Tag: biological weapons

NSA Reform or Foreign Policy Signaling? Maritime Provisions in Title VIII of the USA Freedom Act

With much attention being given to the passage of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, there is some odd silence about what the bill actually contains. Pundits from every corner identify the demise of section 215 of the Patriot Act (the section that permits the government to acquire and obtain bulk telephony meta data). While the bill does in fact do this, now requiring a “specific selection term” to be utilized instead of bulk general trolling, and it hands over the holding of such data to the agents who hold it anyway (the private companies).   Indeed, the new Freedom Act even “permits” amicus curiae for the Foreign Surveillance and Intelligence Court, though the judges of the court are not required to have the curiae present and can block their participation if they deem it reasonable.   In any event, while some ring in the “win” for Edward Snowden and privacy rights, another interesting piece of this bill has passed virtually unnoticed: extending “maritime safety” rights and enacting specific provisions against nuclear terrorism.

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Iraq's Chemical Arsenal: Justification for War?

Yesterday, a student asked me about the recent news reports indicating that Iraq did, in fact, have “weapons of mass destruction” back in 2002 and 2003 when the U.S. was attempting to justify a “preemptive” war. The New York Times reported that American soldiers were injured in the past decade by chemically-armed munitions found in Iraq.

Already, a slew of articles in the media have debunked the claim that this vindicates George W. Bush and his Iraq misadventure. This Washington Post piece is perhaps the best since it primarily quotes Bush administration claims from the pre-war period.

The Times piece certainly does not try to claim that Bush is vindicated:

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ISIS and Biological Weapons: Black Flag, But Not the Black Death

This is a guest post by Frank L. Smith III, lecturer at the University of Sydney and author of the new book, American Biodefense: How Dangerous Ideas About Biological Weapons Shape National Security.

The 2003 Iraq War aimed to stop rogue states from using weapons of mass destruction or giving these weapons to terrorists. Now we face ISIS, a terrorist organization that also claims to be a state. But what about WMD? Last week, Foreign Policy reported the discovery of an ISIS laptop that contained a jihadi fatwa on how “it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction,” and, far more troubling, instructions on how to use biological weapons. So has the Islamic State become the triple threat that we supposedly invaded Iraq to prevent?

The laptop in question was captured in Syria earlier this year. Its previous owner was a Tunisian-turned-ISIS fighter who studied chemistry and physics at university. Along with a variety of other material on conducting jihad, “the ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.”

This is clearly not good news. ISIS is bad enough already, and an Islamic State armed with biological weapons would be even worse. As the document on this laptop suggests, “the advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge.” Plague is certainly contagious enough and infamous enough to fuel fear. Moreover, the spectre of WMD often creates considerable confusion to the detriment of sound policy – confusion that I explain in my book about “WMD” and other dangerously inaccurate stereotypes. Continue reading

The downsizing of WMD

What does the term “weapon of mass destruction” mean to you? A few years ago, I was part of a team of academics involved in a project examining the implications of the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of preventive use of force. The editors of the book we produced, William Keller and Gordon Mitchell of the University of Pittsburgh, wanted us to avoid using the phrase “WMD.”

In their introductory chapter, Keller and Mitchell noted that the phrase WMD misleadingly linked together chemical and biological weapons with nuclear weapons:

This semantic leveling obscures the fact that each class of weapons falling under the “WMD” umbrella varies significantly with regard to potential lethality and destructive power; the feasibility of protection and defenses; and potential missions. When dimensions of threat are blurred in this fashion, inaccuracies are easy to introduce. For example, the rhetorical flexibility afforded by the omnibus category “weapons of mass destruction” enabled Bush administration officials to support claims of an Iraqi “WMD” threat (replete with ominous “mushroom cloud” imagery) by pointing to evidence of possible Iraqi chemical weapons development. Obviously, chemical weapons lack the capacity for nuclear destruction, yet as Wolfgang Panofsky points out, “Linking these three classes of weapons in a single WMD category elevates the status of both biological and chemical weapons.”

Yet, despite this reasonable critique, federal law enforcement officials are even now stretching the term WMD to a point well beyond the breaking point.

I refer specifically to the arrest of the so-called “Hutaree militia” in late March. Time, April 12:

federal authorities charged nine alleged Hutaree members with seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.

Did the Michigan Christian Fundamentalist group have chemical or biological weapons — or perhaps nuclear materials to build a “dirty bomb”?

No.

The group planned horrible crimes, but none involved what any reasonable person would consider “weapons of mass destruction,” unless you are the kind of person who would consider even a simple weapon like a machete a WMD:

The group’s alleged plot appears to have required killing a cop at a traffic stop, or after a faked 911 call. Then, the group planned to attack the funeral of that officer — in order to wreak further havoc by killing even more government and law-enforcement officials who would have gathered to mourn.

As Nina Tannenwald has recently argued, the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was intentionally created as a category to render entire classes of weapons illegitimate. As such, the phrase has been vital to building taboos against use of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Tannenwald’s work on the nuclear taboo demonstrates the value of that taboo (though I have challenged the logic of the biological taboo).

Keller and Mitchell accurately note that the phrase was used in a 1948 UN resolution, but Tannenwald’s research reveals that the term was used by policymakers in 1945 to refer to new terrible, horrible, hideous weapons, which were biological and atomic.

The distance between those origins and the Hutaree charges seems vast. If the gap is obliterated, I worry that the phrase will be rendered meaningless and the taboos against genuine WMD will be weakened.

