Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Further memorandum submitted by Dr Brian F G Jones

  Please find in the following pages my response to the request for notes on additional points, some additional information that relates to matters I raised on the corrected transcript of my oral evidence (as we discussed), and my answers to those additional questions to which I felt I could contribute. For convenience, I include as Appendices copies of two articles to which I have referred. Find also, attached separately to the covering email, a copy of the article from SCIENCE, to which I refer in my response to additional point 1.

  Please convey to the Committee my strong advice that it should request a briefing on WMD proliferation and capabilities from the Defence Intelligence Staff, possibly in association with the Cabinet Office Assessment Staff and the Joint Terrorism Assessment Centre (JTAC). I have no doubt that things have moved on and considerably changed since I was involved but the Committee's questions clearly demand a more up-to-date picture than the one I was able to provide.

  I trust you will not hesitate to contact me should the Committee require any further advice or assistance.

12 December 2008

Requests for notes on additional points

  1.  The Committee would be grateful for any further information that you could provide regarding the Al-Qaeda laboratory discovered at Kandahar, mentioned in Dr Jones's evidence and by Sir John Stanley when he asked Dr Jones "Can you tell us, from your background in government, what factors were driving al-Qaeda to believe that their laboratory work might end up with a usable biological weapon, which they could use against those parts of the world and individual countries of whose culture and behaviour they disapproved? From which sources were they able to get the basic expertise that they presumably required to get their laboratory going in the first place?". (Question 57)


  My recollection is that in the late 1990s and/or early 2000s there was intelligence that suggested that it was an Al-Qaeda objective to generate attacks on western targets that would cause mass casualties and that nuclear, biological and chemical weapons were discussed by its leadership in this context. Lord Butler's Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction considered "Terrorism" in Chapter 3 of its report and in paragraphs 131 and 132 noted

    "131.  In 1999, the JIC reported that:

    In February 1999 one of his followers claimed that UBL [Usama bin Laden now more often called Osama bin Laden] intended to attack US and UK targets in India, Indonesia and the US, by using means which even the US could not counter, implying the use of chemical or biological material.—[JIC, 9 June 1999]

    132.  Some work with biological agents was also attributed to Abu Khabbab, though the evidence was not detailed. However, the JIC's judgement that Al Qaida was developing biological weapons was confirmed by the discovery in Afghanistan of the Kandahar laboratory, and evidence that scientists had been recruited."

  I attach a copy of a short paper "Understanding Threats to Scientific Openness" by James B Petro and David A Relman. It appeared in the journal Science on 12 December 2003 (Vol 302 p 1898) and discusses the availability of "dual use" information on microorganisms for biological agents in the context of Al-Qaeda's activities.

  The Committee should note that the acquisition and production of sufficient agent is the key stage in producing a weapon. The quantities of agent involved for a potentially major terrorist attack would be of the order of kilograms and the weapon itself (means of dissemination) need not be sophisticated in the sense of the nuclear device that would be needed to produce a similar number of casualties. Suitable agent most easily in the form of a slurry or, with slightly greater sophistication, a powder, could be sprayed to form an aerosol. Simple hand held or hand portable aerosol sprayers would not necessarily be very efficient in producing a large fraction of aerosol particles of a size to enter and remain in the human lung, but a small fraction in this size range could still be sufficient to cause many (mass) casualties. A variety of factors would dictate the effectiveness of such an act, and military level degrees of efficiency would be difficult for a terrorist to achieve, but it is possible that casualties of many thousands could be generated if the aerosol cloud covered an appropriately populated area.

  The Committee should bear in mind that I left the intelligence community in January 2003 and that a fuller picture of Al-Qaeda's capabilities and intentions may now be available to the government. As recently as 11 November 2008 Secretary of State for Defence John Hutton is reported as having said in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies:

" 9/11 didn't then and doesn't now remain the limit of Al Qaida's ambitions. Whilst using Afghanistan as a haven, Al Qaida ran training courses on how to make and use poisons. After 9/11, we found, in Kandahar, a laboratory for developing biological agents, along with evidence that scientists had been recruited to assist in their production."

  2.  The Committee would be grateful for further details of the UK chemical company Mr Feakes mentioned that was fined for an export "made either last year or the year before". This was in response to a question asked by Sir John Stanley regarding controls of dual-use items exported from the EU. (Question 75-76)

  3.  The Chairman requested further information on the following aspects of the Chemical Weapons Convention:

    a. Whether the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons possesses all the possible and necessary means of enforcement in relation to the Chemical Weapons Convention? What impact does the USA's Presidential Veto have on the authority of the inspection regime?

    b. Many signatories are yet to legislate in order to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention and some are yet to even designate a National Authority. What does this indicate about their intentions to comply with their obligations?

    c. Is the UK doing enough to assist in the destruction of chemical weapons stocks and aiding other States to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention? (Question 79)

  4.  Sir John Stanley requested a note on the status of defoliants and herbicides under the Chemical Weapons Convention and whether it would be permissible for these to be used as they were by the USA during the Vietnam War. He asked further for a view on whether "if it is merely in the preamble, is it a policy development that the British Government should press for when we come to the next review?". (Question 82-83)

Additional Information

  I was asked

    Q64  Mr. Hamilton:  Gentlemen, as we are aware, the enforcement of the chemical weapons convention relies on inspections and verification. There is obviously a similar regime to strengthen the biological and toxic weapons convention. However, in your written evidence to the Committee, Dr. Jones, you said that the false assertions about the status of Iraq's WMD capabilities that were used to justify the war in 2003 have challenged confidence that the compliance of states with their international obligations relating to these weapons can be reliably monitored, and you said that it is an important omission. Do any of you think that multilateral rules-based treaties and conventions are effective against the states that are the most likely to flout them? Is this an effective non-proliferation strategy? Clearly, it is quite flawed—discuss.

  The first recorded response to this was from me and not Nicholas Simms as indicated in the initial transcript (agreed with Ed Waller). I would like to add the following:

  On a point of clarification, my written evidence suggested that the absence of an acknowledgement of the reduced confidence in the reliability of monitoring treaties was an important omission from the National Security Strategy's summary of changed circumstances.

  Otherwise, my oral response was incomplete. This is partly because I felt my knowledge of the relevant Treaties/ Conventions would take me into territory on which I was unable to comment with confidence.

  However, on reflection, I feel I should make a comment that goes to the heart of the dilemma that faced all those concerned with the Iraq issue, and which is illustrative of a broader problem with respect to WMD.

  The Iraq debate was conducted, and questions asked of the experts, in terms of "WMD" or "chemical and biological" weapons.

  The assessments of DIS intelligence analysts in the run up to the Iraq war can be summarised as follows:

  Nuclear weapons were pretty clearly still some way off for Iraq but remained a future concern. The acquisition of a nuclear capability beyond one or a few weapons would be unlikely to escape western intelligence.

  It was probable that Iraq did not hold stockpiles of major amounts of chemical weapons. The production of quantities of chemical weapons that are likely to be of military significance, and the preparation for their use, was likely but not certain to be identified by intelligence.

  Iraq had the capability to have produced undetected any one of a number of BW agents that it was known to have previously produced or researched. It could have acquired these in quantities sufficient to be of strategic significance and it may have possessed a capability to use them to achieve this. However, the existence of an actual capability was not established, nor was there evidence of an intention to use BW in this or any other way. However, had such a capability and intention existed there is a high likelihood that intelligence would not have detected it. This could be true for any potential possessor or aggressor in many circumstances.

