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An Assessment of the Biological Weapons
Threat to the United States
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An Assessment of the Biological Weapons
Threat to the United States

A White Paper prepared for the Conference on Emerging Threats Assessment: Biological Terrorism, at the Institute for Security Technology Studies, Dartmouth College, July 7-9, 2000.

Milton Leitenberg
Center for International and Security Studies
University of Maryland
January 2001

Milton LeitenbergAfter a half dozen years as an academic and researcher in the sciences, Milton Leitenberg began his career in arms control in fall 1966. He has worked at SIPRI, the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Cornell University. Since 1989, he has been a fellow and senior scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

Since 1966, Leitenberg has authored or edited half a dozen books, and written over 135 papers, monographs and book chapters. Leitenberg's first papers dealing with biological weapons were published in 1967, and he was part of the team at SIPRI that produced the six-volume set on The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare. Since 1992, he has written or published some 20 papers dealing with various aspects of BW: the program of the former USSR, BW proliferation, and the current response in the United States to the issue.

This paper evaluates the threat of biological weapons (BW) use against the United States in the near term. It does this by surveying, successively,

1. The Proliferation of Biological Weapons since 1972

The questions that should be addressed are:

Official US government statements repeated for many years that there had been four nations in possession of offensive biological weapons programs in 1972 at the time of the signing of the Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention (BTWC), and that this number had increased to ten by 1989. Beginning in 1989, testimony to Congress by senior US government officials and the annual Non-Compliance statement by the administration to Congress specifically identified these states by name.

These statements additionally noted that some of the states listed were signatories of the BTWC. Israel and South Africa, however, were never mentioned or listed. Israel is omitted from annual US arms control non-compliance statements because it has neither signed nor ratified any of the non-proliferation treaties, including the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. It is also omitted entirely in the US Department of Defense's annual report on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Proliferation: Threat and Response. No mention whatsoever is made of Israel; in fact, it is not even listed among countries in the report's Middle East section. In any case, what this means is that since Israel is not a BTWC signatory, it is technically not in "non-compliance," whatever the status of its BW program may be. However, it is clear that South Africa maintained an offensive BW program in the past, and Israel did so as well, and presumably continues to do so.

Table 1
States Pursuing BW Programs

US Government Arms Control Compliance Reports to Congress
Admiral Brooks,1 Studeman, Trost (1998, 1990, 1991); Sec. Cheney 1990
US and UK Governments (1995) 2
Russian Federation3 Foreign Intelligence Report, 1993
Middle East
. . . .
Iraq X X . .
Libya X X . X
Syria X X . .
Iran X X . X
Egypt X . . .
South / East Asia
. . . .
China X X . .
North Korea . X . X
Taiwan ? X . .
India . . . ?
South Korea . . . ?
. . . .
South Africa . . X .
Russia Ambiguity Regarding Continuation of Offensive . .
  1. "Statement of Rear Admiral Thomas A. Brooks, USN, Director of Naval Intelligence, before the Seapower, Strategic and Critical Materials Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on Intelligence Issues," March 14, 1990, p. 54; "Statement of Rear Admiral William O. Studeman, USN, Director of Naval Intelligence, before the Seapower, Strategic and Critical Materials Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on Intelligence Issues," March 1, 1998, p. 48; "Statement of Admiral C.A.H. Trost, USN, Chief of Naval Operations, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Posture and Fiscal year 1991 Budget of the United States Navy," February 28, 1990: "Remarks Prepared for Delivery by the Honorable Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense, American Israel, Public Affairs Committee, Washington DC, June 11, 1990," News Release, NO. 294-90, p. 4.
  2. The South African government claims that its program was disbanded in 1992. Official British government statements refer to "around 10" nations with "or seeking" BW, but do not name any countries aside from the separate identification of South Africa in 1995.
  3. Proliferation Issues: A New Challenge After the Cold War, Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Russian Federation Foreign Intelligence Report; trans. Joint Publications Research Service JPRS-TND93-007, March 5, 1993.

In November 1997, the Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) increased the US estimate to 12 nations (in the course of a statement to negotiating states to the BTWC in Geneva), although the additional two states have never been identified by US officials.

The number is therefore twelve, and not sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen, as are sometimes found in the press. These are offensive biological weapons programs, which the BTWC prohibits, but it does not in all cases mean regular production of biological weapon agents, the storage of stockpiles, or the possession of weapons. Official US or British government statements have further been confounded by the inclusion of caveats such as "suspected", "developing" or "capable of". We have only one example in the public record of what the scale of these differences may be, and that statement is ten years old and pertained to chemical weapons. At the same time as US government officials were routinely saying that "about 20" nations had chemical weapons "capability", the Director of ACDA told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 24, 1989, that apart from the US and the USSR, "...no more than a handful, five or six actually possessed a stockpile of chemical weapons." In the case of biological weapons, there are no equivalent statements in the public record. However, in 1994, two senior US government officials stated in private meetings that no nation was then known to be producing and stockpiling BW agents. This was five years after US officials had publicly identified the ten nations having offensive biological weapons programs. In the years since 1994, official US statements have identified Iran as producing BW agents.

Accurate understanding has been further complicated, and continues to be so, in statements by official US government spokesmen in 1997 and 1998, that provide a single number grouping nations with biological or chemical weapon programs. In October 1998, Richard Clarke continued the policy of US officials announcing confusing assessments, even including nuclear weapons in one single tally. In his remarks at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he observed that, "Twenty-two countries, however, do possess them, if you consider biological weapons, chemical weapons, and nuclear weapons to be weapons of mass destruction."

