Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
The recent revelations that the US government, specifically the US Air Force, sought ribonucleic acid (RNA) and synovial fluid samples specifically from Russians of Caucasian descent, ostensibly for the purpose of supporting ongoing USAF research on human musculoskeletal systems, naturally gave rise to a great deal of concern that the actual aims of this procurement were considerably more sinister. That what we really saw was a glimpse of an ongoing covert research into offensive biological warfare agents consistent with the stated doctrine of Full Spectrum Dominance and conducted under the cover of counter-terrorism bio-warfare research.
US Biological Warfare Infrastructure
Most official biowarfare activities are centered at Fort Detrick, which was the home of the offensive US biological warfare program between 1943 and its shuttering in 1969 by the Nixon Administration. The termination of offensive programs at Ft. Detrick did not mean its labs were completely shut down. Instead, they were repurposed as biodefense laboratories, a function which they officially serve to this day.
As of right now, Ft. houses United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the National Center for Medical Intelligence, the National Bioforensic Analysis Center, and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, which all form part of the National Interagency Biodefense Campus. Collectively, they employ a large number of scientists and technicians who specialize in biological warfare issues, ostensibly for defensive purposes. Moreover, the US government employs a large number of highly trained professionals with relevant knowledge and skills within its network of Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
However, the dividing line between offensive and defensive research is so thin as to be non-existent. Indeed, the post-9/11 US stance on biological weapons appears to have evolved away from the most recent law governing biological weapons, the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989. While this law classifies as bioweapon any microorganism, virus, or biological product that causes death, illness, or deterioration among humans, animals, and plants, according to FAS the US now officially interprets bioweapons as only those substances which cause death among humans. This therefore opens the door to US research into offensive non-lethal biological weapons systems, though here too the barrier between non-lethal and lethal biological agents is an especially ill-defined one, since agent lethality here is determined by the exposed individual’s ability to resist it, not only by the agent itself.
To make matters worse, international legal framework that is centered on the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which the US ratified in 1972 governing biological weapons is very weak. Unlike the Non-Proliferation Treaty whose observance is effectively enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no comparable organization monitoring compliance with the BWC. Violating BWC therefore is considerably easier than NPT, with the main concern being leaks of information and of course of biological materials that would naturally cause considerable outrage. But such leaks are relatively easy to manage and the program far easier to conceal than nuclear or even chemical weapons programs which require a much greater infrastructure “footprint” and are harder to camouflage as benign activities. For even defensive biowarfare programs will of necessity have to conduct some research into potentially offensive pathogens and toxins in order to remain current against emerging threats.
2001 Anthrax Attacks: The Tip of Biowar Iceberg?
There indeed are reasons to believe US work on bioweapons is continuing in secret. It is a relatively forgotten fact that the US was attacked by biological weapons immediately following 9/11, using anthrax mailed to a variety of public figures, including government officials and media personalities, killing 5 and infecting 17 others. Presaging the automatic chemical weapons use accusations leveled at Syria over a decade later, several US journalists, most notably ABC News’ Brian Ross who claimed he obtained this information from four highly placed, and naturally anonymous, US officials, reported the anthrax used in the attacks was coated with bentonite, a compound associated with the Iraqi biological weapons programs.
Remarkably, even though the US would to on to claim, including through Colin Powell’s infamous presentation before the UN Security Council, that Iraq had operational WMD programs and stockpiles of WMDs, already by November 2001 US government denials had forced over-eager journalists to refute their earlier claims of Iraqi origin of anthrax. Even though the attacks seemed like a perfect false flag attack to hang on Iraq, it would appear the Bush Administration was, if anything, eager to let this incident slip from public view lest too many questions be asked about the true origins of anthrax which, by all accounts, came from a US laboratory even though the actual perpetrators were never publicly identified.
The official FBI investigation had failed to reach any definitive, evidence-based conclusions as to the perpetrators. FBI ultimately pinned the blame on Dr. Bruce Ivins, a biodefense researcher at USAMRIID, who ultimately died in 2008 after ingesting an overdose of acetominophen. While described as a suicide, acetominophen seems like an odd way to commit suicide by someone with as much knowledge about human physiology as Dr. Ivins considering that it leads to a very painful death. On the other hand, it is possible Ivins was driven to suicide by FBI’s aggressive investigative tactics which spun his carelessness at handling anthrax spores into evidence of him staging the anthrax mailings in order to make him the convenient scapegoat.
