Letter urges lawmakers to take biothreat seriously

Former White House advisors Joel McCleary and Mark Medish wrote an open letter published in the Washington Times on October 7 that urges lawmakers to take seriously the threat posed by biological weapons.

The letter points to events earlier this year when the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), and former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) gave the United States a failing grade for biodefense.

McCleary and Medish believe that part of the problem lies in the definition of what constitutes a biological weapon and whether they are strategic threats, tools of terrorists or just wildly exaggerated. Without a clear understanding of what they are, the pair wrote in the Washington Times, there can be no understanding as to what they can do.

There are clear examples of the effects of nuclear weapons, they point out.

“As for bioweapons, there are, fortunately, no battlefield data,” the Washington Times letter said. “There has been no biological Hiroshima.”

The pair argue that biological weapons can be just as effective as nuclear weapons, a fact not recognized by policy makers.

“A related obstacle to a clear understanding of biological weapons is simple illiteracy,” the letter continues. “Our national security leadership is a generation removed from education in modern microbiology and therefore ill-equipped to grasp how biological weapons could work.

Panic is not warranted, McCleary and Medish write, but they believe something needs to be done.

“While the administration has taken some first steps on biodefense, including a call for development of antidotes, a systematic escalation of efforts is needed, as in the nuclear arena,” the letter says.

The letter concludes with two important steps that should be taken towards a worthy biodefense structure.

“First, we need our national security leaders to understand the full history and dark achievements of the U.S. and Soviet bioweapons programs during the Cold War," the Washington Times letter says. "Second, while we should continue to pursue avenues of prevention, including multilateral cooperation under the biochemical weapons conventions, we must develop stronger forensics that could track bioweapons back to their source. Most important, we must use technology to build the preparedness needed to protect civilian populations.”

Joel McCleary was a White House aide under Jimmy Carter and a former treasure of the Democratic National Convention. McCleary is a consultant to the Center for Biosecurity.

Mark Medish served as special assistant to the President and senior director on the U.S. National Security Council for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs from 2000 to 2001 and is currently a senior advisor at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.