On the other hand, statements of denial by various nations carry very little credibility in this field. The USSR did not admit to possessing chemical munitions until 1987. Indian officials denied for decades that their country possessed chemical munitions; they even claimed that their government had never so much as considered obtaining them. This past year, under the terms of being a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, India declared its chemical weapons stocks. The government of Iraq lied for years about its production and possession of biological weapons stocks and delivery systems, and every indication is that Iraq continues to lie about it.

As to how far offensive national BW programs have been carried out by different states, the relevant bits of information available in the US Non-Compliance documents and in the 1993 Russian Foreign Intelligence Report, as well as several estimates of my own, have been compiled in the summary shown in Table 2. It should be noted that US Department of Defense issues of Proliferation: Threat and Response do not identify specific BW agents produced by either Iran or North Korea. Testimony at the unclassified level by the Directors of the CIA and DIA has also omitted any reference to specific agents. Only the 1993 Russian FIS Report identified specific agents for North Korea. (It has proved impossible to corroborate various statements made in 1999 by US DOD officials, and in the Defense White Papers of South Korea and Japan, regarding numbers of different BW agents, or their identities, allegedly possessed by North Korea.)

Table 2
Biological Weapons: Offensive Programs, to the Degree Known

Alleged Use
Middle East
Iraq Yes Yes Yes Yes .
Iran Yes . Small . .
Syria Yes . . . .
Egypt Yes . In the past In the past .
Libya Yes . Small . .
Israel Yes Probably Probably
(my estimate)
. .
Non-Middle East
South Africa In the past ? In the past (limited) In the past (limited) In the past
Former Rhodesia ? ? ? ? 1970s, wartime
North Korea Yes Yes (1993/FIS) Yes (1993/FIS) . .
USSR Yes Yes Yes In the past Alleged; 1992 Afghanistan,
China Yes Yes Yes In the past .


Table 3
Weapons of Mass Destruction

    Of those countries that developed BW after World War II to the stage of weapons acquisition, virtually all either acquired all three categories of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological), or have acquired at least two categories and have made attempts to acquire the third. Thus:

The United States, USSR, South Africa, and presumably China procured all three types.

The United Kingdom and France procured nuclear and chemical weapons, and had offensive biological weapons programs.

Iraq (prior to 1991) had chemical and biological weapons and was in advanced development of nuclear weapons.

Israel has nuclear and chemical weapons, and an offensive BW program.

Iran has chemical and biological weapons, and seeks nuclear weapons.

Libya has chemical weapons, has sought nuclear weapons for decades, and is seeking biological weapons.

Syria has chemical weapons and an offensive biological weapons program.

North Korea has chemical weapons, has sought nuclear weapons, and (accepting the Russian assessment) apparently has biological weapons.

India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. India has chemical weapons; its biological weapons capabilities are unknown.

    According to a statement by former CIA Director James Woolsey in 1994, nations developing and procuring BW have usually done so following their procurement of CW, and it has frequently been stated that various Arab states in the Middle East developed chemical weapons because Israel possessed nuclear weapons. There are no statements or analyses that have extended this rationale specifically to their development of biological weapons as well, although it is an easy, logical extension to make. Note Anthony Cordesman's phrase, "Nations that are interested in biological weapons are already interested because they offer an alternative to nuclear weapons....". It would not be altogether surprising if one learned that some government policy group in these countries that had considered or was urging the acquisition of nuclear weapons had spun off the suggestion to develop biological weapons. Nevertheless, nothing is publicly known regarding the policy decisions in these states regarding BW development.

As for the motives for national BW development programs, Table 3 indicates that every nation that has embarked on an offensive BW program has also sought or has produced either chemical weapons or nuclear weapons, or both.

There are several important additional points that should be noted in this section:

2. The Historical Record Regarding the Potential for State-Supported Terrorism with Biological Weapons

For over twenty years since its first appearance in 1979, the United States government has released an annual list of "State Sponsors of International Terrorism." This means that such states provide either some or all of the following to the very many groups that they support: training, sanctuary, documents, funding, explosives, or weapons. Of those states that have appeared on this list virtually year after year, no fewer than five also appear on the list of states that the US government charges have offensive biological weapons programs: Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Syria.

This issue is germane because even those who admit that producing biological weapons might not be so simple a task for an isolated, non-national or terrorist group, the possibility is immediately raised that such a group could in theory obtain assistance, either in the form of training, technical assistance, or by direct transfer of a usable agent, from a state which does have a biological weapons capability. Nevertheless, there is no known evidence to date that such an event has ever happened, despite an extensive, decades-long record of very substantial assistance to literally dozens of different groups. Most government authorities, both US and other, tend to believe that if a state with biological weapons capability did want to make use of such weapons covertly, it would use its own and presumably better trained personnel to carry out the task and would not do so by transferring them to an external ad-hoc group. In 1996, the US Defense Intelligence Agency stated that, "Most of the state sponsors have chemical or biological or radioactive material in their stockpiles and therefore have the ability to provide such weapons to terrorists if they wish. However, we have no conclusive information that any sponsor has the intention to provide these weapons to terrorists."[1]

3. The Experience of the Use of Biological Weapons by Non-State Groups

This section is comprised of several parts, some continuing the essentially historical record of the material provided above, and others forming a transition to current assessments. These are:

A. Databases on biological (and chemical) terrorism
B. A brief description of the efforts of the Aum Shinrikyo group in Japan to produce biological agents.
C. The potential of terrorist use of biological weapons in the United States.
D. The comparison of potential mass casualty biological events with current annual mortality in several public health categories.