  Although not explicitly stated in these terms the uncertainty in the intelligence on Iraq was identified in the March 2002 JIC paper on Iraq WMD, and at least implicit in the JIC paper of 9 September 2002 (as produced in the Report of the Butler Review).

Additional Questions for all witnesses

1.  Once existing stocks are destroyed what will be the role of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Chemical Weapons Convention?


  This is really for my colleagues who are expert in the Convention. However, it is my perception that the OPCW's terms of reference are already broader than the question suggests. I believe some invited or routine inspections of declared sites have taken place under the auspices of the OPCW, but I have heard some experts complain that the absence so far of any Challenge Inspection means that the effectiveness of the treaty has not yet been tested and, as a consequence, its full value as a deterrent has not been realised.

2.  What practical steps should be taken to accelerate universal membership of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention?


  The particular problem of biological weapons was at the heart of my written submission to the Committee. Some important aspects of the potential threat from biological weapons have been reflected in two recent reports which I am sure the Committee will study but which appeared too late for me to take account of when I gave evidence.

  Lord Robertson, in his oral evidence, mentioned the interim report of the IPPR Commission, which he co-chairs with Lord Ashdown, on International Security in the 21st Century, "Shared Destinies—security in a globalised world." It coincidentally reflected many of the issues I raised in my submission to the FAC, and highlighted the BW issue. Unfortunately, neither it nor the US report to the President of the US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, "The World at Risk" seemed to me to achieve the degree of focus on biological weapons issues which would have allowed a more complete assessment of the potential threat from them, and its implications. This is despite the fact that the US report reached a similar conclusion to my own—that the main issues of concern are nuclear and biological weapons, with biological weapons the more likely to be used.

  I believe that part of the problem which people have in engaging fully with the BW issue is the lack of a detailed appreciation of the nature and potential utility of biological warfare agents. In 2006 I attempted to address this problem. First in a lecture I gave to the Harvard-Sussex programme which it published on the University of Sussex website, and second in an article published by the London Review of Books which focused on the Iran nuclear issue as an illustration of the broader point I would wish the Committee to consider. For the convenience of the Committee, I attach copies of both of these papers as Appendices 1 and 2, respectively. (I will be responding to the IPPR Commission's request for comment on its interim report by drawing its attention to the same documents.)

  The point I endeavour to make is that perhaps the greatest potential WMD threat we face is not a "conventional" military one, but a covert, deniable biological one from a state source using "terrorist-like" concepts of use. A biological attack from a real terrorist source may be more likely, but I argue that such an attack would be less likely to achieve the efficiency and effectiveness to cause mass casualties than one which emanated from a state source.

  This is the thinking which prompts me, in paragraphs 59-61 of my submission to the Committee, to call for a more balanced and interactive debate about the relationship between nuclear and biological weapons and the reduction of the threat emanating from them collectively as well as individually. It may be that more states can be encouraged to join the BWC if they can be made to feel more secure and less excluded from the reassurance that the nuclear weapon states feel they gain from their possession of nuclear weapons.

3.  Are there sufficient measures to deal with non-compliance with the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention?


  Again this is Treaty related and, perhaps for my colleagues, but are there established "measures" for dealing with non-compliance with any of the three treaties? I think requests for measures (eg sanctions or in the limit military action to disarm and dismantle) are put to the Security Council and not always approved.

4.  What would be the likely success of a negotiated verification protocol which did not include the USA? Would this be a useful tool for the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and would it be achievable?


  I would question the likely success of any negotiated verification protocol in providing a high degree of assurance of anything other than an industrial scale military BW capability.

5.  How effective is the UK's approach to the control of the expertise necessary to create chemical and biological weapons? Can incidents such as the 2001 anthrax attacks in the USA be prevented?


  A wider appreciation of the nature of the range of potential BW threats within the relevant scientific/technical disciplines and their associated industrial and academic base, and more widely in academia, commerce and the political sphere might reduce the risk if the relevant institutions were to set up a system of self-policing. However, it must be recognised that this might also increase the risk of the disaffected minority using their knowledge inappropriately. My own view is that the broader benefits of a wider appreciation of the dangers outweigh the potential disadvantages, but this is an issue that demands debate,

6.  How effective is the Australia Group in preventing exports of materials for biological and chemical weapon production?

7.  Is an informal forum such as the Australia Group the most effective way to go about harmonising export controls?

8.  What are the prospects of an expansion of the Australia Group regime? Is this desirable?

9.  Is the Proliferation Security Initiative sufficient to intercept smuggling of materials for WMD production or should additional measures be pursued?

10.  Are the CWC and BTWC able to meet the changing threats that will arise as science advances, for example the development of incapacitating biochemical weapons?

Appendix 1


  Brian Jones


  This paper is based on a "Sussex Day" presentation and discussion held on 13 March 2006. It focuses mainly on the potential utility of biological weapons. The difficulty of conceptualising how biological warfare (BW) agents could be used is a barrier to understanding the challenge they pose and, hence, the development of defences against them. The absence of a general appreciation of the complex nature of biological weapons is an impediment to an appreciation of their wider significance with respect to international security. Unless BW in all of its many forms is better understood and correctly factored into the global security equation, then related policies, not only for biological weapons, but right across the spectrum of strategic concerns, will lack relevance.


  Unfortunately, it is not easy to understand BW. It has many facets. Some of the difficulties are illustrated by the following examples.

  Robin Cook was UK Foreign Secretary from 1997 to 2001 and thus in charge of Britain's non-proliferation and arms control policy. In June 2003 he told the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee:[381]

    "I would also make the point that biological agents such as anthrax are extremely toxic and a menace to anybody near them, but they were not weaponised [by Iraq], and if not weaponised cannot be used for military purpose. We are fortunate in that it is not particularly easy to weaponise biological agents because weapons do tend either to explode or incinerate, which tends to have the effect of destroying the biological agent that they are carrying."

  This statement is comprehensively inaccurate. In the first place, anthrax is not necessarily dangerous to handle. For example, in WWII anthrax-laced cattle cakes were manufactured in Britain by workers at Porton Down with little more protection than cloth masks, rubber gloves and aprons. There were no casualties during production. (They were never deployed.) Secondly, Iraq had previously weaponised anthrax weapons as bombs and missile warheads. Third, effective "exploding" weapons had been made by Britain as early as the 1940s. Apart from which, the most important dissemination method is by non-explosive means—the spraying of an aerosol. Remarkably, I am not aware that Cook's statement was ever challenged—by the government he was criticising at the time, or by anyone else.

  If, as some have suggested to me, the misunderstanding of biological weapons is less widespread in the United States, it does persist in some very influential quarters. The July 2005 edition of the influential Carnegie Endowment's publication "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats"[382] says:

    "One significant change in the new edition is that it no longer employs the term "weapons of mass destruction." Though used widely by officials and the media, this phrase conflates very different threats from weapons that differ greatly in lethality, consequence of use, and the availability of measures that can protect against them.

    Chemical weapons are easy to manufacture, but they inflict relatively limited damage over small areas and dissipate fairly quickly.

    Biological weapon agents can be made in most medical laboratories, but it is very difficult to turn these agents into effective weapons, and prompt inoculation and quarantine could limit the number of victims and the areas affected.

