News | April 1, 2003

Toward a National Biodefense Strategy

The United States is re-learning an important lesson in the first decade of the 21st century: adversaries may attack the United States, its interests, or those of friends and allies with biological weapons (BW). The last century witnessed the purported use of glanders by the Germans in World War I and the use of dysentery, plague, and typhus by the Japanese in World War II. But biological weapons were not constrained to wartime settings in the last century. The Rajneeshees, a religious cult in Oregon, employed salmonella to advance their own political agenda. States such as Iraq and the former Soviet Union developed wide-ranging biological warfare capabilities, subnational entities such as Aum Shinrikyo devoted considerable effort and resources to the acquisition of biological agents, and the al Qaeda terror network remains interested in biological capabilities. According to the Director of Central Intelligence, evidence from Afghanistan suggests that al Qaeda was pursuing a “sophisticated biological weapons research program.”

The 21st century opened with the startling use of anthrax spread deliberately through the United States mail system, resulting in 5 dead, at least 17 infected, and more than 30,000 on preventative antibiotics. It also led to substantial disruptions in normal activities, the revision of long-standing procedures, and the expenditure of several billion dollars for decontamination efforts. At present, the intelligence community assesses that “approximately” a dozen states maintain offensive BW programs and that interest among particular subnational organizations is high. Looking ahead, current trends will be facilitated and made more complex by the ongoing revolution in biotechnology, the continuing spread of dual-use technologies, the potential for diversion or leakage of expertise, evident weaknesses in international accords designed to prevent BW development and use, and the broaching of the perceived moral barrier against use. Protecting United States forces, facilities, and civilians at home and abroad from biological weapons is a pressing national priority. READ MORE >>