The battle over bio-terror

A recent report urges America to pour $13 billion into preventing disease-based warfare, but evidence suggests that our fears are misplaced.



Arthur Allen
September 12, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

The killer struck in the final act, pumping bacteria into the air ducts of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where an unsuspecting audience sat in thralldom to Puccini. Three days later the opera lovers started to cough, retch and roll into the emergency rooms. A week later, 400 of them were dead, and the pneumonic plague was off on a rip-snorting ride across the country.

This didn't really happen. The killer was only a mannequin and the victims were actors, paid by the Department of Justice to participate in a three-day, $2 million exercise in May that tested the Mile High City's response to a bio-terrorist attack.

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But federal policymakers, from President Clinton on down, seem to believe it could happen. The government is spending $10 billion this year on the assumption that a night at the opera is the perfect postmodern battlefield, and the tender little underbelly of Anytown, USA., lies exposed to the claws of terror. An attack with unconventional weapons in the United States is likely, Clinton said after announcing the bio-terrorism initiative in 1998. "It's a cause for serious, disciplined, long-term concern."

This summer, germ warfare experts at Johns Hopkins University and members of a Pentagon study panel have been touting a plan to put $3 billion into creating a new Department of Defense directorate. The new joint bio-defense organization, according to a draft plan leaked to United Press International, would finance the genomic analysis of 1,350 germs and buy up DNA chips to screen 4 million servicemembers and their families for traces of biological warfare agents. Eventually, all of us might be screened for bad bugs.

So, where exactly are the germinators?

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Over the past century, exactly one person has died on American soil in a terror attack that could remotely be described as "biological." Oakland, Calif., School Superintendent Marcus Foster was shot in 1973 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, with a bullet that had apparently been dipped in ricin, a toxin made from castor beans.

A growing consensus among scholars and intelligence officials holds that the Clinton administration has exaggerated the threat of a catastrophic chemical or biological warfare attack, according to "Hype or Reality," a collection of papers published this summer by the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, headed by a former Bush administration arms control official named Michael Moodie.

In one of the papers, veteran terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins argues that the Clinton bio-terror initiative has shut out intelligent skepticism on the issue. Analysts used to be divided into "apocalypticians," who assumed anything that could go wrong would, and "disbelievers," who felt that mass-death attacks were merely the stuff of fiction, Jenkins writes. Today, "the apocalypticians' view has become the new orthodoxy ... Whether terrorist employment of weapons of mass destruction can be shown to be a clear and present danger is beside the point; the time for discussion is over, the skeptics are told."

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For the apocalypticians, bio-warfare buildup is justified by the notion that terrorist attacks "have become more spectacular and sophisticated over time," as Navy Cmdr. James Campbell, a counterterrorism official, writes in "Hype or Reality." To be sure, the U.S. has retaliated powerfully against such attacks but "for the terrorist group operating under a radical religious imperative," he argues, "backlash possesses little deterrent value, as death holds its own reward for the martyred."

In fact, that may not be true. Terrorism has declined since the Cold War. We did have the World Trade Center attack, the Oklahoma City bombing and Osama bin Laden's alleged role in the demolition of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. But all these bombings used conventional explosives.

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Two events gave the bio-terrorism initiative the bureaucratic momentum it required. The first was the 1992 defection of Soviet bio-warfare official Ken Alibek, who revealed that the Soviets had employed about 3,000 scientists in illegal germ warfare programs, some of which, he claimed, were continuing. In those days there were many reports of toxic goo leaking from laboratories in the former Soviet Union. German police, who flooded the market with agents posing as terrorists, even managed to score some weapons-grade uranium, albeit in tiny quantities.

Then, in 1995, worry crested when members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect punctured plastic bags full of sarin in the Tokyo subways, releasing enough of the deadly nerve agent to kill seven people and injure as many as 1,000.

The Japanese poisonings, coupled with the Soviet news and revelations of Iraq's bio-warfare program, made it all seem so imminent. In a "Meet the Press" appearance in late 1997, Defense Secretary William Cohen held up a bag of sugar and said it could contain enough anthrax to kill everybody in Washington. "We have begun to treat the threat of chemical and biological weapons as a likely and early condition of warfare," Cohen wrote in the Washington Post. The chemical and bio-warfare battlefield, he added, had moved "from foreign soil to the American homeland."

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Yet so far, Cohen's predictions have hardly rung true. In the past five years, as the catastrophic terrorism defense industry got into gear, scarcely a peep has been heard out of the suspected perps. You never say never, but we may never hear one. Security experts say that:

  • There is no evidence that Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya -- the five "pariah" states known to have unconventional warfare programs -- have tried to provide such weapons to terrorists.

  • There is no evidence that Russian scientists are engaged in biological or chemical weapons programs overseas. (90 percent of the former Soviet bio-warfare scientists who emigrated are either in the United States, Western Europe or Israel.)

