By Sherwood Ross
July 06, 2007
Speaking Truth to Power
Reprinted from THE HUMANIST
In his bellicose Cincinnati, Ohio, speech of October 7, 2002, President George W. Bush warned that Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten America with “horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons.” While Iraq’s possession of these weapons later proved to be unfounded, the president’s charges did point to a certain germ of truth: they neatly described his own operations.
Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has spent at least $44 billion on biological “defense” without ever making made a true needs assessment. In the early 1990s the Kremlin shut down their huge, Soviet-era germ warfare operation and, while Israel, Iran, and North Korea are known to have biological weapons research facilities and India, China, and Cuba are said to be building high-security labs to study lethal bacteria and viruses, these initial or potential programs are disproportionately behind the massive efforts underway in the United States. In the words of Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, an Austin, Texas-based group that tracks research involving biological agents: “Our biowarfare research is defending ourselves from ourselves. It’s a dog chasing its tail.”
Milton Leitenberg is an arms control authority and a member of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and UM’s Center for International and Security Studies. In his 2005 book, Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat, Leitenberg writes that the risk of terrorists and nonstate actors using biological agents “has been systematically and deliberately exaggerated,” particularly after the 2001 anthrax attacks on Congress and media outlets. He contends that U.S. officials undertook a concerted effort to promote their view on the international stage and that an “edifice of institutes, programs, conferences, and publicists” continues to spread what he calls exaggeration and scare-mongering.
What’s more, while floating extravagant tales of terrorists planning to launch deadly germ attacks on the United States, the Bush administration has been diverting dollars from urgent medical research against real threats, such as avian influenza, to the creation of new strains of extinct killer diseases like Spanish flu. Upon his retirement in December 2004, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson cited pandemic flu as the greatest threat to the nation. Yet according to Leitenberg, Washington policymakers instead have focused on bioterrorism and biodefense.
Leitenberg posits it might take just such a pandemic to demonstrate to the public that Washington “has been using the overwhelming proportion of its relevant resources to prepare for the wrong contingency.” From 1977 to 1999, he notes, flu killed 788,000 people in the United States, about 36,000 a year. Even if there is no outbreak of pandemic flu, one could project 360,000 American deaths from flu over the next decade. When these figures are contrasted with the five deaths from the 2001 anthrax attacks, it is little short of amazing that in fiscal year 2006 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received $1.76 billion for biodefense but only $120 million to fight influenza.
If taxpayers are slow to recognize that billions of their tax dollars are being poured into hundreds of biological cesspools, some scientific bodies are not. According to the nonprofit Center For Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CAC) in Washington, DC, in 2001 the U.S. government spent $1.6 billion to address the threat of biological weapons. By 2006 total spending had reached $36 billion, with a record $8 billion more earmarked for FY 2007. As noted, one of the leading agencies allocating such funds is the NIH, billed as “the steward of medical and behavioral research for the Nation.” Two years ago, the growing slice of the NIH budget being shifted to biodefense research–money that has traditionally gone to fighting diseases such as cancer–prompted 750 of the 1,143 NIH-funded scientists studying bacterial diseases to write an open letter to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni charging that the research center’s emphasis on biodefense had diminished their efforts to achieve basic research breakthroughs.
The public has good reason for concern. In the introduction to Francis Boyle’s 2005 book, Biowarfare and Terrorism, MIT molecular biology professor Jonathan King writes: “the Bush administration launched a major program which threatens to put the health of our people at far greater risk than the hazard to which they claimed to have been responding.” Bush’s policies, he continues, “do not increase the security of the American people” but “bring new risk to our population of the most appalling kind.”
From Washington State to Florida and from Massachusetts to California, the United States has broken out in a rash of federally funded biological warfare operations with as many as four hundred labs involved in research related to pathogens that could be used as bioweapons agents. According to the Sunshine Project, most states have a facility of some sort, ranging from an open-air testing location to aerosol test chambers to Biosafety Level 3 or Level 4 operations, the latter being one in which the pathogens being tampered with are deadly, easily transmissible, and have no known cure. Additionally, there are laboratories in a number of states whose activity is classified as secret. Beyond the NIH, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the military are heavily engaged in such work, some of it conducted abroad, such as the Navy’s labs in Egypt, Peru, Indonesia, and Germany.
