One-Alarm Fire

U.S. counterterrorism may be overly preoccupied with biological weapons—which have a rather poor track record

By Bruce Hoffman

At a time when Americans are scrambling to buy gas masks and fill prescriptions for antibiotics, it is no wonder that Germs, a book about bio-terrorism, has become a best seller. Its three authors, all veteran New York Times reporters, have unquestionable pedigrees, given their expertise in the Middle East, U.S. national security, and science, respectively. Their book suggests that this country's alarm is well founded. The authors write,

The emergence of the United States as the world's most powerful nation has made biological attack more likely. Adversaries that resent America's global dominance, envy its wealth, or fear its overwhelming military power can fight back most effectively with unconventional weapons. The attack on the U.S.S. Cole, in which a modern warship was crippled and nearly sunk in October 2000 by a dinghy packed with explosives and detonated by suicide bombers, showed how the seemingly powerless can strike a devastating military blow. In the coming years, those willing to die for their cause may well choose instead to become smallpox carriers or Marburg [a deadly hemorrhagic virus] martyrs.

If the bombing of the Cole, in which a total of seventeen sailors died, can launch a logical leap to the mass use of indiscriminate killer viruses, one shudders to think what conclusions the authors might have reached had their book been written after September 11.

The excerpt above encapsulates the main shortcoming of Germs—its lack of context and perspective. This derives largely from the authors' initial goal, which was, as they candidly explain, an attempt to "explore for the New York Times" the reasons behind the Pentagon's decision in 1997 to vaccinate some 2.4 million soldiers and reservists against anthrax. But their inquiry expanded to include an examination of the Clinton Administration's effort to elevate bio-terrorism to the status of a major national-security priority. In what is meant to be a dramatic account of the efforts of a handful of leading scientists, policymakers, and senior officials to focus national attention on this menace, the authors' failure to place this particular threat within the context of other risks, perhaps equally pressing or even more likely, becomes at once conspicuous and lamentable. It also renders Germs more descriptive than analytical, and thus ensures that when, in a concluding chapter, the authors belatedly offer some real analysis, it comes across as too little too late.

"Is the threat of germ weapons real or exaggerated?" they ask in the first sentence of the conclusion. The answer is an unsatisfying "both." In fact, the succeeding five and a half pages raise precisely the questions that should have been asked throughout the preceding text. For example, the book begins with a portentous recounting of a 1984 episode in the small Oregon town of The Dalles. Followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian mystic, tried to poison the local reservoir and contaminated the salad bars of area restaurants with salmonella bacteria, in hopes of debilitating the populace and thereby rigging a municipal election in the cult's favor. But this example is irrelevant to discussion of the frightful potential of biological weapons and the wanton homicidal intention of those who would likely wield them, because the Oregon attack was deliberately conceived to be nonlethal. And after 314 pages warning of the lethal potential of such weapons and the growing likelihood that they will be used, the authors conclude, simply, "Only a handful of groups have attempted biological attacks and fewer still have succeeded. Thus far, the Rajneeshees' germ assault ... has proven to be an anomaly."

Had the authors asked their concluding questions earlier, they might have been able to explore in more depth this paradox: as mesmerizingly attractive as these weapons have been to an assortment of contemporary terrorists, megalomaniacal dictators, and other miscreants, they have historically proved frustratingly ineffective. In a seminal 1999 article on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction for National Security Studies Quarterly, David Rapoport argued, "The limited value or effectiveness of chemical or biological weapons in wars of the past seems the most compelling reason they were not used much." In support of this argument Rapoport cited evidence that despite its extensive use during World War I, poison gas accounted for only five percent of the casualties. Even in more recent times, such as when Iraq used chemical weapons in its war against Iran, fewer than one percent (5,000) of the 600,000 Iranians who perished were killed by gas. The wartime use of biological weapons has a similar record. On at least eleven occasions before and during World War II the Imperial Japanese Army employed germ agents as diverse as cholera, dysentery, bubonic plague, anthrax, and paratyphoid, disseminated in both water and air. Not only did these fail to kill as many Chinese soldiers as the Japanese had hoped, but on at least one occasion—the 1942 assault on Chekiang—10,000 Japanese soldiers were affected, of whom some 1,700 died. "The Japanese program's principal defect, a problem common to all efforts so far," Rapoport concluded, was "an ineffective delivery system."

