Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Although nuclear weapons are the most famous and feared of the weapons of mass destruction a CDC researcher says that "in certain circumstances, biological weapons can be as devastating as nuclear ones—a few kilograms of anthrax can kill as many people as a Hiroshima-size nuclear weapon."

Biological production and weapon-producing facilities can be small, inexpensive, and inconspicuous. Equipment to develop biological arms may have legitimate commercial and research purposes, as well as nefarious ones. Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons do not require unique ingredients that are ready objects of arms control. ... Most nations have the capability to make biological weapons. Some 18 nations are believed to have done so, including the former Soviet Union and several nations the State Department lists as supporting terrorism.

Why would anyone wish to use biological weapons? A leading entity with a motive to perpetrate a biological attack could be a rogue state as an act of clandestine warfare. The very strength of a superpower may provide an incentive to adversaries to challenge this strength unconventionally. If a rogue regime were to mount such an unconventional asymmetric attack, they might choose biological weapons because their extreme destructive potential is concentrated in a relatively small and unremarkable package with virtually no detectable sensor signature. Because of the agent's incubation period, the perpetrators might be gone before anyone knew that an attack had been made. Finally, biological agents, unlike ballistic missiles, lend themselves to clandestine dissemination.

What defense is there against this threat?

The defense against artificially developed biological threats apparently rests on "detection and cultural pressure", according to this article by Quinn Norton in O'Reilly because the art has advanced to the point where even if the West were to voluntarily forgo any further research the body of knowledge already available would be self-sustaining. The technological defense against biological threats lies  in developing methods to detect and cure pathogens. But Dr. Drew Endy, in responding to questions about biosecurity emphasized the need to deploy "social solutions" -- to "minimize the number of people who might choose to misapply biological technology" -- as a major line of defense. One of his worries is that the American investment in classified biodefense facilities may set a bad example -- "without considering how this is received around the world" -- and encourage foreign powers to conjure the biological genie. But even without human enemies, Mother Nature, through the agency of evolution, was a biological weapons laboratory par excellence. Emerging diseases impinge upon civilization all the time. One only needed to remember the historical effects of the Plague to recall how devastating Nature's own biological weapons could be. By defending against naturally occurring diseases, the medical establishment gets practice for "the eventual release" of human, man-made pathogens.

By "social solutions" is largely meant generating the political will to outlaw offensive biological weaponry. Endy recalled that during the Nixon Administration the US destroyed its entire stock of offensive biological weapons and focused exclusively upon defensive technologies like immunizations. Dr. Endy noted that the compulsion to abandon bioweaponry came from the force of reason; because the Nixon administration saw no strategic advantages in biological weapon (in large part because their effects could not be controlled) it simply did the logical thing and abandoned that line of endeavor. Endy believed that other societies who reasoned the same way would come to the same logical conclusions. And while today there are 158 signatories to the convention it's not clear that logic alone would keep the bug in the test tube. Some eminently "logical" countries have held out. Among the countries which have not signed the convention is Israel and Egypt and Syria while having signed the convention have not ratified it. But any hope of relying on logic alone to prevent the spread of these weapons is probably futile. There is the problem of the potential transfer of Russian biological or chemical weapons (C/BW) – or the corresponding materials or information – to terrorists or criminal elements, without the imprimatur of the Russian government. By carelessness or policy some nations cannot prevent fanatics or criminals from acquiring the deadly materials and know-how.

The Russian government may perceive that the threat of global terrorism, while affecting Russia, is more of an American problem than a Russian one. ... Put simply, Russian calculations of the cost and benefit of American threat reduction programs may conclude that such programs are not in Russia’s overall interest. In addition, the Russian government may be reluctant, for the sake of pride, to admit that it is unable to take care of its own weapons, that it does not know where they all are and cannot ensure their security.

The fact that nonstate actors have sought to acquire biological weapons from the inactive or mothballed laboratories of states shows that the calculus of rationality, the "social solution" upon which Dr. Endy places such hope, does not deter organizations like al-Qaeda. "In December 2002, after U.S. forces had overrun much of the territory of Afghanistan, it was discovered that the al-Qaida organization also had spent several years trying to obtain the knowledge and means to produce biological agents." "Social pressure" will never be enough; and whatever its limitations only technological advances can be relied on to provide a defense against biological attacks launched by fanatical groups. The moral effect of treaties and conventions will make no impression upon them. But the knowledge that an enemy society has prepared to deflect an attack might. Effective detection and therapeutic delivery systems would create the danger that an enemy's pathogens might return against him. One reason the Nixon administration abandoned biological weapons was because their effects were not easily limited. A disease released by a terrorist organization might leave a medically defended target relatively unscathed but devastate its homelands through infection with devastating results. What would happen to the Haj in Mecca with a killer epidemic on the loose? As Dr. Endy noted, Mother Nature steadily launches new diseases at mankind. Crazy people don't need to add to it.