Biological warfare involves the use of living organisms for military purposes. Such weapons can be viral, bacterial, and fungal, among other forms, and can be spread over a large geographic terrain by wind, water, insect, animal, or human transmission. Among the most dangerous pathogens under study are anthrax, tularemia, plague, and ebola virus, as well as toxins (living organisms such as fungi). Using genetic engineering, U.S. government scientists are purportedly concocting new strains of lethal microbes for which there are no cures. Bacteria, for example, can be made resistant to vaccines. Indeed, they can be made more virulent, easier to disseminate, and harder to eradicate. Some pathogens are even being injected with genes to make them resistant to antibiotic drugs. Words fail to describe this “achievement,” coming from the same country that gave the world the Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin polio vaccines.
As part of its buildup, in January 2005 the Army authorized construction of a new facility at the already sprawling U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. According to a July 31, 2006, report in London’s Guardian, Fort Detrick’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), due to be completed in 2008, “will house heavily guarded and hermetically sealed chambers in which scientists simulate potential terrorist attacks.” The scientists will dress in full-body spacesuits and use aerosol-test chambers to expose animals to deadly pathogens. To do so, the Guardian reported, the world’s most lethal bacteria and viruses would have to be produced and stockpiled. Questions of international law violations and the hastening of a biological arms race persist.
In December 2006 Battelle National Biodefense Institute hooked the $250-million, five-year DHS contract to run the NBACC. According to the Washington Post, much of what transpires at that center may never be known as the government intends to operate the facility largely in secret. In its July 30, 2006, article, the Post reported:
- The heart of the lab is a cluster of sealed chambers built to contain the world’s deadliest bacteria and viruses. There, scientists will spend their days simulating the unthinkable: bioterrorism attacks in the form of lethal anthrax spores rendered as wispy powders that can drift for miles on a summer breeze, or common viruses turned into deadly superbugs that ordinary drugs and vaccines cannot stop.
University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle charges that the Bush administration is spending more money in inflation-adjusted dollars to develop illegal, offensive germ warfare than the $2 billion the United States spent on the Manhattan Project to make the atomic bomb. That weapon’s development was, at least, driven by the realistic fears that Nazi Germany might develop it first. Today, no comparable enemy exists.
Peculiarly, the only significant deadly germ warfare attack on the United States appeared to have come from the government’s own Fort Detrick site. A month after 9/11, the mysterious anthrax attacks killed five, sickened seventeen, and alarmed the nation. The perpetrator was never found (a poor showing for a country that spends $40 billion a year on intelligence), but the anthrax-laced letters to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) prodded Congress to rubberstamp an expansion of spending for biological defense through the Patriot and Project BioShield acts.
Project BioShield is a $5.6-billion plan under which the Department of Homeland Security is stockpiling vaccines and drugs to fight anthrax, smallpox, and other germ warfare agents. There is considerable dispute as to whether the plan’s activities open the door to aggressive use of such agents. According to Boyle, pursuant to two national strategy directives adopted by Bush in 2002, the Pentagon “is now gearing up to fight and ‘win’ biological warfare without prior public knowledge and review.” The Pentagon’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program was revised in 2003 to implement those directives, endorsing “first-use” strike of chemical and biological weapons in war. Boyle calls the directives the proverbial smoking gun and further points to President Bush’s Homeland Security Presidential Directive, HSPD-10, of April 28, 2004, which states:
- We are continuing to develop more forward-looking analyses, to include Red Teaming efforts, to understand new scientific trends that may be exploited by our adversaries to develop biological weapons and to help position intelligence collectors ahead of the problem.
“‘Red Teaming’ means that we actually have people out there on a Red Team plotting, planning, and scheming how to use biowarfare,” says Boyle. The Army has stated its work is, and will continue to be, solely defensive in nature. But when it comes to biowarfare and the agents involved, how do you prepare to defend against such threats without developing them?
According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century, “it is widely acknowledged that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between defensive and offensive research in the field.” Still, as a signatory to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (entered into force in 1975), the United States is officially bound to the treaty, the scope of which is defined in Article 1:
- Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.
University of Maryland’s Leitenberg, a long-time authority in the arms control field, contends the government is not developing germ warfare weapons. However, in a monograph published by his organization, he does question whether ongoing research crosses the line:
- There is no such thing as ‘defensive’ biological weapons. Whatever military doctrine may say regarding distinctions between offensive and defensive conventional weapons, this does not apply to biological weapons. Article 1.1 of the BWC allows the growth of laboratory quantities of pathogens (agents) for defensive purposes, that is, in order to develop vaccines and pharmaceuticals, test rapid detection systems, masks, decontamination systems and so on. However, even the ‘development’ of the pathogen is explicitly forbidden–“never in any circumstances”–as is production and stockpiling.
