NOWHERE TO RUN, NOWHERE TO HIDE: Bioterrorism

Thursday, May 28, 1998

Abraham D. Sofaer, the George P. Shultz Senior Fellow of Hoover Institution, Jonathan B. Tucker, Director with the Chemical/Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Dean Wilkening, Director of the Science Program, Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University, discuss whether the United States is prepared for a biological or chemical weapons attack. Is it possible that we are over-hyping the threat, scaring the American public, and allowing the FBI to further extend their already-broad powers into our personal lives?

Recorded on Thursday, May 28, 1998

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowlege. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: terrorism, bioterrorism.

During the Cold War, American intelligence was able to keep pretty close tabs on the Soviets' nuclear weapons. Between satellites in the sky and agents on the ground, we knew where the Soviet's nuclear missiles were and when their nuclear submarines left port. Today, of course, the Soviet Union no longer even exists. But there's a new threat. You can be sure that somewhere, right now, terrorists or scientists paid by terrorists are hard at work producing chemical or biological weapons. Satellites can't see this stuff. Intelligence agents on the ground, it's very difficult for them even to tell which terrorists groups might or might not be producing chemical or biological weapons. As for defending ourselves against an attack, it turns out to be very difficult to do. An attack by biological weapons would be silent. It would be invisible. And we probably wouldn't even know we had been hit until a few days later when people started to die.

With us today, three experts. Jonathan Tucker is a Director at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Dean Wilkening is a Director at the Center for International Security and Arms Control. And Abraham Sofaer is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

We began with a nightmare scenario.

It's a cool calm evening in Washington D.C. There's a gentle breeze blowing out of the north and in the middle of the night a little plane, the kind of plane that anybody could rent anybody who had a pilot's license could rent, a Cessna, a Piper, flies across the northern quadron of the city and releases 100 hundred kilograms of anthrax. Nobody notices a thing. The plane flies on. It lands in suburban Maryland. The fellow is out of the country within twelve hours and seventy-two hours later people start to become sick and within six days as many as a million people are dead. Could it happen? Dean?

WILKENING Well, hypothetically it's possible for that scenario to take place. But in my own opinion I think it's rather unlikely. There are a lot of complications with carrying out this attack.

ROBINSON You're not worried? It could happen but you're not...

WILKENING I think this problem deserves serious government attention but I would not be concerned that in the next week or month something like this will happen in Washington DC, San Francisco or any major city, for that matter in the world.

ROBINSON I need a little bit of an education. Point one: what are these things? What's the difference, for example, between a chemical weapon and a biological weapon?

WILKENING Well, a chemical weapon is just some chemical that's highly toxic. They come in a lot of different varieties. There are nerve agents for the most toxic, ones that block the transmission of nerves in the human body. There are choking agents, blister agents.

ROBINSON So a laymen would consider this stuff poison.

WILKENING Yeah, it's poison basically. The sort that was used in World War I and then in World War II, mustard gas.

TUCKER The important thing is that these are man made toxic chemicals. They are non living. Whereas biological agents are either living microorganisms that cause disease or what are called toxins which are non living poisons that are produced by living organisms, not only bacteria but also plants and animals.

ROBINSON Now is there some difference in the level of danger or threat that biological weapons pose from chemical weapons?

TUCKER Intentionally biological weapons are much more potent per unit weight because they actually multiply in the host. So the infection stays very small then the micro organism would multiply to cause disease. So if the agent dissemenated very efficiently over a large area, a very large number of people could potentially become infected. And then the microorganism would multiply over a periods of days to cause the disease.

ROBINSON So little tiny invisible particle of anthrax gets inhaled. It lodges in my lung and then what happens?

TUCKER Well, actually about eight thousand spores of anthrax are sufficient to infect and that's... these are microscopic spores so it's... The total dose would be the size of a speck of dust.

ROBINSON So I still... even at eight thousand spores I wouldn't see it?

TUCKER Right. It's invisible, tasteless, odorless. It would be inhaled into the lung, then the spores would travel to the lymph nodes, begin to multiply and release a number of toxins which would then cause systemic damage and toxic shock and death.

