The Growing Threat of Biological Weapons
The terrorist threat is very real, and it's about to get worse. Scientists should concern themselves before it's too late
A Meaningful Bioweapons Treaty
All told, it's suspected that more than a dozen sovereign nations
possess some form of offensive bioweapons program, assuming one
includes some republics of the former Soviet Union. How can this
proliferation be controlled? One approach is to muster international
resources to enhance and strengthen the provisions of the
BWC??giving it some "teeth." This would include
verification measures that monitor treaty compliance, including
reciprocal inspection visits to suspected bioweapons facilities.
This is an essential component of modern arms-control regimes,
similar to those implemented for nuclear weapons treaties.
An international group of BWC participants has been convened since
January 1995 to accomplish just that, under the chairmanship of
Ambassador Tibor T??th of Hungary. It carries the ponderous name of
"The Ad Hoc Group of the States Parties to the Convention on
the Prohibition of the Development, Prohibition, and Stockpiling of
Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their
Destruction"??or simply the "Ad Hoc Group." By now
the Ad Hoc Group has met for more than 50 weeks in Geneva. The draft
treaty they have prepared is as ponderous as the group's name: It
currently weighs in at several hundred pages, including an
astonishing 1,500 "bracketed" paragraphs??which denote
passages where there continues to be disagreement.
For the moment, progress of the Ad Hoc Group seems depressingly
stalled. Embarrassingly, the United States itself bears a direct
responsibility for many brackets, as it has steadfastly resisted
certain attempts to establish provisions for inspections. The U.S.
position is motivated by a desire to protect the interests of the
powerful American biotechnology sector, which fears that inspection
visits may be intrusive, or used as a pretext for industrial
espionage. There has been limited progress on this front with the
release last May of a joint statement by the Pharmaceutical Research
and Manufacturers of America and the Federation of American
Scientists who agreed on "managed-access" measures in
support of verification.
Another sticking point rests on a constitutional issue: It is one
thing for the U.S. government to authorize visits to its own labs
and bases, but can it mandate visits to privately held facilities?
Some have argued that such inspections may require warrants.
However, under the Fourth Amendment, warrants are necessary only if
actions rise to the level of a "search." Federal courts
have generally held that the subject of a search must enjoy an
expectation of privacy??but this standard is stricter for
individuals than it is for corporate entities, particularly for
industries that are highly regulated. Moreover, the Supreme Court
has already recognized that valid exceptions exist to the warrant
requirement??for example, for drunk driving, contraband and
immigration documentation??and compliance with a vital international
treaty certainly should qualify as a valid exception.
As the world's remaining superpower, the United States bears a
unique responsibility to take the moral high ground in this process,
assuming a leadership role in support of meaningful weapons treaties
that establish international norms. A way must be found before a
singular opportunity is lost.