Boyle, who drafted the 1989 federal law enacted by Congress that criminalized BWC violations, sees it more definitively; he contends the government is creating a killing machine. Fort Detrick’s activities betray aggressive intent, he says, and should be shut down and those responsible jailed. Others also apparently believe the line has been crossed. Commenting on Fort Detrick, Mark Wheelis, a microbiology professor at the University of California at Davis, told the Global Security Newswire in June 2004 there was no question that the activities underway there mirrored how offensive biological weapons capability would be developed. “We’re going to develop new pathogens for various purposes. We’re going to develop new ways of packaging them, new ways of disseminating them,” Wheelis outlined. “We’re going to harden them to environmental degradation. We’ll be prepared to go offensive at the drop of a hat if we so desire.” And on July 30, 2006, Leitenberg told the Washington Post, “If we saw others doing this kind of research, we would view it as an infringement of the bioweapons treaty. You can’t go around the world yelling about Iranian and Korean programs, about which we know very little, when we’ve got all this going on.”
As for whether there truly is an aggressive intent behind the government’s biological warfare research, one clue is that in February 2003 the United States granted itself a patent on an illegal, long-range bioweapons grenade in clear violation of the BWC mandate that prohibits such delivery devices. U.S. officials equivocated they never intended to use the biogrenade as described in their patent. Ironically, as Hammond pointed out in a news statement of November 30, 2004, “The United States invaded Iraq in pursuit of phantom bioweapons yet, here at home, it brazenly develops them.”
The Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) has warned that the United States has progressively undermined international efforts to abolish biological weapons, noting that at the November 2001 Fifth Review Conference in Geneva, the United States rejected a “verification protocol for legally binding international investigations and inspections of all parties.” CRG pointed out that to create vaccines or antiviral agents against many of the most dangerous pathogens and toxins, researchers must first produce such agents in sizable quantities, and that, in the name of vaccine development, as many as twenty laboratories in the United States handle, manipulate, and in some cases weaponize, one of the most lethal strains of anthrax. Prominent among these facilities, CRG identified Dugway Proving Ground in Salt Lake City, Utah; the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit in Fort Detrick, Maryland; the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC; the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio; the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland.
Critics of the biodefense building boom contend that increasing the number of high-containment labs around the country that will handle potential germ warfare agents only increases the likelihood of accidental (or intentional releases) that ultimately could threaten public safety. Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University chemist who tracks arms control issues, told the Baltimore Sun that the government’s tenfold expansion of Biosafety Level-4 laboratories raises the risk of spreading dangerous organisms. “If a worker in one of these facilities removes a single viral particle or a single cell, which cannot be detected or prevented,” he cautioned, “that single particle or cell can form the basis of an outbreak.”
Just recently, the Sunshine Project learned that for fourteen months, Texas A&M University concealed an incident in which a student researcher fell seriously ill from undulant fever. In March 2007 hundreds of people were evacuated from Boston University’s ten-story biomedical research building after white smoke wafted through a laboratory containing tularemia bacteria. Exposure to the bacteria can produce sudden chills, fever, pneumonia, and can even prove to be fatal. Meanwhile, the metal frame of another large BU biolab is rising nearby at a cost of $178 million where, the Boston Globe reported in March, “researchers would work with the world’s deadliest germs, including Ebola, plague, and anthrax.” Anthrax, the nation learned in 2001, subjects its victims to breathing difficulties and wracking coughs as it starves the body of oxygen, often leading to death.
Despite the hues and cries of individuals interviewed or otherwise quoted here, the biowarfare buildup is getting an enthusiastic response from academia, which sees new funds flowing from Washington’s horn of plenty. “American universities have a long history of willingly permitting their research agenda, researchers, institutes, and laboratories to be co-opted, corrupted, and perverted by the Pentagon and the CIA,” Boyle writes.
More than a dozen universities and private consortia are currently vying to win the DHS contract for its own new biodefense research center tagged at roughly $450 million. The proposed 520,000 square-foot main building of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) will be the nucleus of a complex liable to exceed one hundred acres. Although advertised to replace an aging facility at Plum Island, New York, the DHS recently announced plans to spend $30 million to expand that lab. NBAF bidders include state universities of Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.
