Who’s the Real WMD Threat?

by , April 16, 2005

News that a U.S. company recently sent vials of a 1957 pandemic flu strain to laboratories across the world by accident is only the latest outrage from the billion-dollar boondoggle called the federal biological weapons program.

As you might recall, the Bush administration started its “bio-defense” spending spree following the September 2001 deadly anthrax attacks, and one of its first projects was to genetically engineer a super-resistant, even more deadly version of the anthrax virus.

Our leaders are nuts.

Unfortunately, Project “Anthrax” Jefferson has good company. A U.S. Army scientist in Maryland is currently trying to bring back elements of the 1918 Spanish flu, a virus that killed 40 million people. And a virologist in St. Louis has been working on a more lethal form of mousepox (related to smallpox) – just to try stopping the virus once it has been created.

Lack of oversight and runaway spending are exacerbated by the Bush administration’s disrespect for the internationally recognized Biological Weapons Convention. In short, reduced pressure on weapons labs to issue declarations and allow inspections means less accountability – and more opportunities for secrecy and abuse.

Put bluntly, the increasing number of stateside bio-weapons blunders should come as no surprise. In February 2003, for example, the University of California at Davis (UCD) took a full 10 days to inform nearby communities that a rhesus monkey had escaped from its primate-breeding facility. Coincidentally, UCD had been vying for government funds to set up its own “hot zone” bio-defense lab that could use primates for biological weapons testing. If that monkey had been infected with ebola or some other virus, it’s unclear when or if the public would have been informed.

At roughly the same time that the monkey ditched UCD, the Pentagon unearthed over 2,000 tons of hazardous biological waste in Maryland, much of it undocumented leftovers of an abandoned germ warfare program. Nearby, the FBI was draining a pond for clues into 2001’s anthrax attacks.

Doesn’t inspire much trust in the transparency of U.S. biological weapons programs.

And things appear only to be getting worse.

In 2004, a whopping $6 billion went up for grabs for federal bio-defense programs, and laboratories across the country went ballistic trying to get their hands on some of that cash. Predictably, cases of fraud and abuse quickly surfaced.

In June 2004, for example, the Army was caught shirking inspections at a major bio-defense lab under its domain. The scandal went back to 1999, when the Army commissioned a biological and chemical weapons-agent lab at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Oversight regulations obligated the Army to inspect the lab each year thereafter, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were supposed to have inspected the lab on a regular basis, too.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly; in December 2003, the committee in charge of safety at the Oak Ridge lab announced that it “remains comfortable of the review and inspections of the Chem/Bio Facility conducted by the CDC and the Army.”

Small problem. In 2004, the Department of Energy’s inspector general discovered that the Army actually hadn’t inspected the Oak Ridge bio-defense lab for the previous three years, and that the CDC hadn’t been there for four years. Yet the lab’s safety committee said it was “comfortable” with the imaginary inspections.

Also in 2004, a military bio-defense contractor called Southern Research landed in hot water by accidentally sending live anthrax across the country from Frederick, Md., to the Children’s Hospital of Oakland (Calif.). To make matters worse, it turns out that Southern Research’s lab in Maryland didn’t even maintain the institutional bio-safety committee required by federal research rules. The punishment for these acts of gross incompetence and irresponsibility? The Bush administration gave Southern Research the task of safeguarding a new $30 million biological weapons facility being built near Chicago.

In September of the same year, three lab workers at the Boston University Medical Center were accidentally exposed to a potentially lethal bio-warfare agent called tularemia bacterium. The lab didn’t report the tularemia infections until two months later, though – after it had won a contract to build a new, $178 million bio-defense laboratory.

Concerns about lack of transparency and monetary waste aside, the administration’s bio-weapons buildup raises obvious ethical problems. Why should the U.S. create newer, even deadlier viruses? Who are these catastrophic weapons going to be tested on? What populations will they ultimately be used against?

These questions take on urgent meaning given the Bush administration’s military adventurism coupled with the U.S. media’s poor coverage regarding war victims. For example, eyewitnesses to the late-2004 attack on Fallujah claimed that U.S. forces used poisonous gases, and “weird” bombs that exploded into fires that burned the skin despite water being thrown on the burns – a telltale sign of napalm or phosphorus bombs.

UK reaction to the revelation was swift and strong, with demands that Prime Minister Blair remove British troops from Iraq until the U.S. ceased from using such savage weaponry. Labour MP Alice Mahon demanded that Blair make “an emergency statement to the Commons to explain why this is happening. It begs the question: ‘Did we know about this hideous weapon’s use in Iraq?'”

No similar outrage in Congress. In fact, no comment at all. The U.S. mainstream media didn’t cover the “weird bomb” allegations.

But it doesn’t take a genius to put two-and-two together: if we permit our government to ignore international weapons-control conventions and then say nothing while fresh billions are invested in barbaric new weaponry, we lose the right to act surprised when our own military uses that weaponry on innocent civilians abroad.

Or even on us.

You may be surprised to learn that in 2003, the Pentagon quietly admitted to having used biological/chemical agents on 5,842 service members in secret tests conducted over a decade (1962-73).

In operations called Project 112 and Project SHAD, the Defense Department tested its own weapons on service members aboard Navy ships, and in all sorts of other nasty ways – such as spraying a Hawaiian rainforest and parts of Oahu. All in all, tests were conducted in six states (Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Utah) as well as in Canada and Britain.

Many military personnel were not informed when the toxic agents were being tested on them. Only decades later, as crucial documents slowly become declassified, have the veterans’ health complaints been acknowledged.

You might think such barbarism could never happen again: too many legal protections for citizens in place. Think again.

There’s a tricky clause in Chapter 32/Title 50 of the United States Code (the aggregation of U.S. general and permanent laws) that states that the Secretary of Defense can conduct a chemical or biological agent test or experiment on humans in certain cases “if informed consent has been obtained."

So far, so good. But check out a different part of Chapter 32, Section 1515, entitled “Suspension; Presidential authorization”:

“After November 19, 1969, the operation of this chapter, or any portion thereof, may be suspended by the President during the period of any war declared by Congress and during the period of any national emergency declared by Congress or by the President.”

You got it. If the president or Congress decides we’re at war, then the secretary of defense doesn’t need anybody’s consent to test chemical or biological agents on human beings. Gives one pause during these days of a perpetual “War on Terror.”

In January 2005, U.S. Senate majority leader Bill Frist called for a new Manhattan Project (referring to the WWII-era nuclear weapons bonanza) for biological weapons. Frist told an audience at the World Economic Forum, “The greatest existential threat we have in the world today is biological,” and he went on to predict a bio-warfare attack “at some time in the next 10 years.”

How ironic that while Frist cited the 2001 U.S. anthrax attacks as proof more biological weapons research was necessary, he failed to mention that those incidents involved anthrax produced right in the good ol’ USA – or that the primary suspect in the attacks was a U.S. Army scientist. Frist also didn’t clarify how developing even more biological warfare agents would make the world safer.

The original Manhattan Project ultimately led to U.S. forces dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the resulting slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s terrifying to consider the potential repercussions, both domestic and abroad, of the Bush administration’s coveted new biological-weapons Manhattan Project.

Read more by Heather Wokusch