Trust me, George Bush says, perched on the remains of Geneva Conventions, the Constitution and habeas corpus.
From this moral high ground, the United States is assuring the world that a new facility for researching a horror shop of weaponized infectious diseases will be used purely for defensive purposes. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center’s (NBACC) $128 million, 160,000-square-foot facility is under construction at Fort Detrick, Md. There, the United States has already weaponized more than a dozen diseases – including anthrax, plague, botulism and ebola – and bioengineered war-friendly “improvements.” Scientists are also using DNA-synthesizing techniques to fabricate genetically altered or man-made viruses, and to study the feasibility of creating germ weapons targeting particular ethnicities.
“De facto, we are going to make biowarfare pathogens at NBACC in order to study them,” Penrose Albright, former assistant Homeland Security secretary for science and technology, told the Washington Post.
The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention made it illegal under international and U.S. law to make or stockpile bacteriological or viral organisms for use as weapons. The United States is exploiting a loophole: The treaty allows nations to develop small amounts of biological warfare agents for defensive research.
That, according to a NBACC Power Point presentation, briefly posted on the Internet and quickly removed, is what the Fort Detrick lab does – in secret and without meaningful monitoring. The profound secrecy that surrounds the project, as well as CIA and intelligence involvement, raises alarms; these are ratcheted up to red alert in light of the Bush administration’s track record of violating international treaties and lying to the public. And then there is Congress’ history of defining “oversight” as a failure to notice rather than a duty to oversee.
According to the Department of Defense, the secrecy surrounding the Fort Detrick expansion is necessary for national security. The interests of the public, administration officials argue (as they did to defend NSA spying), would be compromised by legislative and judicial meddling – a.k.a. the constitutionally mandated balance of powers.
Odds are the Fort Detrick research exceeds the purely defensive, rendering the CBW treaty as quaint as the Geneva Conventions barring torture. But even if the research conformed to law, what nation would believe that the United States abides by treaty obligations that limit its “war on terror”?
The possibilities for disaster are plentiful. By undermining the treaty, the United States greenlights other nations and groups to similarly “defend” themselves. And compared with making and delivering nukes, creating and distributing biowarfare agents is dead simple. A competent scientist with a good lab can cook up enough to sicken and kill thousands, perhaps millions.
Second, the lesson taught by recent dealings with Iran and North Korea is that possession of weapons of mass destruction tends to inoculate against U.S. attack. Secret expansion of U.S. bioterrorism research – without monitoring through the CBW treaty – could spark a bioarms race.
And then there is the risk of accident. On its Web site, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a lead government agency on bioterrorism, asks: “Has there ever been an accident at a BSL‑3 or BSL‑4 facility?” (Bio Safety Level‑4 labs hold the most dangerous infectious agents.)
NIAD cheerily answers: “No,” although “Rare accidents such as needlesticks may cause exposure of laboratory staff,” but not “to other workers or to the community.”
But according to the Council for Responsible Genetics, “mistakes happen.” Fort Detrick and other Level‑3 and ‑4 facilities have had a number of accidents, including the loss of ebola and anthrax samples; exposure of workers to anthrax; a three hour power failure that compromised containment and led workers (you’re going to love this) to seal the windows with duct tape; a leaking test chamber that infected workers with tuberculosis; a researcher who contracted the ebola-like sabia virus and exposed 75 other workers; and two researchers infected with HIV from defective gloves. And, last but not least, don’t forget that the anthrax spores used in the September 2001 mail attacks traced back to Fort Detrick.
NIAD is equally noncommittal about the safety of shipping bio agents to and from labs: “There are specific Government regulations for transportation of infectious materials. Infectious materials are safely transported worldwide on a daily basis under these regulations.” Feel better? Perhaps you didn’t hear that in 2003 a package containing West Nile virus samples exploded and exposed workers at the Columbus airport.
And then there is the insanity of trusting critical scientific decisions to an administration that gives equal weight to the theory of evolution and the fable of creationism, that undermines stem cell research by confusing a zygote with an infant, and that is waiting until it has to govern in scuba gear before acknowledging global warming.
Trust me, indeed.