Tuesday, October 20, 2009



Armchair Generalist points out a couple of standard biodoom articles in Foreign Policy. By standard, one means the job is to alarm you with what is might happen -- according to their expert thinking.

The work by thriller author Robin Cook is worth noting for the fact that it seems to be just a bald-faced sales pitch and standard B-movie script rolled into one. This despite Cook's protestation at the end that there will be no Hollywood ending to his Biblical flu pandemic.

"Today, there is a crying need for a new such socially conscious novel to shake up the complacent public about the high risk of an imminent, serious pandemic," Cook writes.

Others have been furiously trying to cash-in furnishing such things but not since Richard Preston and his books (non-fiction and fiction) about Ebola virus and genetically engineered biotoerror has anyone hit hard-to-ignore really big time gold doing it.

"Before I reveal the infectious agent of this putative coming plague, I would like to refer the reader to my 17th book, Contagion, published in 1995," he continues.

Of course, how could we have been so foolish to have ignored it?

"A cautionary tale about the hazards of bioterrorism ..." he writes.

Emily Anthes' piece on plague as a potentially coming thing also merits a bit of a takedown.

"[During] World War II, the Japanese reportedly dropped plague-infected fleas from airplanes while flying over Chinese territory," she writes. "Modern bioterrorists would probably be even more sophisticated, encapsulating the bacteria in droplets of liquid and spraying them into the air. (In fact, during the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union developed techniques to aerosolize plague.)"

The formula one follows when writing analyses of this sort is to cobble together information from the historical record. And then one theorizes that if the Japanese or some other country, like the BW progam in the United States could do it, it's only logical that terrorists will be able to do so.

And this strategy of argument has been employed many more times than you would think constitutes rational behavior since 9/11. In this intervening time, all these pieces tend to be structurally identical. And none produce any interesting evidence that terrorists -- like al Qaeda have had any success developing something, as in this case, plague -- at all.

On the other hand, there is considerable documentary evidence that while a certain number of Islamic terrorists have shown interest in the subject, nothing of their work amounts to more than rubbish. This key ingredient is always left out because, naturally, it spoils the terror soup.

"[Information] on whether particular terrorist groups or rogue states are actively working to weaponize plague is sparse to nonexistent," Anthes continues.

To which Armchair Generalist replies:

"Information on the topic is 'sparse' because there is no intel on terrorist development of BW agents - mostly because they AREN'T DOING IT. It's pretty simple."

Four years ago, newspaper's regularly published news attributing all manner of capabilities to Muslim extremists.

At the time, I took one such Post article apart here and -- at length -- on this blog.

The newspaper had turned up two Islamist documents from the web -- one now common piece called the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, and another simply entitled "Biological Weapons." (Again, both are covered here.)

Coincidentally, "Biological Weapons," did cover plague. The excerpts on plague were embroidered but brief cut-and-pastes from a college microbiology text.

The document itself was furnished by something called The Terrorism Research Center.

And I've always been wary, as most people should be, of the product of for-profit firms that purport to either compete with or replace functions of the work of national intelligence agencies.

The purpose then was to formulate a scary story passed off as something analytical and illuminating about the true nature of the terrorist foe.

But an inescapable fact of the war on terror is that capabilities and threats are frequently exaggerated. To get people to listen to your story or stories, to make them buy something you are selling, you must frighten them. And if the evidence at hand isn't sufficiently scary, or the people you're trying to reach aren't attentive enough, then the temptation is strong to embellish and sell the goods like something they ain't.

Four years on from 2005 (see update below), there's no significant indication that the process, the rote prognostication on coming danger, has abated.

But back to plague.

For every insistence that terrorists could be working on plague or that it might be easy to genetically engineer into an even deadlier weapon, as Anthes does for Foreign Policy, there are competing pieces of information stating the opposite. But these are never cited because they dilute the argument.

For example, at the Federation of American Scientists, a letter from a colleague of plague scientist Thomas C. Butler, a world-renowned expert until the US government railroaded him.

"During Dr. Butler's sentencing hearing I learned some other little known facts about 'the plague,'" wrote Butler's colleague. "Did you know that our own government worked for twenty years or more on methods to 'weaponize' plague bacteria? What did they find? They couldn't do it! It turns out the plague bacteria are remarkably fragile organisms, and no ready means could be found to disperse and infect people with it easily."

There's more, in a section appropriately entitled "More on the 'Plague' Scare" and you can read it here.

"[The] US and UK BW programs prior to 1969 both failed in attempts to weaponize and aerosolize the agent that produces plague, (although the USSR did succeed in that during the 1980s)," wrote biological weapons expert, Milton Leitenberg, here five years ago.

This just in, more repetition on biodoom, in case you haven't properly grasped the message:

Former Congressmen Jim Talent and Bob Graham are desperate men.

They crave attention -- can't stand being ignored. So, periodically, they show up to flog their weapons of mass destruction commission report, one that predicted a certainty of bioterrorist attack by 2013.

