Biological Weapons and Operation Iraqi Freedom

When totalitarian forces challenge democratic nations, it poses a grave threat, which is very difficult to confront. The danger increases when totalitarian forces, such as terror networks and supporting countries, get unconventional weapons that can cause massive death or destruction. First, there will be attempts to deny the very existence of the threat. When it becomes obvious that totalitarian forces seek to extend their power and influence by terror and subversion, democracies may try to appease them by various means. The resulting fear can be used to extort concessions from the democracies, which further increases the danger.

We have faced these dangers before and when people have a clear idea of the stakes involved they make the right choice. When President Ronald Reagan confronted the Soviet Union, he made it clear that the struggle was not about bombs and rockets but a test of wills, ideas and a struggle for freedom. Reagan punctured the myth of arms control agreements. He pointed out that Western democracies didn’t mistrust the Soviet Union simply because it was armed but that they fundamentally mistrusted the intentions of the Soviet Union. Therefore, it is essential to be prepared since aggression occurs when the costs to the aggressors are low. Trust only when you have adequate verification, Reagan would say.

We face a threat today that is more difficult to define and much harder to face. When faced with the insidious nature of Al Qaida, its allied groups and associated states, the same cycle of denial and appeasement occurs. When President Bush identified Iran, Iraq and North Korea as members of the ‘Axis of Evil’ and supporters of terrorism, many dismissed it. The reaction was similar to one that Ronald Reagan received when he described the Soviet Union as the ‘Evil Empire’. Many of the criticisms that were made against President Reagan when he dared tell the truth have been used against President Bush.

The President of France Jacques Chirac has declared that terror attacks on France or its allies could be met with an unconventional response (including nuclear) if those attacks were supported by a state.  He did not refer to specific states but clearly he believes in the possibility of state sponsorship of deadly unconventional terror attacks.

While much has been written about unconventional weapons and the invasion of Iraq, there are some very important points that have been neglected.  In order to understand this, we need to consider biological weapons separately from chemical and nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are the original weapons of massive destruction, but making them is a vast industrial undertaking as the case with Iran shows. The technologies needed to produce the key materials are very complex and rare.  On the other hand, while chemical weapons can be deadly, they are not true weapons of mass destruction. Biological weapons are considered easier to produce but to make them true WMD takes extensive research and development.

But there is one aspect that makes BW unique. Biological weapons can be considered to be covert or cryptic WMD both in how they are made and in how they can be used. The facilities needed to make the necessary biological agents are dual-use.  It is practically impossible to know whether a secure biological facility has been used to make the components for biological weapons. It is possible that even some people working in a facility may not know exactly what has been produced.

How do we know this to be true?  Before 1990, there was a long-standing controversy about whether the Soviet Union even had a biological weapons program.  After the Soviet Union fell, information from defectors and the participants made it clear that there were up to 60 different facilities and between 40 and 60 thousand people involved in their program to make biological weapons. People realized that the vast Soviet program called Biopreparat was hidden in plain sight and it was many times bigger than the most pessimistic estimates.

When an anthrax epidemic spread downwind from one of these facilities in the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979, the Soviets said it was due to bad black market meat. While it wasn't surprising that the Soviets lied, looking back it is amazing that so many in the West believed them and helped them spread the lies. It was stopped when President Boris Yeltsin told the truth in 1992.  We now know that the anthrax was caused by the release of weapons-grade anthrax spores from a military facility. After the Soviet Union fell, Western officials had a chance to walk in the cavernous chambers where smallpox virus was once sprayed for BW testing.  They inspected many but not all of the facilities in the former Soviet Union. Secrecy in the BW programs was greater than in their nuclear programs. Most people agree that the former Soviet Union had the world's biggest biological weapons program. However, it is important ask where did the actual weapons go?