According to DHS literature, the NBAF complex will fill a critical void in responding to “high consequence biological threats involving human, zoonotic and foreign animal diseases.” While DHS advertises it as a response to “threats,” the Council for Responsible Genetics notes that because efforts to diagnose and treat exposure to biological weapons necessarily involve their production and dispersal, transparency measures must be enforced to verify the defensive intent of such efforts. CRG laments that the U.S. rejection of the BWC inspection and verification protocol undermines that obligation.
On the contrary, many university NBAF project bidders have a history of operating in secret, and this has in no way barred them from applying for new operations. Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) disclosure is vital, Sunshine’s Hammond says, for protecting against the human health and environmental risks of biotechnology research. Instead of making its IBC records public as required by NIH guidelines, the University of Maryland, for example, has refused to provide any significant information to the Sunshine Project. “It has lost requests for records, refused them, delayed its response, and when it has replied, provided useless paperwork from which it has redacted all meaningful information,” Hammond contends. Scores of other universities are no more forthcoming.
Many big pharmaceutical houses and biotech firms that have received NIH dollars also conceal their operations from the public. Among those, Sunshine identified: Abbott Laboratories, BASF Plant Science, Bristol-Myers Squibb, DuPont Central Research and Development, Eli Lilly Corp., Embrex, GlaxoSmithKline, Hoffman-La Roche, Merck & Co., Monsanto, Pfizer Inc., Schering-Plough Research Institute, and Syngenta Corp. of Switzerland. Of the top twenty biotech firms, only Genzyme and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, both headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, complied with NIH guidelines–likely because reporting is mandated by local law. This illustrates the massive failure of voluntary compliance. Only 8,500, or 16 percent, of the 52,000 workers employed at the top twenty U.S. biotech firms work at an NIH guidelines-compliant company, Sunshine estimated.
Here and there, concerned citizens are speaking out. Private and government groups around the nation are protesting the bid for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility: In Dunn, Wisconsin, the Dane County Board is opposing the University of Wisconsin’s idea of building the NBAF complex on their turf; in Tracy, California, the city council voted against allowing an NBAF facility at Lawrence Livermore, while more than 3,000 people paid to wire DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff opposing the bid and 2,000 more sent e-mail messages in opposition; in Seattle the city council forced the University of Washington to withdraw its bid; at the proposed NBAF site in Leavenworth, Kansas, residents voiced concern over lab safety, the impact on property values, and the potential to make the area a terrorism risk; in Mississippi, opponents posted “No Bio-Lab” signs; and Kentucky residents greeted federal officials making a visit to a proposed site with posters reading “Hal! No! We won’t go!” in a reference to Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY).
In Boston, neighbors of the new BU lab under construction have convinced the Massachusetts Supreme Court to hear their objections. In Maryland, area residents are objecting to the enlargement of Fort Detrick. And when the Army announced plans this past March to reopen the Baker Laboratory on its Dugway Proving Grounds (eighty miles southwest of Salt Lake City) for the purpose of testing anthrax, the Salt Lake Tribune recalled years ago when 6,000 sheep grazing near Dugway were killed, likely by nerve gas. “The Army is working on the deadly pathogens for classified defense purposes. That’s scary,” the Tribune editorialized. “It’s no wonder we’re concerned.”
An editorial of this sort is a rarity. Apart from coverage in the Washington Post and New York Times, major media has done little investigation into the underlying reasons for Bush’s biodefense buildup. For that matter, Leitenberg says, “not a single member of the House or Senate has questioned that expenditure or called for its reduction or basic redirection.”
More questions must be asked. In its news release of August 16, 2001, the Department of Health and Human Services–laying out its plan to combat a possible bioterrorism threat–said it was increasing its support for research related to “likely” agents. If so, what is the point of regenerating an extinct 1918 killer flu virus? The same release warned that “large numbers of people might be directly exposed to an agent released in a dense urban environment.” If so, why entertain bids for new facilities in such areas? Deadly pathogens are the last thing the world needs. And yet what we have taking shape in the United States today is the costliest, most grandiose germ warfare research program ever attempted. It involves developmental work with the deadliest and most loathsome pathogens capable of triggering plagues and epidemics. It is being conducted in good part in secret without adequate oversight and in violation of the NIH’s own rules and treaty requirements for transparency. It is being lavishly funded while urgent biological research to combat imminent health threats is delayed or denied. It’s not only a staggering waste of taxpayer treasure and a perversion of scientific ingenuity but it needlessly puts Americans, and all humanity, at risk.
Sherwood Ross has worked in an executive capacity in the civil rights movement, as a host of a Washington talk radio show, and as a reporter for major dailies and wire services. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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