Bioterrorism, Public Health and the Law 
Law 801: Health Care Law Seminar
Professor Vernellia R. Randall

Potential of Use of Biological Weapons in the United States


Lesson Schedule
00: Intro to the Course
01: Intro to the Problem
02: Public Health System
03: Real Threat?
04: Public Health Law
05: Disease-Reporting
06: Quarantine
07: Model Act
08: Military Presence
09: Health Law Revisited


Milton Leitenberg

excerpted Wrom: TZRCLBDXRQBGJSNBOHMKHJYFMYXOEAIJJPH the Biological Weapons Threat to the United States, "White Paper" prepared for the Conference on Emerging Threats Assessment. Biological Terrorism, at the Institute for Security Technology Studies, Dartmouth College, July 7-9, 2000 (Citations Omitted).


The discussion of this subject in the United States, beginning around 1996 following the disclosure of the 1990 to 1994 efforts by the Japanese Aum group to produce BW agents, and its use of the chemical agent Sarin in 1995, has been characterized by gross exaggeration, hype, misinformation, and, at times, even simple ignorance. It was overwhelmingly dominated by two clichés which were repeated ad infinitum: "It is not a matter of whether, just when," and "The nation will face within five years...." Five years have in fact now passed. Brian Jenkins (whose consulting group apparently staffed the July 2000 Report of the National Commission on Terrorism) characterized the discussion that ensued as "fact free analysis," and that in the absence of a validated threat, anxieties had been converted into conclusions. At a conference held by the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute on April 29-30, 1999 (the first of two two-day meetings under the rubric of "Bioterrorism in the United States: Calibrating the Threat"), Jenkins pointed out that when terrorist acts which could be relatively easily achieved, such as aircraft hijackings or product tamperings first appeared as means used by terrorists, the rate of these events increased sharply year by year within five years. But the Aum experience has so far proved to be a single data point, and not the beginning of a trend.

Instead, what we have seen are many hundreds of hoaxes. Hoaxes are not BW, they are not "anthrax," and they are not "BW events." Nor are they terrorist consideration of the use of BW (or as phrased in the Defense Science Board Summer Study of 1997, demonstrations of "...the breadth of weaponry available" to terrorist groups), and they should not be counted in statistical compendia as such. A hoax is a hoax, and nothing else.

Two brief, but more expert assessments were provided to Congress early in 1999. John Lauder, Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence for Proliferation, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 3, 1999, that "...the preparation and effective use of BW by both potentially hostile states and by non-state actors, including terrorists, is harder than some popular literature seems to suggest." One should note that the statement included even "potentially hostile states," which would certainly make it even more difficult for "non-state actors." And Col. David Franz, then the Deputy Commander of the US Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command told the Senate Intelligence Committee that BW terrorism is difficult to carry out, and that it would require a "...large well-funded terrorist program or state sponsorship."

Estimates by official US government agencies of actual activities by terrorist groups to obtain biological weapons is contradictory. In February 1996, the US Defense Intelligence Agency responded to a question by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence by stating that, "We have no conclusive information that any of the terrorist organizations that we monitor are developing chemical, biological, or radiological weapons." In the same year, the FBI Section Chief for Domestic Terrorism told Congress that "to date, our investigations in the United States reveal no intelligence that rogue nations using terrorism, international terrorist groups, or domestic groups are planning to use these [nuclear, biological, or chemical] deadly weapons in the United States." As an indication of how confusion gets introduced, even by the very same sources, on January 28, 1998, FBI Director Louis Freeh testified before Congress on threats to US national security. He noted that the FBI, which has jurisdiction over terrorism in the US, had opened over 100 cases in 1997 about the threat, development, or use of WMD, including biological agents, which was more than double the amount from the year before. Freeh noted that a significant fraction of the cases involved threats that had no basis in fact, and that most of the actual interest in biological threats seemed aimed against limited personal targets. He indicated, however, that up to approximately 30 investigations concerning WMD were continuing at the FBI. There never was a subsequent statement by any FBI official to clarify that all the remaining cases – as well as those in 1998 and 1999 – were all hoaxes.

Official statements made in 1999 were both variable and ambiguous. In June 1999, a "Fact Sheet" on "Chemical-Biological Warfare" prepared by the US Department of State opened with the following lines: "The Department of State has no information to indicate that there is a likelihood of use of chemical or biological agent release in the immediate future. The Department believes the risk of the use of chemical/biological warfare is remote, although it cannot be excluded." Two statements by CIA officials in 1999 and 2000 were different. In March 1999, Dr. John Lauder, of the US Central Intelligence Agency, stated that "Beyond state actors, there are a number of terrorist groups seeking to develop or acquire BW capabilities," and reference was then made to the Osama bin Ladin network, for whom "acquire" rather than "develop" would probably be more appropriate.

However, a statement by CIA Director George Tenet in March 2000 was actually somewhat of a retreat. He stated:

...we remain concerned that terrorist groups worldwide continue to explore how rapidly evolving and spreading technologies might enhance the lethality of their operations. Although terrorists we’ve preempted still appear to be relying on conventional weapons, we know that a number of these groups are seeking chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents. We are aware of several instances in which terrorists have contemplated using these materials.

