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Source: The Washington Post, May 27, 2001 pA02.

Title: Bush Panel Faults Germ Warfare Protocol; Administration Is Advised
to Reject Proposed Inspection Rules for 1972 Treaty.(A Section)
Author: Vernon Loeb

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2001 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co.

A Bush administration review team has rejected a draft protocol for enforcing the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and concluded that a November deadline for adopting the protocol is unrealistic, administration officials said.

With the White House expected to adopt those findings by summer, U.S. arms control negotiators are searching for new enforcement strategies. They want to reassure other countries that the United States remains committed to strengthening the global ban on germ weapons, the officials said.

A senior State Department official acknowledged last week that rejecting the protocol in November, during an international conference on the treaty, could produce considerable diplomatic fallout. But, the official said, "we don't negotiate against a deadline."

More than 140 countries, including the United States, have ratified the prohibition on developing, producing and possessing biological weapons. Yet it has never included a mechanism to verify compliance.

At issue are complex procedures -- the latest draft is 210 pages -- for conducting on-site inspections to prevent cheating.

To distinguish illegal weapons facilities from laboratories that are engaged in legitimate work, such as making pharmaceuticals or conducting defensive research, the inspections need to take place on short notice and involve teams of specialists. But to prevent harassment and industrial espionage, some limits also are necessary. The trick in the protocol negotiations has been to find the right balance.

The current draft was put forward in March by Tibor Toth, a Hungarian diplomat who chairs an international group that has been working on a protocol since 1995. It calls for routine plant inspections to be carried out by four-member teams with two weeks' advance notice, although "challenge" inspections could take place with only a few days' notice. It also limits the time that inspectors could spend on each site, and it restricts the equipment that they normally could carry to a few simple devices, such as tape recorders and personal computers.

The Bush administration's review, conducted by representatives of the State Department, Pentagon, CIA and other federal agencies, concluded that Toth's proposals would not be sufficient to prevent cheating but would be burdensome to universities and private industry, and might leave U.S. companies vulnerable to theft of commercial secrets.

Arms control experts outside the government are split on the wisdom of the draft protocol.

Amy E. Smithson, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, applauded the administration's review team for recommending against the draft.

"There are some who are bleating that any agreement is better than no agreement," she said. "That is simply foolhardy. The draft provisions, because they have no monitoring muscle, could make a weak treaty even weaker."

In a report on the protocol released earlier this month, Smithson quoted experts from pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms as saying that larger teams of inspectors, with more time allowed at each site, would be necessary to enforce the treaty effectively.

Because biotechnology is rapidly evolving, Smithson said in the report, trying to detect the presence of germ weapons is far more difficult than inspecting for chemical weapons, whose precursor chemicals are well known.

"Those who would endeavor to monitor the BWC must contend with the real and mercurial nature of modern laboratories and pharmaceutical facilities, where virulent characteristics can be spliced into genes and, in a matter of moments, manufacturing plants can be flushed of incriminating evidence," her report said.

Marie Isabelle Chevrier, an associate professor at the University of Texas who is a member of the Federation of American Scientists' working group on biological weapons verification, strongly disagrees.

Writing in this month's Arms Control Today, a policy journal, she argues that the draft protocol -- while imperfect -- would help protect the United States by "providing the machinery to promptly investigate allegations of noncompliance."

Chevrier writes that the U.S. negotiating team at the protocol talks in Geneva has been unable "to convince even our closest allies that its proposals are preferable" to the draft protocol.

"Indeed, if President George W. Bush rejects this less-than-perfect compromise text," Chevrier argues, "it will reinforce the perception that his administration is controlled by those who never saw an arms control treaty that they liked, that his administration is only willing to give lip service rather than leadership to multilateral security efforts."

Alan P. Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who was a U.S. delegate to the protocol talks throughout the 1990s, faulted the Clinton administration's National Security Council for "suppressing" the results of two U.S. mock inspections that showed the difficulty of inspecting for germ weapons.

Those results, Zelicoff said in an interview, could have been used at the talks in Geneva to help produce a more workable inspections system. "The U.S. was essentially sitting on its hands for the past 10 years," he said.

The "vacuum" created by minimal U.S. engagement in negotiations in Geneva, Zelicoff added, has resulted in a draft protocol that is "technically impractical, politically illogical, and dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate."

 
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