Panel of experts discusses past, future of bioterror

A March 19 briefing titled "Deterring Biological Threats," hosted by the Center for a New American Security, brought together a panel of experts to discuss the threat of biological weapons.

The panel mainly focused on historical records pertaining to the destructive potential of the United States and the USSR's bioweapons programs.

Al-Qaeda's search for anthrax is well-documented, the panel said, and the amount of interest in biological attacks appears to be increasing, though the means of deterring and preventing bioterror threats is still vague.

Taped comments from Bill Patrick III, one of the last surviving members of the former U.S. offensive bioweapons program that President Nixon discontinued in 1969, opened the panel. Patrick's comments described U.S. Army tests conducted to assess the viability of biological weapons.

The army used relatively less dangerous bacteria that were transmitted int he same manner as anthrax to conduct tests in U.S. cities. The tests showed the potential for an attack to infect hundreds of thousands of citizens and that significant deaths would occur before the disease even spread beyond the initially exposed citizens.

David Hoffman, a Washington Post contributing editor, then discussed the Soviet bioweapons program in the years following the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which began in 1975.

The Soviet's covert offensive weapons program, which was continued as Biopreparat, a civilian agency, produced the capacity to manufacture massive quantities of anthrax and smallpox, Hoffman said, adding that there was little evidence of the Soviet ability to deliver such bioweapons.

It is believed, however, that the Soviets planned to follow nuclear attacks with biological and anti-crop attacks meant to leave no survivors.

The briefing ended with Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a Senior Fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, discussing his recent report on Al-Qaeda efforts to acquire anthrax. Details have shown an organized and persistent effort to pursue the acquisition of anthrax.