Blogger El Baboso said...

Social pressure works well within the OECD or the EU where there is some presumption of shared values and investments. It works less well among the "community" of nations. When you get down to the tribal/cultural subgroup/voluntary association level it works quite poorly. By the time one reaches the individual level, the statistical variance for any one social variable is so great that you can almost guarantee that social pressure will backfire on some segments. Not quite a mathematical proof, but it suggests that there is no scheme of "social pressure" that can adequately address every actor when small or individual actors are empowered with highly destructive technologies.

You can see from this analysis why Westphalia is under such extreme pressure. In order for for the Westphalian system to survive under these circumstances, it most radically evolve. Some see a surveillance state as inevitable. The Europeans seem to be losing hope and awaiting the deluge. Putin is trying to revive antebellum nationalism. In the blogosphere, there is much talk of militias. I kind of like the militia idea.

2/05/2008 05:03:00 AM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Social pressure does not work and will NEVER WORK.

The Kellog-Briand pact "outlawing war?" How about the Treaty of Washington, setting strict naval limits on battleships (and later carriers)?

How'd that work out?

Of course we can expect more attacks like the anthrax attack. Maybe even more.

What possible gain did the 1993 WTC bombers (who wanted to topple one tower onto another and kill 50,000 people) see from their act? Or Osama on 9/11?

They believed it would topple the American nation. As they believed they destroyed the USSR.

This won't stop until a very lot of people are dead, sadly. The belief that "once more over the top boys" will "get it done" -- with Muslims behaving like British officers ordering charges headlong into German machine guns -- is not going to stop. Because we are not (sadly also in many respects) killing enough people to make that continued conflict unsustainable.

The Wests desire to avoid killing paradoxically makes it far more likely than when the killing starts in serious it will be a massive killing.

2/05/2008 02:04:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

The fact that there have been no terrorist biological attacks is puzzling. This is a natural terrorist weapon. The target doesn't even have to be human, witness the hoof and mouth disease outbreak in the UK in 2001. The economic losses were huge.

If slow viruses were used as the weaponized virus it would take years before the results were seen but they could also be catastrophic.

It just doesn't seem that hard to use viruses against humans and animals to create epidemics, pandemonium, and great economic losses.

OTOH, I think the jihadis don't really want to use their brains to attack us. They want to see the whites of our eyes when they kill us. They want to get their 72 raisins in heaven. Those things don't come by attacking from afar.

2/05/2008 07:36:00 PM  
Blogger eggplant said...

Utopia Parkway said...

"The fact that there have been no terrorist biological attacks is puzzling. This is a natural terrorist weapon."

Give it time. Biotech is unstopable. The economic advantages in developing genetically modified food are too great. Likewise there is enormous potential for medical miracles through the use of designer viruses to reprogram human genetics.

You want immortality or eternal youth? There is only one way: You need to infect yourself with a designer virus, custom made for your genetics that turns-off all those built-in features that are slowly killing you through old-age.

So like all technology, the designer virus is two edged. In 30 years there will be all these little labs all over the Earth producing truly marvelous discoveries causing great benefit to the human race. Then one day, a small unsung biotech lab somewhere in Malaysia or Abu Dhabi is going to produce something very nasty. The guy behind it will be a technical genius with some confused notions about the 12th Iman....

2/05/2008 09:47:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

If an Al Quada biolab in Pakistan had an accident and horrible plagues were released in the mountinous region of Pakistan, who would get the blame?

Hint: their initials are C, I, A.

Social pressure only disarms the good guys. It makes the value of biological weapons greater for guys like Ahmadinajad. "Look! Allah has smited (smitten?) the infidels witha plague! Surely god is on our side!!!"

2/06/2008 04:54:00 AM  
Blogger BetaCygni said...

I think the "Three Conjectures" applies to biological weapons as well. If Israel was subjected to a terrorist biological attack, what would stop determined individuals from unleashing retaliation against the Haj?

2/08/2008 04:18:00 PM  
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3/06/2008 09:10:00 AM  

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