The next destroyer of worlds

An investigation of biological weapons in the US and abroad

New York Times reporters Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad have written an excellent book on the broad issue of biological weapons. They combine crisp writing, engaging anecdotes, pathbreaking reporting, and thoughtful policy analysis into this volume - certainly one of the best overviews of the subject.

The book opens with a chilling report on a bioterrorism attack carried out by members of a religious cult in Oregon in 1984. Although no one died, almost a thousand people became sick. The frantic efforts of doctors and law enforcement officials to determine the nature of the attack - or even to determine if it was an attack - provide a warning in miniature of the daunting challenges that face the US.

The book's early chapters focus on the history of biological-weapons research during the cold war, revealing considerable detail about an ambitious American program through the 1960s as well as the better-known Soviet efforts. Even as the US developed a massive nuclear stockpile that should have sufficed as an ultimate deterrent, cold-war dynamics drove the pursuit of various types of germ warfare - including an elusive quest for agents that could incapacitate large segments of the population of a country such as Cuba or Vietnam without killing them. Richard Nixon ended such efforts in 1969.

The book also details Saddam Hussein's largely successful efforts to acquire biological weaponry. It explains the great worries his programs caused American policymakers during the Gulf War, when they knew that the US lacked the necessary stockpiles of vaccines and the types of biological agent detectors that would have been essential to protect American troops.

The book bogs down a bit in its middle sections, when it provides more detail than necessary on the 1990s US debates over vaccinating soldiers against anthrax and funding various types of biological-preparedness programs. But this is a minor flaw in the narrative. The story picks up again as the authors describe how President Clinton became interested in the subject of biological arms.

The final chapters of the book unveil the results of the journalists' best investigative reporting, detailed in a New York Times story earlier this month as well. In these pages, the authors explain how the US government elected to build mock biological weapons in the 1990s without substantial White House oversight or a fully convincing case that its research was consistent with the 1972 treaty banning the development and stockpiling of biological arms for military purposes. This is good reporting, even if it falls somewhat short of providing the smoking gun of a treaty violation.

The book's policy prescriptions are a bit shallow. The authors' call for some type of verification protocol for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, even while admitting that "the world's experience with Iraq clearly shows the limits of international inspections."

More attention to the tangential role of nuclear arms would have been helpful, too. Some maintain that the US will never be able to abolish its nuclear arms, given the need to deter the use of biological agents.

How serious a threat is posed by biological arms in the hands of terrorists? The authors' primary means of addressing this question is by considering the history of the Japanesecult Aum Shinrikyo. Other groups such as Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, receive very limited attention. Nevertheless, looking over their research, the authors conclude, "The world's response to the growing dangers of germ weapons has fallen far short of what is needed."

The authors are right to call for more research on antidotes to biological agents and improvements in public health systems and epidemiological tracking, but they raise a troubling domestic impediment to such preparedness. "Biodefense," they warn, "has no natural political constituency in Washington. The military-industrial complex that supports weapons systems has little interest in vaccines and public health."

This thorough, engaging, and important book concludes, "If we as a nation believe that the germ threat is a hoax, we are spending too much money on it. But if the danger is real, as we conclude that it is, then the investment is much too haphazard and diffuse."

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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