Sunday, July 30, 2006

THE FUN BUSINESS OF FIGHTING BIOTERROR: To fight disease, we will make disease

Today's Washington Post went with a frontpage story, "The Secretive Fight Against Bioterror." You can read it here.

The nut of it, although the Post hems and haws slightly in stating it for the sake of balance, is that the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Ft. Detrick is going to violate American compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, a 1972 arms control treaty to which the country is signatory.

Specifically, the BWC prohibits research into stabilizing, disseminating, increasing virulence and working out delivery systems for biological weapons, and it is just this kind of work which part of the NBACC appears to have been designed for.

The Post article doesn't really get into it but the anthrax attacks and the commencement of the war on terror after 9/11 radically set back biological weapons arms control efforts in the United States.

This sounds like an audacious statement but if you discuss the issues with bioweapons arms control experts behind the scenes, you hear it. The unravelling of adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention in the United States comes under the rationalization that this country reserves the right to conduct any defensive research it sees fit into biowarfare as a result of the war on terror.

However, defensive research into biowarfare is a squishy area. It can easily be simply interpreted as offensive biowarfare research or move across the line in more subtle ways.

The NBACC, according to the Post, is "classified as a highly restricted place."Everything that goes on at it is top-secret, difficult to oversee, which in and of itself presents obstacles to arms control. In any case, their currently appears to be no real planned oversight of the NBACC although the Post article mentions advisory groups attached to it as fig-leaves.

The Biological Weapons Convention line-crossing research stems from a sub-center of the new agency called the BioThreat Characterization Center (BTCC). A Department of Homeland Security briefing on the NBACC/BTCC in 2004 indicated that research aims included things that many scientists believed would violate the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, a treaty that outlawed production of BW.

That NBACC briefing immediately led to a memorandum called "Biodefense Crosses the Line," published in Politics and the Life Sciences, and written by arms control experts Milton Leitenberg, Richard Sperzel, an UNSCOM weapons inspector, and James Leonard, the US ambassador who negotiated for the Biological Weapons Convention treaty in 1972.

In the memo it was argued that "many activities [described] -- most particularly the 'Store, Stabilize, Package and Disperse' and 'Computational modeling of [bioweapons] feasibility, methods and scale of production' -- may constitute development in the guise of threat assessment" and that "they would very likely be interpreted that way by at least other states."

"Researchers have to make real biological weapons," at the NBACC, writes the Post. This is, argue NBACC scientists and supporters, the only way to figure out how the country can defend itself against them. In other words, it's the war on terror justification that to prepare for the worst from terrorists we must first make the worst.

One big criticism of this line of weird reasoning is that it leads to theoretical and actual work on threats that haven't been verified. So the Post trotted out the science director for the NBACC to say that it wouldn't be done, that research wouldn't be conducted on threats someone had just "dreamed up." There would have to be some indications, was the implication. But since the work at the NBACC will be highly classified, whether or not this is true will be impossible to determine.

"De facto, we are going to make biowarfare pathogens at NBACC in order to study them," said Penrose Albright, to the Post.

Albright was billed as "former Homeland Security assistant secretary for science and technology" by the Post but is now more accurately described as a director of Civitas Group, a K Street security industry investment and lobbying firm which serves to show how businesses can get taxpayer dollars being doled out by the Department of Homeland Security or other government agencies.

While Albright was at the Department of Homeland Security he basically served as a person who saw to it that taxpayer dollars were doled out adequately to big business for the purposes of national security.

And if the Civitas Group rings a bell it's because another Bush administration Homeland Security apparatchik, Richard Falkenrath, was also a director. Although Falkenrath is no longer advertised on the Civitas Group website, up until March of this year he was still billing himself as part of it. (See Richard Falkenrath: A telegenic anti-terror man. )

And like Falkenrath, Penrose Albright is another of the Bush administration's supply of national security adminstrators who are experts on everything, "everything," in his case, being stuff that's not very good, from purported anti-missile systems for commercial airplanes that can't be used but are really, really expensive, radiation sensors that don't work right but which are very expensive and -- well, you get the idea. Anything that the private sector national security industry can make that is costly but not cost effective, that's Albright's bag. (Not only was Albright in the Post on Sunday, he also made it to the New York Times, in an article on an aerospace company-made pricey but dogcrap laser-shooting anti-missile system, subsequently cancelled, which he oversaw while working in the Pentagon.)

Civitas Group can be seen as an intermediary by which the war on terror is made good for business, by transferring government money to the private sector in support of efforts, weapons and gadgets to make the country more secure.

