The U.S. Government Is the Real Bioterror Threat


August 8, 2008
Ivan Eland
Independent Institute

Assuming the federal government has, after almost seven years, finally identified
the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks in 2001–admittedly a generous assumption
given that for most of those years, it pursued, hounded, embarrassed, and ruined
the career of the wrong man–larger dangers remain. As is normally the
case with issues surrounding terrorism, the average citizen will probably be
shocked to learn that their government is often a bigger threat than the terrorists.
Remember the CIA’s creation of the 9/11 threat by supporting the most
radical Islamist groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s
and then the U.S. government’s provocation of terrorist attacks from those
same militants by its non-Islamic military presence in Islamic Persian Gulf
countries in the 1990s, which had continued unnecessarily subsequent to the
first Gulf War.

Similarly, in the case of bioterrorism, the threat from the government is greater
than from foreign groups such as al Qaeda. Although U.S. intelligence has created
fear among the U.S. public by saying that al Qaeda has made efforts to obtain
biological weapons, the capabilities of small terrorist groups to make, handle,
weaponize, and disperse biological agents is very limited. Even Aum Shinrikyo,
a well-funded Japanese terrorist group that hired Ph.D. scientists, could not
successfully carry out a biological weapons attack. (Even their chemical attacks,
which are technologically easier to accomplish, were ham-handed and did not
result in mass deaths.) The sophisticated weaponization and dispersion of biological
agents are difficult for technologically challenged and relatively poor terrorist
groups to master; they usually require the resources and technology of governments.

Whether Bruce Ivins, a government bioscientist, is the real culprit in the
anthrax attacks or not, it seems that the FBI has traced the perpetrator to
the U.S. government’s own research facility, which has plenty of people
qualified to carry out such an attack. And apparently some employees would have
a motive to do so. The FBI insinuated that Ivins had a motive because his anthrax
vaccine research program was in trouble. What better way to get more money for
your project that to generate a non-hypothetical threat to combat?

It’s true that the vast majority of people on the government’s
payroll working on lethal biological agents would not stoop to perpetrate such
a heinous crime. Yet the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax attacks the same year
had the effect that Ivins allegedly desired. An avalanche of government funding
went into countering the minimal threat from a terrorist group capable of using
biological weapons. To capture some of the governmental windfall, many medical
and infectious disease programs tried to tie their efforts to battling bioterrorism.
It worked.

Before 9/11, only five laboratories existed that were equipped to study the
most lethal bioagents—biosafety level 4 labs. Now there are fifteen in
operation or being built. Combined, there are now 400 biosafety 3 and 4 facilities,
which can produce lethal anthrax. In all, nationwide, 14,000 scientists can
work on such lethal biological agents, many of which are researchers at non-governmental

According to experts, security at such facilities is lax; the government merely
requires them to have locked doors but no video surveillance. And government
background checks of employees would not prevent a person who had homicidal
tendencies or a sociopathic personality—allegedly exhibited by Ivins—from
working in them. Even if Ivins is not the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks,
he made homicidal threats to a therapist a year before the attacks and was allowed
to continue to work in a lab with dangerous bioagents for years after he exhibited
mental problems. (Not to mention that the FBI seems to have ignored such information
for years while erroneously pursuing an innocent suspect.)

Thus, to combat a minimal bioterror threat from ragtag terrorist groups, the
government has actually dramatically increased the probability of another bioattack
from a trained scientist—whether because of malicious criminal intent,
mental illness, or a desire to increase funding for his or her antidote or vaccine
program—who could competently carry out such an attack. This counterproductive
effect resembles what the government did to remedy coordination problems among
security agencies that caused a failure to detect and prevent the 9/11 attacks:
its creation of the Department of Homeland Security and reorganization of the
intelligence community added more bureaucracy, thus making coordination even
more difficult. In short, the anthrax case illustrates few security problems
exist that the government doesn’t create or make worse.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent
Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an
M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George
Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the
Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security
issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee
and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author
of the books, The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense

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