ROBINSON Right.

They are powerful, they are deadly, and they're old. These weapons have been around for years, but the public knows almost nothing about them. How come?

ATOMIC TO BUBONIC

ROBINSON Americans have heard a lot about nuclear weapons for five decades or so now. But relatively little about biological and chemical weapons and suddenly they are in the press. Why? Why are they hot now?

WILKENING Well, there is a number of reasons. One is the end of the Cold War with bipolar balance between us and the Soviet Union. Most people focused their attention on the possibility of an apocolyptic nuclear war. People worry about chemical and biological attacks but they were contained underneath that major concern. The breakup of the former Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War means there are a lot of security problems out there today that were of relatively lesser importance during the Cold War. Now are relatively more important. So the political change is one ingredient.

ROBINSON But people have had biological and chemical weapons throughout the period.

WILKENING Absolutely.

TUCKER Particularly the former Soviet Union had an enormous biological weapons program.

SOFAER But they weren't supposed to have them.

TUCKER Right. Which was illegal.

SOFAER There was a division during the Nixon Administration, a team, a split in the road even sooner while the civilized nations of the world said we may have nuclear weapons. We might even refuse to commit not to use nuclear weapons first but we are willing to make commitments with respect to both biological and chemical weapons that are much more substantial and serious to each other. And what we did was we committed ourselves not to make or use or have biological weapons at all and the British lead this effort and the world pretty much agreed to it.

ROBINSON This leads me to the next big question which is who has the stuff now? How many countries?

TUCKER The estimate is somewhere around a dozen.

ROBINSON Let me name some bad guys here. Iran.

WILKENING Iran definitely had biological weapons.

ROBINSON Iran?

WILKENING Most likely, yes

ROBINSON Libya?

TUCKER Trying to acquire but they don't have chemical.

SOFAER But they have done an enormous chemical weapons program, Libya.

ROBINSON So they have jars of bad stuff under the desert somewhere.

SOFAER Tons, tons of it.

ROBINSON Did I mention Syria?

TUCKER Syria has very extensive chemical and appears to have a biological program as well.

ROBINSON Okay. North Korea?

TUCKER Yes, both.

ROBINSON Okay, so we have a ten, a dozen, some largish but still low double digit number of countries that posses chemical and biological weapons.

SOFAER The problem is more profound. And that is that people have learned to make biological weapons more simply and cheaply as the time has passed.

SOFAER And chemical weapons.

SOFAER And today the fact that a nation may not be known to have the capacity to wage biological warfare, either through terrorist attacks or through conventional type attacks, is not really that significant. The fear here, the thing that's driving your concern and the public concern is that the capacity can be put together very quickly and very cheaply.

ROBINSON Okay. That was the other, the second major factor I was going to mention. After the cold war you have the political change but it is really the biotechnology revolution and not just recombinant DNA but a number of processes for rapid production of proteins and vaccines things like that. And these technologies are quite wide spread, very much dual use. They're used in pharmaceutical industries and other areas so, as Abe said, it's much easier to get a hold of the kinds of fermenters and various technologies you need to create a biological weapons program on relatively short notice. Short notice means months, possibly a year.

ROBINSON This isn't just speculation. Terrorists have already struck.

A LITTLE DAB WILL DO YOU IN

ROBINSON Just recently the New York Times published a story that made my socks roll up and down with fear and terror. The terrorist group in Japan, the Amshim Rikio became famous in 1995 when they released sarin, a gas.

WILKENING Chemical agent.

ROBINSON Chemical agent. They released the stuff on the Tokyo subway. Lots of people were injured, came out coughing, covering their mouths with handkerchiefs. We all saw that on CNN, and a dozen people were killed. The Japanese rounded up this terrorist group, investigations have been going forward and what appeared in the New York Times, was that it turns out that wasn't Amshim Rikio's first attempt. Throughout the 1990's they have made so far as the New York Times reports nine different attacks.

TUCKER Those nine attacks were all with by biological agents.

ROBINSON All biological agents.

TUCKER Anthrax or botullism toxin which is a non-living toxin produced by bacteria.

