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Technology Makes it Easier for Rogue States to Get Anthrax

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2002 – At least a dozen countries have or are actively seeking anthrax for use as a biological weapon, a top DoD proliferation expert said.

Anthrax lends itself to being an ideal agent for weapons, said Lisa Bronson, deputy undersecretary of defense for technology security policy and proliferation. She spoke on the subject to a small group of reporters in the Pentagon Feb. 22.

Anthrax has long been considered a threat as a biological weapon because it is stable and hearty. It can remain potent and dangerous for indefinite amounts of time if it is dried and prepared properly. And now, defense officials are learning more about who has it and who wants it, including the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Documents found in Afghanistan since coalition forces drove Al Qaeda operatives out indicate the terrorists were trying to develop biological weapons, including anthrax, Bronson said.

CIA Director George Tenet said "Russian entities" continue to provide material and expertise to countries and groups seeking biological weapons. "Russia appears to be the first choice of proliferant states seeking the most advanced technology and training," Tenet said Feb. 6 in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

But Russia isn't the only source for biological weapons materials. "I don't think you can lay it all on the doorstep of the former Soviet republics," Bronson said. "Countries like Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya (and) Syria have consciously over the last seven to 10 years gone ahead and been developing" biological weapons.

Using anthrax as a weapon takes a lot more than just having the germs, Bronson explained. "It's about developing the infrastructure to go ahead and be able to grow the material rapidly, to be able to suitably dry it, and then to be able to disseminate it," she said.

Most pieces of equipment used to manufacture biological weapons have common, legitimate uses, which makes it harder to track which countries are capable of making and using germ warfare.

For instance, equipment needed to dry anthrax spores is generally also used to make powdered milk, Bronson said. Equipment commonly used in the drug and cosmetics industries is all that's needed to mill dried anthrax to the right size for effective use in weapons -- one to 10 microns.

Tenet said the dual-use nature of this equipment complicates his agency's assessments of other countries' offensive capabilities. "Many (chemical and biological warfare) production capabilities are hidden in plants that are virtually indistinguishable from genuine commercial facilities," he testified.

Because the equipment is common and commercially available, it's hard for the United States and other Western nations to stop other countries from selling it or to track who's got it.

"Increasingly, our nonproliferation efforts have not resulted in preventing them from getting the capability," Bronson said.

America's challenge now is to develop strategies based on the assumption that countries that are not American allies have biological weapons, including anthrax, she said. "They have it, and we can't turn a blind eye to the fact that they have it," she added.

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