Among them is Bin Ladin, who has shown a strong interest in chemical weapons. His operatives have trained to conduct attacks with toxic chemicals or biological toxins.

Two points are notable: first that chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological were lumped together, and second that "trained to conduct attacks" is not the same as Dr. Lauder’s "develop or acquire BW capabilities." Tenet’s reference to "biological toxins" also suggests ricin as the agent in question, for which there are other suggestions, together with efforts by the Bin Ladin network to obtain simple chemical agents rather than any effort by them to produce either chemical or biological agents.

There were repeated statements in 1999, most prominently in the September 1999 GAO report, Combatting Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessment of Chemical and Biological Attacks, that no threat analysis of this subject -- an examination of specific potential actors, their capabilities and intentions, and potential feasibilities – had ever been prepared inside the US government. Instead, contractors had produced vulnerability analyses, scenarios of effects that would follow release of a BW agent. As indicated in the previous section, those systematic studies that have surveyed relevant events over the past 50 or 100 years uniformly predict that the most likely event will be, as they have in the past, the use of easily available off-the-shelf chemicals, individual poisonings, or the use of the most simply prepared toxins, such as ricin. A terrorist use of a BW agent is best characterized as an event of extremely low probability, which might – depending on the agent, its quality and its means of dispersion -- produce high mortality (or economic damage if it is an anti-plant or anti-animal agent). Table 5 presents Brian Jenkins’s April 1999 summary of the way the problem had been addressed in the previous several years. A very similar conclusion was reached by a US General Accounting Office report released in March 1999. It stated that

...plans developed by the Department of Health and Human Services for "medical consequence management" after a chemical or biological terrorist attack appear to be "geared toward the worst-possible consequences from a public health perspective and do not match intelligence agencies’ judgments on the more likely biological and chemical agents a terrorist group or individual might use."

An essentially similar assessment was also reached by the Monterey group after their database study was completed.

U.S. policy-makers and several outside analysts have predicted catastrophic consequences if a terrorist group or an individual – alone or with state sponsorship – ever mounts a major chemical or biological attack. These alarmist scenarios have been based on the potential vulnerability of U.S. urban centers to chemical or biological attack and the growing availability of relevant technology and materials. But these scenarios have not drawn on a careful assessment of terrorist motivations and patterns of behavior.

With more than a hundred terrorist organizations active in the world today, the challenge is to identify groups or individuals who are both motivated and capable of employing chemical or biological agents against civilians. Yet instead of examining historical cases in which terrorists sought to acquire and use such agents, the Clinton administration, as well as many outside analysts, developed their threat assessments and response strategies in an empirical vacuum. Lacking solid data, they fell back on worst-case scenarios that may be remote from reality.

The tendency of U.S. government officials to exaggerate the threat of chemical and biological terrorism has been reinforced by sensational reporting in the press and an obsessive fascination with catastrophic terrorism in Hollywood films, best-selling books, and other mainstays of pop culture.

The past five years have been characterized, then, by: 

(1) spurious statistics (hoaxes counted as "biological" events) 

(2) unknowable predictions

(3) greatly exaggerated consequence estimates 

(4) gross exaggeration of the feasibility of successfully producing biological agents by non-state actors, except in the case of recruitment of highly experienced professionals, for which there is no evidence to date 

(5) the apparent continued absence of a thorough threat assessment; and, 

(6) thoughtless, ill-considered, counterproductive, and extravagant rhetoric.

Perhaps the epitome of all this was the executive-level exercise in the spring of 1998 when "40 officials from more than a dozen federal agencies met secretly near the White House to play out what would happen if terrorists attacked the United States with a devastating new type of germ weapon." The exercise was based on a scenario taken from a science-fiction thriller which had impressed the President: the postulated production of a viral "chimera" combining two viruses, smallpox and a hemorrhagic fever. But no such organism exists, and its fabrication would be a feat which virologists at USAMRIID, the US biological defense laboratories, believe is currently beyond the capability of the most advanced scientists and facilities to achieve, and perhaps is technically impossible.

Related Pages:
Home ] Up ] Bioterroism and Public Health ] Biological Agents ] Dual Use or Poor Excuse? ] CDC Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response ] Will Bioterrorism Reshape Global Public Health? ] Bioterrorism - A Renewed Public Health Threat ] A Clear and Present Danger? ] Deaths and Illness--A Comparative Analysis ] The Requirements to Produce Biological Agents by Non-State Groups ] [ Potential of Use of Biological Weapons in the United States ] WHO Recommendations for Dealing with Bioterrorism ] Emerging Infectious Disease and Public Health (pdf) ] Facts about Biological Agents ]
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Home ] Syllabus ] Introduction to the Course ] Introduction to the Problem ] Public Health System ] Is Bioterrorism a Real Threat? ] Public Health Law and Bioterrorism ] Disease Reporting and Police Powers ] Quarantine and Police Powers ] Model State Public Health Law ] Military Presence and Public Health ] Public Health Law - Revisited ]
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