    Nuclear weapons are difficult to produce, but one weapon can destroy an entire city, killing hundreds of thousands instantly and leaving lingering radiation that would render large areas uninhabitable for years.

    A failure to differentiate these threats can lead to seriously flawed policy."

  In general the Carnegie report is a valuable work of reference that carries several important messages. It makes the important point that the term "weapons of mass destruction" is usually unhelpful unless accompanied by careful qualification. It is, indeed, important to differentiate the nuclear, biological and chemical threats, but that is not done accurately in this publication.

  Despite what is stated above, some significant biological weapons are as "easy" to make, if not easier, than most chemical weapons. The term "not difficult" is preferable to "easy" as both demand a degree of scientific or technical training and practice. However, beyond that the extent of the "difficulty" involved is critically dependent on the nature of the "weapon" being created which is in turn dictated by the intended context for its use, the degree of "reliability" required, and exactly how "success" in its application is to be measured. For example, a terrorist might be more inclined to accept and try to use a relatively simple and less reliable weapon than a military commander would.

  Furthermore, defending against BW agents, whether by inoculation or other means, is far from straightforward. It is simply not possible for many agents. Where it is possible, it can be so complicated as to be impractical.

  The Carnegie statement also neglects some important points. For example, at the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, many biological weapons can inflict primary damage over areas much larger than nuclear weapons. Some can cause very long-term contamination. This means that the potential impact on societies of some biological weapons is comparable with nuclear weapons—a message not entirely apparent from the Carnegie report.


  So why are biological weapons so poorly understood? There are a number of complicated inter-related factors.


  It is a problem that chemical and biological weapons are often confused. Contributing to this is that two distinct types of agent are classified as BW agent—toxins, which are non-living, and microorganisms or "germs" which are "live". It is confusing that toxins such as ricin or botulinum toxin are called BW agents. Although, in origin they are the product of biological processes, they relate more closely to CW agents and several can be synthesised by purely chemical means. Toxins poison or produce an effect that relates directly to the amount of them that enters the body. In that sense they behave like chemical weapons and, although some "toxins" are much more toxic than the most potent traditional chemical weapons, the quantities required to cause casualties in a given area are still much larger than for "live" BW agents.

  Live microorganisms are very different in that the "live" agent "infects" the target. That means relatively few microorganisms need to get into the body where they then multiply to cause disease and damage. The detailed mechanism by which this happens varies from agent to agent and disease to disease. One mechanism might involve the expression of toxins within the infected body. Because of this the relevant toxins are of interest and may be studied in their own right, even when the biological agent of prime concern to a development programme is the live microorganism that produces them.

  To simplify things, unless stated otherwise in this paper, BW agents are considered to be live microorganisms.

Range of Agents and Effects

  Even within the group of live BW agents there are great variations. Some agents are lethal and others are non-lethal and some diseases caused by such agents will be readily transmissible from primary victims to others not directly exposed to the attack. Other diseases are not easily transmitted beyond those directly exposed to the causative microorganism. Within these sub-divisions there are a large number of potential agents with a wide variety of properties.

Few Examples

  Perhaps the thing that makes it most difficult for modern policy makers to come to terms with biological weapons is that there have been few mature offensive BW programmes. Britain's offensive BW programme ended half a century ago having reached a stage which would be considered relatively primitive today, in terms of current knowledge of relevant science and technology. Furthermore, there is no truly significant and memorable example of the use of biological weapons that would compare with the nuclear weapons of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. There are no spectacular films to compare with the numerous atmospheric atomic and hydrogen bomb tests caught for the record on celluloid.

Absence of Offensive Programmes

  The implications for a nation's understanding of the BW threat of not having an up-to-date offensive programme are significant. The Holland Committee grasped the significance of the absence of offensive programmes almost a hundred years ago. In 1919, immediately after World War I it pointed out:

    "….it is impossible to divorce the study of defence against gas from the study of the use of gas as an offensive weapon, as the efficiency of the defence depends entirely on an accurate knowledge as to what progress is being or is likely to be made in the offensive use of the weapon."

  The history of the UK's programme provides an illustration of this.

  Perhaps as a result of the Holland advice Britain maintained an offensive BW programme for almost 40 years. It was not until the mid 1950s that it, and the offensive CW programme, were halted. Two main factors influenced the timing. First, the decision coincided with the advent of an operational nuclear weapon capability. Second, it happened before the significance of two major scientific and technical developments was understood. One was the revolution in biotechnology and genetics sparked by Crick and Watson's unravelling of the double-helix structure of DNA which occurred at about the same time. The implications of that for BW agent design and development were not fully understood for at least another decade. The other was the development of a new understanding of aerosols and aerobiology which led to systems that could achieve wide area coverage of BW agent at "useful" concentrations. The importance of this appreciation should not be underestimated. And it should be noted that it lagged the demonstration of "the atom bomb" by a decade. The Americans were on to this more quickly than the British and it is interesting to note than in some of the last joint UK/US field trials of BW agents and weapons, the British were confused by the increasing range from the BW agent release point at which the Americans were placing their targets and detectors.

  Of course, the Americans were to continue their BW programme for more than another decade. They conducted a huge secret programme of trials on land and at sea, fully developing a number of BW agents and several dispersal systems. For example, cruise missile delivery was established as being of particular value. The American programme went through and completed the whole complex procurement cycle for a number of agents and weapons and established production facilities and a small operational stockpile with surge capacity.

  Although out of the offensive game, the British did eventually grasp the greater potential and threat from wide areas of coverage achievable with BW agents. Several major experiments were conducted using non-toxic simulant agents that were designed to behave in the same way as real BW agents. These trials clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of UK, especially to clandestine and covert attack because such small quantities of agent were required to cover large areas and affect large numbers of people. Simulated agents were disseminated by spraying from small boats offshore, and from light aircraft, and using various hand-carried devices on the London underground and in other places.

  This seems to have prompted something of a re-evaluation of Britain's decision to abandon BW because a British Defence Secretary Denis Healey said the following to a House of Commons Select Committee in July 1968:[383]

    "We have not felt it necessary, nor indeed did the previous [Conservative] Government, to develop a retaliation capability here [with chemical or biological weapons] because we have nuclear weapons, and we might choose to retaliate in that way if there were a requirement."

  It is important to remember that all this was in the depths of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was viewed as a real strategic threat, and the context was one of defending against a perceived aggressor.

Myths and Misperceptions

  The Americans were apparently reaching similar conclusions and this brings us to the next reason why BW is so poorly understood. What appears to have happened is that the decision of the Nixon Administration to stop the US secret offensive programme was misinterpreted by some of those not familiar with the programme, as an indication that biological weapons had little value. Since few knew about the existence let alone the results of the programme this included many of those concerned with international security across the world. There is no evidence that the American government positively encouraged this view. Indeed a good deal of the related debate took place in the public domain. However, the government appears to have done little to correct or clarify it, possibly because there may not have been a clear awareness of the development of such a view, not least because it gained currency with the passage of time, subsequent events and changes of administration.

  President Nixon appointed Dr Henry Kissinger as his National Security Adviser when he took office in 1969 and the BW programme was one of several issues that were identified for early scrutiny. Kissinger asked a former colleague at Harvard University, Professor Matthew Meselson, to assist him on this matter. In 1998, Meselson shed some welcome light on the background to America's momentous decision to abandon biological weapons in a television interview.[384] He said the perception conveyed to the administration by those familiar with the US programme and its results at the time, was:

  BW weapons were extremely powerful.