Incidentally, someone writing at Wikipedia found that the term was used in 1937 by Cosmo Lang, the Archibishop of Canterbury, to describe aerial bombardment in Guernica, Spain. In that instance, the phrase directly followed a description of “the appalling slaughter, the suffering, the manifold misery” brought by brutal acts of war.

That too seems different from the current usage — and it obviously didn’t “stick” as World War II, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and other wars involved horrendous conventional bombings that were not described as WMD.

I fully support prosecution of potential domestic terrorists for criminal conspiracies, but I do not believe in inflating these threats by using terms like “weapons of mass destruction.” Does anyone remember how the Bush administration handled a case where a domestic terrorist was actually arrested with chemicals?

New Nuclear Posture

Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Defense presented its latest Nuclear Posture Review Report. I haven’t had a chance to read the entire document yet, but media reports have focused on a new policy declaration that is of great interest to states and scholars alike.

The statement garnering the greatest attention is included in the “Executive Summary” of the NPR (p. viii):

The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.

To that end, the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing “negative security assurance” by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Essentially, the U.S. is reversing longstanding nuclear policy by promising merely to employ “devastating conventional military response” against threats it previously used nuclear weapons to deter: potential chemical or biological weapons (CBW) attacks against the U.S. or its allies. The document makes this explicit, noting that even though the U.S. had abandoned its own CBW programs, it “reserved the right to employ nuclear weapons to deter CBW attack on the United States and its allies and partners.”

Among scholars, this development is interesting because it potentially contributes to strengthening a norm (or perhaps tradition or taboo) of non-use of nuclear weapons. As McGill’s T.V. Paul argues in the book that I just linked, the U.S. refusal to preclude the threat of nuclear retaliation against states using CBW had long weakened the tradition — to the dismay of non-nuclear weapons states everywhere. In fact, during the last decade other nuclear-armed states had followed the U.S. lead and weakened prior non-use pledges in the face of CBW threats in the post-9/11 era.

By excluding the threat of nuclear retaliation against CBW attack, the U.S. is now potentially strengthening the tradition (or norm or taboo) and could serve as a role model for other states that emulated its more threatening previous posture.

Non-nuclear weapons states are likely to be pleased by the new U.S. declaratory strategy since many of them have been arguing since the 1960s for these kinds of “negative security assurances.” It was a point of contention even in the original NPT debates.

Before anyone gets too excited about the U.S. announcement, it should be noted that Iran and North Korea are excluded from the U.S. promise. These states, now apparently called “outliers” rather than “rogue states” by the U.S., have now been explicitly warned that they could still suffer a nuclear blow if they used CBW against the U.S. or its allies.

Indeed, even as the NPR reduced the number of nuclear threats the U.S. is making, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also arguably increased them. By isolating and highlighting the “outliers,” the U.S. is essentially trying to leverage a nuclear threat for counterproliferation purposes:

“If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is that if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you. But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you,” said the secretary of defense.

Still, Gates called the use of nuclear weapons a “last resort.”

This statement amounts to a renewal of the Bush Doctrine, linking the potential first use of military force — in this case nuclear weapons — to counterproliferation aims. As Phil McCauley and I recently warned, the fears about biological weapons proliferation are sufficiently strong that they render the current taboo against their use illogical by classic arms control standards as they increase the risk of war.

The U.S. needs to couple the new policy with active efforts to strengthen the chemical and biological arms control and disarmament regimes as well. It was the U.S. after all, that blocked the negotiated verification protocol to the Biological Weapons convention just months after the 9/11 attacks.

Biological Weapons

A few years ago, a mid-career biochemist enrolled in my master’s level international relations course because he was burned out of working in academic and commercial settings in his field. He wanted to apply his background in biological sciences to his new interest in security politics. The 2001 anthrax attacks, in particular, had influenced his thinking.

Phil McCauley turned out to be a very bright and capable student and we soon figured out a meaningful way to connect our common interests. After all, I spent much of the past decade thinking and writing about the “Bush Doctrine” of preventive war. Fear of biological weapons (BW) proliferation could potentially trigger American use of force.

Many states are surreptitiously working on BW, meaning that international arms control efforts to limit proliferation are failing — or at least that perception is growing globally. In 2001, the Bush administration almost unilaterally killed a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons treaty. The taboo against BW use, however, has been strengthened in the past decade.

We wrote a paper explaining our concerns about these developments and presented it at the 2008 ISAC/ISSS conference in Vail. Here’s the abstract:

States have constructed an ill-considered and potentially dangerous biological weapons (BW) taboo that rebukes the fundamental logic of arms control. Historically, to prevent war, minimize the costs and risks of arms competition, and curtail the scope and violence of war, states embraced an arms control regime that limited both the acquisition and use of BW. However, efforts to limit BW capabilities have stalled even as prohibitions on their use have been maintained and strengthened. The new regime effectively allows states to retain suspicious capabilities that will be viewed as very threatening by their peers. This approach is particularly troublesome as many states now embrace counterproliferation strategy and the prospect of preventive war. The Obama administration seems to have preserved perilous elements of the so-called “Bush Doctrine.” The international community should redouble efforts to build a more effective and verifiable biological weapons nonproliferation regime to augment the existing taboo against use.

The Illogic of the Biological Weapons Taboo was published this week in the Spring 2010 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly.

The paper explores Obama administration policy documents and concludes that it has not rejected the Bush Doctrine. As the news story linked above explains, it also decided in December not to reverse the Bush policy on the 2001 Verification Protocol.

Feedback on the paper would be welcome.

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