Tuesday, April 19, 2005

What is a Weapon of Mass Destruction?

J. at ArmchairGeneralist had a post yesterday dealing with one of his favorite topics, the ways in which CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) threats are overblown by both the media and security experts. In this case J was focused on the "threat" of a Ricin attack by terrorists group, which as he explains is not a WMD.
I'm not trying to downplay the fact that the guy in question was planning to do bad things with ricin, but I will have to slap down those alarmist idiots that believe ricin is of any use other than for individual assassination attempts.
But while ricin and other chemical agents may not be a credible form of a weapon of mass destruction (despite the fear factor involved), I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that biological agents could become extremely devastating WMD.

I've chatted with J. about this subject before, and he feels that biological agents are just too sloppy or hard to get a hold of for terrorists to effectively use them as a weapons of mass destruction (sorry in advance if I'm misstating your position here J). I definitely disagree- I believe that biological agents can be attained, transported, and released successfully by terrorists, of course not without some difficulty. I also believe that the results of a bio-attack could be disastrous. But while the biological agents most often talked about as potential threats are Anthrax, Small-Pox, Hemorrhaging Fevers, the Bubonic Plague and other rare and/or non-wild diseases, there was a news item last week that pointed at another, less exotic, biological agent that terrorists could potentially use in an attack- a deadly strain of influenza.

Last week it was discovered that a laboratory had mistakenly sent out the strain of influenza that caused the 1957-58 flu pandemic, an outbreak that caused the deaths of at least 1 million Americans, to 4,000 labs in 18 different countries.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization rushed to order the laboratories to destroy the errant virus while sending a reassuring message to the public: "While the risk of the situation is very low, we're not taking any chances, and we're doing everything we can to make sure there's no threat to human health," said Julie Gerberding, head of the CDC. No one appears to have gotten sick, but Gerberding noted that because this particular flu virus hasn't existed outside labs since 1968, anyone under age 37 would lack immunity and "would presumably be completely susceptible."

And though most of the virus appears to have been destroyed, many troubling questions remain, not the least of which are how a routine laboratory-testing program could have sparked an international health scare and why it took so long for anyone to realize that something was amiss.
At the very least it seems that the government recognizes this as a very real threat:
The incident has brought calls from Congress and the White House for better controls on potentially devastating microbes. Klaus Stohr, head of WHO's influenza program, said that public announcement of the problem was delayed until destruction of the virus was well underway in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of terrorists. "There is a biosecurity risk, and we did not want to arouse interest."
That seems reasonable enough, except for the fact that only 80% of the virus samples have been found and destroyed. A few samples have been discovered sitting in FedEx warehouses around the globe, including one in Lebanon.

For now it seems that we dodged a bullet based on pure luck (and the heads-up work of a few Canadian doctors).
It is fortunate that the Canadian doctors noticed that a woman with no flu symptoms was testing positive for the disease and sent the sample on for sophisticated testing. Otherwise, no one would have known that H2N2 was at large, because standard medical labs have no test to detect it. The other way to discover it, scientists say, would be an actual outbreak.
Next time we might not be so lucky. After all, with the recognition of just how destructive and disruptive an influenza pandemic would be, we should expect groups like Al Qaida to attempt to attain and release biological agents such as this. And it is easy to see that we have, at most, lax oversight of the deadly pathogens which exist in American labs.

This episode helps to illustrate a few points that I've been making here on the site. First of all, we can see that biological agents are not controlled to a level that could be considered safe within the United States, let alone the rest of the world, and this has potentially disastrous consequences. In essence I think that this proves that biological weapons truly are a potential WMD.

Second, we can see just how difficult it is to think about and plan for non-traditional security threats. After all, how would we even know where that virus came from if it had been purposefully or mistakenly released? If we can't tell where an attack is coming from, how can we prepare? Does it even matter if the threat comes from Al Qaida or from mother nature? I think that this statement from Richard Clarke, dealing with another non-traditional security area, cyber security, says it best:
"It doesn't matter whether it's al Qaida or a nation-state or the teenage kid up the street," he said. "Who does the damage to you is far less important than the fact that damage can be done. You've got to focus on your vulnerability . . . and not wait for the FBI to tell you that al Qaida has you in its sights."
Right now we seem to be extremely vulnerable to a bio-attack, due to a lack of oversight in the production and storage of potentially dangerous pathogens and the poor preparedness of our national health systems to deal with a large biological outbreak. Unlike nuclear or chemical attacks, we can be sure that we will see a biological “bomb” explode in this nation. I’m not sure what we’re waiting on to protect ourselves, but I wouldn’t want to be the person who had to explain to the American public why the government didn’t do everything in its power to protect the millions of people who could die when an outbreak occurs.

UPDATE As I suspected I misrepresented J.'s position, which is basically (I hope I'm not getting it wrong again) that we mischaracterize many threats as being WMD simply because they are CBRN threats. As he notes, the Anthrax letters killed only 5 people, hardly "mass destruction." This gets back to the title of this piece- "what is a WMD?"- a question which I am less and less sure of the more I read (esp. since I've 'discovered' the rich blog world of arms control, proliferation, WMD, and military experts).