  • Although bin Laden has threatened to use chemical or biological warfare, this most heavily tracked terrorist hasn't, apparently, taken any steps to procure germ warfare agents.

    Closer examinations of the Aum Shinrikyo cult have provided a more subtle portrayal of the bio-terror threat, showing just how hard it would be for terrorists to effectively carry out such an attack.

    A study by Milton Leitenberg, a University of Maryland security expert, shows that Aum had a well-educated, 10-member team that spent five years and $20 million trying to turn anthrax and botulinium bacteria into effective weapons. On at least seven occasions, sect members attempted to provoke mass death with germ attacks. All the attacks failed. No one even got sick.

    "Aum Shinrikyo was a real, serious example, not the constant hypothetical evocation of untrained 'terrorists' able to produce biological agents in kitchens, garages, bathtubs and home beer brewing kits," Leitenberg testified in Congress recently. "Despite the expenditure of considerable time, effort, money and the requisite talent, their efforts totally failed."

    Although the Russians and Japanese are known to have used germ agents during World War II, the only recent case of a "successful" biological attack was the Rajneesh cult's 1984 attempt to win a local election in Oregon by spraying salad bars with salmonella bacteria cultured from a mail-order kit. The Rajneeshees lost the elction, but the salmonella (a relatively benign strain) gave 750 people severe diarrhea.

    The FBI has reported a steadily increasing number of investigations into biological warfare in recent years, but the raw numbers are deceptive. Almost all of the investigations have been prompted by threats that turned out to be hoaxes -- the lawyer who wanted an excuse to file a brief late, or the disturbed guy who needed his medications. Once anthrax was vested with official power, it entered the discourse of the loony-tunes.

    In short, "We can conjure up a worse-case scenario," says John Parachini, chief of the Washington office of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "But we can also conjure up a meteor hitting the Earth."

    During the Cold War, U.S. military planners had something called "threat assessment": They studied the enemy's weapons systems, calculated how they might be used and prepared a defense based on this assessment. There hasn't been any assessment of the bio-threat.

    "And probably for good reason," says Leitenberg. "Because we'd come up with nothing."

    U.S. policy has been "driven by vulnerability assessments, as opposed to threat assessments," explains Parachini. Spending on bio-warfare defense is aimed, theoretically at least, at countering worst-case scenarios. But this is an exercise in unreality. "To prepare for the worst-case scenario we'd have to be doing several orders of magnitude more than what we did in the '40s and '50s with civil defense," Parachini says. "And we're not willing to do that."

    Even those who accept the general thesis of the bio-terrorism defense initiative question whether it's being used effectively. Michael Osterholm, a consultant and the former Minnesota state epidemiologist, believes a terrorist germ attack is "not a question of whether but when." But Osterholm thinks the counterterrorism budget is wasted. Out of $10 billion, $88 million went to state public health agencies. If there's a germ warfare attack, it will manifest itself as an epidemic -- and state and local authorities will have to deal with it.

    "Hazmat suits won't do a thing for you in a germ warfare attack," Osterholm said at a news conference this summer. "Local doctors are the ones who'll have to deal with this, but there's not a hospital in this country ready for bio-terrorism. There aren't any doctors who recognize smallpox and anthrax. We really need to reinvest in public health networks in this country if we hope to be able to respond."

    In fact, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health officials are doing just that with their share of the bio-terror money. They're using such funds as they've received to patch up cracks in their infrastructure that have nothing to do with bio-terrorism.

    "Our attitude is, an outbreak's an outbreak," says Susan Mottice, a microbiologist in the Utah public health system. Mottice's lab used its federal bio-terrorism grant to hire two new workers -- a 20 pecent increase in its staff. The two employees are trying to improve training and safety procedures for working with microorganisms, whether spread by terrorists or the wind. "I wouldn't say this money is allowing us to expand," she says. "It's allowing us to do critical things we haven't been able to do."

    "Fact is, we allowed our public health system to deteriorate to an unacceptable level," says Moodie, of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, "But that's not a sexy subject that gets a high priority from Congress. And if bio-warfare is a way to bring some of that money in, that's not bad."

    In Colorado, which hosted the bio-terrorism exercise in May, Chief Medical Officer Richard Hoffman has used $1.2 million in annual bio-terrorism money to give his 44 local public health officers computers, pagers and fax machines to receive bulletins from his office and the CDC. He has also improved germ-detection technologies and hired a new epidemiologist. "It's a good shot in the arm, a good dose of carrot juice to shore up some of the public health infrastructure," Hoffman says.

    For all that, Hoffman thinks the night-at-the-opera exercise wasn't a bad idea. "I don't think it's a waste of money. A terrorist attack could occur. Furthermore there's a great degree of overlap of a bio-terrorist event with pandemic influenza.

    $10 billion to fight the flu?

    "We've had pandemics in 1918, 1957 and 1968," Hoffman says. "In my view, a pandemic is going to occur sooner or later."


  • Arthur Allen

    Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon. He lives in Washington.

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