A. Databases

Five extensive databases have now been developed and published since 1993. They were prepared by:

    1. Harvey McGeorge, in a DOD-contracted study, covering the years 1945 to 1994.[2]
    2. Ron Purver, at the Canadian Intelligence Service, covering the years 1945 to 1995.[3]
    3. Bruce Hoffman, at the RAND Corporation, covering the years 1900 to 1998[4]
    4. Seth Carus, prepared for the National Defense University (US DOD), covering the years 1900 to 1999.[5]
    5. Amy Sands, at the Monterey Institute, Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, covering the years 1900 to 1999.[6]

All five are global surveys. Cumulatively, these databases contain nearly a thousand events in the 20th century in a wide array of categories, extending from hoaxes, threats, consideration or discussion of use, purchase of materials, attacks on facilities, attempts to use, product tampering, and actual use. They are summarized in Table 4. All demonstrate the same result:

Further, the 1999 publication of the book Toxic Terror, which contains a detailed examination of a dozen of the most well-known putative cases of the involvement of terrorist groups with chemical and biological agents demonstrated that exactly half of these were apocryphal.[7] This includes the notorious alleged German Red Army Faction incident, which for years authors such as Kupperman, Douglas, and others had referred to, allegedly relying on classified US government intelligence. The German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) had always claimed that the case was spurious, but its quiet suggestions to this effect had been disregarded.

It would be useful before going on to examine the case of the Aum group in Japan to look for a moment at the single instance of a mass casualty event that did take place in the United States using a biological agent. This was the use of Salmonella, placed on food in salad bars, by the Rajneesh group in Oregon, 1984. This resulted in 751 recorded instances of illness, with no mortality. The group had discussed using a more serious pathogen, but decided against the risk of producing mortality, as their purpose was to incapacitate a large portion of the local population on the day of an election. The Salmonella was obtained from a type-culture collection, and the culturing work was carried out by a trained technician who belonged to the group. Given the calculated success of this event, and that its cause as an intentional act was not identified until long after the occurrence, it is nevertheless useful to compare the degree of deliberate injury that was caused by this act to the incidence of similar intestinal infections contracted by US tourists traveling in Mexico, the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent annually since 1945. The rate must unquestionably be in the millions per year.

Table 4
Databases on Chemical and Biological Terrorism

1. Harvey McGeorge, 1994, chemical and biological, 201 to 244 instanances:

Also includes:

  • Only threatened use
  • Actions against CB-related facilities
  • Actions limited to theft, purchase or fabrication of an agent, dissemination device, or related material
Results demonstrate a clear emphasis on low-tech, commonly available chemical, product-tampering, and poisoning.

2. Ron Purver, 1995, chemical and biological, 92 instances (30 B and 62 C) in five categories:

  • Threatened
  • Attempted to acquire
  • Acquired
  • Attempted to use
  • Actually used

(1998 and 1999 studies below demonstrate that many reported "instances" are apocryphal.)

3. Bruce Hoffman, Rand/Aberdeen database, begins with 1968

As of 1998, 8,000 terrorist events; only around 50 WMD, including radiological

4. Seth Carus [NDU], August 1998, biological only, "Bioterrorism and Biocrimes"

Instances since 1900: used, acquired, attempted to acquire, considered acquisition, threatened to use.

45 used, but only 5 since 1960 (omits most hoaxes, but does include some). The great majority was used for individual murder.

5. Monterey Institute [Amy Sands], 1999

520 cases since 1900 "to acquire or use" C, B, R, and N (but includes all reported hoaxes, approximately 350 between 1997 and 1999.

  • Terrorist -- 44 percent
  • Criminals -- 56 percent (extortion, murder, other non-political)

B. The Effort of the Aum Shinrikyo group to Produce Biological Weapons Agents

In March 1995, members of a Japanese religious cult, the Aum Shinrikyo, were responsible for releasing the chemical agent sarin in the Tokyo subway. They had produced the Sarin themselves, and their act killed thirteen people and injured several hundred (not 5,500, which was the number of people that arrived at hospitals). They had also used Sarin undetected in June 1994 in another Japanese city, in an incident that produced seven deaths and injured 200. It was subsequently discovered that the group had attempted to produce biological agents between 1990 and 1994 and to disperse what they had produced on nine occasions in Tokyo and other nearby areas, to no effect.

The Tokyo subway event led to the US Senate hearings in October 1995 held by the Committee on Government Operations, under Senators Roth and Nunn, which in turn catalyzed the train of decisions, programs and funding to counter the potential use of weapons of mass destruction in the United States. The public discussion in the United States for the past four years has, however, been overwhelmingly relegated to biological weapons, and bioterrorism. The experience of the Aum group in its efforts to produce biological agents is particularly important for several reasons, but it has been continually misinterpreted and misrepresented to mean precisely the opposite of what the experience demonstrated.[8]

First, as to what the group's capabilities were and what they did do:

Second, concerning what the Aum group was able to achieve or not achieve:

There are two important points to be made. First, the Aum experience was a real, serious example, not the constant hypothetical evocations of unqualified, untrained "terrorists" being able to produce biological agents in kitchens, garages, bathtubs and home beer brewery kits. Despite the expenditure of substantial time, effort, money and some requisite talent, their efforts totally failed. Second, it is my understanding that classified US government evaluations of the efforts of the Aum group to produce biological agents are the same as the information provided above. Despite this, no member of any agency of the US government has seen fit to provide a more proper public assessment of the lessons of this experience.[9]

C. The Potential of Terrorist Use of Biological Weapons in the United States

The discussion of this subject in the United States, beginning around 1996 following the disclosure of the 1990 to 1994 efforts by the Japanese Aum group to produce BW agents, and its use of the chemical agent sarin in 1995, has been characterized by gross exaggeration, hype, misinformation, and, at times, even simple ignorance. It was overwhelmingly dominated by two clichés which were repeated ad infinitum: "It is not a matter of whether, just when," and "The nation will face within five years....". Five years have in fact now passed. Brian Jenkins (whose consulting group apparently staffed the July 2000 Report of the National Commission on Terrorism) characterized the discussion that ensued as "fact free analysis", and that in the absence of a validated threat, anxieties had been converted into conclusions. At a conference held by the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute on April 29-30, 1999 (the first of two two-day meetings under the rubric of "Bioterrorism in the United States: Calibrating the Threat"), Jenkins pointed out that when terrorist acts which could be relatively easily achieved, such as aircraft hijackings or product tampering first appeared as means used by terrorists, the rate of these events increased sharply year by year within five years. But the Aum experience has so far proved to be a single data point, and not the beginning of a trend.