The other suspect in the FBI investigation was Steven Hatfill, also a USAMRIID researcher with a very interesting history. After two years of service in the US Army in the 1970s, he moved to then-Rhodesia where he spent several years in a various military and civilian medical posts. After the victory of the national liberation movement and the rise of Zimbabwe, Hafill moved to South Africa where he also continued in a variety of medical positions and attempted to further his education, though never managed to obtain a Ph.D. that he would claim as one of his credentials. Amazingly, none of that prevented him from becoming a USAMRIID researcher in 1997, only two years after his return to the United States. It is entirely possible the reason for his rapid induction into the ranks of US biowarfare specialists was his participation in the rudimentary but lethal Rhodesian biological warfare program whose participants included the elite Selous Scouts, a unit that Hatfill also claimed to be part of even though Scouts veterans deny it. Rhodesia pursued biological weapons for the same reason that far wealthier South Africa developed nuclear weapons and also operated a covert biowarfare program–to obtain an ultimate weapons against the indigenous African masses seeking to overcome the apartheid system in both countries. While very little is known of Rhodesia biological weapons research, it is estimated to have cost the lives of over 1,000 people, and considering the specificity of Rhodesia’s situation, developing “ethnicity-specific” agents likely ranked high on their list of priorities, though the collapse of the regime obviously precluded progress. Unlike Rhodesia’s biological weapons efforts, South Africa’s Project Coast ostensibly had defensive purposes and does not appear to have resulted in the deployment of actual bioagents, though Truth and Reconciliation Commission documents suggest a more ambitious scope.
Uses of Bioweapons in the 21st Century
The 2001 anthrax attacks provide definitive evidence that US biodefense operations do include the development and maintenance of offensive agents for the purpose of threat modeling, which raises the question of whether this modeling has not strayed into the realm of becoming an actual threat which utilizes the most recent technologies which make Cold War-era bioweapons appear as primitive as World War 1 phosgene appears next to sarin.
The advent of bioengineering creates the potential of far more sophisticated and “tailored” biological weapons that can be used without making it obvious the targeted country is in fact being targeted. Instead the outbreak would initially seem like just another “avian flu” epidemic, though of considerably greater lethality, and even once the target realizes what is happening, it would be all but impossible to attribute blame in a convincing fashion, short of seizing a US government agent in the act of pouring a vial of bioagent into Moscow river. The difficulty of attribution would be all the greater in the event of use of an entirely new biowarfare agent, since there is no precedent for a political actor using it.
The difficulty of attribution also makes bioweapons ideal agents for false flag attacks. Just as cyberwarfare techniques can easily change the apparent identity of the attacker, biological weapons can be similarly attributed to someone else. We have seen that technique used in respect to chemical weapons use in Syria or the earlier accusations of poisoning of former KGB officer Litvinenko and Ukrainian president Yushchenko, and we may easily see it in a future employment of biological weapons intended to whip up international public opinion against a state whose government Western powers seek removed or even to provide a casus belli.
One should also consider the possibility that, in the post-9/11 environment which greatly enhanced the influence of Western intelligence agencies, biowarfare capabilities have migrated from the official agencies tasked with biodefense to the intelligence agencies as part of their bureaucratic expansion and interagency “turf warfare”. We have seen considerable evidence of such “mission creep” within the US intelligence community in other areas, with the CIA first acquiring a considerable paramilitary and drone strike capability, and later an offensive cyberwarfare function which parallels and likely rivals that of the NSA. It seems unlikely the ambitious CIA functionaries operating with little transparency or oversight would resist the temptation to tinker with biological weapons, initially as low-profile assassination tools but with other possible applications as well.
Addressing the Problem
At the root of the issue is the utter lack of transparency concerning biological warfare research, offensive or defensive, and absence of any monitoring or verification mechanisms for the BWC. The final factor suggesting the existence of covert biological weapons programs with an offensive function is the utter lack of interest on the part of the US in increasing international supervision of such efforts. If the threat of terrorist biological attack is really that dire, it would naturally be an incentive to pool international resources in combating that threat and to monitor applicable technologies. Yet there is no movement in that direction. In the meantime, absent a verifiable international agreement, the likely consequence will be a renewed covert biological arms race among the world’s major powers which increasingly do not trust one another.