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
Senators Graham and Talent are right that the intelligence community is unlikely to be able to provide tactical warning of an attack. Given this, it is hard to understand how they arrive at their concluding recommendation that “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.” This recommendation, which does not follow from the generally sound discussion which precedes it, perpetuates a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying situational awareness issue when it comes to biological threats.
In fact, the very question they were responding to is an example of what Colonel Larsen refers to as “Asking the wrong question.” The real question isn’t “Does the Intelligence Community have adequate resources and capabilities to identify and thwart a biological attack?” Rather, the question that should be asked is “What would it take to achieve situational awareness with regard to biological threats?” The answer to this question goes far beyond anything the Intelligence Community, as that term has traditionally been understood, can or should be asked to do.
As noted by Senators Graham and Talent, biological weapon development can be easily conducted without generation of detectable intelligence signature. In short, the characteristics of biological weapons and other biological threats render the traditional intelligence paradigm relatively impotent. We need to begin thinking in terms of a differently composed effort that would, of course, include some focused intelligence work of the traditional type. However, it would also have to include significant elements based in biosecurity and biosafety, together with the oversight and enforcement mechanisms, including Law Enforcement, associated with those kinds of activities. It would also have to include a strong biosurveillance element.
Bioweapons are but one source of the kinds of biological threats that we increasingly face. There are also threats arising out of natural sources (i.e., mutating human and zoonotic diseases) and unintentional human sources (e.g., laboratory accidents and questionable agricultural practices). Biosecurity measures are aimed primarily at intentional human sources. Biosafety is aimed at both intentional and accidental human sources in the laboratory setting. Both biosecurity and biosecurity measures have the potential to increase threat awareness among those involved in legitimate biological research. Effective oversight of both will also provide a degree of situational awareness amongst those who carry out the oversight. Given the spread of biotechnology and the low signature of suspicious biological work, together with the potential for disease to arise outside of the laboratory setting, biosurveillance is a necessary component of an overall biothreat situational awareness capability. The earlier an outbreak is detected, the earlier the response, both medical and otherwise, can begin.
There are documents available on the website of the International Security and Biopolicy Institute that discuss biothreat situational awareness, biosecurity, biosafety, biosurveillance, biological response preparedness and related issues in some detail. ( see http://biopolicy.org/reports-publications ) The ideas presented there, not all of which are shared by everyone concerned about biological threats, do provide an interesting mix of options and approaches that should at least be considered if and when the US seeks to develop a more comprehensive and more fully integrated strategy for dealing with biological threats.