    —  Large areas could be covered and large numbers of people killed.

    —  Biological weapons were cheap in comparison to nuclear weapons—the cost, effort and expertise required for their acquisition was much smaller than to make nuclear weapons. (But it was no simple thing either.)

  Meselson believes it likely that President Richard Nixon made the decision in 1969 to renounce the BW option for the United States because he recognised America was pioneering the development of weapons that would make it possible for a multitude of other states, and even non-state entities, to destroy the US. Yet America had no need for such a weapon because it had the nuclear deterrent. The argument put to the President appears to have been that these weapons would put into the reach of others, a capability which only America had at the time, which was to destroy whole countries, whole nations with biological weapons. America had that capability with nuclear weapons which were much more difficult and expensive to acquire. It would be folly to pioneer this easier alternative for other people to follow.

  So after the 1969 decision a myth appears to have begun to develop that the US thought of biological weapons as ineffective. This myth was reinforced in 1972 by the US decision to sign a "toothless" Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). If it was aware of them, no effort appears to have been made on the part of the US government to correct any misconceptions—indeed that would have been counter-productive to an important part of the rationale for the decision. Those inside and outside government who knew better appear to have decided not to draw attention to the matter. The impression may have taken a stronger hold in Britain which was the prime mover of the BWC and which, in 1979, discontinued even the Microbiological Research Establishment which had been dedicated to the development of BW defensive capabilities. The presumption was that no BW threat existed. In the early 1980s, two much publicised accusations related to BW—the Sverdlovsk incident in the Soviet Union and the "Yellow Rain" affair in South East Asia—were widely dismissed as the product of an overly aggressive Reagan Administration and a naive element of the US intelligence community inclined to exaggeration. The result was that those who believed the potential BW threat was being neglected found it increasingly difficult to advance their case. Only after "the genie escaped the bottle" and the world became increasingly aware of the potential of biological weapons through the exposure of the Soviet programme and Saddam Hussein's capability in Iraq was a BW threat more seriously considered by a new generation of policymakers.

  Thus the myth that grew over a decade or more skewed Western, and even American perceptions of BW for twenty years. Although this is fairly recent history, it is already easy to overlook the vast changes that have occurred in the last thirty years. Reflections on decisions taken between 1969 and the end of the Cold War should fully recognise the context in which they were made. The views outlined by Meselson, above, were made specifically in relation to the situation in 1969 when East-West tensions created a more clearly defined and constrained politico-military environment long before the great leaps in global communication and movement that we now take for granted.

  The 1969 decision is discussed mainly in terms of a threat from lethal BW agents. (Interestingly, as the US military programme approached its conclusion, an increasing amount of effort was being directed to non-lethal agents. This aspect will be discussed later in the paper.)

Difficulty, Cost and Comparison

  The comparison of relative costs of each WMD system can too easily be made in terms of the traditional military "industrial-scale" programmes that are typical of nations with highly developed procurement systems. These aim to produce the ultimate in safety, reliability and efficiency, which is very expensive. However, such constraints do not apply to all programmes. Making a reliable and optimised biological weapon for a war between advanced nations will never be easy or cheap. Doing the best you can in reduced circumstances generates a different equation.

  It is instructive to make comparisons for nuclear with biological weapons but it is important to compare like with like. In the following table I make a rough comparison of cost and of the ease or difficulty of achieving various key aspects, for a national "industrial" military capability:
AspectNuclear Biological
Technical complexityVery High Moderate
InfrastructureLarge, complex and dedicated Compact, less complex and dual-use
Trials and TestsSystems tests but full nuclear test not essential for fission weapon Systems tests and Field Trials
Size and WeightSignificant factor Small
DeliveryIdeally missile, possibly aircraft Wide range of options
Visibility to intelligenceHigher Lower
Detectability before attackQuite High Potentially Low

  In all regards, except the need for field tests, requirement for the development of biological weapons is lower or advantageous. However, there is an assumption inherent in this comparison that we are comparing weapons required to perform the same or similar functions. That will not necessarily be true.

  The following table is my interpretation of the utility of biological weapons in various scenarios—in war, transition to war and notional peace. Notional peace or "peace" is when the opposition does not realise the war has started. Lethal and non-lethal BW agents are compared.
ScenarioLethal agent Non-lethal agent
Civilian TargetsModerate Moderate—High
Transition to war
Military InfrastructureModerate—High High
Civilian TargetsModerate—High High
Military InfrastructureModerate—High High
Civilian TargetsHigh High

  The limited utility of BW agents on the battlefield relates mainly, but not exclusively, to the delay between the delivery of the agent and the effect it will eventually have. Depending on the agent, this delay can vary from several hours to several days. The increasing utility as you move away from strictly military scenarios relates to the potential for covert and even unattributable delivery. Non-lethal agents inevitably raise fewer suspicions but can present significant complications for the "defender" at both military and political levels.

  These are my best estimates. When I had regular access to British military specialists, I had great difficulty in persuading them to find the time to contribute to my thinking about such matters and discuss them in terms of the military scenarios that occurred to them. In modern, efficient organisations there seems to be little time to think "outside the box" and military education on BW had been minimal. Luckily my intelligence background meant I could obtain "advice" from sources where offensive considerations on BW had been a feature of more recent military thinking.

Concepts of Use

  The most advanced thinkers about BW were undoubtedly in the Soviet programme and some strong indications on their perceived utility of biological weapons are now in the public domain.

  Vladimir Pasechnik[385] was a Soviet BW expert, who defected to Britain in about 1990. He made an interesting comment in this regard. He told a Panorama programme when asked about how the Soviet BW capability would be used:

    "If you take, for example, a city with a population, say of 100,000 people, then I would say that it is very possible that in a very short time, say a week time, the preparation will be prepared to apply to the whole city, with effect that about half its population will be killed.

    If there may be subversive activity in the city much less quantity would be required for that. Because it may be produced very easily and then applied in such a way that it would be very difficult to discover who had applied it. User would deny it. That had been discussed in Biopreparat."

  This comment illustrates that nations are likely to develop covert capabilities with BW that will have similarities with those more normally associated with terrorists. However, a terrorist might be less concerned about the ease of attribution—he might even seek it.

  The WMD terrorist threat that provokes most comment from politicians is from nuclear weapons. However, it is interesting to make the comparison between the cost and difficulty of acquiring nuclear and biological weapons for a covert capability rather than the military/industrial capability given above.
AspectNuclear Biological
Technical ComplexityHigh Moderate to low
InfrastructureModerate and dedicated Small and relatively straightforward
Trials and TestsTrial and error Trial and error
Size and WeightSignificant factor Small
DeliveryChallenging Straightforward
Visibility to intelligenceModerate Very Low
Detectability before executionQuite High Potentially Low

  At the covert level of application, biological capability is much less difficult and less costly to acquire than nuclear weapons for a terrorist or a nation, in every regard. There is no doubt that most national covert capabilities would be better resourced and there would be more scope to perfect an efficient and effective capability, but the scale of the activity would still be such as to make a programme quite easy to conceal.