Instead, what we have seen are many hundreds of hoaxes. Hoaxes are not BW, they are not anthrax, and they are not BW events. Nor are they terrorist consideration of the use of BW (or as phrased in the Defense Science Board Summer Study of 1997, demonstrations of "...the breadth of weaponry available" to terrorist groups), and they should not be counted in statistical compendia as such. A hoax is a hoax, and nothing else.

Two brief, but more expert assessments were provided to Congress early in 1999. John Lauder, Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence for Proliferation, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 3, 1999, that, "The preparation and effective use of BW by both potentially hostile states and by non-state actors, including terrorists, is harder than some popular literature seems to suggest." One should note that the statement included even "potentially hostile states", which would certainly make it even more difficult for "non-state actors." And Col. David Franz, then the Deputy Commander of the US Army's Medical Research and Materiel Command told the Senate Intelligence Committee that BW terrorism is difficult to carry out, and that it would require a "...large well-funded terrorist program or state sponsorship."

Estimates by official US government agencies of actual activities by terrorist groups to obtain biological weapons are contradictory. In February 1996, the US Defense Intelligence Agency responded to a question by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence by stating that, "We have no conclusive information that any of the terrorist organizations that we monitor are developing chemical, biological, or radiological weapons."[10] In the same year, the FBI Section Chief for Domestic Terrorism told Congress that, "To date, our investigations in the United States reveal no intelligence that rogue nations using terrorism, international terrorist groups, or domestic groups are planning to use these (nuclear, biological, or chemical) deadly weapons in the United States."[11]

As an indication of how confusion gets introduced, even by the very same sources, on January 28, 1998, FBI Director Louis Freeh testified before Congress on threats to US national security. He noted that the FBI, which has jurisdiction over terrorism in the US, had opened over 100 cases in 1997 about the threat, development, or use of WMD, including biological agents, which was more than double the amount from the year before. Freeh noted that a significant fraction of the cases involved threats that had no basis in fact, and that most of the actual interest in biological threats seemed aimed against limited personal targets. He indicated, however, that up to approximately 30 investigations concerning WMD were continuing at the FBI. There never was a subsequent statement by any FBI official to clarify that all the remaining cases as well as those in 1998 and 1999 were all hoaxes.

Official statements made in 1999 were both variable and ambiguous. In June 1999, a Fact Sheet on Chemical-Biological Warfare prepared by the US Department of State opened with the following lines: "The Department of State has no information to indicate that there is a likelihood of use of chemical or biological agent release in the immediate future. The Department believes the risk of the use of chemical/biological warfare is remote, although it cannot be excluded." Two statements by CIA officials in 1999 and 2000 were different. In March 1999, Dr. John Lauder, of the US Central Intelligence Agency, stated that "Beyond state actors, there are a number of terrorist groups seeking to develop or acquire BW capabilities", and reference was then made to the Osama bin Laden network, for whom "acquire" rather than "develop" would probably be more appropriate.[12]

However, a statement by CIA Director George Tenet in March 2000 was actually somewhat of a retreat. He stated:

...we remain concerned that terrorist groups worldwide continue to explore how rapidly evolving and spreading technologies might enhance the lethality of their operations. Although terrorists we've preempted still appear to be relying on conventional weapons, we know that a number of these groups are seeking chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents. We are aware of several instances in which terrorists have contemplated using these materials.

Among them is Bin Laden, who has shown a strong interest in chemical weapons. His operatives have trained to conduct attacks with toxic chemicals or biological toxins.[13]

Two points are notable: first that chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological were lumped together, and second that "trained to conduct attacks" is not the same as Dr. Lauder's "develop or acquire BW capabilities." Tenet's reference to "biological toxins" also suggests ricin as the agent in question, for which there are other suggestions, together with efforts by the Bin Laden network to obtain simple chemical agents rather than any effort by them to produce either chemical or biological agents.

There were repeated statements in 1999, most prominently in the September 1999 GAO report, Combatting Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessment of Chemical and Biological Attacks, that no threat analysis of this subject -- an examination of specific potential actors, their capabilities and intentions, and potential feasibilities had ever been prepared inside the US government.[14] Instead, contractors had produced vulnerability analyses, scenarios of effects that would follow release of a BW agent. As indicated in the previous section, those systematic studies that have surveyed relevant events over the past 50 or 100 years uniformly predict that the most likely event will be, as they have in the past, the use of easily available off-the-shelf chemicals, individual poisonings, or the use of the most simply prepared toxins, such as ricin. A terrorist use of a BW agent is best characterized as an event of extremely low probability, which might -- depending on the agent, its quality and its means of dispersion -- produce high mortality (or economic damage if it is an anti-plant or anti-animal agent). Table 5 presents Brian Jenkins's April 1999 summary of the way the problem had been addressed in the previous several years. A very similar conclusion was reached by a US General Accounting Office report released in March 1999. It stated that,

...Plans developed by the Department of Health and Human Services for "medical consequence management" after a chemical or biological terrorist attack appear to be "geared toward the worst-possible consequences from a public health perspective and do not match intelligence agencies' judgments on the more likely biological and chemical agents a terrorist group or individual might use."

An essentially similar assessment was also reached by the Monterey group after their database study was completed.

