Fort Detrick conducts research to defend the United States against some of the most deadly biological agents in the world. Special protection of the facility is emblematic of the longtime major concern by intelligence officials that biological weapons are potentially the most dangerous weapons that could be employed by terrorists.
“Frankly, when I heard the news, I thought, ‘It’s got to be biochemical,’” said Stan Bedlington, a retired CIA analyst at the agency’s Counterterrorism Center. “This is frightening enough and yet, you could take a small plane and sprinkle anthrax over New York City and wipe out half the population.”
Now, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, there are differing opinions about the likelihood of such attacks. Analysts warn that their catastrophic nature cannot be diminished. But somewhat ironically, after Sept. 11, the very unpredictability of biological weapons makes them less useful to terrorists.
“If biological weapons are as likely to be chaotic and catastrophic as some people think, why have they been so infrequently used?” said Leonard A. Cole, an author and political scientist at Rutgers University-Newark who has written extensively about terrorist threats by biological, chemical and nuclear means.
“On a theoretical level, one could create a scenario that would be horrible,” Cole said in a telephone interview. “But it is far less predictable that all the factors will produce the terrorist’s desired effect.”
Yet there is significant concern about the potential of all parameters coming together to produce a devastatingly lethal biological attack. “The combination of available technology and lethality has made biological weapons at least as deadly a danger as the better known chemical and nuclear threats. The bombings in East Africa [against U.S. embassies] killed hundreds,” wrote John Deutch, former director of the CIA, in a 1998 Harvard University study. “A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly kill thousands, or tens of thousands,” according to the study. “If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or the distribution of a deadly pathogen, the chaos and devastation would have gone far beyond our meager ability to describe.”
Of greatest concern is the virus that causes smallpox, a disease with a 30 percent death rate. Smallpox was wiped from the planet 24 years ago in a global vaccination program. There are only two supplies of the virus left: one under tight security at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and another at a Siberian laboratory in Russia.
According to Dr. D.A. Henderson, an epidemiologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies in Baltimore, evidence suggests the virus may have been replicated.
While biological weapons are relatively easy to produce, the successful dispersion of such weapons depends on a series of physical and atmospheric conditions. A biological agent has to be dispersed over populated areas with winds blowing in the right direction and at proper altitude. Agents such as anthrax, against which the military is conducting a particularly vigorous vaccine program, can be mass produced, Cole said.
But the variables involved make a predictable outcome less likely for a terrorist. “Nothing could be more predictable than the consequence of smashing a large jetliner into a skyscraper,” he said.
Fort Detrick is a logical site to defend. Research into biological weapons there in the past has included such agents as anthrax and plague. The United States learned that the Soviet Union breached the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention prohibiting such research and continued to develop biological weapons into the 1990s.
For its part, the United States said it stuck to developing defense strategies for biological attacks. Critics have sometimes charged that since developing defensive strategies presupposes the need for testing material, the United States could quickly gear up to produce an offensive biological capacity.
“If I have a small amount of anthrax, it would take a few days to develop a huge arsenal of anthrax,” Cole said. “In 10 hours, one bacteria can yield a billion. A knowledgeable high school graduate could do it.”