The Secretive Fight Against Bioterror
Sunday, July 30, 2006
The government is building a highly classified facility
to research biological weapons, but its closed-door
approach has raised concerns.
the grounds of a military base an hour's drive from
the capital, the Bush administration is building a
massive biodefense laboratory unlike any seen since
biological weapons were banned 34 years ago.
heart of the lab is a cluster of sealed chambers built
to contain the world's deadliest bacteria and viruses.
There, scientists will spend their days simulating
the unthinkable: bioterrorism attacks in the form
of lethal anthrax spores rendered as wispy powders
that can drift for miles on a summer breeze, or common
viruses turned into deadly superbugs that ordinary
drugs and vaccines cannot stop.
work at this new lab, at Fort Detrick, Md., could
someday save thousands of lives -- or, some fear,
create new risks and place the United States in violation
of international treaties. In either case, much of
what transpires at the National Biodefense Analysis
and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) may never be publicly
known, because the Bush administration intends to
operate the facility largely in secret.
an unusual arrangement, the building itself will be
classified as highly restricted space, from the reception
desk to the lab benches to the cages where animals
are kept. Few federal facilities, including nuclear
labs, operate with such stealth. It is this opacity
that some arms-control experts say has become a defining
characteristic of U.S. biodefense policy as carried
out by the Department of Homeland Security, NBACC's
the department's founding in the aftermath of the
Sept. 11 attacks, its officials have dramatically
expanded the government's ability to conduct realistic
tests of the pathogens and tactics that might be used
in a bioterrorism attack. Some of the research falls
within what many arms-control experts say is a legal
gray zone, skirting the edges of an international
treaty outlawing the production of even small amounts
of biological weapons.
administration dismisses these concerns, however,
insisting that the work of NBACC is purely defensive
and thus fully legal. It has rejected calls for oversight
by independent observers outside the department's
network of government scientists and contractors.
And it defends the secrecy as necessary to protect
the research exposes vulnerability, I've got to protect
that, for the public's interest," said Bernard
Courtney, NBACC's scientific director. "We don't
need to be showing perpetrators the holes in our defense."
O'Toole, founder of the Center for Biosecurity at
the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and an
adviser to the Defense Department on bioterrorism,
said the secrecy fits a larger pattern and could have
consequences. "The philosophy and practice behind
NBACC looks like much of the rest of the administration's
philosophy and practice: 'Our intent is good, so we
can do whatever we want,' " O'Toole said. "This
approach will only lead to trouble."
they acknowledge the need to shield the results of
some sensitive projects from public view, critics
of NBACC fear that excessive secrecy could actually
increase the risk of bioterrorism. That would happen,
they say, if the lab fosters ill-designed experiments
conducted without proper scrutiny or if its work fuels
suspicions that could lead other countries to pursue
secret biological research.
few public documents that describe NBACC's research
mission have done little to quiet those fears. A computer
slide show prepared by the center's directors in 2004
offers a to-do list that suggests the lab will be
making and testing small amounts of weaponized microbes
and, perhaps, genetically engineered viruses and bacteria.
It also calls for "red team" exercises that
simulate attacks by hostile groups.
close ties to the U.S. intelligence community have
also caused concern among the agency's critics. The
CIA has assigned advisers to the lab, including at
least one member of the "Z-Division," an
elite group jointly operated with Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory that specializes in analyzing
and duplicating weapons systems of potential adversaries,
officials familiar with the program confirm.
experts say the nature of the research envisioned
for NBACC demands an unusually high degree of transparency
to reassure Americans and the rest of the world of
the U.S. government's intentions.
we saw others doing this kind of research, we would
view it as an infringement of the bioweapons treaty,"
said Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar
and weapons expert at the University of Maryland's
School of Public Policy. "You can't go around
the world yelling about Iranian and North Korean programs
-- about which we know very little -- when we've got
all this going on."
the Weapons of Terrorism
without public fanfare a few months after the 2001
anthrax attacks, NBACC is intended to be the chief
U.S. biological research institution engaged in something
called "science-based threat assessment."
