WASHINGTON, July 28, 2014 —
A panel of experts discussed the specter of terrorists armed with nuclear, biological, chemical or other weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, during a July 25 panel discussion at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, examining perhaps one of the world’s most dreaded national-security threat scenarios.
Among the panelists was Andrew C. Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, who noted that materials for bioweapons are widely dispersed.
“We focus in our office on the scene between the traditional counterproliferation community that looks at five or six countries around the world with state nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs, and the counterterrorism community, which looks at people and networks and is very effective at that,” Weber explained.
“Then there's this thing in the middle … called WMD terrorism,” he added. “This is when nonstate actors acquire a WMD capability and use it, and we know they have intent to use it.”
The materials -- what Weber called the supply side for WMD terrorism around the world -- are available in every country, he said.
Such pathogens are available “not just in those few state biological weapons laboratories or biodefense laboratories, but in public health labs and animal health laboratories,” Weber said, adding that the technologies for turning the materials into weapons of mass destruction are increasingly available and the information about how to do it also is “out there.”
With the advent of industrial microbiology, he said, the ways to turn pathogens into even more dangerous materials is becoming more accessible and cheaper over time.
“This is why we have to get ahead of it,” Weber added, and that can be done “by preventing access to the starter cultures.”
In the U.S. experience with anthrax attacks, the assistant secretary said, the FBI said a defense scientist working alone grew and weaponized the anthrax. Twenty-two people were infected, and five of them died. Many more were exposed to the spores.
“He … intentionally chose a primitive delivery means and wrote a letter saying, ‘You've been exposed to anthrax. Take penicillin.’ And we put over 10,000 people on antibiotics and saved a lot of lives,” Weber said.
In a 1995 case in Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out two sarin attacks in the Tokyo metro system, one in 1994 and one in 1995. But the same cult launched multiple anthrax attacks, Weber said.
“Those failed because they had obtained an avirulent strain from a veterinary department of a university in Japan,” he added. “Had they obtained the right strain, it would have been successful and we would have known about the attack, because people would have been killed.”
When allied troops when into Afghanistan, the assistant secretary said, “we found that al-Qaida had an anthrax facility in Kandahar, but they had not yet obtained the starter culture, so we were able to intervene in time in that case.”
And over the past several months at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, employees have been exposed to pathogens through mishandling of and then exposure to highly pathogenic avian flu, and last month, live anthrax bacteria.
Also this month, at the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, technicians discovered old vials of pathogens that included smallpox and flu virus.
“On the issue of biosecurity and the recent lapses, nobody was harmed, so in a sense, it was a good wake-up call,” Weber said. “But I agree with [CDC Director Dr.] Tom Frieden that we must reduce the number of laboratories that have these dangerous pathogens.”
The assistant secretary said he’s been in many such laboratories worldwide where scientists work on agents that cause anthrax, plague and other dangerous diseases. “They're public health labs, they're veterinary labs, and security is not always high on their minds,” he said. “So we as a global community need to do better.”
Several programs address such biosecurity issues globally, Weber added.
The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program consolidates and secures dangerous pathogens around the world, he said, “and recently I visited the Lugar Center for Public Health in Tblisi, Georgia, that was built by the Department of Defense in partnership with Georgia.”
In that center, all of the dangerous pathogen collections from throughout the country had been consolidated into one safe, secure laboratory in Georgia, “and I think that’s a good model,” Weber said.
But, the assistant secretary added, “we're only as safe and secure as the weakest link around the world in this area, so we have to build awareness [and] work across governments. We can't leave this only to health ministries or agriculture ministries. We have to involve security and law enforcement institutions.”
To eliminate the need in public and animal health laboratories to store and use dangerous pathogens and cultures for diagnostic purposes, Weber explained, “we can replace that with better, faster molecular diagnostics, like the [polymerase chain reaction] that don’t require culturing. They can get a good rapid diagnosis without having to culture virus or bacteria.”
Another important effort is the Global Health Security Agenda, an international effort to help boost the global capacity to prevent, detect and respond to disease outbreaks, he said. The program has grown to more than 40 countries and includes participation by the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health.
“The Global Health Security Agenda is a shot in the arm for this global effort and it will improve the global system for keeping these most dangerous pathogens out of the hands of terrorists,” Weber said, “because that's the best way we can prevent bioterrorism from happening.”
In the meantime, there’s work to be done at home, he said.
“The counterterrorism community is very tactical, very focused on going after terrorists today. The traditional counter-WMD community is very focused on countries like Iran, Syria and other countries with programs,” he explained. “In the intel community, we have the National Counterterrorism Center and the National Counterproliferation Center.”
NCTC has increased the staffing for WMD terrorism, he added, “but I worry about the connecting-the-dot issue between these two communities, and we're developing new methods.”
Weber said what’s needed is to map what he calls the WMD terrorism supply network.
“These are legitimate people, but when a known bad guy from [the clan-based Somali insurgent and terrorist group] al-Shabaab shows up at a lab in Entebbe looking for anthrax,” Weber said, “we need a red flag go up. We're doing a lot to fuse these communities to map the network.”
The assistant secretary took time to applaud the work of U.S. Special Operations Command in this area.
“They’re taking capabilities developed over the past 12-plus years of a global counterterrorism effort and applying them to this problem of weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “And with just a little tweaking, there's a lot of capability we can bring to this fight.”
Such an effort must be a sustained one, Weber added.
“It really is the national security challenge of the 21st century,” he said. “And we need to make sure that we never have a situation like the one where the 911 Commission determined that there was a failure of imagination -- that we didn't connect the dots -- because the stakes are too high.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)