U.S. germ warfare research pushes treaty limits
Battelle to genetically engineer deadly super-anthrax

The United States has conducted a program of secret research on biological weapons in recent years that, some officials say, pushes the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons. The Pentagon has further plans to genetically engineer a more virulent form of the bacterium that causes anthrax, a deadly disease ideal for germ warfare.

First disclosed in a New York Times article on September 4, the secret germ warfare projects were begun under the Clinton administration and have been embraced by the Bush administration, which intends to expand them.

Two projects completed during the Clinton administration focused on the mechanics of making germ weapons. In one program, the CIA built and tested a model of a Soviet-designed germ bomb that agency officials feared was being sold on the international market. The CIA device lacked a fuse and other parts that would make it a working bomb, intelligence officials said.

At about the same time, the Department of Defense assembled a germ factory in the Nevada desert from commercially available materials. The project demonstrated the ease of building a plant that could produce pounds of deadly germs. Both the mock bomb and the factory were tested with simulants - benign substances with characteristics similar to the germs used in weapons, officials said.

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) forbids nations from developing or acquiring weapons that spread disease, but it allows work on vaccines and other protective measures. Government officials said the secret research was aimed at better understanding the potential threat from terrorist states or groups.

Some Clinton administration officials worried, however, that the project violated the BWC. Others expressed concern that the experiments, if disclosed, might be misunderstood as a clandestine effort to resume work on a class of weapons that President Nixon relinquished in 1969.

A senior Bush administration official said all the projects were "fully consistent" with the treaty banning biological weapons and were needed to protect Americans against a growing danger. But a State Department official argued for a strict reading of the BWC: the ban on acquiring or developing "weapons" barred states from building even a partial model of a germ bomb for any reason. "A bomb is a bomb is a bomb," another official said at the time.

Even officials who supported the work agreed that it brought the United States closer to what was forbidden. "It was pressing how far you go before you do something illegal or immoral," recalled one senior official who was briefed on the program.

Officials who were critical pointed to a U.S. double standard. Simultaneous experiments involving a model of a germ bomb, a factory to make biological agents, and the development of more potent anthrax bacteria, those officials said, would draw loud protests from Washington if conducted by a country the United States viewed as suspect.

Administration officials said the need to keep such projects secret was a significant reason behind President Bush's recent rejection of a draft agreement to strengthen the germ-weapons treaty, which has been signed by 143 nations. The draft would require countries to disclose where they are conducting defensive research involving gene-splicing or germs likely to be used in weapons. The sites would be subject to international inspections.

Among the facilities likely to be open to inspection under the draft agreement is a biological weapons research laboratory of Battelle Memorial Institute, located in West Jefferson, Ohio, where the genetically altered anthrax germ is to be created. Battelle has a Biosafety Level 3 facility at the site. BSL-3 laboratories are required for work with infectious agents which may cause serious or potentially fatal diseases as a result of exposure by inhalation. They are located away from high-traffic areas.

Battelle previously conducted tests at West Jefferson on the CIA's bomb model to see how it would perform under different atmospheric conditions. (Battelle also operates the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at Hanford. - Editor)

The anthrax experiment has been devised to assess whether the vaccine now being given to millions of American soldiers is effective against such a genetically altered bacterium, which was first created in Russia. In 1995, Russian scientists disclosed that they had implanted genes from Bacillus cereus, an organism that causes food poisoning, into the anthrax germ. The new strain was allegedly resistant to Russia's anthrax vaccine, at least in hamsters.

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. When the bacterium is inhaled, anthrax is usually fatal. Initial symptoms may resemble a common cold but progress to severe breathing problems and shock.

When asked whether the Bush administration intends to continue the very extreme levels of secrecy surrounding all of these projects, Victoria Clarke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, replied, "Well, I believe the intention will be to keep that information secret that we think by not doing so would have serious national security concerns."

A former American diplomat questioned the wisdom of keeping the biological weapons projects secret. James F. Leonard, head of the U.S. delegation that negotiated the Biological Weapons Convention, said research on microbes or munitions could be justified, depending on the specifics. But he said such experiments should be done openly, exposed to the scrutiny of other scientists and the public. Public disclosure, he said, is important evidence that the United States is proceeding with a "clean heart."

"It's very important to be open," he said. "If we're not open, who's going to be open?"

- compiled from The New York Times and government sources
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2001

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