  The terrorist would probably tend to use trial and error, and tolerate a few failed attempts along the way. There are illustrations of this terrorist attitude—the World Trade Center attacks, Aum Shinrikyo experiments with nerve gas in Japan and the anthrax letters of 2001 in America.

  After Vladimir Pasechnik gave us his thoughts on the utility of biological weapons and after the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation gave us some more information about its perceptions of the utility of BW. Certain aspects of an official document on proliferation,[386] signed off by Yevgeny Primakov[387] chime closely with what Pasechnik had said. Their report says that "the tendency towards broad dissemination of biotechnologies (having dual use as a rule)" are fuelling proliferation of BW and it draws attention to their potential for "subversive and terrorist purposes". It notes that only "small initial stockpiles" are needed because "large-scale production of biological weapons can be set up over the course of several weeks". It adds that, whilst for a nuclear weapon the "complex infrastructure [is] difficult to conceal" for "biological weapons [it] is barely noticeable through visual detection". It follows that "the indispensable role in detecting… biological weapons belongs to the human factor… human intelligence."

  And of course, this is why it is difficult for intelligence to be sure that a country does not have a biological weapons capability, especially if it has previously had one, as was the case for Iraq. It remains true for Russia.

  Perhaps most significantly, in Primakov's Russian proliferation report, the first identified in a list of indicators of the presence of biological weapons development was:

    "the existence of programs for training troops, special subunits or intelligence and sabotage groups, for operations with the use of biological weapons."

  This adds to the growing list of reasons why biological weapons are so poorly understood—there are a number of quite different concepts for their use. This theme can be further developed and again the Russians have provided further assistance. A statement in 1987 by a senior Soviet apparatchik, Valentin Falin, the head of the Novosti Press Agency appears to demonstrate one idea. He said,

    "We won't copy [the US] any more, making planes to catch up with your planes, missiles to catch up with your missiles. We'll take asymmetrical means with new scientific principles available to us. Genetic engineering could be a hypothetical example. Things can be done for which neither side could find defences or countermeasures, with very dangerous results. If you develop something in space, we could develop something on earth. These are not just words. I know what I am saying."

  The context is important. Falin was accompanying President Mikhail Gorbachev on a visit to the United States. He said this in a news interview against the background of Soviet concerns about President Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defence programme. A reasonable interpretation of this is that it was an attempt to use BW as a deterrent—put crudely, "You might be able to stop our nuclear missiles but our BW would get you." Whilst, at the time, this might have been considered an idle threat, it was the subsequent revelation of the nature and extent of the Soviet programme that suggested Falin might indeed have known what he was saying, and provided one possible reason why the BW programme was boosted in the 1980s after the election of President Reagan. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin made a similar argument against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when he said any attempt to eliminate Iraq's WMD was irrelevant to the war on terror. He argued that even if Iraq's overt WMD capabilities were eliminated it would not greatly impact the overall threat, especially from BW.

  I have no doubt that the Soviet offensive BW programme was all-embracing—covering a whole range of concepts of use. In the early 1990s, Western intelligence lifted the veil on a part of it—the military/industrial programmes. But Kanatjan Alibekov,[388] better known these days as Ken Alibek, tells us that that the Chairman of the KGB at the time, Vladimir Kryuchkov, was quite prepared to sacrifice the military programme to keep the rest. The Trilateral Agreement between the US, UK and Russia offered a way of exploring the situation more widely but foundered on Russian obfuscation and American and British reluctance to undermine successively the governments of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. These were, and still are, sensitive times for the stability of Russia.

  The other national BW programme we have had some visibility of belonged to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but there is rather less evidence of the envisaged concepts of use. When they eventually admitted to it in the mid 1990s, it proved to be more extensive than intelligence had estimated in 1991. They eventually acknowledged that they had weaponised anthrax spores and botulinum toxin, as had been suspected by intelligence. Despite all that has been learned by the Iraq Survey Group after the 2003 invasion, it is still not clear how sophisticated the programme was. We have known since the mid 1990s there was research on an anti-crop agent (wheat smut), on non-lethal agents including a viral incapacitant (rotavirus) and on aflatoxin (a fungal toxin). The latter was declared by Iraq to have been filled into weapons but neither agent or its weaponisation had been detected by intelligence. Because of Saddam's unilateral decision to destroy BW agents and weapons unsupervised by UNSCOM this aspect of the declaration has never been properly confirmed. However, assuming it to be true, did this range of interests reflect careful thinking about the broader range of applications for BW? If so, it suggests a range of concepts for use including economic or indirect targeting. Or did it simply represents more random developments based on partial knowledge and available materials and expertise?

  The Iraqi interest in aflatoxin illustrates this problem. Aflatoxin has been dismissed by most as an ineffective agent, having only low acute toxicity and a long term carcinogenic effect. However, the toxin does have strong immuno-suppressant properties and as such could be of real interest to an offensive BW programme. Depression of the immune system by aflatoxin occurs within the incubation timescale of several disease causing microorganisms. Thus it could be used to enhance the effect of otherwise innocuous agents or to increase the susceptibility of a population to naturally occurring disease. For deployed troops that could be very important. The modulation of the immune system in general and an interest in aflatoxin and other mycotoxins could be relevant to more advanced concepts of use and agent development. On the one hand Iraqi interest in this agent raises suspicions that some of their BW thinking was quite advanced. On the other hand loading it into ballistic missile warheads, as they claim to have done in 1991, makes little obvious sense.

  In the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002-3 there was a concern, but no direct indication in intelligence, that Iraq had retained some BW capability backed by more sophisticated thinking. Could Iraq have chosen a way of using BW against US/UK forces that would have challenged military and political decision-making? There were concerns that the use of a non-lethal agent, covertly delivered against assembling forces before the invasion commenced, could cause widespread incapacitation and reduce military capability. Politically, it would have been difficult to justify escalation to deal with such a development on the grounds of proportionality.

  Beyond the Iraq problem there was and is the terrorist dimension which, to some, has been greatly exaggerated. But the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 led to the discovery of an Al Qaida laboratory near Kandahar that was designed for BW agents preparation. Osama bin Laden's first lieutenant, the Egyptian medic Ayman al Zawahiri, was in charge of the BW objective. There was ample evidence that he had recruited one or more PhD level experts. Documentary evidence showed they were looking in the right places and had the right ideas. The laboratory appeared to be a training facility for operatives rather than a production unit. The concept may have been one of preparing individuals to disperse carrying only the necessary feed-stocks and minimal equipment to the locations where they would produce enough agent to commit acts of bioterrorism. This aspect of Al Qaida's approach should not be confused with the more general training of "lower grade" terrorists in larger numbers who were given more rudimentary instruction, including in the production of poisons.


