25 September 2005

Manufacturing Germ Bombs Again

And I rather doubt that anyone (beyond a few policy wonks and those on the political fringes) will even care:
THE US military wants to buy large quantities of anthrax, in a controversial move that is likely to raise questions over its commitment to treaties designed to limit the spread of biological weapons.
One "biological services" contract specifies: "The company must have the ability and be willing to grow Bacillus anthracis Sterne strain at 1500-litre quantities." Other contracts are for fermentation equipment for producing 3000-litre batches of an unspecified biological agent, and sheep carcasses to test the efficiency of an incinerator for the disposal of infected livestock.
Now, why would they need to dispose of infected sheep? Maybe to avoid getting caught again:
In March 1968, 6,400 sheep were found dead after grazing in south Skull Valley, an area just outside Dugway's boundaries. When examined, the sheep were found to have been poisoned by a deadly nerve agent called VX. The incident, coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement and anti-Vietnam protests, created an uproar in Utah and internationally.
Oh, and let's not forget, "Saddam gassed his own people":
Cities were unwittingly used as laboratories to test aerosolization and dispersal methods; Aspergillus fumigatus, B. subtilis var. globigii, and Serratia marcescens were used as simulants and released during experiments in New York City, San Francisco, and other sites. Concerns regarding potential public health hazards of simulant studies were raised after an outbreak of nosocomial S. marcescens (formerly Chromobacterium prodigiosum) urinary tract infections at Stanford University Hospital between September 1950 and February 1951, following covert experiments using S. marcescens as a simulant in San Francisco. A report from the Centers for Disease Control completed in 1977 found no association between reported morbidity and mortality from pneumonia and influenza and local simulant experiments.

A series of field tests took place under the auspices of the Biological Laboratories from 1943 to the mid-1960s:

* In one such test, travelers at Washington National Airport were subjected to a harmless bacterium. Traps were placed throughout the facility to capture the bacterium as it flowed in the air. Laboratory personnel, dressed as travelers carrying brief cases, walked the corridors and without detection sprayed the bacterium into the atmosphere.
* In the New York Subway, a light bulb filled with the same harmless bacterium was dropped on the tracks. The organism spread throughout the system within 20 minutes. Traps and monitoring devices showed the amount of organism--if it were one of the predictable, dangerous organisms, could have killed thousands of persons. No one was injured or became ill as a result of the test.
* In San Francisco, a U.S. Navy ship, equipped with spray devices operated by Fort Detrick personnel, sprayed serratia marcescens, a non-pathogenic microorganism that is easily detected, while the ship plied the San Francisco Bay. It spread more than 30 miles to monitoring stations.
* A jet aircraft equipped with spray devices, flew a course near Victoria, Texas, and the harmless particles were monitored in the Florida Keys.
Returning to the New Scientist article:
Although the Sterne strain is not thought to be harmful to humans and is used for vaccination, the contracts have caused major concern.

"It raises a serious question over how the US is going to demonstrate its compliance with obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention if it brings these tanks online," says Alan Pearson, programme director for biological and chemical weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington DC. "If one can grow the Sterne strain in these units, one could also grow the Ames strain, which is quite lethal."

The US renounced biological weapons in 1969, but small quantities of lethal anthrax were still being produced at Dugway as recently as 1998.
Of course, though the Army doesn't even bother coming up with an excuse ("they refused to say what it will be used for"), New Scientist tries to be 'fair' by mentioning that it could be used for defensive research, e.g., decontamination, protection, etc. Only one problem - the Army already has a facility for that, USAMRIID. The difference is that research at USAMRIID isn't classified and involves civilian researchers, so there is only so much they can do without the public discovering it, even under the cover of 'sensitive-but-not-classified' research. And for what it's worth, it isn't only lefty peaceniks who are worried about this escalation of biowarfare R&D; both the former Deputy Director of USAMRIID and Nixon's ambassador to the Biological Weapons Convention talks co-authored a paper for the Federation of American Scientists, Biodefense Crossing the Line (warning: PDF, but it's only 4 pages). The problem, of course, is that almost nobody will hear about this, since WWWA has more important news to cover. The money quote:
The rapidity of elaboration of American biodefense programs, their ambition and administrative aggressiveness, and the degree to which they push against the prohibitions of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), are startling.
The production and stockpiling of biological-weapons agents are not the only criteria by which an offensive biological weapons (BW) program is defined. They are only such a program's most obvious terminal expressions. Taken together, many of the activities detailed above -- most particularly the "Store, Stabilize, Package, Disperse" sequence and the "Computational modeling of feasibility, methods, and scale of production" item --— may constitute development in the guise of threat assessment, and they certainly will be interpreted that way. Development is prohibited by the Biological Weapons Convention.
On April 28, 2004, at the conclusion of a year'’s review, the Bush administration disclosed details of the new National Biodefense Directive. Among them, reportedly, was that "the US intelligence community is under orders to carry out studies examining the types of genetically engineered 'bugs' terrorists could be working on to mount an attack." Surely, the "intelligence community" is the least appropriate place in the US government to "carry out" such work -- and the most likely to lack adequate oversight. And does a program of this design bear any relation to the realistic level of threat presented by non-state actor "bioterrorists"? Recently declassified documents demonstrate that the US intelligence community possesses evidence demonstrating that interested terrorist groups --— al Qaeda among them -- still have no capability to work with classical BW agents and certainly cannot engineer agents genetically.
So, is Colin Powell going to call for regime change? (New Scientist article via the apostropher)

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