THE HOUSE Committee on Intelligence has now released its report on the outbreak of anthrax poisoning in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk. Based in part on secret hearings, it reveals nothing startlingly new about this possible major violation of an arms control treaty. But it does give much added weight and even a new dimension to what was already known.
The report concludes that Soviet Union's explanation of the anthrax outbreak -- that it resulted from eating tainted meat -- is flatly not "consistent with information available to the United States." This information indicates that approximately 1,000 people died within a matter of hours. Such rapid and widespread death could only have been due to "inhalation anthrax" caused by the release of a large cloud of anthrax spores. No natural cause could reasonably account for such a phenomenon. The report notes that the military facility where the outbreak is thought to have occurred has been "long suspected of housing biological warfare activities."
Nothing more has apparently been heard since the Soviet Union's first prompt reply to the U.S. request for an explanation of the incident. No reply has been forthcoming to the U.S. response that it found the tainted meat story inadequate. Under the Biological Warfare Convention -- which bans the development and use of biological weapons -- all parties have an obligation to "consult one another and to cooperate in solving any problems which may arise." A good case can be made that the Soviet Union is in violation of at least this provision of the agreement.
As Rep. Aspin, principal author of the report, points out, the importance of finding out whether or not the Soviet Union is systematically violating the convention goes way beyond the importance of biological warfare itself -- although, if the U.S.S.R. is cheating, the United States and the other hundred-odd parties to the treaty should certainly know about it.
The larger issue is how the Soviet government views its arms control commitments, and how it weighs the risks and benefits of cheating. If the Kremlin is prepared to run the political risk of being caught violating a fundamental arms control agreement, and if it is willing to accept substantial dangers to its own citizens -- perfectly illustrated by the accident at Sverdlovsk -- all for the sake of a weapon of minimal military utility, then the domestic debate over how much confidence the United States must have in its ability to verify arms control agreements could be fundamentally altered.
At this point, the State Department will say only that it is pursuing the Sverdlovsk matter through diplomatic channels. These channels have apparently been quiet for three months, and there is no expectation that answers to the U.S. questions will soon be forthcoming. But the government does have another course of action available to it. The Biological Warfare Convention provides that any nation that finds that another is violating its obligations under the agreement may bring a complaint before the U.N. Security Council. Hasn't the United States been patient enough on this? Do we really want -- via our "quiet diplomacy" -- to strengthen the argument of those in the Kremlin who say there are only small political risks in violating arms control agreements?