ROBINSON And their targets included the Diet, the Japanese parliament, and the headquarters in Tokyo Harbor of the United States Seventh Fleet, the United States Navy Seventh Fleet. Now, I'd like you to take me through the lessons of that experience. I suppose in a certain sense it's reassuring they tried nine times and only killed twelve people. Should I be happy about that, Dean?

WILKENING They tried over a five year span nine times to release anthrax and botullitum toxin, 2BW agents, and they failed every time. Partly it was the difficulty in producing a virulent strain of anthrax. Apparently, they got a very benign strain. At least according to the New York Times Article. Point number two is a point that Jonathan mentioned earlier. It's actually very hard to weaponize this. What does weaponize mean? That is to say, turn this liquid slurry of biologically active substance into a very thin mist, a very fine mist of one to five micron particles because these are the particles that you can inhale and will be retained in the lungs. Turns out it's very hard to aerosolize something in a very fine mist like that. So to go back to you nightmare...

In the beginning was this light Cessna plane flying over Washington DC Most people refer to the crop duster. They go to the local agricultural field, grab a crop duster, load it with anthrax, spray this. A crop duster will not work. It does not spray out this fine mist of one to five micron particles. It sprays out much heavier particles. So, if anything, you would hope that a terrorist would grab a crop duster and try to dispense this stuff because it wouldn't work.

ROBINSON Is there any suggestion that expertise can be developed and shared among terrorist groups or does every set of wackos have to start at ground zero and learn on their own?

TUCKER Well, I think there is now a lot of communication among domestic terrorists but also internationally using the internet. And I think there is concern that information could be transferred through the internet involving...

SOFAER But, Peter, you're trying to get away with the easiest scenario. I mean, terrorists and private groups are always going to be lagging in terms of their capacities relative to states. And you're not talking about good guys' states versus bad guys' terrorist groups. You're talking about states that include, let's say a dozen states, certainly ten, that support terrorism in the sense... What do I mean by support terrorism? It means they use terrorists like you would use soldiers. So instead of having, in addition to having normal soldiers and your Air Force, you have hit men that are organized in terrorist groups who you can retain to implement policies that you want to implement that are going to be implemented hopefully without attribution to yourself. And that is the most dangerous of all scenarios it seems to me. That is where you get the resources of a state committed to developing the biological weapon, the chemical weapon, and you get a terrorist group that is not only doing it for money but doing it because they really believe in it. You have to look upon them really not as the dregs of humanity, but maybe that morally, but you look upon them as brave soldiers, people ready to devote themselves to die for their causes. That's what they are. Really.

ROBINSON Which makes them hard to start to stop

WILKENING That makes them hard to stop. So they are willing.

ROBINSON One way to keep terrorists from attacking us with these weapons is to keep these weapons out of their hands in the first place. Can we?

HIDE, SEEK & DESTROY

ROBINSON By satellite surveillance, spies, so on, so forth, we actually know quite a lot about the disposition of nuclear weapons in the world. It is pretty hard for a satellite to look into a warehouse and see what's in a vat? Is that not correct?

TUCKER Yeah, it's impossible.

Right. So there's a dependence in this area on human intelligence. You need defectors, you need infiltrators. But that is by definition fortuitous and unsystematic. So you don't know what you don't know. And these weapons can be produced in dual use facilities such as vaccine plants or even breweries as I mentioned. So potentially, they can be hiddened very, very easily. And in fact, one not need to stock pile, they can produced to order in a dual use facility.

ROBINSON You went to Iraq as part of the United Nations inspection team in 1995. You were on the ground in the country.

TUCKER Yes.

ROBINSON You were on the ground, in the country. Did you find out everything you wanted to find out?

TUCKER No, in fact we visited, what has since become, a very infamous facility known as Al Hakane which was actually Iraq's primary BW biological weapons production facility. At the time we visited, in early 1995, the Iraqis were claiming that this was a legitimate facility involved in the production of single cell protein, a supplement from animal feed, and a biological pesticide.

ROBINSON You're on the ground. They told this to your face.

