Easy to Build, Hard to Detect: How to Track Biological Arms?

Iraq's prolonged cat-and-mouse game over its biological arsenal has thrown the spotlight on the difficulties the international community faces in trying to eliminate these weapons of mass destruction.

Since 1972, some 140 nations have signed a cold-war-era pact that bans the development, production, and stockpiling of biological arms.

But recognizing that the Biological Weapons Convention went into effect without any mechanism for monitoring or enforcing compliance, and amid growing fears of proliferation, countries began working several years ago to strengthen the global agreement.

As the fourth year of closed-door negotiations begins, it is becoming clear that Saddam Hussein is far from alone in holding out on biological weapons.

As many as 15 countries, including Iraq, Russia, Syria, Iran, Israel, China, North Korea, and Taiwan are known or suspected to be trying to develop the ability to build biological arsenals.

President Richard Nixon unilaterally ended America's biological weapons program in 1969.

The reality of germ warfare became apparent in 1992, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin publicly admitted Moscow had conducted an offensive biological program for 20 years, and ordered the effort terminated. While there are doubts that Russia has completely abandoned its program, the disclosure drew attention to the global dangers of biological weapons - even though germ warfare is not new.

Old idea, new technology

In the 14th century, the Tatars catapulted plague victims' bodies into the besieged city of Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula. In Colonial America, the English deliberately gave Indians blankets used by smallpox patients.

What is new is the technological advances that allow lethal microbes to spread rapidly and widely, according to Graham Pearson, who formerly headed Britain's Porton Down chemical and biological defense operation.

"Iraq has a very real capability" to produce and deliver some of these biological agents, according to what United Nations weapons inspectors have so far uncovered, says Dr. Pearson. Among other substances, Iraq has produced anthrax and botulinum toxin, Person said in a report for the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center, which studies such matters.

Iraq had spray tanks, remotely piloted vehicles, aerial bombs, rockets and missiles, able to deliver such substances, according to Pearson's study, which was based on UN inspectors' reports.

Iraq did not belong to the international agreement when it was developing its biological industry, notes Amy Smithson, an arms control verification expert from the Stimson Center. It was only obliged to sign after the 1991 Gulf War.

Countries such as Iraq don't want to give up their biological arms capability for simple reasons. Such weapons are inexpensive to produce and deliver. "Biological weapons are far more effective on a weight-per-weight basis than chemical weapons. Indeed, they are comparable to nuclear weapons," says Pearson.

Another major reason is that their research and development can be camouflaged. In the drug industry, for instance, certain substances can have legitimate uses. And there is the political influence and power a nation gains when neighbors suspect it has biological capability.

Industrial secrecy an issue

The question of industrial secrecy has emerged as one of the key stumbling blocks in the protracted negotiations to strengthen the biological weapons ban. Countries are concerned that on-site verification could result in the detection and appropriation of valuable commercial and military secrets.

Gillian Woollett of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America says, "The issue is: 'Are you really making what you say you're making?' We have no problem in confirming that we are indeed making medicines." But she adds that such matters as a factory's capacity, for example, "would be more of a confidential business issue."

Wrangling over these issues has thus far produced a nearly 250-page "rolling text" in addition to the original four-page treaty. Negotiators soon will begin the second of four planned sessions in 1998 in Geneva, where they hope to produce a final result sometime this year or next.

President Clinton raised the talks' profile in his State of the Union address last month. He was joined by the European Union in urging completion of negotiations this year. Some diplomats feel that a psychological barrier was crossed in 1997 when the Chemical Weapons Convention finally went into effect. It is the first disarmament treaty to provide for on-site verification.

Although Iraq's capability has helped to focus attention on the talks, Dr. Smithson warns that countries are not taking them seriously enough.

"The amount of concern for the situation in Iraq in comparison with the level of interest in the negotiations" is far apart, she cautions.

"This treaty is the front line of defense," she says. But in a career of working on arms control, she notes, "this is the toughest verification challenge" because biological agents are so easy to conceal.

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