The United States is looking to put teeth into a global biological warfare ban. It is convinced that Iran and other states are secretly working to add lethal microbes to their military arsenals.
The initiative to bolster the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) moved into high gear after the Clinton administration won Senate approval in April of a global chemical weapons ban, over fierce GOP objections.
The new effort reflects mounting US concern over the spread of advanced biotechnologies that can be diverted from legitimate civilian uses to illicit biological warfare programs. Some officials are also frustrated by the reluctance of some countries, such as France, Germany and Switzerland, to curb sales of "dual-use" technologies to Iran and other states the US suspects of creating biological weaponry.
The relative low cost and ease of secretly producing huge amounts of lethal bacteria, viruses, or other microbes have convinced the administration that such weapons are major post-cold-war threats to US security.
"You can put one of these things [bio labs] in your kitchen practically and make enough of whatever to wipe out a city," says a US official, who notes that directions for making crude biological weapons are available on the Internet.
But building on the success of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) vote will not be easy. Not only will administration officials have to fight another bruising battle with Republican hard-liners who put little faith in multilateral arms control, but they will first have to iron out disputes among themselves over how far to push enforcement of the BWC.
"There are a number of issues ... over which there are differences of opinion," notes a senior administration official involved in the policy review.
Furthermore, in devising ways of strengthening adherence to the BWC, US officials will have to satisfy the reservations of the politically powerful US pharmaceutical industry. It worries that overly intrusive enforcement of the accord could put proprietary secrets worth billions of dollars at risk.
"This has to be done in such a way that industry's rights are protected," says an industry source knowledgeable about the new effort.
Unlike other arms control accords, the BWC was enacted without any legally binding mechanisms to ensure that its 136 member states adhere to a ban on the production, storage, and use of microorganisms for military purposes. In other words, it is little more than a gentlemen's agreement.
Since taking effect in 1976, Russia and Iraq have admitted violating the treaty. They claim their programs have been terminated, but US officials say both may still be secretly pursuing offensive biological warfare capabilities. As many as 13 other countries, including Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea, are suspected of trying to develop the ability to produce biological arsenals.
Despite the dangers, the US - which halted its offensive biological warfare program in 1969 - showed no enthusiasm through the Reagan and Bush presidencies to join other BWC members pushing for an enforcement mechanism. That attitude changed with President Clinton. The US joined a study group that last November recommended negotiating an enforcement protocol.
The protocol is expected to require BWC members to declare facilities working with lethal microbes that have both medical and military applications. As with the CWC, the disclosures would be filed with a new international organization that would ensure compliance with the BWC through inspections of suspect facilities. The details of the system and sanctions for violators must still be worked out in negotiations expected to open in July in Geneva and last about one year.
Drafting a US protocol position is a delicate balancing act. On one side is designing enforcement measures that increase protection from weaponry that can be mass-produced with equipment that can be purchased legally.
On the other side of the equation is the defense establishment's demand for protection against intrusive inspections of its labs working to develop protective measures for US troops.
Perhaps even more critical is addressing the concerns of the US pharmaceutical industry. The administration will need industry support to get the Senate to ratify the protocol.
Industry officials back the concept. But they insist that the administration ensures that their firms are protected against unwarranted inspections stemming from spurious charges of running biological warfare programs.