For BW

  Clearly, there is the need for policy-makers to understand the full range of BW risks described above and others that may be on the near horizon. The barriers to understanding BW that have been elucidated may be summarised as follows:

  Confusion between CW and BW

    —  Two distinct types of "BW" agent—toxins, microorganisms

    —  Two main effects—lethal, non-lethal

    —  Numerous BW agents in all categories

    —  Few mature offensive BW programmes

    —  Myth/Misperception of the 1970s and 1980s

    —  Different types of offensive programme—Advanced (industrial) military/ Primitive military/Covert (state or non-state)

    —  Various Concepts of Use—including anti-human, anti-animal, anti-crop

    —  Reluctance to acknowledge BW


  The BW problem is more complicated than its nuclear equivalent but just as dangerous. Additionally, there is a need to think about BW in a nuclear context and visa versa. The potential advantage of possessing both nuclear and biological weapons appears to have been well understood by the Russians. As discussed above, it seems likely that they tried to exploit it in an advanced and sophisticated way to deter President Reagan's "Star Wars" ballistic missile defence programme. There are other concepts for the strategic use of biological weapons in an environment that includes nuclear weapons. For example, a state which possesses a nuclear deterrent might be inclined to make limited overt use, or more comprehensive covert use, of BW agents for subversive purposes. It may feel its nuclear weapons would act as the ultimate deterrent to retaliation in the event of the attribution of its use of biological weapons. It would be difficult for a country like Britain to respond with nuclear weapons to an attempt to undermine its economy with biological attacks on its agriculture. Foot and mouth virus, Gumborro disease or some other avian flu virus would all be credible possibilities and could have an impact at the strategic level.

  I have already given an example of how a smaller state might try to resist military interference by using non-lethal BW agents by explaining some of the concerns that existed in relation to Iraq before the invasion.

  The British and American governments assess the greatest security risk at present is the use of "WMD" including BW agents by an al Qaida related terrorist group. So far as a "WMD" threat is concerned, the least challenging way for entities such as al Qaida to generate the large numbers of casualties we know it seeks would be BW. Such an attack, somewhere in the world, seems inevitable. It may be that the first attempts will be flawed and inefficient but, as with the anthrax letters they will probably cause great disruption. There is always the possibility of the first succeeding. If not, terrorist organisations have a reputation for patience.

  If the WMD threat from terrorists with a global reach is the immediate challenge, there could be another close at hand from Iran. Arguments about Iran's nuclear aspirations have been largely one dimensional in WMD terms so far. It is argued at the highest political level in Britain and America, and widely supported by commentators, that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and become a threat. Questions about its susceptibility to deterrence are brushed aside by vague references to nuclear terrorism and the "war against terror". Most recently there has been an increasing entanglement with the Israel/Lebanon/Palestinian problem.

  However, there has been no mention of the danger of provoking Iran into using terrorist-type BW attacks.[389] Perhaps it is a potential problem that has not been recognised but there is also the possibility that public discussion of BW and how it might be used is constrained for fear it might stimulate terrorists to pursue such methods. Of course, the reluctance to talk about BW contributes to the poor understanding of the problem.

  There are undoubtedly problems about promoting interest in weapons and capabilities in those you may wish to remain in ignorance of them. However, there is a tipping point where such ignorance interferes with the processes that might reduce risk of BW attack and consequence management. In recent years, politicians have shown little reluctance to discuss the threat and to publicise "successful" interventions that are said to have prevented such attacks. I suggest, therefore, that the nature of the threat in all its forms should be a matter for debate and public education whilst keeping the detail that would assist a terrorist to a minimum.

Appendix 2


Brian Jones on Iran, the West and the Bomb

  From: London Review of Books, 22 June 2006

  It is time for the West to develop a new policy on nuclear proliferation. The highly partisan Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which allowed only the US, Russia, Britain, France and China to retain nuclear weapons, has been gradually eroded, as Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and, briefly, apartheid South Africa, have unofficially joined the club. Now Iran, too, may be trying to develop the bomb, and has threatened to withdraw from the treaty, as North Korea did in 2003.

  Iran's determination to acquire the capability to enrich uranium and process spent reactor fuel in order to obtain plutonium is beyond doubt. This would enable it to produce fissile material suitable for nuclear weapons, and the step from there to building some sort of explosive device would be relatively small. On the other hand, the American intelligence assessment that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons appears to be based on circumstantial evidence—on the principle that Iran's nuclear activity must be covert for a reason—rather than on any firm information about Iranian government decisions. We can allow the strong possibility of an intention to develop a bomb, but it is by no means a certainty.

  Some previous uncertainties have been resolved by the direct access that the IAEA has had to various nuclear facilities in Iran, by Iranian admissions in response to discoveries by inspectors, as well as by unsolicited declarations. However, in the light of Saddam Hussein's statements about WMD, it would be unwise to take Iranian claims at face value, even when they appear to be incriminating. The claim that they are capable of uranium enrichment could be an exaggeration, designed to pre-empt the pre-emptive attack that Seymour Hersh has recently suggested the US is planning for. The ultracentrifuge cascades that are used for enrichment are complex structures, containing some very delicate mechanisms. They have the potential to self-destruct. It might take a cascade of 1000 centrifuges operating continuously for a year to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon.

  On the other hand, the Iranian claim could be designed to divert attention from an attempt to develop other methods of producing fissile material, such as laser enrichment of uranium, in which it has shown an interest, or plutonium extraction, on which it has made at least a start. Or its purpose could be to conceal greater progress than they have acknowledged, to encourage a false belief in the West that sufficient time remains for a relatively relaxed approach to negotiations. Traces of more highly enriched uranium have been discovered in Iran, although the IAEA has not been able to disprove the Iranian explanation that they originated from contaminated imported equipment.

  Two years ago, Washington's challenge to Tehran was being expressed in stronger terms than it is now. At that time, Britain was keen to encourage the more moderate faction in Iran, led by the then president, Mohammad Khatami. Together with Germany and France, the Blair government tried to persuade Tehran to demonstrate to the IAEA that it was in compliance with the NPT. President Bush, however, bluntly warned Iran either to reform or face the consequences. He said the US was investigating links between Iran and al-Qaida, with the implication that a third invasion might follow those of Afghanistan and Iraq. If that is less likely now, it's because we have seen the limits of America's military capacity.

  The European attempt at moderation ground to a halt when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded Khatami in June 2005, Khatami's defeat suggested that it had been a mistake to allow the nuclear argument to take precedence over the effort to bolster Khatami in his struggle with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, because it had placed too much pressure on him at a difficult time. Iran has vivid memories of the suffering caused by Iraq's chemical weapons: the use of nerve agents on the battlefield in 1988 was a significant factor in bringing about the ceasefire which ended the war that had begun in 1980. The West is blamed in Iran for having helped Saddam to acquire these weapons. What might have happened to Iran if Iraq had produced the nuclear weapons that were almost in its grasp in 1991?

  It was a mixed blessing for the Islamic Republic when the bomb was snatched away from Saddam in the aftermath of his invasion of Kuwait, since it also meant that "the Great Satan's" foothold in the region was extended and consolidated. But Iranian suspicions about Iraq's WMD remained, and intensified when the UN weapons inspectors left the country in 1998. Under such circumstances, no Iranian leader could disregard the question of national security and rule out the acquisition of WMD. Iran is surrounded by countries that are not its natural allies, and which either have or are seeking such weapons. Yet those who would wish Iran to renounce its independent nuclear ambitions are not prepared to give reliable security guarantees in exchange, in a region where there is likely to be much competition for scarce energy resources. The only offer of substantial help with nuclear fuel has come from Russia, which has offered to supply Iran with enriched uranium and take back the spent reactor fuel, bringing Iran a step closer to producing weapons.[390] However, Russia has yet to establish a reputation as a reliable supplier of energy.

