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US secretly experimenting with germ warfare
By Judith Miller, William Broad and Stephen Engelberg
Over the past several years the United States has embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that, some officials say, tests the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons.
The 1972 treaty forbids nations from developing or acquiring weapons that spread disease, but it allows work on vaccines and other protective measures.
Government officials said the secret research, which mimicked the major steps a state or terrorist group would take to create a biological arsenal, was aimed at understanding the threat better.
The projects, which have not been previously disclosed, were begun under president Bill Clinton and have been embraced by the Bush Administration, which intends to expand them.
Earlier this year, Administration officials said, the Pentagon drew up plans to engineer genetically a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax, a deadly disease ideal for germ warfare.
The experiment has been devised to assess whether the vaccine now being given to millions of American soldiers is effective against such a superbug, which was first created by Russian scientists. A Bush Administration official said the National Security Council was expected to give the final go-ahead this month.
Two other projects completed during the Clinton administration focused on the mechanics of making germ weapons.
In a program codenamed Clear Vision, the CIA built and tested a model of a Soviet-designed germ bomb that agency officials feared was being sold on the international market. The CIA device lacked a fuse and other parts that would make it a working bomb, intelligence officials said.
At about the same time, Pentagon experts assembled a germ factory in the Nevada desert from commercially available materials. Pentagon officials said the project demonstrated the ease with which a terrorist or rogue nation could build a plant that could produce kilograms of deadly germs. Both the mock bomb and the factory were tested with simulants - benign substances with characteristics similar to the germs used in weapons, officials said. All the projects were "fully consistent" with the treaty banning biological weapons and were needed to protect Americans against a growing danger, a Bush Administration official said.
The treaty, another official said, allowed the US to conduct research on both microbes and germ munitions for "protective or defensive purposes".
Some Clinton administration officials worried, however, that the project violated the pact. Others expressed concern that the experiments, if disclosed, might be misunderstood as an effort to resume work on a class of weapons the US relinquished in 1969.
The officials said simultaneous experiments involving a model of a germ bomb, a factory to make biological agents and the development of more potent anthrax would draw vociferous protests from Washington if conducted by North Korea or another country the US viewed as suspect.
Administration officials said the need to keep such projects secret was a big reason behind President George Bush's recent rejection of a draft agreement to strengthen the germ-weapons treaty, which has been signed by 143 nations and would require disclosure of some types of germ research.
The New York Times
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 04, 2001
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Preparing for Germ Warfare U.S. Performing Secret Experiments in Case of Attack
By John McWethy
C A M P 12, N E V A D A T E S T S I T E, Nev., Sept. 4 — In a remote corner of the Nevada desert, a highly restricted area once used to test nuclear bombs, the U.S. government has been running a secret experiment called Project Bacchus.
It is a small germ warfare factory, set up inside an abandoned government building. U.S. officials say they built it to better understand how to detect similar operations in places like Iraq or Afghanistan or even by terrorists here at home. The factory, built by the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, has been brought to full production for several weeks on two occasions — in 1999 and again in 2000. Technicians grew several pounds of a harmless bacterium with characteristics similar to deadly anthrax.
"A terrorist could easily grow anthrax in a facility like this," Jay Davis, who was DTRA director at the time the factory was built, said in an interview at the one-time classified facility, "and produce enough quantity in a covert delivery to kill, say, 10,000 people in a large city."
The DTRA team bought all materials for the small-scale laboratory from local hardware stores and the Internet. Included in their shopping list was a 50-liter fermenter purchased "used" from overseas. "Commercial item. Off the shelf," Davis said. "Easy to find."
At no time did any of the purchases cause law enforcement to be suspicious, Davis added.
Asked if this was how a terrorist group might put together such a laboratory, Davis said: "A terrorist group would choose to do this, yes … This is the size of thing you would be afraid a non-state group would do, either people in our country or people in some other country. This is fairly concealable."
The primary reason for conducting the experiment was to place sensors outside of the building to create what the intelligence community calls a "signature," according to intelligence sources. Once in operation, technicians measured heat changes, emissions that could be sampled in the air and soil as well as patterns of energy consumption.
"The ultimate product is knowledge," Davis said. Other officials say the primary customers for the knowledge were the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, both agencies responsible for detecting an operation like this in other countries. Officials say the FBI also was given data from the project.
And according to officials who supervised the project but asked not to be identified, what is so frightening about this top-secret project is that it shows that with the right technical knowledge, it is surprisingly easy to build and operate a small germ warfare factory. And worse, even with the most sophisticated sensors, it is extremely difficult to detect.
The project was conducted in such extreme secrecy that some worry it might be misunderstood and seen as a violation of the international treaty that bans making germ weapons.
"I think there is a very delicate line that has to be drawn between the need to keep some kinds of information secret and the need to allay suspicions about what the country is up to," said Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times and co-author of a new book on biological warfare called Germs.
"People overseas will think that the United States may be secretly conducting an offensive weapons program, that we may be secretly trying to develop biological weapons," she said.
As for the Bush administration, Miller said: "I think that this administration wants to not only expand these projects, but intends to keep most of them secret."
Miller and other experts on biological weapons have been concerned that the supersecret U.S. projects would be misunderstood by other governments and might lead those governments to develop offensive biological weapons.
But the Pentagon agreed to show ABCNEWS this once-secret project was. Sources say it's part of an effort to anticipate a threat that has the potential to kill on a scale only nuclear weapons could match.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 05, 2001.
U.S. Anthrax Plan Worries Russians
Wednesday September 5, 2001 7:10 pm
MOSCOW (AP) - Russian experts voiced concern Wednesday about U.S. plans to develop a potentially more lethal version of the bacterium that causes deadly anthrax, but the government refrained from immediate reaction.
The Pentagon confirmed its intention Tuesday to conduct the research once legal reviews have been completed and the U.S. Congress has been informed. The plan was first reported by The New York Times, which said it was part of a broader research effort to improve U.S. defenses against biological agents.
Despite assertions by U.S. officials that the research was strictly defensive, some experts have pointed out that such work could violate the 1972 global ban on developing or acquiring biological weapons.
``It's not prohibited to develop vaccines against biological weapons, but developing a new strain of anthrax would be a violation of the ban,'' said Alexander Gorbovsky, an expert at the government's Munitions Agency, which in charge of legal issues relating to the ban on biological weapons.
There had been no official government reaction to the U.S. research, he said in a telephone interview, as Moscow was still studying official U.S. statements on the issue.
The Russian Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment.
With the United States' rejection in July of a draft protocol intended to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, ``the report on U.S. research is causing concern,'' Gorbovsky said in a telephone interview.
The ban failed to make a clear distinction between defensive and offensive research and contained no mechanism of control, creating a wide gray zone.
``The Clinton administration supported the protocol as did U.S. allies in Western Europe, and the reversal of Washington's stance on the issue has vexed a liberal part of the American establishment,'' Alexander Pikayev, a military analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow.
``George W. Bush will now find himself in an awkward position, fending off accusations of breaching the ban.''
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), September 05, 2001.