It seeks to quantitatively answer one of the most
difficult questions in biodefense: What's the worst
that can happen?
truly answer that question, there is little choice,
current and former NBACC officials say: Researchers
have to make real biological weapons.
facto, we are going to make biowarfare pathogens at
NBACC in order to study them," said Penrose "Parney"
Albright, former Homeland Security assistant secretary
for science and technology.
government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, study disease threats such
as smallpox to discover cures. By contrast, NBACC
(pronounced EN-back) attempts to get inside the head
of a bioterrorist. It considers the wide array of
potential weapons available. It looks for the holes
in society's defenses where an attacker might achieve
the maximum harm. It explores the risks posed by emerging
technologies, such as new DNA synthesizing techniques
that allow the creation of genetically altered or
man-made viruses. And it tries in some cases to test
the weapon or delivery device that terrorists might
at NBACC is already underway, in lab space that has
been outsourced or borrowed from the Army's sprawling
biodefense campus at Fort Detrick in Frederick. It
was at this compound that the U.S. government researched
and produced offensive biological weapons from the
1940s until President Richard M. Nixon halted research
in 1969. The Army continues to conduct research on
June, construction began on a $128 million, 160,000-square-foot
facility inside the same heavily guarded compound.
Space inside the eight-story, glass-and-brick structure
will be divided between NBACC's two major divisions:
a forensic testing center tasked with using modern
sleuthing techniques to identify the possible culprits
in future biological attacks; and the Biothreat Characterization
Center, or BTCC, which seeks to predict what such
attacks will look like.
is the BTCC's wing that will host the airtight, ultra-secure
containment labs where the most controversial research
will be done. Homeland Security officials won't talk
about specific projects planned or underway. But the
2004 computer slide show -- posted briefly on a Homeland
Security Web site before its discovery by agency critics
prompted an abrupt removal -- offers insight into
presentation by NBACC's then-deputy director, Lt.
Col. George Korch, listed 16 research priorities for
the new lab. Among them:
classical, emerging and genetically engineered pathogens
for their BTA [biological threat agent] potential.
the nature of nontraditional, novel and nonendemic
induction of disease from potential BTA.
aerosol-challenge testing capacity for non-human primates.
Red Team operational scenarios and capabilities."
the NBACC science director, acknowledged that his
work would include simulating real biological threats
-- but not just any threats.
I hear a noise on the back porch, will I turn on the
light to decide whether there's something there, or
go on my merry way?" Courtney asked. "But
I'm only going to do [research] if I have credible
information that shows it truly is a threat. It's
not going to be dreamed up out of the mind of a novelist."
officials note that there is a tradition for this
kind of biological risk assessment, one that extends
at least to the Clinton administration. In the late
1990s, for example, a clandestine project run by the
Defense Department re-created a genetically modified,
drug-resistant strain of the anthrax bacteria believed
to have been made by Soviet bioweaponeers. Such research
helped the government anticipate and prepare for emerging
threats, according to officials familiar with the
arms-control experts see the comparison as troubling.
They argued, then and now, that the work was a possible
breach of a U.S.-negotiated international law.
and Other Pitfalls
Bush administration argues that its biodefense research
complies with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention,
the 1972 treaty outlawing the manufacture of biological
weapons, because U.S. motives are pure.
the programs we do are defensive in nature,"
said Maureen McCarthy, Homeland Security's director
of research and development, who oversees NBACC. "Our
job is to ensure that the civilian population of the
country is protected, and that we know what the threats
and former administration officials say that compliance
with the treaty hinges on intent, and that making
small amounts of biowarfare pathogens for study is
permitted under a broad interpretation of the treaty.
Some also argue that the need for a strong biodefense
in an age of genetic engineering trumps concerns over
what they see as legal hair-splitting.
can I go to the people of this country and say, 'I
can't do this important research because some arms-control
advocate told me I can't'?" asked Albright, the
former Homeland Security assistant secretary.
some experts in international law believe that certain
experiments envisioned for the lab could violate the
treaty's ban on developing, stockpiling, acquiring
or retaining microbes "of types and in quantities
that have no justification" for peaceful purposes.
main problem with the 'defensive intent' test is that
it does not reflect what the treaty actually says,"
said David Fidler, an Indiana University School of
Law professor and expert on the bioweapons convention.