TUCKER Right. And we saw the facility and the fermenters which were being used for this purpose and it looked just like an ordinary, legitimate commercial facility except there were some tantilizing and troubling aspects about the facility that didn't quite fit. I mean it had high security, was extremely dispersed, it had bunkers. But that in itself was not a smoking gun.

ROBINSON Every day life in Iraq.

TUCKER Right. And it was not, there were also some suggestive evidence obtained by sampling. For example, they took a sample from the spray dryer which was producing the biological pesticide and found one that the biological pesticide had no pesticidal activity, which was a little strange. And also that the particle size was not appropriate for use as a pesticide because instead of falling out of the air onto crops, it would have remained suspended as an aerosol. Hence, appropriate for use as a biological weapon. So even though that they were not producing a biological weapon, they were using a simulant, apparently producing a simulant to develop the know how to eventually produce anthrax. We did not find any smoking gun. We did not draw any conclusions that this facility was in fact or had been used in the past as a weapons facility and it was not until August of 1995 with the defection of Husseine Kamal who is the mastermind behind Iraq's biological weapons program that the truth came out.

ROBINSON So several months after you were there.

TUCKER Right. I was there in February and the defection was not until August.

ROBINSON So, what you are saying is not only can our satellites not pick it up, not only can spies, intelligence services not pick it up. When you are on the ground, in the facility looking at it, you can't be sure.

TUCKER Right.

TUCKER Unless, you're lucky, you take a sample from the right place and find an incriminating... For example, anthrax, when they are saying they are producing something legitimate.

WILKENING Let me try to put it a little more optimistic.

ROBINSON Yes, certainly.

WILKENING Certainly you can monitor or surveil the trafficking of interesting, CBW technologies, chemical biological weapons technologies. The fermenters, the drying technologies that Jonathan talked about. Especially technologies that are useful for weaponizing, BW agents. The nozzles, the sprayers, these things don't have very many commercial applications. In fact, there is no commercial company I know of that sells nozzles that spray in the right particle size distribution it for BW purposes.

So, you can improve that surveillance. Again it is not full proof. It doesn't guarantee that you will catch it. But there are things to do to make it increasingly difficult for a covert operation to go undetected, increase the probability of detecting either terrorist group or a state that's had a dedicated facility.

ROBINSON Are we doing enough to make it difficult? Is the United States government doing enough to make it difficult?

SOFAER It's interesting you raise that. We are at the forefront of opposition to inspection regimes that could at least give us the marginal benefits of effective inspection regimes. And there are good reasons for it.

ROBINSON The position of the United States is...

TUCKER The problem is the United States is very concerned about its legitimate biotechnology industry. We are the leading, we are leading in the world in this technology and the United States.

ROBINSON Up the street here, up 101, we're developing this gene project and that gene project, don't want inspectors anywhere near.

TUCKER Exactly.

ROBINSON Billions of dollars.

WILKENING Especially if you remember Jonathan's description of what they do at Al Hockum. You take swabs and you can collect small samples of the agents or the biological substances that are produced in that facility. You go into a high tech bio firm and take swabs and samples. You can get a lot, potentially, get a lot of information about the processes and some of the proprietary information that that company depends on for its survival. Especially since some of these companies...

ROBINSON American biotech firms may want their secrets to remain secret. But when national security is at stake, what if your liberties just have to give way?

TAKING LIBERTIES

ROBINSON Should there be in the subways of New York, or the BART system of San Francisco, even so small, relatively small an event as the saran release that took place Tokyo in 1995, the public will be outraged. And all kinds of rights to privacy, questions of due process, property rights would be under immediate threat. How do you balance those concerns?

SOFAER Well, Of course I'm glad there is not a constitutional right to possess a biological weapon. So the analogy to the rifle...

ROBINSON The National Rifle Association is not in this one.

SOFAER Not in this one thank you.

WILKENING Have no actual BW association.

SOFAER Exactly, exactly. But the emotions and the arguments are similar in this regard. The biological industry and the chemical industry have been basically going along with these. They feel that they can handle these restraints. They feel that it is doable.