US policy-makers and several outside analysts have predicted catastrophic consequences if a terrorist group or an individual -- alone or with state sponsorship -- ever mounts a major chemical or biological attack. These alarmist scenarios have been based on the potential vulnerability of US urban centers to chemical or biological attack and the growing availability of relevant technology and materials. But these scenarios have not drawn on a careful assessment of terrorist motivations and patterns of behavior.

With more than a hundred terrorist organizations active in the world today, the challenge is to identify groups or individuals who are both motivated and capable of employing chemical or biological agents against civilians. Yet instead of examining historical cases in which terrorists sought to acquire and use such agents, the Clinton administration, as well as many outside analysts, developed their threat assessments and response strategies in an empirical vacuum. Lacking solid data, they fell back on worst-case scenarios that may be remote from reality. The tendency of US government officials to exaggerate the threat of chemical and biological terrorism has been reinforced by sensational reporting in the press and an obsessive fascination with catastrophic terrorism in Hollywood films, best-selling books, and other mainstays of pop culture.[15]

The past five years have been characterized, then, by:

Table 5
The Key Question: Does Catastrophic Terrorism (Incidents Involving WMD) Constitute a Clear and Present Danger?

A. An Informed Consensus?

  1. Cannot assume that catastrophic CB terrorism is imminent.
  2. Historical analysis provides no basis for forecasting catastrophic CB terrorism, however...
  3. Analysis of current trends provides mixed picture.
  4. With exception of OBL, not clear that any known group planning, but...
  5. Perception of CB threat driven by vulnerabilities, changes in political and technological environments, consequences, and judgment of future generations.
  6. We confront a diverse spectrum of potential actors, motives, purposes, capabilities, substances, targeting choices, levels of lethality.
  7. Terrorist CB attacks causing catastrophic casualties likely to remain rare.
  8. States or state-sponsored CBW represent potential threat especially in conflict with US
  9. CB hoaxes are increasing and will continue to be a problem.
  10. Threat goes beyond casualties - enormous psychological impact, potential for economic warfare.

B. Risky Analysis in which Anxieties become Conclusions

  1. Instead of assessing intentions and capabilities of an identified enemy, we begin with...
  2. Identifying vulnerabilities, which are infinite...
  3. Then positing a foe - they are legion - provided with a highly generalized motive...
  4. To create a scenario focusing on worst cases...
  5. Reifying a hypothetical scenario useful for planning purposes into an actual threat, considered inevitable, imminent, for which we are unprepared...
  6. Demanding action (or future generations will judge us harshly) from which we might derive a deterrent effect.
  7. Fact-free analysis lends itself to manipulation and other mischief.

C. Conclusions

  1. Not just a matter of time before chem-bio terrorism occurs.
  2. Hoaxes and threats more likely than use.
  3. Chemical more likely than biological substances.
  4. Small-scale more likely than large-scale attacks.
  5. Crude dispersal in enclosed area most likely mode of attack.
  6. CB terrorism is not about to become the car bomb of the 1990s.

Perhaps the epitome of all this was the executive-level exercise in the spring of 1998 when "40 officials from more than a dozen federal agencies met secretly near the White House to play out what would happen if terrorists attacked the United States with a devastating new type of germ weapon."[16] The exercise was based on a scenario taken from a science-fiction thriller, which had impressed the President: the postulated production of a viral "chimera" combining two viruses, smallpox and a hemorrhagic fever. But no such organism exists, and its fabrication would be a feat which virologists at USAMRIID, the US biological defense laboratories, believe is currently beyond the capability of the most advanced scientists and facilities to achieve, and perhaps is technically impossible.

D. A Comparative Perspective

Given the findings in the Sands-Monterey study that one single person died in the United States in the years 1900 to 1999 as a result of an act of biological or chemical terrorism, and the current discussion of biological agent terrorism as a potential mass casualty event, it is quite revealing to look at annual mortality in several public health sectors:

  1. Food-borne disease incidence in the USA (US/CDC, September-October 1999)
  2. "Medical error" mortality (US National Institute of Medicine, December 1999)
  3. Hospital-contracted infections (US/CDC, March 27, 2000)
  4. The 1993 cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee, a result of water pollution, sickened 400,000 people.
  5. Air pollution in the US results in 50,000 deaths per year.
  6. Firearms result in 35,000 deaths per year, and $4 billion in medical expenses.

The sum of the first three categories alone results in between 69,000 and 123,000 deaths per year.

These figures certainly suggest a rather enormous misallocation of priorities: the US political system can absorb roughly 100,000 deaths per year in only three related public health categories - continuously, year after year - while appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars under the sudden presumption of a potential event of extremely low probability, the true likelihood of which is totally unknown. In discussions of the requirements for response to a "mass casualty biological terrorist event," analysts have defined "mass casualty" as anything between 100 and 1,000 individuals arriving at hospitals. That means that the US absorbs the mortality equivalent of between 100 and 1,000 "BW terrorist mass casualty" events per year without any qualm or problem. One might also note that individual diseases such as Tuberculosis and Malaria result in global mortalities of 2-3 million people each, per year.[17]

4. The Requirements to Produce Biological Agents by Non-State Groups

There are five essential requirements that must be mastered in order to produce biological agents:

Four of the five requirements are frequently dismissed as "easy." Some experts do stress that the last step, aerosolization to the appropriate particle size for efficient inhalation infection, does present difficulties, while suggesting that the first four steps are simple. That is clearly not correct. Instead of dealing with this subject by abstract pronouncements, as is customary and the more so the less initiated the commentator, it would be more useful to provide real examples from the experiences of several national biological weapons programs.