  The vague notion of a multilateral system for the "safe enrichment for nuclear energy" that Blair unveiled in his Georgetown University speech on 26 May may mark a belated acknowledgment of the validity of Iran's concerns about the security of its future energy supplies, but it would need to be developed quickly to make any contribution to resolving the current problem. Blair suggested that "an international bank of uranium", overseen by the IAEA, could ensure a reliable fuel supply "without the need for everyone to own their own fuel cycle". Such an arrangement would be more likely to attract those currently striving for an independent capability if it removed the need for anyone to own their own fuel cycle; but it is difficult to imagine any of the eight or nine countries that currently possess nuclear weapons agreeing to that.

  The Iranian people seem to believe that their country needs nuclear weapons as well as nuclear power, and are likely to celebrate in the streets when they arrive, just as the citizens of India and Pakistan did in 1998. It is unfortunate that, partly as a consequence of relentless Western pressure over the nuclear issue, Khatami was ousted in 2005. But Ahmadinejad won an election fully as democratic as any recently held in the region. The new fundamentalist president seems to be more in touch with the popular mood, although many Iranians, including perhaps the Supreme Leader, are concerned about his behaviour. It's not clear whether Ahmadinejad's outbursts against Israel and the West result simply from inexperience, or are designed to bolster his popular support. It is possible that his devotion to Imam Mahdi, whose second coming is expected to be heralded by an apocalypse, imbues the president with a disregard for what could be the consequences of his rash threats.

  Understanding exactly what is happening in Iran is complicated by the fact that military and political power is divided between the Supreme Leader and the elected president in a way that is not entirely clear. Responsibility for defence and security lies somewhere between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Defence. It's unclear too what role is played by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The tension between the clerical leadership and Khatami exacerbated the division between the two camps and, when he was president, there may even have been two separate bomb projects. That would have been an inefficient deployment of scarce and expensive resources, but it would have improved the chances that one or other programme might escape detection and destruction. What has happened since the election of Ahmadinejad is no clearer, but the president's links with the IRGC introduce a new element.

  If Iran did produce an explosive nuclear device it would probably be large, heavy, awkward to transport, and hard to deliver as a weapon. Acquiring a nuclear weapon does not necessarily provide a country with a military capability that is immediately useful at all levels, especially against a more experienced nuclear power. It is still a significant challenge to build a device that is small, light and efficient enough to fit on a ballistic missile, and even more difficult to make one that could fit in a suitcase. If Iran ever gains the expertise and materials to achieve this, it is very unlikely to jeopardise its achievement by using the bomb in any but the most extreme circumstances. Actual use of a relatively primitive weapon would instantly result in a disproportionately powerful American response.

  There are, in any case, encouraging signs about the general direction of Tehran's nuclear plans. Mostly its nuclear infrastructure is large, visible and therefore vulnerable. Its decision to protect the important centrifuge enrichment facility at Natanz by building it underground does not necessarily imply that Iran wants to work on its nuclear weapons there, but rather its recognition of the US and UK's inclination, demonstrated all too clearly in Iraq to take military action on the basis of a suspicion that falls well short of certainty. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq's French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak, near Baghdad, shortly before it was completed, claiming that it could have eventually contributed to Saddam Hussein's quest for a weapon. Iran, which had itself bombed Osirak, with less success, in 1980, will be sensitive to such risks to its own nuclear facilities, whatever their ultimate purpose. If weapons are involved in its plans, it seems that Iran wants to be able to produce and maintain a significant stockpile. It also has a ballistic-missile capability, and periodically tests improved models with a better range. But whatever its ultimate capability, it will be of a kind that can itself be deterred.

  Bush and Blair like to allude to the danger of nuclear terrorists being supplied by Iran, but there is little risk of that, because Iran would fear that it would automatically be held responsible and suffer disproportionate retaliation. Since the failure of the European diplomatic initiative, Blair has seemed inclined to align this country once again with the US, whatever course Bush decides to adopt. Bush has tried to dispel the idea of an imminent military strike by saying that the process at the UN has a long way to go and, most recently, by making a conditional offer to participate in negotiations. However, his disenchantment with international arms control agreements has not been a secret for several years. In the nuclear sphere the US was prepared to sacrifice the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty for the sake of developing a missile defence capability. Republican politicians in particular believe that the threat of unilateral offensive action is a necessary part of reducing the risk to America from foreign threats. They have been slow to recognise the limits of the immunity that superior wealth and military power can provide. The lessons from Vietnam, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq have not been fully grasped. But if Bush's hesitation is genuine, it is ironic that the war in Iraq has probably scuppered any chance of reaching a meaningful agreement on Iran in the Security Council.

  Why? Because the most significant of the many casualties of the Iraq war may yet prove to be the international control of WMD. By conflating nuclear weapons with chemical and biological ones, embroidering intelligence assessments, ignoring the UN inspectors' appeals for more time, and making WMD the central and ultimately flawed reason for invading Iraq, Bush and Blair have undermined the main instruments of arms control: the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention and even the NPT itself. The effectiveness of such international treaties and conventions balances precariously on the belief (and fear) that intelligence would detect and weapons inspectors confirm any significant attempt to cheat. The real situation in Iraq was found to be very different from that claimed by intelligence advisers before the war, when weapons inspectors were perceived to be unable to establish the true facts within a reasonable timescale.

  Even if the thought of Iran being armed with nuclear weapons is uncomfortable, it is far from being the only or even the most serious problem. The stability of President Musharraf's regime in Pakistan is not assured. Long before Iran comes anywhere close to achieving its presumed goal, an Islamic government in Pakistan could inherit a small but significant stockpile of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, and a mature infrastructure for making more and better weapons. North Korea may already possess weapons in some form, and has a well-developed ballistic-missile capability. The more relaxed approach of the US to those problems may signal a pragmatic acceptance of the inevitability of nuclear proliferation. If so, Bush's preoccupation with Iran may have as much to do with the region's significance to America's strategic economic interests—and the US wish to ensure its own continued political, military and economic freedom of action—as it does with a threat from the weapons themselves.

  In Britain, it is difficult to shake off the notion that Blair's wish to remain in step with Washington will be the most important factor in any decisions on the issue, just as it was with Iraq. This would mean using the weapons issue to disguise an objective that cannot be acknowledged for reasons of diplomatic sensitivity: to keep America "on board". A decision to play politics with WMD in this way suggests a loss of hope in the future of international arms control agreements. This may be an acknowledgment of the inevitable, but it should not be adopted without rigorous parliamentary and public examination.

  We urgently need the relationship between the government's position on Iran and its overall strategy on potential future nuclear threats to be spelled out, especially since decisions need to be taken soon regarding the renewal of Britain's own nuclear deterrent. The problem of nuclear weapons and WMD in general gets discussed in such a confusing and piecemeal way that it is difficult to see whether the government has a coherent policy. We need a better sense of what Blair's "big picture" looks like.

  First, the government should make clear whether it believes that, if nuclear weapons are involved, other WMD pale into insignificance. The emphasis on nuclear weapons in statements on Iran reinforces the impression that it would have preferred to make the case against Iraq in similar terms. Since the intelligence could not be stretched quite that far, however, a "threat" from "real" stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons was relentlessly promoted and then reinforced with reference to "mushroom clouds" and "45-minute" warnings.

