PANEL DISCUSSES TERRORITS ARMED WITH WMD
By Cheryl Pellerin
28 Jul 14. 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.
Andrew C. Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, speaks during a panel on weapons of mass destruction at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo., July 25, 2014. DoD photo by Claudette Roulo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
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 a virulent 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 Fr