Biological Weapons: Bargaining With the Devil

The earliest recorded use of biological warfare was that of Romans putting dead horses into an enemy’s water supply. Other documented examples include combatants hurling plague-ridden human corpses into enemy garrisons; giving blankets contaminated with smallpox to hostile forces; infecting enemy livestock with anthrax and the equine disease, glanders; and poisoning an adversary’s water supply with intestinal typhoid bacteria. These heinous war practices may seem pre-modern; yet, readiness for biological warfare continues, aggressively and in extreme secrecy, today. Up to a dozen countries are suspected of offensive, or “first use,” biological weapons programs, chief among them the United States.

From 1942 until the late ’60s, a highly secretive, offensive, biological weapons research program, begun at the US Army’s research facility at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, gained momentum in the United States. World War II German and Japanese scientists (whose war crimes were overlooked for their expertise in bacteria and viruses capable of sickening and killing livestock, plants and humans) were recruited and employed in it. In 1969, President Nixon learned of the large-scale biowarfare program and halted it, given its gruesome risks and the already existing overkill capacity of the US nuclear weapons arsenal.(1) Soon after, the US government signed and ratified the 1972 UN International Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention that outlaws all offensive biological weapons programs, that is, programs with first-strike intent and capability.
In late 2001, the US Department of Homeland Security rapidly resurrected research on biological warfare agents. The new agency seized upon the anthrax attack in October of that year, in which inhalable anthrax was sent through the US mail to certain Congressional politicians and journalists (but ultimately killed five postal workers), to warrant and market a bioweapons research agenda. The FBI alleged (yet never proved with direct evidence) that the source of the anthrax letters was Fort Detrick biodefense scientist, Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide as federal agents were pursuing him. The resurgence of biowarfare research in 2001 is one of the many militaristic actions taken under the banner of fighting terrorism, and it is strongly suspected to be in violation of the biological weapons convention. Some have suggested that this domestic terrorism was a deliberate act to pre-dispose the public for a new wave of biological warfare research.(2)
Read other articles in the series by author Patricia Hynes on the environmental impact of US militarism.
The bullish climate of the “war on terrorism” set off a massive flow of federal funding for research on live, virulent bioweapons’ organisms (also referred to as biodefense, bioterrorism and biosafety organisms) to federal, university and private laboratories in rural, suburban and urban areas. Among the federal agencies building or expanding biodefense laboratories are the Departments of Defense (DoD), Homeland Security, State and Agriculture; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A new network, comprised of two large national biowarfare laboratories at BU and University of Texas, Galveston medical centers, more than a dozen small regional laboratories and ten Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, was designed for funding by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of NIH. The validation offered by the federal health research agency for ramped-up biological warfare research is the dual use of the research results: “better vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics against bioterrorist agents but also for coping with naturally occurring disease.”
Today, in dozens of newly sprung laboratories, research on the most lethal bacteria and viruses with no known cure is being conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy, with hand-picked internal review boards and little, if any, public oversight or accountability. Fort Detrick, Maryland, a longstanding military base and major government research facility, is the site of the largest biodefense lab being built in the United States. Here, biowarfare pathogens will be created, including new genetically engineered viruses and bacteria, in order to simulate potential bioweapons attacks by terrorist groups. Novel, lethal organisms and methods of delivery in biowarfare will be tested, all rationalized by the national security need to study them and develop a figurative bioshield against them. In fact, Fort Detrick’s research agenda – modifying and dispersing lethal and genetically modified organisms – has “unmistakable hallmarks of an offensive weapons program” … “in essence creating new threats that we’re going to have to defend ourselves against” – threats from accidents, theft of organisms and stimulus of a bioarms race.(3)
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Between 2002 and 2009, approximately 400 facilities and 15,000 people were handling biological weapons agents in sites throughout the country, in many cases unbeknownst to the local community. The marathon to spend nearly $60 billion since 2002 on biological weapons research has raised serious concerns for numerous scientists and informed public critics. Among these are:
runaway biodefense research without an assessment of biowarfare threat and the need for this research; (See the Sunshine Project web site for the most comprehensive map of biodefense research sites through 2008 in the United States )
militarization of biological research and the risk of provoking a biological arms race;
neglect of vital public health research as a tradeoff for enhanced biodefense research;
lack of standardized safety and security procedures for high-risk laboratories;
increased risk of accident and intentional release of lethal organisms with the proliferation of facilities and researchers in residential communities;
lack of transparency and citizen participation in the decision-making process; and
vulnerability of environmental justice (i.e., low income and minority) communities to being selected for the location of these high-risk facilities.

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