First, there is the problem of obtaining a strain of the organism in question that is useful for biological weapons purposes. Most natural forms of biological agents are not highly infectious, and it is not that easy to obtain the strains that are highly infectious. For example, in the course of the offensive phase of the US BW program, roughly 675 strains of Clostridium botulinum were gathered. More extensive laboratory research was carried out using about a dozen of these strains, and finally one strain that produced satisfactory liters of toxin regularly under production conditions was selected for weaponization purposes. Similarly for anthrax, the number of available strains is high and weaponization was carried out on only a few of these.

Secondly, even very practiced experts can run into significant problems. Doctor Jerzy Mierzejewski, the retired director of the Polish biological defense laboratories at Pulawy who spent his entire professional career working with Clostridium botulinum, plaintively expressed his persistent difficulties on working with the organism to participants at two NATO Advanced Research Workshops. One culture cycle would produce toxin that was lethal and a few months later the next would not, and so on over the years. Even variations in the growth parameters for non-pathogenic simulants could seriously degrade their intended performance. The British BW testing program used two common simulants, Bacillus globulii, and an E.Coli strain. It was discovered that even minor variations in their culturing parameters could seriously degrade their performance in aerosol dispersion tests.

As for more complicated integration of the entire process, another example is of value. Dr. William Patrick described the outcome of a study carried out recently at USAMRIID. A post-doctoral fellow was given the task of outlining how he would produce a mass casualty event using a designated organism that had been developed as a weapon in the pre-1969 US BW program -- Tularemia. He was given one year in which to complete his assignment. When the year was up and he presented his project design, it was found that it included three errors that would have prevented the effort from being successful had it been carried out.[19] Quite unfortunately, Patrick has himself been responsible for publicly describing critical technical details which there is every reason to assume would not be known to uninitiated non-state or terrorist groups interested in producing or using biological agents.

At a meeting on "Bioterrorism in the United States" held on June 29-30 in Washington, DC, Jerome Hauer, former Director of the Office of Emergency Management for the City of New York, stressed that:

"Most of the agents are not readily available, Most of the agents are not easy to make, and Most of the agents are not easy to disperse."

As regards aerosol dispersal in particular, Tucker and Sands write:

The capability to disperse microbes and toxins over a wide area as an inhalable aerosol - the form best suited for inflicting mass casualties - requires a delivery system whose development would outstrip the technical capabilities of all but the most sophisticated terrorists. Not only is the dissemination process for biological agents inherently complex, requiring specialized equipment and expertise, but effective dispersal is easily disrupted by environmental and meteorological conditions.[20]

At the end of World War II, the US BW program at Fort Detrick comprised some 250 buildings and employed approximately 3,400 people. The number of person-years that were required to weaponize as "simple" an agent as botulinum toxin, together with access to highly qualified personnel, excellent facilities, and extensive testing ranges is quite significant.

Dr. Ken Alibek has given the figure of a combined total of 60,000 people (at all levels of technical expertise, from service personnel to scientists) in all of the multiple segments of the former USSR's BW program: Ministry of Defense, Biopreparat, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and so on. Senior scientists may have accounted for less than 5 percent of this total, and in seminars, Dr. Alibek has stated that although there were many experts that knew the precise details of an individual stage of the research or production process, there were perhaps only 100 individuals who knew how to take a particular organism that the USSR had weaponized through all its stages from beginning to end in the production process.

The Iraqi BW program began in 1974 or earlier, and between 1979 and 1985 a large number of their BW research staff were sent overseas for advanced study and degrees because it was apparent that work was not progressing and that they were not sufficiently trained and qualified. When the 200-300 BW researchers went back to work, they were supported by a separate contingent of over 1,000 technical people in the Iraqi chemical weapons program who carried out the BW testing program. The Iraqi BW program consumed upwards of $100 million.

One only has to compare the above with some of the descriptions of the supposed ease in producing biological agents that have been common in recent years. One author wrote that, "manufacturing a lethal bacterial disease agent requires little more than chicken soup, a flat whiskey bottle, and an available source of seed culture."[21] Another wrote that producing biological weapons was "...about as complicated as manufacturing beer and less dangerous than refining heroin."[22]

In seminar presentations a few years ago, former CIA Director James Woolsey would claim that "a B-plus high school chemistry student" could produce biological agents, and at a January 2000 meeting described producing biological agents as being about as difficult as producing beer. In her book, The Ultimate Terrorist, Jessica Stern quotes Kathleen Bailey who, after interviewing professors, graduate students, and pharmaceutical manufacturers, concluded that several biologists with only $10,000 worth of equipment could produce a significant quantity of biological agent.[23]

One can also compare these rather common and gross exaggerations with the real-world experience of the Aum Shinrikyo group:

However, they failed in their efforts to produce either of two biological agents.

5. A Summary Comment: The Real Danger of Exaggeration

A 1947 policy guidance promulgated by the US Defense Department said:

This policy governs public information on Biological Warfare, Radiological Warfare, and Chemical Warfare and is based on consideration of the characteristics of these agents: of their possible use in offense; of the problems of defense against such agents; of the integration of an information program on BW-RW-CW with both the United States foreign policy and with United States domestic affairs.

It is necessary that the American people understand the nature and scope of BW-RW-CW so as:

a. To appreciate the actual dangers which might arise from the use of BW-RW-CW and to participate effectively in defense measures;

b. To dismiss exaggerated notions / fears of the threat of BW-RW-CW

c. To support US Government policies concerning them.

This information is specifically designed to:

a. Provide the American people with authoritative information concerning the nature and scope of BW-RW-CW; with due regard for security regulations;

b. Give the public information which without intensifying anxiety unduly will enable Americans to act with maximum effectiveness and dispatch in the event of a BW-RW-CW attack, or threat of attack, against the United States by either secret or overt means.

