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Dr. Lynn C. Klotz Headshot
Edward J. Sylvester Headshot

Trust But Verify? Not This Time: For Biological Security, Transparency Is Best Policy

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It would be hard to name a presidential administration whose opening year was marked by as many urgent priorities on as many fronts as Barack Obama's, from the economy to war, from health care to terrorism, global warming to nuclear policy.

Each urgency has unloaded mountains of data demanding new experts with rare levels of specialized knowledge. And therein lies a risk apart from the others - that promising new ideas and good intentions may be thwarted by past mis-information and illusions in the maelstrom of demands and deadlines.

That, we fear, is exactly the case with the threat of bioweapons that briefly took center stage in December at the annual meeting of the nations who are party to the Biological Weapons Convention and has now sunk from view, leaving all the hazards as they were. For more than 30 years, the world has depended on this convention to prevent biowarfare by prohibiting countries from developing such weapons or researching their deadly microbes for any but defensive or other peaceful purposes. So far, so good, we might say - except that our safety is mostly an illusion. The BWC provides for no enforcement, so what rogue nations might be up to in secret is, well, secret. Unfortunately, a major opportunity to repair that was missed at the
annual meeting.

The potential repair kit is the long-sought protocol to the BWC, which was sabotaged by the Bush administration. Certainly no panacea, the protocol would have made great progress toward increasing global biosecurity. But the same misunderstandings reared up again, proving themselves durable enough to be a full-blown myth.

The myth is that, however much the Obama administration truly believes in openness and transparency, the protocol cannot get us into that daylight because it demands verification of signatories' activities in order to prevent violations.

Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher gave the administration's position in Geneva against reviving the protocol by saying that it "is extraordinarily difficult to verify compliance" because of "the ease with which a biological weapons program could be disguised within legitimate activities...."

The key to the myth is that word, verification. The protocol made no such absolutist demands for the very reasons used to deep-six it years earlier: verification simply cannot be guaranteed in this arena.

If great can be the enemy of good, this is a case in which pefection - or the lack of it - is being made the enemy of a terrific beginning in giving nations confidence - not certainty - that the terms of the BWC are being followed. Immediately after dismissing reviving discussions, Tauscher urged the participants to "demonstrate your good faith and commitment to the BWC by joining us in increasing transparency," striking just the right tone. Ironically, the protocol remains our best hope of achieving that. Consider why it is more important than ever that our potential adversaries regain confidence that we are not up to the very activities the BWC prohibits.

Under the Bush administration, the number of high-biosecurity laboratories working on "select-agent" pathogens multiplied to more than one thousand, a consequence of the massive biodefense program hastily launched in response to the anthrax letter attacks following 9/11. Tauscher referred to the weeks her own Washington office was shut down for cleansing as she warned delegates of the real threats biological agents pose. However, much of the resulting multi-billion dollar activities are being carried out in secret. How do we get from there to "openness and transparency"?

What do our adversaries think of secret research involving the world's deadliest pathogens in the highest level biosecurity labs, which we claim are only doing defensive research? What would we think if China or - more obviously - Iran built more than one thousand such facilities whose peaceful purposes were guaranteed only by its word? Even some of our allies are concerned about our massive biodefense effort.

The simple answer is for us to open the doors and let them all in to inspect what they will, and for them to do the same, but that is not only simple but simplistic. Indeed, achieving such an important end is fraught with difficulties, ranging from national sovereignty issues to the right of corporations to protect research investments from disclosure. But the difficulties can be surmounted, and here is how the protocol would address them.

All the protocol parties would have to agree to visits of such biological facilities as those for defense or those considered "dual use." In the latter, whatever peaceful work might go on in, say, a fermentation manufacturing plant, also could be used to develop biological weapons. Under the protocol, such facilities would have to be declared. However, the "managed visits" proposed would fall into two very different categories:

  • Random visits. Such a visit would follow a purely random selection of declared dual-use facilities, carrying no suspicion of wrong-doing. The details are complex but easy to summarize: The atmosphere would be friendly, the protections for legitimate research or production secrets thoroughgoing. For example, if a biodefense site had a process to circumvent one of its own defenses against bioweapons, that could remain secret.
  • Facility and field investigations. These would be conducted in response to allegations of illegal activities. Again, the details of accusation and response would be complex, though still with protections in place for legitimately secret work.

The bottom line in both: The host country could turn down any request. How, then, does that last loophole not short-circuit the whole process?

Listen to Douglas MacEachin, former deputy director of intelligence for the CIA - the agency's top intelligence officer - a strong supporter of the protocol. Noting the argument that concealment of a bioweapons program is relatively easy, he said, "Maybe. But how much confidence is the violator to have that this can be done? To what extent is the violator prepared to stake a weapons program on this gamble?" Such concealment of a high-cost program would go from being relatively easy now to risky post-protocol.

But revelation of a cover-up could come in many ways, MacEachin argued in his article "Routine and Challenge: Two Pillars of Verification". "If the cover-up takes place at a facility at which there are otherwise legitimate biological programs, are all of the personnel working on the legitimate activities privy to the conspiracy?" If some are not in on it, there would be a risk researchers or citizens would leak the information to the protocol visitors or publicly. Exposure and punishment could follow.

"Indeed, experience has shown that often it is the cover-up efforts that expose the illicit activity, rather than the illicit activity itself," McEachern concluded. "All things considered, these are risks that a regime seeking biological weapons probably would wish to avoid if possible."
The protocol would offer protections - not guarantees - against development of biological weapons. A goal would be to reduce the risk of a biological weapons attack to whatever degree possible. But it also would help forestall a biological arms race by giving other countries some confidence that one was not already underway, to which they might respond in kind.

That was indeed the case during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union stockpiled a massive array of horrific biological weapons agents, at least partially in the erroneous belief that it was matching the United States; that is according to Ken Alibeck, the Russian defector who headed the program for years. With managed visits under the protocol, nothing on that scale could have occurred without high exposure risk.

Revitalizing protocol discussions would be a major beginning, not the end. International efforts also must aim to stockpile medical countermeasures for everyone against natural disease that also would target biological weapons agents. New multilateral treaties should criminalize bioweapons and legally control access to dangerous pathogens. And particularly dangerous experiments done anywhere should come under international oversight and regulation.

Finally, a number of grass roots efforts, some already underway, should be realized or expanded. Examples: providing ethical education and a Hippocratic-like oath for life scientists, protecting scientists who blow the whistle on illegal or unethical operations, and enabling local oversight of high-biocontainment labs, all inexpensive.

In the end, there is no magic wand that will bring us biosecurity. Every reasonable, cost-effective approach must be employed, from biodefense to international transparency to ethical education of scientists and involvement of the public. Would each decrease the probability of an attack by 5%, 10%, 20%? No one could know. We do know that each would contribute to our biosecurity and would be worth its moderate expense, since the cost of a state-launched attack with many casualties would be enormous. The protocol should decrease the probability of such an attack.

Despite near-overwhelming pressures on so many fronts, the Obama White House should not allow its developing view of the BWC protocol to be haunted by the Bush administration's mistrust of international initiatives and its go-it-alone response to global threats. The Obama strategy seems animated by an earnest desire to move toward inclusiveness, cooperation and transparency. Mis-characterized as a "verification protocol," what may be the best tool of transparency could again slip away.

Klotz and Sylvester are the authors of Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense Is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure, University of Chicago Press, Oct. 15, 2009.