Outside editorial: A biological imperative

Posted: Monday, November 05, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Whatever happened to "trust but verify'? That was former President Reagan's sensible advice on enforcing a nuclear weapons treaty. It should also be the guiding principle of proposed changes in the global Biological Weapons Convention, but even as anthrax stalks the United States, the Bush administration won't go for it.

In May, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan persuaded a broad coalition of countries to put teeth into the weak 1972 treaty by requiring nations to permit surprise inspections of plants in which bioweapons could be made. Annan's "draft protocol" died July 25, when U.S. negotiator Donald Mahley rejected it, saying inspectors "would put national security and confidential business information at risk."

U.S. drug companies, which are very large campaign contributors, had lobbied the Bush administration against strengthening the treaty, saying inspectors might steal commercial secrets.

Now, two weeks before a U.N. meeting to revive the protocol, it is being hammered again by biotech lobbyists and members of the administration who are philosophically opposed to arms control agreements, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who in 1997 argued unsuccessfully against a similar U.N. plan to monitor chemical weapons. As an alternative to the U.N. proposals, they offer nothing more than a provision making bioweapons manufacturing a crime and urging nations to cooperate. Run that one past the postal workers and others who contracted anthrax and the families of those who died.

The United Nations' draft lays out specific guidelines to prevent inspectors from collecting privileged business information. If the Bush administration is concerned that the guidelines aren't tough enough, then it should strengthen them. How about a professional cadre of credentialed and certified bioweapons inspectors, much as the International Atomic Energy Association has done for nuclear plants? In half a century of visits, the association's inspectors, bound by strict laws and ethics codes, haven't been accused of stealing any proprietary information.

The administration's other key argument against inspections is that they would "create a false sense of security." Yes, inspectors will not be able to stop every lunatic who tries to chop up anthrax in his blender. Or even every rogue nation that resists inspection. But an international team of trained inspectors would make it much harder to hide the sort of technically sophisticated operations, including bomblets, aerosolizers and industrial-sized drying machines-necessary to prepare a large and successful attack.

Obviously, no single treaty can stop bioterrorism. But a treaty that trusts but doesn't verify provides no meaningful shield at all.

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