The treaty, largely a U.S. creation, does not make
a distinction between defensive and offensive activities,
practically, arms experts say, future U.S. governments
may find it harder to object if other countries test
genetically engineered pathogens and novel delivery
systems, invoking the same need for biodefense.
they say, there is evidence abroad of what some are
calling a "global biodefense boom." In the
past five years, numerous governments, including some
in the developing world -- India, China and Cuba among
them -- have begun building high-security labs for
studying the most lethal bacteria and viruses.
labs have become a status symbol, a prestige item,"
said Alan Pearson, a biologist at the Center for Arms
Control and Non-Proliferation. "A big question
is: Will these labs have transparency?"
May Have a Price
it opens in two years, the NBACC lab will house an
impressive collection of deadly germs and teams of
scientists in full-body "spacesuits" to
work with them. It will also have large aerosol-test
chambers where animals will be exposed to deadly microbes.
But the lab's most controversial feature may be its
Security officials disclosed plans to contractors
and other government agencies to classify the entire
lab as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility,
common practice, a SCIF (pronounced "skiff")
is a secure room where highly sensitive information
is stored and discussed. Access to SCIFs is severely
limited, and all of the activity and conversation
inside is presumed to be restricted from public disclosure.
There are SCIFs in the U.S. Capitol, where members
of Congress are briefed on military secrets. In U.S.
nuclear labs, computers that store weapons data are
housed inside SCIFs.
Security officials plan to operate all 160,000 square
feet of NBACC as a SCIF. Because of the building's
physical security features -- intended to prevent
the accidental release of dangerous pathogens -- it
was logical to operate it as a SCIF, McCarthy said.
need to protect information at a level that is appropriate,"
McCarthy added, saying she expects much of the lab's
less-sensitive work to be made public eventually.
some biodefense experts, including some from past
administrations, viewed the decision as a mistake.
overlay NBACC with a default level of high secrecy
seems like overkill," said Gerald L. Epstein,
a former science adviser to the White House's National
Security Council and now a senior fellow with the
Center for Strategic and International Studies. While
accepting that some secrecy is needed, he said the
NBACC plan "sends a message that is not at all
officials also have resisted calls for the kind of
broad, independent oversight that many experts say
is necessary to assure other countries and the American
public about their research.
Security spokesmen insist that NBACC's work will be
carefully monitored, but on the department's terms.
have our own processes to scrutinize our research,
and it includes compliance to the bioweapons convention
guidelines as well as scientific oversight,"
said Courtney, the NBACC scientific director.
addition to the department's internal review boards,
the agency will bring in small groups of "three
or four scientists" on an ad-hoc basis to review
certain kinds of potentially controversial experiments,
Courtney said. The review panels will be "independent,"
Courtney said, but he noted that only scientists with
government security clearances will be allowed to
experts have called for unusual forms of oversight,
including panels of well-respected, internationally
known scientists and observers from overseas. While
allowing that the results of some experiments should
be kept confidential, O'Toole, of the Center for Biosecurity,
argues that virtually everything else at NBACC should
be publicly accountable if the United States is to
be a credible leader in preventing the proliferation
going to have to lean over backward," O'Toole
said. "We have no leverage among other nation-states
if we say, 'We can do whatever we want, but you can't.
We want to see your biodefense program, but you can't
see ours.' "
recent weeks, NBACC's first officially completed project
has drawn criticism, not because of its methods or
procedures, but because heavy classification has limited
project was an ambitious attempt to assess and rank
the threats posed by dozens of different pathogens
and delivery systems, drawing on hundreds of studies
and extensive computer modeling. When delivered to
the White House in January, it was the most extensive
survey of its kind, and one that could guide the federal
government in making decisions about biodefense spending.
months later, no one outside a small group of officials
and advisers with top security clearances has seen
this important shouldn't be secret," said Thomas
V. Inglesby, an expert at the Center for Biosecurity
who serves on a government advisory board that was
briefed on the results. "How can we make policy
decisions about matters of this scale if we're operating
in the dark?"
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