billpatrickDoesn’t it seem strange to you that we’re seeing all this gnashing of teeth over whether Iran — an oil-rich state — is or is not developing, or hiding, nuclear weapons capability, while at the same time:

  • Osama bin Laden is still making sophisticated videotapes, now with fancy subtitles;
  • There have been no announcements from anyone about progress or even sightings of bin Laden or Mullah Omar (remember him? He was the head of the Taliban, the guy who most of us thought was worse than Saddam);
  • No credible suspect has been caught, or even investigated, for the anthrax mailings of 2001 to prominent political liberals Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy;
  • Plans to create millions of doses of smallpox and anthrax vaccine appear to have been back-burnered (the courts have blocked the military from giving existing anthrax vaccine to the military, ruling it unsafe, and a contract for a new vaccine has been given to a bankrupt California company, but the FDA won’t even review its safety before 2007).

I’m no conspiracy theorist, and I don’t believe the US government was behind, or knew in advance about, 9/11, but it is becoming clear to me that the US government only really cares about ‘terrorism’ when the possible perpetrator is an oil-rich state. They are not interested in investing time or taxpayers’ money to address terrorist threats from poor states (like North Korea), or from stateless groups (like the myriad Arab fundamentalist sects that the government likes to lump together under the name Al Qaeda is if it were one global coordinated group), or from individuals, nor is it interested in addressing bioterror threats at all. When it comes to non-oil-state players or bioweaponry, it’s all talk and no action.

If I’m wrong about this, please point out the evidence to the contrary. If I’m right, what does this mean? Here’s some more information to digest, some of which I reported earlier in my discussion of Richard Preston’s investigative book The Demon in the Freezer:

