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Special Report
Last Updated: 04/14/2003
INSPECT THIS: WMD Inspections in the United States?
Frida Berrigan, World Policy Institute

As the controversy over how long the United Nations should continue weapons inspections in Iraq rages on, questions are being raised about the United States' stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and new clandestine weapons programs. Activists and scientists are calling for weapons inspections in the U.S.

A front-page article in the New York Times on September 4, 2001 bore the headline "U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits." (Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William J. Broad). While the story got lost in the events of September 11th, the article revealed that the U.S. had initiated a secret weapons program that could be in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, the landmark 1972 treaty that prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological agents that have no "prophylactic, protective or other peaceFUL purpose." Signers of the treaty pledge not to develop or obtain weapons "designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict." (Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction. view convention)

The article's revelations shed light on why the United States, which had been the driving force behind the treaty since announcing its intention to unilaterally dismantle biological weapons stocks during the Nixon administration, rejected a July 2001 protocol that would have provided for regular inspections to verify compliance with the treaty. The U.S. could not have continued with its clandestine programs within the confines of the stronger treaty, and its rejection of the protocol left the biological weapons convention dead in the water.

The U.S. pursued its classified bio-defense programs through the Departments of Energy and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA built and tested a cluster munition that could spread biological agents over a wide area. The Pentagon's Threat Reduction Agency built a bioweapons plant from commercially available materials Nevada desert without raising suspicions, demonstrating the ease with which such a project could be undertaken by terrorists or rogue states. The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency tried to genetically engineer a more powerful anthrax to replicate a Russian strain thought to be resistant to U.S. military vaccinations. (from the New York Times article and "Back to Bioweapons," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. view article)

The U.S. maintains that these programs are defensive, claiming that the research must be done in order to "find cures or defense for chemical and biological weapons, researchers must first manufacture the weapons." (Weapons Inspectors Canadian Activists Plan to Spotlight US Research on germ, Chemical Warfare, Boston Globe, December 30, 2002, Farah Stockman.) In the words of one official the projects are, "fully consistent with the treaty." (NYTs) But Mark Wheelis and Malcolm Dando, authors of "Back to Bioweapons," an article in the most recent issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, warn that the implications of this decision are far-reaching and dangerous. They write that, "U.S. behavior suggests that its bio-defense program is even larger than those portions that have been revealed. This U.S. exploration of the utility of biotech for bioweapons development is unwise, for the rest of the world will be obliged to follow suit," leading to the possibility of a "global bioweapons arms race." "Back to Bioweapons," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. view article)

There are quite a few facilities around the country doing research on chemical and biological weapons. Among them are the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, MD; the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah; the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Plum Island, NY; and the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, OH. (Weapons Inspectors Canadian Activists Plan to Spotlight US Research on germ, Chemical Warfare, Boston Globe, December 30, 2002, Farah Stockman.)The New York Times named Battelle, a military contractor that analyzes biological information for the Pentagon, as a participant in the CIA's secret effort to make a more potent anthrax. (NYTs)

While the activities of most of these facilities are shrouded from public knowledge, a small Canadian effort hopes to expose them to the light. The project, called "Rooting out Evil," is planning inspections of U.S. chemical, biological and nuclear sites like the ones listed above. In February the inspection team, including Canadian and British members of Parliament, a union leader, and a professor, will enter the United States and demand "immediate and unfettered access" to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons sites. (Weapons Inspectors Canadian Activists Plan to Spotlight US Research on germ, Chemical Warfare, Boston Globe, December 30, 2002, Farah Stockman.)

Citizen weapons inspections have a long tradition. Most recently, three Catholic nuns entered a N-8 missile silo in northern Colorado wearing white jump suits with the logo "Disarmament Specialists" stenciled on the front and CWIT (Citizen Weapons Inspection Team) written on the back. They occupied the site for several hours, symbolically disarming the tracks that carry the silo lid to its firing position with hammers. They poured their own blood on the tracks and the silo. Despite the prayerful and symbolic nature of their action, they were charged with sabotage and "injury to property" and are facing a maximum sentence of thirty years. ("Three Sisters from Sacred Earth & Space Plowshares arrested at Missile Silo near Greeley, Colorado," 16 October 2002. view article).

Activists calling for and carrying out inspections of U.S. sites are finding allies within the scientific community. Jonathan King, an MIT biologist says that the United States should welcome inspectors into chemical and biological weapons programs. Scientists at the country's top universities are signing petitions, drafting codes of ethics for work in this field, and some even outlined a new biological weapons treaty that would make violations a crime under international law. As Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, once a close adviser to Henry Kissinger, noted in a recent Boston Globe article, bioweapons are a "threat to the species. It rises above considerations of national security, important as they are." (Weapons Inspectors Canadian Activists Plan to Spotlight US Research on germ, Chemical Warfare, Boston Globe, December 30, 2002, Farah Stockman.)

Maybe once the UN inspectors are finished cataloguing Iraq's apparently almost non-existent stockpile weapons of mass destruction, they could turn their attention to the United States. It seems they could be guaranteed abundant work and generous support from activists and scientists alike.

Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy Institute.