Anyway, while back at the Department of Homeland Security, Albright emitted the following transmission, in which the private sector is also invited into the classified bioterror research family:

"The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasure Center (NBACC), based at Fort Detrick in Maryland, is the hub within homeland security for research and operational capabilities to anticipate, prevent, respond to, and recover from current and next-generation biological threats to the American people and our agricultural system . . . NBACC aims to achieve efficient interagency and private sector cooperation with a structure that integrates facilities and technical expertise in biodefense . . . "

Dick Destiny blog has chosen to put in bold-face "next-generation biological threats" because it's national security codespeak for the rule-breaking activities described above. Or in another manner of speaking, "At the very least, we're going to think up new bioweapons even though terrorists or other nations haven't been demonstrated to have them because someday they might."

But back to the Post's news story.

"If we saw others doing this kind of research, we would view it as an infringement of the bioweapons treaty," said Milton Leitenberg, one of the authors of the original "Biodefense Crosses the Line" memorandum, to the Post. "You can't go around the world yelling about Iranian and North Korean programs -- about which we know very little -- when we've got all this going on."

In this we found the Post disingenuous to its readers and sources. Nowhere in the story does the newspaper mention the contribution of the Leitenberg/Sperzel/Leonard memorandum in 2004 and what it revealed about the NBACC then as the basis for what constitutes a significant chunk of its story now.

One unusual source for the Post was Tara O'Toole, founder of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and a long-time prosyletizer on the imminence of catastrophic bioterrorist attack.

"The philosophy and practice behind NBACC looks like much of the rest of the administration's philosophy and practice: 'Our intent is good, so we can do whatever we want,' " said O'Toole, to the Post. "This approach will only lead to trouble."

The choice in sources is an unusual one because of O'Toole's work as an advisor to the government, her participation in notorious bioterror wargames and her regular appearance in the media as a harbinger of bio-doom. Her public words and actions often seemed designed to serve the creation of just the kind of administration belief in catastrophic bioterror that led to the creation of an NBACC.

O'Toole directed an exercise called Atlantic Storm in 2005 which purported to demonstrate effectiveness and consequences of an al Qaeda bio-attack using smallpox. It has been criticized
effectively by other experts who listed a number of sins attributed to it -- most notably ones of exaggeration, juiced disease transmission and amplification of threat, a terrorist facility for making smallpox into a weapon that even state run biological warfare operations did not possess.

"The [Atlantic Storm] scenario we posited is very conservative," said O'Toole, for the Washington Post that year. "The age of biological weapons is not science fiction; it's here."

For the Los Angeles Times, O'Toole was attributed: "This could have been much worse. The age of engineered biological weapons is here. It is now."

Later in the year, again for the Post, in a story on how or why the failed national smallpox immunization ought to be revived: "People are now back in dumb-and-happy mode . . . when we were going into Iraq, and the possibility of a smallpox attack was seen as much more plausible."

While at John Hopkins University in June 2001, O'Toole contributed to another al Qaeda-delivered smallpox wargame called Dark Winter.

". . . spookily prescient," the Post wrote of it, in a story entitled "A War Game to Send Chills Down the Spine."

However, the Dark Winter exercised used a smallpox transmission rate that was three times its historical average. The alteration juiced the contagion, one that guaranteed the simulation would end in total catastrophe.

"We intentionally picked the absolutely worst-case scenario," said Randy Larsen, a collaborator of O'Toole's and one of the game's architects, to the Post. "We designed a war game they could not win," he added later in the story.

And " . . . suddenly, 'smallpox' is the threat du jour," wrote the Post.

Other O'Toole appearances in the press, and there have been many, have always been achingly predictable emphases on the ease of bioterrorism, doom (as in "we're cooked") and the inevitability of it all.

In the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001: "These [bio]weapons are cheap, they are easily accessible, and they are going to get worse as the science becomes more sophisticated."

Attributed in Investor's Business Daily, in an article about the need for new labs to fight bioterror: "The worst-case scenario is a concerted campaign . . . a little anthrax attack here, a little plague here, and . . . a little smallpox there, then the anthrax again."

In the Los Angeles Times in 2003: "Bioterrorism is a whole new terrain of national security that's going to have the same magnitude of impact as the creation of nuclear weapons . . . We should increase spending [on bioterrorism] to $10 billion next year."

And on avian flu to human flu, in 2005, from various newspapers: "Once you're there, you're cooked"; "You're looking at a nation-busting event"; "[an avian flu plague would be]more difficult and worse than a large terrorist attack, bomb, dirty bomb or airplane slamming into a building" and "If we don't drive down the costs of drugs, we're cooked -- both in healthcare and biodefense."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any reason this kind of work can't be done by the CDC? We ARE after all talking about diseases when you get right down to it. It's the secrecy thing that bothers me. Haven't they read Stephen King's "THE STAND" A super bug that got loose before the government was able to come up with a cure.

7:46 PM  

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