ROBINSON The question of inspection.

SOFAER Inspections.

But pretty much it is agreed that the real bad guys, the states that are most likely to be doing this are either not signing these conventions they're acting unilaterally. Without allowing an inspections at all. Or they are violating them. They just go off and secretly do what they want. It is only safe to assume that things will escape this very, very porous effort to scrutinize. It's the only safe assumption.

TUCKER And I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.

SOFAER I wouldn't either.

TUCKER I think arms control is not a panacea but it is crucial. It's a crucial element in a tool box of policies.

TUCKER Okay. And it brings forth the international norm that these weapons are totally beyond the pale of civilized behavior. And so that there are states that will continue to acquire them. Even use them but they will clearly be labeled as pariah states.

ROBINSON In 1982, was it, the Israelis took out a nuclear reactor, they sent in 9 jets. This is a nuclear question. But it took out a nuclear reactor 40 miles south of Baghdad because they believed that it could be relatively quickly converted to military purposes. And they went, took the thing out, and I bet a lot of people who huffed and puffed about it on CNN the next day, privately were breathing a sigh of relief.

Given the scariness of the threat, how do you proactively keep these bombs, these biological and chemical bombs from going off?

SOFAER But there is no such thing as pre-emptive defense in international law. You can only defend against an attack.

SOFAER Moreover, the attack has to be on your territory. So there is a number of constraints. Now today Ambassador Kirkpatrick, who spoke for the United States in the Security Council, who voted to condemn Israel, now says that it was a mistake. We should never have condemned Israel. We need some sort of concept of preemptive attack.

ROBINSON Suppose an attack does happen. What do we do then?

WAITING TO EXHALE

ROBINSON Abe said we have to assume that somebody is going to slip through. What do we do? Build bomb shelters? Stock pile vaccines? What do we do to protect against the event which we have to assume. I was hoping you could cheer me up a little more than this, but we have to assume, is going to take place sooner or later.

WILKENING There is a hierarchy of things one can do, a layered approach one can take. In the prevention domain there are the arms control constraints, the hopes that you'll detect some country developing this through inspections. And then apply sanctions. One of the things that is very important about the arms control treaties is they require, at least a CWC, a chemical weapons convention, requires domestic legislation to make the possession development transfer of any chemical agent a crime. So what domestic legislation allows local law enforcement people to actually prosecute. Preemptive attack is a non-starter. Just so we have a nice disagreement.

SOFAER There is no disagreement. I think we need it but I don't agree it's a non-starter.

TUCKER BW agents... In the basement of a hospital because they have the equipment for doing some of this kind of work. Are we going to attack a hospital to try to destroy? I don't think so.

ROBINSON It would have been wise to attack at Al Hakane

TUCKER What happened at Al Hakane is very interesting. The UN special commission, the weapons inspectors destroyed, that facility in the summer of 1996.

ROBINSON The good guys won one.

TUCKER The good guys won in this case.

WILKENING They could have done with bombs. Right.

SOFAER Iraq is a special situation. They attacked Kuwait. They are resolutions passed by the Security Council creating extraordinarily demanding inspection regimes with powers that no inspection regime is ever going to have in an ordinary situation anywhere else. And even their facilities got through this regime.

ROBINSON I have no choice but to wrap it up.

1998 today. Let's say it's 2008. Ten years from now. Will a fatal chemical or biological attack have taken place in the United States by the year 2008? Dean?

WILKENING Probably not.

ROBINSON Probably not. God bless you man.

John?

TUCKER I think we will probably see some small scale attacks on the part of

ROBINSON Amshim Rikio scale?

TUCKER Yes. I think that is most likely if it occurs.

ROBINSON Abe

SOFAER It's inevitable that whether it happens in 10 years or 20 years. It's inevitable unless we do something to punish, really punish the crime. And I consider it a crime of creating these weapons. I think it is inevitable to over use.

ROBINSON Abe, Jonathan, Dean, thank you very much.

Two of our three experts agree. There is likely to be a chemical or biological attack right here in the United States sometime over the next 10 years. And on that thought, I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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