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The U.S. and Russia have been
hypocritical about biological




Jonathan Power

January 24, 2003

LONDON - On November 25th 1969 in the midst of the war in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon, besieged by protests that he was a war monger, threw out a sop to public opinion. The U.S., he announced, had decided to renounce the possession and use of lethal and incapacitating biological weapons. He declared that the government would destroy its stockpile of biological weapons. "These important decisions", said Nixon, "have been taken as an initiative towards peace. Mankind already carries in its own hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction."

Privately Nixon was convinced that they had little military utility for the U.S. whilst at the same time he feared that, if the big powers continued to depend on biological weapons, one day a "rogue" state might one day get its hands on the knowledge of how to make them and use them against American cities. Sending the message that the U.S. military considered them an ineffective tool might discourage other nations from trying to develop them.

This was the first time a major power had unilaterally announced an entire category of weapons of mass destruction and it catalysed a quick response from the rest of the world. By 1972 the major powers had all signed up to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. It seemed that mankind, for once, had taken a big step forward. But the truth was different- both the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) cheated, violating the Convention in important ways.

The rot started on the American side because Nixon's original executive order delegated the follow up on his new policy to the Defence department, with no effective control or follow up by the White House's own National Security Council. Almost immediately the CIA violated the president's promise, deciding to retain a secret cache of biological and toxin agents, including 100 grams of dried anthrax spores, 5.2 grams of saxitoxin (paralytic shell fish poison) and seed cultures of the causative agents of smallpox, tularemia and brucellosis. Only in 1975 did this come to light during Senate hearings. The cache was then destroyed, three years after the Convention had come into effect.

Also during the 1970s U.S. military intelligence used the double agents, Sgt. Joseph Cassidy and Dmitry Polyakov, to feed false information to the Soviet Union saying that the U.S. was maintaining a secret program to develop new biological weapons. The apparent point of this extraordinarily perverse exercise was to push the Soviets to squander their scarce resources on emulating the Americans, especially in areas the U.S. had already decided were unpromising for battlefield use. Of course, Moscow then felt justified in breaking its own treaty commitment and in doing so achieved some remarkable breakthroughs in the use of anthrax and plague in wartime and also developed advanced delivery systems such as refrigerated warheads for intercontinental ballistic missiles- information that by now may have been passed on to "rogue" countries by unscrupulous or poverty stricken ex-Soviet scientists. Thus instead of "smothering the baby in the cradle", as the U.S. diplomat in charge of negotiating the Convention put it, the U.S. inadvertently paced the Soviet Union to make breakthroughs that then posed a major strategic threat to the U.S..

Although this was perhaps the worst of it, later the U.S. took advantages of ambiguity in the Convention's language that allowed signatories to purse research on biodefence. Until the late 1990s the U.S. was quite transparent about its programs, keeping all the reports unclassified. But then the Pentagon and the intelligence community, without informing Congress or the White House, started on some secret research including on a vaccine-resistant strain of anthrax. Only investigative reporting by the New York Times, published in September 2001, blew the whistle. Also later that year the Baltimore Sun unearthed a U.S. army program to manufacture anthrax spores that could readily become airborne. Much informed opinion within the U.S. considered these programs in violation of the Convention. But even if that was unclear the programs were large-scale and serious enough to convince many outsiders that the U.S. was pursuing offensive programs. Certainly if another country had carried out such research the U.S. would have been quick to condemn them.

Jonathan Tucker who runs the Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-proliferation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, whose work has done much to bring this troubled history to light, argues that if the U.S. is to regain credibility it has to rapidly change gears. It needs a "reasonable level of transparency" with the White House being regularly briefed. State Department lawyers need to be told to keep an eye on the research so that it complies with the strict terms of the Convention. "Suspicion that the U.S. is secretly engaged in offensively orientated R & D could have a corrosive political effect and even promote the proliferation of biological weapons programs," he observes.

If indeed Saddam Hussein has developed biological weapons and he is one day arrested and arraigned before an international criminal tribunal it would be sad day for everyone if he could use as an argument in his defence: the Americans and the Russians did it and so did we.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2003 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"






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