Official information which reaches the American public should, whenever possible, try to allay exaggerated fear. Therefore:

a. All information on BW-RW-CW should be designed to convey the impression that the United States must become prepared to deal with such weapons.

b. Such information should be characterized by a tone of confidence and moderation;

c. Indications of apprehension on the part of US Government leaders should be avoided...[24]

In contrast, Secretary of Defense William Cohen has made a practice of determined exaggeration and apprehension the core of the US government's current policy on public information regarding the potential of the use of biological weapons. On November 26, 1997, the Washington Post carried a contribution written by Secretary Cohen on its editorial page. Speaking of biological and chemical weapons, Secretary Cohen wrote that:

The sentences quoted, portions underlined for emphasis, are exaggerated, inflammatory, counterproductive, essentially incorrect, and even dangerous. A week earlier, Secretary Cohen had dramatically placed a five-pound bag of sugar on the table during a Sunday morning network TV program and stated that if released in the air over Washington, DC, an equivalent amount of anthrax would kill half the city's population, that is, 300,000 people. In March 1998, four of the most qualified experts on anthrax serving in the US government published a paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine which used a different estimate: 112 pounds of anthrax released over a city of 500,000 people could kill up to 95,000 people, and possibly many fewer, depending on urban atmospheric conditions.

That is certainly horrific enough, but Secretary of Defense Cohen's estimate was approximately 100 times higher. As for Secretary Cohen's sentences quoted above, first there was no evidence available to the US government in 1997 that supported them; second, they are dangerous because by trumpeting a perception of US national vulnerability to chemical and biological weapons -- whether or not that is actually the case -- they are likely to induce and to stimulate both the interest of other states and terrorists in such weapons. They suggest that chemical and biological weapons are desirable, that they will be used on the battlefield and by terrorist groups, and that US authorities expect that to happen. None of these possibilities is necessarily the most likely outcome, and the way in which one portrays them is in fact likely to affect what that outcome will be.

It would not have been difficult to conceive of language that would rather have been designed to deter the interest of other states and non-state actors in both the development and the presumptive use of biological or chemical weapons. Such language would have stressed the defensive measures being undertaken by the US government, as well as the likely consequences to any state or non-state party that used BW. As regards any state that should be found to have used biological weapons against the United States, either covertly or overtly, US deterrent capabilities are formidable. (One has only to recall the US response to its suspicions -- possibly mistaken -- that the Sudanese Al-Shifta facility was producing chemical agent precursors.)

It is notable that no other government apart from the United States -- none of our European allies, most of whom maintain analytic and defensive BW research establishments (UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, among others) -- assess the likelihood of a BW domestic terrorism threat as the US does, despite several years of US government efforts to get them to adopt a similar view point, or at the least, to profess a similar rhetoric. In the United States, however, official influence and funding largess have had a profound effect. Many pages could be filled with a record of the past five years of contracted studies, conferences, media reports, and fictional popularizations. The examples below are typical:

US policy-makers now say that the threat of biological or chemical attack against a major American city is a reality that must be taken into account -- especially with the rise of extremist political and religious groups. That dire message is being sounded this week at Stanford University, where senior US officials, academics and security analysts, as well as a former secretary of state, are meeting to debate the rising risk that biological and chemical warfare poses to the public...The conference at Stanford's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace sought to improve intelligence-sharing on developments in biological and chemical weaponry and on ways to prevent its use. Across the board, however, the message was the same: There is a real possibility of massive civilian casualties in the near future caused by a superplague, a new lethal gas or even a sprinkling of genetic "time bombs" that no one has figured out how to stop.[25]

Terrorists will likely attack the United States with the smallpox or anthrax viruses within the next five to 10 years, says an expert who warns the country is unprepared. "We are a long way away from being even modestly prepared," D.A. Henderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, said Friday at a conference on bioterrorism.[26]

The two-day conference was attended by more than 300 physicians, scientists, public officials and law enforcement agents to discuss possible ways to respond in the event of an attack. Dr. Henderson had organized an analogous conference in 1998, with approximately 1,000 attendees. These more professional meetings, of which there were many others, vied with more popular fare for the general public, such as the notorious Ted Koppel series that lasted nearly a week, a CBS Evening News "Eye on America" special report on the biological terrorist threat,"[27] and a steady stream of fictional dramatizations, such as one in which a female secret agent "learns her alma mater is a training school for female agents and will unleash a strain of smallpox."[28]

At the same time, after nine years of preparatory meetings and negotiations having now taken place in Geneva, successive US administrations have shown much less interest in seeing the achievement of a strong Verification Protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention than our European allies. The combination of the two US policy choices has focused far more attention on biological weapons than would ever otherwise have been the case. If anything, it is the combination of the enormous and overblown official US emphasis on a domestic bioterrorism threat, and the US government's neglect of biological weapon arms control that is likely to spur a wider international resurgence of interest in biological weapons.


The greatest problem that the United States - and the world - face regarding biological weapons is their proliferation among nation states, and not the potential of their use by non-state, or "terrorist" actors within the US. Official US government statements on BW proliferation nevertheless provide only minimal information and are inadequate to provide understanding of the true magnitude, and hence the degree of threat, of this situation. Without such understanding, it is easy for generic statements to present an image of a constantly growing problem, when that may not be the case. It is possible that BW proliferation over the past 15-20 years may, in fact have been stable.

In addition to proliferation per se, two continuing events that impact on it are of primary concern:

These subjects have not been dealt with in this paper, but have been discussed at length in other papers by this author and others.

As regards bioterrorism, the current national discussion is characterized by gross exaggeration, hype, and abstract vulnerability assessments instead of valid threat analysis. Even "data" presented by reputable research groups appears in forms that could never under any circumstances be presented in any scientific forum: hoaxes are counted as "bioterrorist events", and are listed under categories of "biological agents" such as anthrax, which they never contained. Much of this drumbeat of anticipation and prognostication of a bioterrorist event is maintained by government contractors. Where this will lead is unclear. The danger of stimulating and even facilitating an extremely counterproductive general international interest in biological weapons is real and is profound.

