Cornell University professor says bioweapons threat is increasing

The critical questions that frame the understanding of biological weapons include what biological weapons threaten the U.S.; how the threats have changed after the Cold War, the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the development of biotechnology; and how to better assess such threats for biodefense policy, a Cornell University professor said during a lecture Nov. 9.

Professor Kathleen Vogel, science and technology studies and faculty member of the Peace Studies Program, spoke about the issue of biothreats and policy logistics, according to The Cornell Daily Sun.

According to Vogel, throughout history and across the world there have been analytical failures in detecting and assessing the scope of bioweapons programs, be they in the Soviet Union, Iraq, Japan, Afghanistan or the United States.

“There’s this growing, elusive, more technologically advanced set of bioweapons threats due to the increasing pace and infusion of biotechnology,” Vogel said.

Vogel approaches U.S. bioweapons assessments as the result of a “sociotechnical assemblage” made up of narratives and accounts. The early 1990s brought about geopolitical changes with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rogue states, such as Iraq, arose, creating concern in the U.S. over the difficulty of detecting covert weapons programs.

The 1995 Tokyo subway attack raised concerns in the U.S. because it demonstrated the capacity of a non-state actor to perform a chemical activity on a large scale.

The 2001 anthrax attacks underscored the need for more information, especially as weapons technology becomes increasingly accessible. Until U.S. military forces found an al-Qaida makeshift lab in Afghanistan, the U.S. was unsure who had performed the attack.

“We didn’t know that al-Qaida was trying to do this in Afghanistan and this, once again, indicated that the US intelligence committee has underestimated another bioweapons threat,” Vogel said.

Scientific literature on pathogen research raises concerns about the accessibility of scientific knowledge to dangerous sources. She emphasized the growing threat of non-state actors and how difficult enacting preventative measures and policy becomes because of the stealth-like nature of the attacks.

New technical analytic units have arisen because of this increasing concern, such as directorates in the CIA and the Weapons, Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center in 2001. Even earlier, the Nonproliferation Center was founded in 1992, creating new science advisory groups to increase biological expertise at the same time that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency increased their focus on biochemistry.

In the early 2000s, there was increased support for “science-based” threat assessments in intelligence in the policy arena. The focus was on biological and genetically engineered agents, and technical assessments were separated from the notion of an adversarial attack.