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Administration affirms Bush stance on biological threats

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By Mary Beth Sheridan and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009; 11:26 AM

The Obama administration has decided not to support a global monitoring system for biological weapons, a move that affirms an earlier determination by the Bush administration but that will disappoint some nonproliferation experts.

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The decision is reflected in the administration's new strategy for countering biological threats, which is due out Wednesday, officials said. Its release comes amid growing concern about the number of nations -- and potentially terrorists -- developing the scientific expertise to create biological weapons.

White House officials said the strategy includes an increased focus on international collaboration and on the prevention of biological attacks, as well as on the response to them. It is scheduled to be presented in Geneva by Undersecretary of State Ellen O. Tauscher at the annual meeting of countries that have forsworn germ-warfare agents under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

"We've got an approach that is looking at affirmative ways of engaging, trying to increase international collaboration and cooperation, and increasing resources to do that type of work," said a senior White House official made available to speak on the condition of anonymity before the unveiling of the initiative.

Still, the strategy is notable for what it doesn't include: a way to enforce the Biological Weapons Convention. Although the treaty has been ratified by 163 countries, it has no verification mechanism; experts speculate that countries such as North Korea could be cheating. A seven-year negotiating effort to create a compliance system collapsed in 2001 when the Bush administration abruptly rejected the draft protocol, saying it could lead to harassment of U.S. government laboratories and undermine U.S. regulations against exporting technology used in bioweapons.

The White House official said it makes no sense to spend years negotiating another enforcement mechanism that might not catch offenders taking advantage of the latest scientific techniques.

"Things that were breakthroughs 10 years ago are now something you can do in your garage. That's not a context in which verification is going to be very realistic or very effective," the official said.

Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, said he was disappointed that the administration didn't come up with a creative way to "put some teeth into" the convention. But many analysts were unsurprised.

Randall J. Larsen, executive director of the congressionally chartered Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, praised the strategy's emphasis on preventing biological attacks. He said the bipartisan commission, headed by former senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and James M. Talent (R-Mo.), determined that a verification regime could be achieved only at an unacceptable cost and unanimously supported the Bush position.

The commission issued a report last December warning that an attack involving weapons of mass destruction, probably biological weapons, was more likely than not to occur somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.

The new strategy, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post, envisions increased U.S. assistance to countries to develop systems to detect and respond to outbreaks of infectious disease, whether from natural causes, like the H1N1 flu, or from the release of a germ agent. The plan calls for promoting international guidelines for the handling of high-risk pathogens and supporting countries' efforts to criminalize the development of biological weapons.

It also says the U.S. government will promote universal membership in the Biological Weapons Convention.

On the domestic front, the strategy emphasizes improving intelligence on biological threats, enhancing policies to secure high-risk toxins and establishing better data-sharing among law enforcement and health professionals.

"It is still important the United States has the policy and leads the international community in taking whatever actions can be done to prevent an attack," despite the slim chances of success, Larsen said. "Understanding that it's extremely improbable and difficult to do doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do it."


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