The Next Threat

Thursday, July 30, 1998

“History is not a dotted line,” Fritz Kraemer, the man who taught Henry Kissinger realpolitik, once told me. “It’s a straight line. Everything that happens in world affairs is related in some way to a series of prior events.” Perhaps nothing proves that dictum better than the recent decision by Defense Secretary William Cohen to begin inoculating U.S. troops for the biological weapon anthrax. Rather than simply emerge as a new and wise policy change by chance, it reflects a growing recognition by the Clinton administration that the biological weapons genie can’t be stuffed back into the bottle and that, horrifically, the chance these weapons might be used against American soldiers is growing.

Anthrax, a disease that occurs naturally in farm animals, has long been the focus of biological warfare research. During World War II, units of the Imperial Japanese Army created anthrax spores at laboratories in occupied China and may have used some in Manchuria. Today more than twelve countries can easily produce the disease in weapons form, which causes flulike symptoms, followed by severe chest congestion, and then usually death. Anthrax can be fatal even in microscopic amounts.

The U.S. military has been preparing to deal with an anthrax attack for some time. If an enemy were to spray a cloud of anthrax on the battlefield, military chemical protective masks would provide good protection. The trouble is in detecting anthrax in the air. The fact that the spores may survive in the soil, in water, and on surfaces for many years creates additional problems, so the vaccines are a necessary step.

An anthrax attack could occur in several battlefield situations. For that reason, the Pentagon plans to vaccinate as many as 2.4 million troops, including members of the National Guard and Reserve. These three culprits are the most likely:

Saddam Hussein still has ambitions to dominate the Persian Gulf, and his biological weapons program remains intact. Hussein Kamal al-Majid, Saddam’s son-in-law and former head of Iraq’s biological weapons program, defected in 1995 and told Western leaders that Iraq possesses large quantities of anthrax. He claimed Iraq had armed 191 missiles, shells, and bombs with biological agents for use during Desert Storm and that Saddam continues to develop new methods of dispersing anthrax by plane and aerosol spraying.

The people of this last Stalinist outpost might be starving, but dictator Kim Jong Il remains firmly committed to the reunification of the Korean peninsula. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) has special units, such as Unit 124 of the Eighth Corps, which are designed to use biological weapons anthrax against U.S. forces along the demilitarized zone. Pyongyang refuses to join international treaties banning biological weapons and has an active research and development program. KPA military doctrine calls for the early use of “weapons of mass destruction,” including anthrax.

It could happen on or around American military bases overseas or even in the United States. Terrorist groups operating here receive logistic support from countries such as Iran, which can produce anthrax. Although it is an exaggeration to say you can produce this stuff in your kitchen sink, a determined terrorist group, with the right equipment and know-how, can produce it without state support. We need to look no further than the frightening attack on the Tokyo subway to know that some organizations are willing to use these weapons.

The Pentagon vaccinations are assumed to be more than 90 percent effective. But biological weapons are not immune to the offense versus defense spiral of technological development. According to a Jane’s Defense Group report, Russia recently created a new bacteriological weapon using a form of anthrax resistant to all known antibiotics, developed by defense industrial laboratories and Biopreparat, a civilian laboratory. If this new bacteria ended up in the hands of a rogue state or terrorists, the vaccinations might be useless, but nobody knows for certain.

We also should expect that by inoculating U.S. forces against anthrax, our enemies likely will embrace other diseases as the biological weapon of choice. North Korea is believed to have developed the bacteria for cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and blood contamination agents. Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of available diseases includes ircin, hemorrhagic conjunctivitis (which causes the eyes to bleed), and clostridium perfringens, a bacteria common in food poisoning. None of these plagues is as effective on the battlefield as anthrax, but they still could cause enormous casualties.

For nations and terrorists without a lot of money to spend on high-tech killing instruments, biological weapons are a cheap alternative. And unlike nuclear weapons research facilities, they are simple to conceal under farming or medical research programs. Given these realities, it is not enough to simply inoculate our forces. The Clinton administration needs to be vigilant in ensuring that all relevant sites in Iraq are inspected.