cities.” The factory’s purpose was defensive: your employees wanted to see how easy it would be for terrorists to do the same thing. But it was constructed without either Congressional oversight or a declaration to the Biological Weapons Convention, in direct contravention of international law. We could, perhaps, agree that if the US had discovered a similar undisclosed plant in a poor nation, then that country’s government, if it survived your initial response, would have a good deal of explaining to do.

But of still more concern is the recent discovery that your government has been planning to test warheads containing live microbes in large aerosol chambers at the US Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland. Experts in this field say that the scale of the experiments suggests that they are not defensive, but designed to help develop new biological weapons.

It is also clear that some elements of your existing defence programme contravene both of the treaties your government and your party have sabotaged. The genetically engineered fungus you have developed for aerial spraying in Colombia plainly qualifies as a non-lethal biological weapon. And, because your strategic aims in that country extend beyond the simple eradication of drugs to the elimination of the leftwing rebel forces, the chemical sprays you have been using in the regions they control have also clearly been deployed as weapons, much as Agent Orange was in Vietnam. Your military laboratories have been developing a new range of genetically engineered “materials-eating bacteria”, designed to destroy runways, engines and the radar-blocking coatings of warplanes. Though they do not directly affect humans, you would be hard-put to deny that these are biological weapons.

Your government has also refused to destroy its stocks of smallpox, and has insisted on developing new and more lethal varieties of anthrax. You say that this is purely for defensive purposes: to study how they might be used by enemy forces, or to develop new kinds of vaccine. But the Federation of American Scientists warns that some of the new research you are funding could be categorised as “dual use”: it could lead just as easily to attack as to defence. Even if we were to accept your government’s assurances that these programmes are solely defensive in nature, it is surely plain that they are generating the very hazards they claim to be confronting. The anthrax attacks in October appear to have been launched by a scientist from within your own biological warfare laboratories, making use of a strain developed by the US Army’s Medical Research Institute.

Mr President, you say you want to save the world from biological and chemical weapons. With or without the help of our own leaders, you seem prepared to go to war in pursuit of that aim. But surely the first step towards dealing with weapons of mass destruction is the mass destruction of weapons? And surely your campaign for world peace would be more convincing if you respected the conventions designed to destroy them?

Yours Sincerely, George Monbiot