  Most politicians and political commentators suffer from a form of nuclear blindness. They believe that biological and chemical weapons can be treated merely as smaller or less effective versions of nukes. They don't appreciate that each weapon can be used in a different way. They haven't grasped how much the security environment has changed since the end of the Cold War, or under the impact of globalisation and interdependence. The London suicide bombers provided an illustration of that change. Chemical weapons have limited potential beyond the battlefield. Biological weapons, however, by virtue of their greater potency, low cost, ease of production, small size, ease of transport and difficulty of detection, are more of a challenge. They may not bring about the same level of physical destruction as 9/11 or a nuclear weapon, but they could well cause more casualties than either. Attitudes to the problem of proliferation must take full account of the related but distinct problem of the proliferation of biological weapons. What we should now be asking is whether Iran might currently pose a biological weapons threat.

  In November 2004, the then director of the CIA, Porter Goss, reported to Congress that Iran continued to "vigorously pursue programmes to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons". Earlier US assessments had concluded that it already held stocks of biological agents and weapons. The last official British statement on this was made in 2002, when the Ministry of Defence told the House of Commons Defence Committee that Iran was capable of producing biological weapons. The Butler Report on UK intelligence about WMD, published in July 2004, told us nothing about Iran's biological warfare capabilities. They didn't feature in Goss's Global Intelligence Challenges 2005, and John Negroponte didn't refer to them in his statement to the US Senate earlier this year. Unfortunately, the absence of recent evidence, if that is the explanation for the US and British silence on the matter, can't be taken as evidence of the absence of a capability.

  At the end of 2004, a forward-looking report by the US National Intelligence Council reckoned that terrorists were likely to try to use biological agents: "Bioterrorism appears particularly suited to the smaller, better-informed groups. Indeed, the bioterrorist's laboratory could well be the size of a household kitchen, and the weapon built there could be smaller than a toaster." Final production of a weapon by a skilled cell of operatives could take place in the country of intended use, avoiding the need to transport significant and possibly identifiable elements through international border controls. British authorities are clearly conscious of this potential threat because they have intervened when there has been suspicion of related activities, such as the alleged attempt to produce ricin in a Wood Green flat shortly before the invasion of Iraq and, more recently, the raid on a house in Forest Gate at the beginning of this month. So far, there has been no confirmation of any such activity in Britain.

  Many would argue that a substantial and successful biological attack would be beyond the scope of terrorists, citing the limited success of the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001. Those incidents demonstrated, however, that a lethal biological agent of a quality suitable for a weapon was within the reach of an individual, though in that instance one whose objective seems not to have been to cause random mass casualties. Very small quantities of anthrax spores were posted in envelopes or packages, apparently in two batches. The first batch seems to have targeted media organisations in New York City and Florida. The second batch was sent to the offices of two senators in Washington. Even this limited attack was only partially successful: the initial batch used poor quality agent that did not easily form an aerosol and caused less serious infections on contact with the skin. This alerted the authorities, preparing them for subsequent attacks when an agent that more readily formed an aerosol was used. In the end, 23 people contracted anthrax and five died, apparently having inhaled spores.

  Al-Qaida continues to threaten major attacks against the West and its determination to acquire biological weapons was confirmed by the discovery of a dedicated laboratory near Kandahar in Afghanistan. There is also evidence that it has recruited suitably qualified scientists. Iran is classified by both the US and the UK as one of the world's foremost sponsors of terrorism, which suggests that both the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security know very well how to support and conduct covert operations. If Iran was reluctant, as it might well be, to hand over a biological weapon to terrorists, it could still carry out a (deniable) terrorist-style operation using its own operatives. Reportedly, there is no shortage of IRGC volunteers for suicide missions. A series of biological attacks in enclosed, densely occupied public spaces could produce casualties in the tens of thousands.

  It will always be difficult to control nuclear proliferation without provoking a different threat that may be just as deadly but easier to develop and harder to deter. Military interventions, even if they succeed in setting back nuclear programmes, are unlikely to destroy them completely and may only strengthen hostile regimes. Or a regime may fall, leading to a breakdown of civil order, as has happened in Iraq. In either case, the likelihood of an unconventional response to perceived aggression using methods associated with terrorists will increase. We appear to be faced with an uncomfortable choice between promoting a world of strong, stable nation-states, some of which will be antipathetic to Western political and cultural values, or living in a more chaotic global society.

  In 2004, the British and American governments claimed that their action in Iraq had created a situation in which proliferation could be controlled. I argued then that strong, stable states that could be deterred from using their weapons might well be preferable to failing states with WMD capabilities and the potential to harbour terrorists. I was greeted with a deafening silence, but I still believe this suggestion warrants serious consideration. Before supporting precipitate action to halt Iran's nuclear programme, Britain should consider whether that would undermine the chances of establishing a stable global framework, in which more states would possess nuclear weapons, but in which rogue states and terrorists would find it hard to survive, let alone to develop WMD.


    —  Statement by the [US] Director of National Intelligence, John D. Negroponte, to the Senate Select Committee On Intelligence, 2 February 2006.

    —  Report of the Secretary General of the IAEA, Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, GOV/2006/27, 28 April 2006.

    —  Seymour M Hersh, The Iran Plans, New Yorker, 17 April 2004.

    —  Report by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, 31 March 2005

    —  Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News, 5 December 2005.

    —  See for example Norman Dombey, LRB, 23 February 2006, 2 September 2004 and Wyn Q Bowen, VERTIC Verification Yearbook, 2004.

    —  See Brian Jones, War, Words and WMD, Harvard-Sussex Programme, available at

    —  See Statement of John Lauder, Director of DCI Nonproliferation Center, 5 Oct 2000, and "Proliferation: Threat and Response", Office of the [US] Secretary of Defence, January 2001, p.35-6.

    —  UK Ministry of Defence, "Supplementary memorandum from MOD on the ballistic missile threat", March 2002.

    —  Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report of a Committee of Privy Councillors Chaired by Lord Butler of Brockwell, House of Commons, 14 July 2004.

    —  US National Intelligence Council, "2020 Project Mapping the Global Future", December 2000

    —   Milton Leitenberg, Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat, Strategic Studies Institute, December 2005, p.16.

    —  Brian Jones, The need for a new response to WMD proliferation, Independent Newspaper, London, 16 August 2004.

12 December 2008

381   9th Report of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, The Decision To Go To War in Iraq, 7 July 2003, Oral Evidence and Appendix HC 813-III (ISBN 0 21 501309 3) Evidence of Mr Robin Cook MP in response to Question 25. Back

382   J Cirincione, J Wolfsthal, M Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats,Second Edition (Pub: Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) 2005, p 13 (ISBN: 0-87003-216-X). Back

383   Evidence of the Secretary of State for Defence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, 18 July 1968. Back

384   Matthew Meselson, interviewed on US Public Broadcasting Service, Frontline "Plague War" 1998 (find at Back

385   Pasechnik was the head of a large laboratory complex in St Petersburg dedicated to offensive BW development. Back

386   Foreign Broadcast Information Service translation of a report of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation, Moscow 1993: "A New Challenge after the "Cold War": The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction." Back

387   Primakov, a career KGB officer, was appointed Head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service in 1991. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin appointed him first Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister. Back

388   Alibekov was deputy Head of Biopreparat, a Soviet organisation dedicated to the development of offensive BW capabilities. Back

389   Brian Jones, London Review of Books, Volume 28 Number 12, 22 June 2006, 31-33. Back

390   Error in published version: "bringing Iran a step closer to producing a weapon." should read "thus eliminating the need for Iran to acquire technologies that would make it easier to produce weapons." Back

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