But back in 2008, when the report "World at Risk" was first issued, quite a few people became sick and tired of them.

"[While] many newspapers jumped on the story, it did not have quite the jolt announcements of this nature have had in the past," DD wrote at el Reg.

"Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman of California, Chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence & Terrorism Risk Assessment, immediately issued a blunt press release. 'Much in the report ... is important,' it read. 'However, it's time to retire the fear card.' The American people needed to be educated about the threat, not terrified, it continued."

The report was also rewritten prior to publication, its conclusions changed to fit political purposes.

An initial pre-release copy of it contained this conclusion: "Efforts to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention were dealt a symbolic blow in 2001 when the Bush administration withdrew its support for a new accord that had been under negotiation for six years."

The final publication reversed that stance.

While mentioning that the Bush administration's decision resulted in 'widespread international criticism,' the US government's primary objection - that 'acquiescing to an international control regime [would] potentially jeopardize sensitive US information' - along with two others, were valid. The Commission concluded the opposite of what had initially been reported in the pre-release version -- that since 'verifying compliance to the Biological Weapons Convention' has only become more difficult, the decision to walk away from the treaty was seemingly justified.

USA Today, however, allowed Graham and Talent to play the fear card once again here today for the sake of jabbing the Obama administration.

"The Obama administration is working hard to curb nuclear threats but failing to address the more urgent and immediate threat of biological terrorism, a bipartisan commission created by Congress is reporting today ..." wrote the newspaper.

And that assertion, that the government is being supplied with advice from a 'bipartisan' group is essentially a lie, too.

The Graham-Talent commission has never been any more 'bipartisan' than, say, healthcare reform. One can view it as a sort of special interest group itself -- one wrapped around the subject of WMDs, even more specifically -- bioterrorism.

Bob Graham is a ex-D Senator who behaves like a Republican, essentially the same type of function/position provided by someone like Max Baucus. Jim Talent is a Heritage Foundation far-right star most notable for his antipathy towards the "welfare class," social safety net programs for them and "militant gays" who are said to be corrupting US cultural values.

The commission's small roster is here: It includes an aide to Paul Wolfowitz, a lawyer for Bill Frist, and Graham Allison -- who writes one thing over and over -- how terrorists will get the atomic bomb.

The apocalyptic Graham-Talent prediction by way of USA Today was delivered:

"[Anthrax spores] released by a crop-duster could 'kill more Americans than died in World War II' and the economic impact could exceed $1.8 trillion in cleanup and other costs."

"Commission Vice Chairman Jim Talent, a Republican former senator from Missouri, says: 'The fact is, it is only getting easier and cheaper to develop and use biological weapons. ... It is essential that the U.S. government move more aggressively,'" continued USA Today.

The USA Today story does not mention that two staffers/collaborators of Tara O'Toole's -- Randy Larsen and Gigi Kwik-Gronval -- are currently in the employ of the Graham-Talent commission writing press releases. And what's notable about this that both have been O'Toole's water-bearers.

Tara O'Toole, in case readers do not recall, was chosen to be 'geek-in-chief' at the Department of Homeland Security by the Obama administration, a choice that I called: "[A] superb appointment if you’re in the biodefense industry and interested in further opportunity and growth ... Alternatively, a disaster if threat assessment and prevention ought to have some basis in reality."

Here at Wired's Danger Room.

"The Obama administration asked for $305 million in its fiscal 2010 budget request [for defense against bioterrorism]" added USA Today in today's edition.

This was "Insufficient by a factor of 10" -- according to the fresh assertions from the Graham-Talent commission, the newspaper added.

Paradoxically, the new Talent-Graham proposition, as reported by USA Today, aligns with recommendations emitted by Tara O'Toole and Alliance for Biosecurity corporate lobbying group earlier this year.

More recently O'Toole was featured in a story at the Washington Times. That newspaper reported in September:

"President Obama's nominee at the Department of Homeland Security overseeing bioterrorism defense has served as a key adviser for a lobbying group (the Alliance for Biosecurity) funded by the pharmaceutical industry that has asked the government to spend more money for anthrax vaccines and biodefense research.

"But Dr. Tara O'Toole, whose confirmation as undersecretary of science and technology is pending, never reported her involvement with the lobbying group called the Alliance for Biosecurity in a recent government ethics filing.

"The alliance has spent more than $500,000 lobbying Congress and federal agencies -- including Homeland Security -- since 2005, congressional records show."

That full story is here.


Blogger Bonze said...

re: the sad case of Thomas C. Butler

You might think that anything or anybody associated with the Regent University School of Law (e.g., Monica Goodling) has gotta be worthless.

But Prof. Butler would have been much better off if he had seen and heeded Prof. James Duane's lecture entitled Don't Talk to Cops.

Sometimes talking to cops works, but sometimes... not.

5:36 PM  

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