  • There have been frequent incidents of contamination of anthrax and other bioweapons at several of the fifty government research labs in major US cities (forty more such labs are planned in cities like Atlanta and Boston — coming soon to a community near you!) that are, for unspecified purposes, developing weaponized anthrax and other bioweapons and testing them on animals. Their entire operations are now cloaked in a veil of total Patriot Act secrecy, though the name on the buildings says ‘defensive’.
  • When the anthrax scare occurred in 2001, top scientists, epidemiologists and security forces immediately wanted to know one thing above all else: was the weaponized (separated into extremely fine, airborne particles, a highly sophisticated process) anthrax used as a carrier for smallpox ? Whereas as we now know weaponized anthrax spreads very rapidly, it can be a very effective carrier for smallpox, which is much, much more contagious and lethal than anthrax. The two in combination would, according to Preston, be almost impossible to stop.
  • The U.S. destroyed almost all its smallpox vaccine in the 1970s after the disease was officially eradicated worldwide, and after the USSR (which was largely responsible for eradication of the disease in the third world) and U.S. jointly agreed to minimize and contain all remaining samples in a few locations, subject to mutual inspection and verification. They then discovered that after the collapse of the USSR large amounts of weaponized smallpox, anthrax, plague and Marburg virus went, and remain, missing. Reliable intelligence suggests many countries remain in possession of smallpox, much of it collected before the 1970s by local medical authorities for research into its eradication. Smallpox is easy to amplify (replicate), so not much is needed to create a lot. Anthrax is endemic in nature, so easy to obtain but requires industrial equipment to weaponize. One leading scientist says of Marburg virus: “Marburg virus is lethal. It only takes one to two virus particles to cause an infection of the respiratory tract. There is no vaccine. And once you contract the disease, there is only one way to go, and that’s death. So it is very scary.”
  • Immunization for smallpox is a dangerous process, since a significant proportion of the population cannot take the vaccine (e.g. those with immune deficiency or some common skin ailments), and some people immunized actually get the disease anyway.
  • Smallpox is just one of thousands of related pox diseases that affect almost every form of life on Earth. Were it not for the existence of insect poxes, for example, some insects would multiply so quickly that they would extinguish many other forms of life and unbalance the web of life in a matter of weeks before starvation could bring their numbers under control. Many forms of life on Earth are affected by more than one kind of pox, but each pox efficiently and effectively targets only one species. Since they only spread rapidly in large, homogeneous populations in close proximity, poxes are, in a real sense, the ecosystem’s natural ‘population control’ mechanism.
  • With the mapping of human DNA, it is now possible to devise poxes and other bioweapons that target only certain ethnic groups. South Africa’s apartheid regime did research to develop bioweapons that would affect only blacks, and the London Times reported in 1998 that Israel was researching a bomb that would affect only Arabs, to defend against Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD.
  • There is a raging debate in the scientific community on whether poxes from one species can evolve over time, or be ‘repurposed’, to target another species. So even if all the smallpox remaining in the world (all of it, except the U.S. and Russian supplies, officially illegal) were somehow tracked down and eradicated, the risk could well remain. Why the U.S. and Russia have insisted on keeping samples of the disease when it is not needed to create the vaccine (the vaccine actually comes from cowpox, which is harmless, at least for now in its current state, to humans) has not been satisfactorily answered.
  • Bioweapons can be easily modified to render vaccines useless. A small group of Australian scientists introduced interleukin-3 into a poxvirus and the result was a much more virulent virus immune to all known anti-virals.
  • Dr William Patrick (pictured above, simulating the spraying of 7.5 grams (7.5 trillion spores) of anthrax, enough to quickly kill everyone in a 14-story building and travel more than a mile downwind), a retired 30-year veteran of USAMRIID, which runs bacteriological and bioweapons research in the US, appeared on PBS’s NOVA program to say that assurances from government that bioweapons would be hard for non-state-supported groups to develop were dangerous, and “to demonstrate, without a shadow of a doubt, the feasibility of biological warfare”. He’s taken the fully-functional, demonstration equipment pictured above through over 50 airports worldwide without ever being challenged. He still believes Nixon was wrong in 1969 to cease offensive bioweaponry research aimed at incapacitating an enemy and to refocus USAMRIID on defensive research. He makes this argument on humanitarian grounds — that a controlled release of bioweapons on a battlefield, with friendly troops immunized, would cause less civilian death and less property damage than any other type of warfare (makes you wonder what they’re doing in those secret labs now).
  • Bioweapons aren’t limited to toxins that kill people. At least 30 nations are currently able to produce bioweapons that could selectively kill an enemy’s livestock, poultry, other farmed animals, grains or other staple crops like potatoes. These could easily be designed, according to a Swedish study, to appear to be ‘acts of god’ — so there’d be no threat of retaliation. Knowledge of animal and plant genetics is well advanced and in the public domain. And because of genetic engineering, global biodiversity of these essential food sources has been drastically reduced over the last century, rendering them much more vulnerable to biological attack. A microbiologist at UC Davis says that agricultural biowarfare would be an extremely effective and simple way to destabilize an enemy nation, or, if covertly launched by a corporation (we all know which one he’s talking about) to destroy competing biological products, increase demand for the corporation’s product, and increase profits. And since the people of most countries view animals as mere property incapable of emotion or feeling, their slaughter is a much lower ‘moral barrier’ to cross than bioterrorist actions aimed directly at humans.

Back to what all this means. I think the consequences are staggering, and have been played down by politicians, governments, the media, the biotech and genetic manufacturing industries because it is not in their interests to raise the level of public fear when there is no simple answer, no ready attackable scapegoat, and when the actions of many of these players contribute enormously to increasing the risk of bioterrorism (or of an horrendous bioweapons accident). What goes on at USAMRIID is not a top-level state secret for nothing. And while I don’t believe the US government and its researchers are preparing anything Machiavellian, I do believe they are doing most of the work that potential bioterrorists need done, and are certainly ready to respond in kind when other bioweapons-researching states attack. Problem is, just like the Daschle antrax and the 9/11 attacks, they won’t really know who launched the attack, it probably wouldn’t be an attackable state anyway, and, if the victims are food animals or plants, they won’t even know for sure if it was an attack.

