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: