On April 21, 2010 the chair and vice chair of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent (R-MO), testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2010. Subsequently, the committee chairman, Bennie Thompson (D-MS), submitted this “Question for the Record” regarding intelligence capabilities for biodefense.
In your view, does the Intelligence Community have adequate resources and capabilities to identify and thwart a biological attack?
This answer was submitted to the committee by Senators Graham and Talent.
Regarding the identification aspect of your question, both the intelligence community and the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have clearly “identified” the threat of bioterrorism, however, thwarting (preventing) an attack is a low probability event, no matter how much we spend on intelligence efforts.
With a large percentage of our intelligence resources focused on the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, we failed to adequately detect a massive offensive bioweapons program in the Soviet Union that included 50,000 scientists and technicians working in scores of facilities spread across 12 time zones. The intelligence community failed to properly identify both the intent and capability of the Soviet’s BW program. Furthermore, we now know that al Qaeda began their bioweapons program in the late 1990s with two labs in Afghanistan and one in Malaysia. Once again, the intelligence community failed to identify both intent and capability prior to DoD’s discovery of the two labs in Afghanistan after 9/11.
While it is important that bioterrorism remain a high priority for the intelligence community, we must also realize that we will most likely have only strategic warning of an attack, not tactical warning. We can achieve higher quality of strategic warning, and perhaps tactical warning, by ensuring that the intelligence community has the top-quality scientific staff required to properly analyze the emerging threat of hi-tech bioweapons through better use of human and open source intelligence. Tactical warning, however, is highly unlikely.
This was demonstrated in 1999 by a Defense Threat Reduction Agency program called Biotechnology Activity Characterization by Unconventional Signatures (BACUS). Nuclear programs and large-scale chemical programs produce large intelligence signatures. BACUS demonstrated that there would be virtually no intelligence signature for a bioweapons program—a program capable of producing enough weaponized pathogens to attack a dozen American cities.
Al Qaeda’s stated intent to kill large numbers of Americans, combined with the facts that virtually all likely bioterrorism pathogens are available in nature and that the biotechnical revolution now gives non-state actors the technical capability required to produce and deliver sophisticated bioweapons, led the WMD Commission to the conclusion that America’s primary defense against bioterrorism is robust response capability. Major improvements in response capabilities not only limits the effect of an attack, it also serves as a deterrent.
Bottom line: The best way to improve America’s intelligence capabilities against the bioterrorism threat is to provide the IC with an increase in highly-qualified personnel dedicated to this mission. As we stated in World At Risk (recommendation 10), “highly-qualified” includes people with appropriate language/cultural knowledge and scientific/technical skills.
Bob Graham, Chair
Jim Talent Vice Chair