Even as the United States has been girding for war to compel Iraq to cooperate with international monitors searching for biological weapons, it has been grappling with how its own biotechnology industry might do the same thing.
Not that there are any suspicions that American drug companies are making germ bombs. But the government has been gripped by a three-year feud over the issue of allowing the inspection of US facilities.
The impasse has left the world's leading power on the sidelines of international talks aimed at putting teeth into a global biological-weapons ban that has been in effect for 23 years but never enforced.
The infighting ended this week with President Clinton's State of the Union announcement that the US will propose an international inspection system to strengthen the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC).
US officials and independent analysts say Mr. Clinton's decision should give a vital boost to the talks among 40 states underway in Geneva to devise BWC enforcement mechanisms. US allies and arms-control experts complain that the absence of US leadership has slowed the negotiations since they began in 1995.
"This is a breakthrough in a sense that now the US has finally put a position on the table," says Jonathan Tucker, an arm-control expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in Monterey, Calif.
A timely announcement
Clinton's announcement surprised those following the issue as there was no prior hint of an end to the interagency wrangling.
But the crisis with Iraq finally forced the secretaries of Defense, State and Commerce - William Cohen, Madeleine Albright and William Daley - to step in. As the US was preparing to go to war to rid Iraq of germ weapons, it faced the fact that it had done little to bolster the international treaty designed to halt their proliferation.
"The continuing problems in Iraq certainly have raised this to the attention of senior-level US decisionmakers," says a senior US official.
"There has been a disconnect [in US policy]," he admits. "We view it [biological weapons proliferation] as a serious issue and we want to make sure we get it as right as we can. At the same time, I think the president came to the conclusion that it was now time to put out a position."
The BWC is basically a gentlemen's agreement because it lacks any means to verify compliance by its 140 member-states. Violations by Russia and Iraq and grave concerns that other states, including China and Iran, are developing biological weapons are spurring the effort to develop a verification agreement.
Permitting a peek
Such an accord would include a system for inspecting facilities capable of producing germ weapons. The feud within the administration has been over how intrusive an inspection system the US should advocate.
The $100 billion US pharmaceutical industry, the largest and most advanced in the world, and the Pentagon, which is developing defenses against germ warfare, are anxious to protect their secrets. They oppose any inspections of their facilities except those triggered by formal charges that the US was violating the BWC, something they believe would never happen. The US unilaterally abandoned its germ-weapons programs in 1969.
But State Department and National Security Council officials argue that without the US accepting an inspection system of sufficient strength, it would be difficult to determine if other states were concealing biological weapons.
The administration's new proposals seek to strike a balance between the two positions. They embrace the rejections by the US pharmaceutical industry and defense officials of unannounced visits by a new international BWC monitoring organization except to investigate formal charges of treaty violations.
But they also call for several categories of inspections designed to deal with situations in which no clear treaty violations are suspected, but questions about a facility's operations require clarification.
When such inspections occur, the facility's operators could structure them in ways that would satisfy the monitors while guarding proprietary secrets.