This is a genie-out-of-the-bottle problem with no easy answer. Bioweapons research, like any other military research, is as leaky as a sieve, and if you’ve studied history you’d have to be delusional to believe that anything discovered by USAMRIID will stay a secret for more than a few weeks. So a complete cessation of all bioweapons research, as well as a cessation of the HGDP (the human genome diversity project out of California, which is attempting to genetically map cultural and ethnic diversity, ostensibly to help rid the world of diseases to which certain ethnic groups seem genetically predisposed), would certainly slow down the risk of bioterrorism. But ultimately the knowledge needed to create devastating human and agricultural bioweapons with global reach, for a small amount of money with a small amount of work by a small number of people with relatively modest education and resources, will be upon us. It’s inevitable. So the answer to the implied question in the title of this article is simple: Just stick around and pay attention. If you’re so inclined, you’ll soon be able to make a name for yourself for sheer devastation that will push Osama bin Ladin, Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, and the Daschle anthrax mailer, into the footnotes of history. Or, if you prefer, stay incognito. All due to the double-edged swords of technology, human ingenuity and the impossibility of keeping knowledge bottled up.

You probably know I usually conclude my articles with some personal thoughts on ‘what we should do about it’. This time around I don’t know what to say. It would certainly help if only a few lunatics, rather than billions of oppressed people (and rising by leaps and bounds every day), were motivated to want to kill billions of others, even at the risk of ending the world. It would help, as well, if the most popular religions all over the planet didn’t promise an eternal afterlife, forgiveness for everything, divine intervention to save us from all calamities, and rewards for defending the faith against all others. But I might as well wish for the moon and the stars — we’re too far gone and going too fast to fix those things now. So, as unsatisfactory as it may be, I can only conclude by saying there’s really nothing that can be done. Unless something worse comes along first, it’s going to happen.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. David Jones says:

    We need an update on that appaling “deck of cards.” Don’t ask me why I don’t like it – I don’t know.

  2. sue says:

    Perhaps bio-terrorism is Nature’s way of countering humanity’s lack of regard for the environment?

  3. marty says:

    I suspect something is fishy about not being able to find OBL. Heck, all we have to do is turn his name over to Sallie Mae and tell them he didn’t pay back his school loan.

  4. I find the Iran situation very interesting for two reasons.1. Colon Powell came out saying that despite Iran’s agreement to stop developing nukes that Iran is still in fact developing nukes. I wonder if he is using the same intelligence that told him that Saddam was developing nukes. Does this guy, or anyone in the American administration, have any credibility left?2. Let’s assume that Iran is developing nukes. Has anyone bothered to ask why? The typical explaination of why Iran wants nukes is to use them against Israel or the United States. But is this really a reason? Wouldn’t using nukes against anyone be paramount to a suicide mission? If there is anything that would unite the world, it is the use of nukes. Iran would immediately be obliterated off the map. Doesn’t seem like a smart move to me. If the doctrine of mutually assured destruction can work against the Soviets, I am sure it would work against the Iranians. So why the interest in developing nukes? The answer is a defensive one. Having nukes and the ability to use them is the best defense against an overly aggressive United States. If Iran could threaten to drop a nuke on Israel, does anything really think that the United States would consider invading? Not likely. Not only has the Iraq war been a boon to al Qaeda recruitment, it has probably initiated Iran and North Korea to increase its nuclear program efforts.As for bioterror and other terrorist attacks. You can’t do anything about that. You can defend the airports, they’ll attack the train stations. Defend the train stations, they’ll attack the malls. Defend big cities, they’ll attack rural America. The best way to secure yourself is to make friends, not enemies.

  5. Heather says:

    Have you heard of the new book by Rees called Our Final Century?

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Sue: heh, I was going to say that, but I’m already accused of being too strident ;-)David: right on, but the conservative mind could never countenance such an idea (maybe we could reframe it)Heather: thanks, added to my reading list

Comments are closed.