Click on endote number to return to article.

[1] United States Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence, Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States and its Interests Abroad, Hearings before the Select Committee on Intelligence of the United States Senate, One Hundred Fourth Congress, Second Session, on February 22, 1996 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1996).

[2] Harvey J. McGeorge, "Chemical and Biological Terrorism," Briefing Document, Public Safety Group, Woodbridge, Virginia, April 1996. See also Harvey J. McGeorge, "Chemical and Biological Terrorism: Analyzing the Problem," The ASA [Applied Science & Analysis] Newsletter, no. 42 (June 16, 1994), pp. 1, 13-14.

[3] Ron Purver, Chemical and Biological Terrorism: The Threat According to the Open Literature (Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Security Intelligence Service, June 1995).

[4] Bruce Hoffman, "The Debate over the Future Terrorist Use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Weapons," pp. 207-224, in Hype or Reality: The New Terrorism" and Mass Casualty Attacks, B. Roberts, ed. (Alexandria, Virginia: CBACI, 2000).

[5] W. Seth Carus, Bioterrorism and Biocrimes: The Illicit Use of Biological Agents in the 20th Century (Washington, DC: National Defense University, August 1998).

[6] Jonathan B. Tucker and Amy Sands, "An Unlikely Threat," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 55:4 (July-August 1999), pp. 46-52.

[7] Jonathan Tucker, ed., Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1999).

[8] A detailed description of the efforts of the Aum group to produce biological agents is now available in three publications by Milton Leitenberg;

"The Experience of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo Group and Biological Agents," in Hype or Reality, op. cit., pp. 159-172.

"Aum Shinrikyo's Efforts to Produce Biological Weapons: A Case Study in the Serial Propagation of Misinformation," pp. 149-158, in Max Taylor and John Horgan, ed., The Future of Terrorism (London: Frank Cass, 2000).

"Aum Shinrikyo's Efforts to Produce Biological Weapons: A Case Study in the Serial Propagation of Misinformation," Terrorism and Political Violence [Special Issue on the Future of Terrorism] 11:4 (Winter 1999), 149-158.

[9] One should add an additional point as a result of the papers referred to directly above: all of the portrayals of the Aum and BW that derived their information from the Kaplan and Marshall book and the 1995 Sopko and Edelman Senate Committee report are therefore thoroughly in error. This includes the books by Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg (Plague Wars), Jessica Stern, and others.

[10] United States Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence, Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States, op. cit., p. 213.

[11] See testimony of John P. O'Neill, Supervisory Special Agent, Chief, Counterterrorism Section, Federal Bureau of Investigation, p. 236, in United States Senate, Committee on Governmental Affairs, Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Part I (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1996).

[12] John A. Lauder, "Statement by Special Assistant to the DCI for Nonproliferation," House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, March 3, 1999.

[13] George J. Tenet, "Statement by Director of Central Intelligence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 21, 2000."

[14] GAO, Combatting Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessment of Chemical and Biological Attacks, GAO/NSIAD-99-163, September 7, 1999.

[15] Tucker and Sands, "An Unlikely Threat," op. cit., pp. 46-52.

[16] Judith Miller and William Broad, "Exercises Find US Unable to Handle Germ War Threat," New York Times, April 26, 1998.

[17] A former US Department of State and CIA counterterrorism official responded to the recently released report of the National Commission on Terrorism by noting that, "More Americans have died from scorpion bites than from foreign terrorist attacks over the past five years." Vernon Loeb, "Terrorism Panel Faulted for Exaggeration," Washington Post, June 23, 2000.

[18] Dr. David Franz modifies this categorization slightly. After requiring "intent" on the part of the perpetrator, he lists "Access, R&D, Scale-up, Production, and Weaponization" as required stages in the process. For "Classical Battlefield Agents," he indicates that four of these B R&D, Scale-up, Production, and Weaponization -- are all "Necessary and Difficult." If "Highly Contagious Disease Agents" were used, these four stages are listed as "Not Necessary," and if "Foreign Animal Disease Agents" were to be used (against domestic animals, not as an anti-human disease agent), the process if shortened to "Access and Use." Dr. David Franz, "Biological Terrorism: Which Agents Should We Worry About and Plan For?" CBACI conference presentation, January 10, 2000.

[19] Dr. William Patrick, CBACI conference presentation, January 10, 2000.

[20] Tucker and Sands, "An Unlikely Threat," op. cit., pp. 51.

[21] Edith Kermit Roosevelt, "Germ War," International Combat Arms (July 1986), pp. 38-42.

[22] Douglas and Livingstone, 1987, p. 23 [reference incomplete].

[23] Jessica Stern, The Ultimate Terrorists, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 50.Dr. Bailey, a Livermore Laboratory staffer and determined opponent of both BW and CW arms control treaties, repeated this statement in innumerable seminar lecture presentations during the mid-1990s, at times identifying the "graduate students" as University of Maryland undergraduate biology majors, and the "interviews" as carried out by telephone.

[24] "Public Information Policy on Biological Warfare, Radiological Warfare, and Chemical Warfare," SECRET, Department of Defense, 1947. [Declassified, April 6, 1992]

[25] AUS Faces Rear Chemical," CNN/Reuters, November 17, 1998.

[26] AUS Ripe for Anthrax Attack, Expert Warns," APB News/Associated Press, February 5, 2000. (Anthrax is, of course, not a virus.)

[27] CBS Evening News/Eye on America, February 7, 2000.

[28] "Secret Agent Man," UPN/WDCA TV, Washington, DC, March 14, 2000.

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