The standard Russian response was that they destroyed the biological agents in secret and buried some of them on an isolated island in the Aral Sea where they had tested biological weapons.  While Western observers saw Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons, they have not seen any Soviet biological weapons.  We have taken the word of the officials from the former Soviet Union that in fact the weapons have been destroyed. Western attempts to fully resolve the Soviet Unions' BW programs such as the the Trilateral process and Cooperative Threat Reduction Program have  failed to reveal the true extent of the BW preparations.

What is the connection with Iraq?  First there is no doubt that Iraq had a biological weapons program in the early 1990s. After first denying it, Iraq admitted that they produced biological weapons including ones using anthrax spores.  What happened to biological agents and weapons from those programs?  Much like the former Soviet Union, Iraq maintained that it secretly destroyed its biological weapons.  This may be true but the important question is did they destroy their biological weapons capability? That is, did Iraq continue to have biological facilities and know-how that could be used for making biological weapons?

The UN inspection program after the first Gulf War destroyed some biological facilities in Iraq.  In its final report in 2004, the Iraq Survey Group stated biological facilities capable for biological weapons breakout existed at State Company for Drug Industries and Medical Appliances, at Samarra and possibly at other sites. The prime breakout agent was deemed to be anthrax spores.  Breakout can be likened to the ability to produce biological weapons from a standing start. That is, the requisite know-how and physical facilities may exist but are not used until the decision is made. It may take months for very large quantities or less for smaller but still significant quantities.

If Iraq did have a biological weapons capability, why were none used in the invasion against U.S. and coalition forces?  Any large-scale use of biological weapons in a situation like this could be easily identified and traced back to its origin. It would be like drawing a nuclear bull's-eye on Saddam Hussein and his forces.  This also supports the idea that the most likely use of biological weapons would be in situations where their use and origin would be difficult or impossible to determine and therefore be deniable. Or even the threat of BW use could be used for coercion.

It is clear that the United States suffered a covert biological attack shortly after 9/11. After four years of investigation the FBI has not identified publicly the source of the spores. While this was not a mass casualty, the resources required to deal with it were enormous. This type of attack shows the cryptic nature of biological weapons. The potency of BW was shown by the fact that these attacks were based on half a dozen envelopes and much less than an ounce of anthrax spores.

These attacks in the case of the material sent to the US Senate were the first intentional use of highly refined anthrax spores that were a dry powder and could easily become airborne. Because their surface properties where modified in several different ways, it gave the spores the ability to become easily airborne without traditional dissemination devices. It is highly likely that the spores were the products of a state-level BW program with a significant history of research and development.

It has been repeated widely that the attacks were a warning from within the U.S. about the potential dangers of bioterrorism. This is not plausible. The simplest and most likely explanation of the intentions of the attackers was both a warning and demonstration. The nature of the warning message in the anthrax envelopes is consistent with a direct link to the 9/11 attacks.  Al Qaida’s interpretation of the Salafist religious principles requires a warning with such an attack when it is not a ‘martyrdom operation’. Given the record of Al Qaida’s numerous declarations and public pronouncements, it is possible that this message was directed not only to the United States but to its followers in other countries as a show of strength.

If Al Qaida sent the anthrax then either they made the anthrax, bought it or obtained it from a state supporting their attacks on Western targets. Given the refined nature of the anthrax spore preparation, it is unlikely Al Qaida made it in Afghanistan unless they had expert help. While Iran is considered to be the world’s leading sponsor of anti-Western terrorism, Iraqi BW programs were more advanced.

In Bob Woodward’s book “Bush at War” George Tenet Director of Central Intelligence is quoted as saying during the anthrax attacks, “I think its AQ” meaning Al Qaida. “I think there’s a state sponsor involved. It’s too well thought out, the powder’s too well refined. It might be Iraq, it might be Russia, it might be a renegade scientist,” perhaps from Iraq or Russia. It was also considered prudent not level public charges at any of these suspects.

If history teaches us anything about the danger of secret programs to make biological weapons it should be that: if there is solid evidence that a totalitarian country has developed a biological weapons capability, no evidence they offer will undo that fact, short of regime change. The corollary is that on-site inspections against a determined adversary will not be able to reveal the true state of their biological weapon programs.