Indeed, as the experience of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese religious cult responsible for a nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, demonstrated, delivery was still a significant technological hurdle more than fifty years later. Moreover, Aum's frustrations with developing biological weapons were what had driven it to concentrate instead on producing chemical weapons such as nerve gas. On at least nine occasions Aum members had attempted to disseminate botulinum toxin or anthrax using aerosol means: each time they failed, either because the botulinum agents they grew and enriched were not toxic or because the mechanical sprayers they used to disseminate the anthrax spores became clogged and hence inoperative. As a result of these failures the cult's scientists concluded that chemical weapons posed significantly less formidable scientific and technological challenges than biological ones. Chemical attacks are, however, arguably easier than biological attacks to detect and to contain, because biological infection occurs without notice and is usually followed by an incubation period during which victims unknowingly spread the contagion.

Aum's inability to achieve casualties on the scale ascribed to such weapons—despite the cult's considerable wealth, the technical expertise of its well-educated members, and the state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment at their disposal—speaks volumes about the challenges facing any less-endowed terrorist organization. Although the authors of Germs note Aum's failure, conceding that "making a biological weapon was harder than some experts had claimed," they unaccountably neglect to reconcile this fact with the alarmist thrust of their argument. That the scientists who ran the Soviet Union's ambitious biological-warfare programs—who are now underpaid and disenchanted by their diminished status in post-Cold War Russia—might be recruited by or even driven to seek out rogue states means that their expertise may fall into the hands of America's enemies. Even so, the book's narrow reliance on supposition, along with its failure to thoroughly examine available historical and empirical evidence, undermines its credibility and illuminates important gaps in its central argument.

The ineffectiveness of germs as weapons is further substantiated by the work of Seth Carus, a researcher at the National Defense University. For the past several years Carus has compiled perhaps the most authoritative accounting of the use of biological agents by a wide range of adversaries, including terrorists, government operatives, ordinary criminals, and the mentally unstable. His exhaustive database, which begins in 1900, reveals that over the past century a grand total of ten people have been killed (now eleven, and perhaps more, owing to the anthrax poisoning discovered in October) and fewer than 900 have been made ill as the result of some 180 incidents of either bio-terrorism or bio-crimes. The majority of these incidents involved the selective poisoning of specific people rather than the wholesale, indiscriminate attacks most often imagined. Neither Carus nor his research is cited in the book's index or bibliography.

Finally, the attempt in Germs to call attention to an allegedly conspicuous gap in America's defenses against bio-terrorism paradoxically illuminates a crucial weakness that may indirectly have contributed to the success of the September 11 attacks. U.S. counterterrorism efforts in recent years may have been focused too exclusively on extremes: the low-end threat posed by car and truck bombing of buildings and the more exotic high-end threat posed by biological weapons, chemical weapons, and cyber-attacks. The middle range of terrorism, which embraces potentially quite lethal threats involving conventional weapons or attacks, seems to have been discounted or almost forgotten. For example, according to one estimate, of more than 201 federal planning exercises conducted in the United States in recent years, at least two thirds were concerned only with defending against biological or chemical attacks, and thus ignored the possibility that other kinds of attacks—such as we saw at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—might result in large numbers of casualties and might present unique challenges of their own in terms of emergency response and rescue. More than a year before the September attacks the pernicious (though, it must be said, unintended) consequences of this unbalanced focus were brought home to me in a series of meetings and training sessions with state and local emergency personnel in three different U.S. regions. At every session I heard complaints that state and local authorities were unable to use federal funds earmarked for the purchase of anti-terrorism and counterterrorism equipment to obtain essential life-saving apparatus such as concrete and glass cutters and thermal-imaging devices, which would aid in the rescue of victims in buildings collapsed by bombs. Instead these funds could apparently be used only for a range of paraphernalia designed to handle instances of bio-terrorism. The applicability of the more mundane equipment to the situation that arose on September 11 is obvious.

In retrospect, it was not the salad-bar poisonings in 1984 or the nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 or Aum's nine attempts to use bio-weapons that should have dominated our counterterrorist thinking but the 1986 hijacking in Karachi of a Pan Am airplane, which the terrorists planned to crash into the center of Tel Aviv, and the 1994 hijacking in Algiers of an Air France plane by members of the Armed Islamic Group, who planned to crash it into the heart of Paris. The lesson is that we need to consider the spectrum of possible threats and be reasonably prepared to respond to them. Bio-terrorism is, of course, a salient threat. But it is only one of many threats we face, and not necessarily the most likely or—the conventional wisdom notwithstanding—even the most effective. A case in point is the recent spate of anthrax exposures. At the time of this writing one person had died, two others were suffering from entirely treatable rashes, and some limited number appeared to have come into contact with anthrax spores—hardly the astronomical body counts of which Germs' authors warn. As undeniably potent a psychological weapon as these bugs and pathogens certainly are, terrorists can kill more effectively—and more plentifully—by relying on more-conventional weapons. Indeed, as September 11 clearly demonstrated, terrorists can still readily achieve their dual aims of fear and intimidation simply by blowing things up.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/12/one-alarm-fire/302350/