The cold war was an interesting event for modern society. Two very different political systems at odds with one another were able to balance great power between nations. Even though the United States and the Soviet Union were in possession of nuclear weapons that could have devastated the world as we know it, these weapons were never used. One factor that kept the United States and the Soviets from engaging in an all-out-war was the knowledge that both nations would be completely destroyed, a concept that came to be known as mutually assured destruction. Although there was an uneasy peace between the great power nations during the cold war, there was also international stability. The United States and the international community knew who the enemy was.
By the early 1990s the Soviet Union began to crumble, eventually ceasing to exist. What was once the Soviet Union became Russia and nations that had spent decades under Soviet rule found themselves free to establish their own nations with their own governments. As some of these events were positive, others were negative. During the period of the Cold War, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) such as chemical, biological, and nuclear were held in the hands of power nations. Now, with the end of the cold war, WMDs (and those with the knowledge to build them) where finding their way into the hands of rogue nations and potentially into the hands of terrorist groups. This fact is supported by statements made by the United Nations “the prospect of a terrorist group acquiring and using biological weapons has become one of the most feared threats to international security. According to then UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan, the most important under-addressed threat relating to terrorism and one which acutely requires new thinking on the part of the international community is that of terrorists using a biological weapon.” (Koblentz 2009, p. 201)
Fear of the potential use of a WMD (in the form of a biological weapon) has also found its way into popular culture with television programs such as The Walking Dead, Z Nation, The Last Ship, The Strain, and the upcoming Fear the Walking Dead, indicating that Americans fear the outbreak of natural and/or manmade disease. Additionally, as food production is increasingly outsourced there is fear that US foodstuffs may (through accident or design) may become contaminated by some sort of infectious agent.
These fears have led to a rise in an interest in what is known as biosecurity. Or “the policies and measures taken for protecting a nation’s food supply and agricultural resources from both accidental contamination and deliberate attacks of bioterrorism” (Ryan and Glarum 2008). All of this falls under the heading of bioterrorism “the intentional use of microorganisms or toxins derived from living organisms to cause death or disease in humans or the animals and plants on which we depend.” (Ryan and Glarum 2008) The remainder of this report will cover the nature of biosecurity and potential disease vector threats that may come from food and/or live stock.
Knowing that the United States food supply is in danger of potential contamination, the government has taken steps to prevent potential dangers. This is done through the National Institute of Health and the Office of Science and Technology which is responsible for “the focal point within NIH for the development of policies addressing life sciences research that yields information or technologies with the potential to be misused to threaten public health or national security. The Biosecurity Program manages the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and works with other United States Government entities, the scientific community, and the public to develop policies for the responsible conduct and oversight of life sciences research” (Biosecurity) The importance of protecting the US food supply comes from the fact that several diseases which are fatal to the human population are known as zoonosis or zoonotic and are “an animal infection transmissible to humans. There are more such diseases than you might expect. AIDS is one.” (Quammen 2012, p. 14) A natural zoonotic disease that can potentially infect the US food supply is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or better known as mad cow disease. It is important that all farms and food processing centers are kept clean and up to Department of Agriculture is because “The parts of a cow that are not eaten by people are cooked, dried, ground into a powder, and used for many purposes, including as ingredients in animal feed. A cow gets BSE by eating feed contaminated with parts that came from another cow that was sick with BSE. The contaminated feed contains the abnormal prion, and a cow becomes infected with the abnormal prion when it eats the feed. If a cow gets BSE, it most likely ate the contaminated feed during its first year of life. Remember, if a cow becomes infected with the abnormal prion when it is one year old, it usually will not show signs of BSE until it is five years old or older.” (U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2015) Cows get mad cow disease from eating cows that have already been infected with the disease. Human become infected with mad cow disease by eating meat from cows that have become infected with it. The human form of the infection is known as “Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD)” (U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2015). In terms of spread of the disease “Both vCJD and BSE are not contagious” (U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2015) meaning that an outbreak would be of a short duration due to the fact that to become infected an individual would have to directly eat infected meat. However, due to the fact that infected meat could find its way to hundreds if not thousands of supermarkets across the country, even without a large contagious potential, there is potential that the disease could spread to millions.
When discussing bioterrorism a zoonotic disease that is more commonly discussed is anthrax (Bacillus anthracis).
Much like BSE, anthrax infects animals and can also be spread to infect humans. Also like BSE, anthrax is not contagious and therefore individuals need to be directly exposed to an infected area (farm of food processing location) and have to be directly infected. While it is commonly known that anthrax comes from infected animals, the methods in which the animals become infected remain a mystery “Although anthrax appears to have been recognized for centuries, how animals contract it is still largely in the realms of theory. The spores which form where the organism has been shed by an animal dying from anthrax are most often the source of infection of grazing animals.” (Beyer 2009) Based around the fact that it remains unknown how animals contract anthrax, it is widely accepted how humans are able to contract the disease “Humans almost invariably contract anthrax from handling infected animals or carcasses of animals that have died of the disease, or meat, skins, hair, bones, etc. from such animals.” (Beyer 2009) Will keeping this in mind, safe livestock handling practices are important to limit and/or prevent the spread of the disease.
According to the Center for Disease Control “If a bioterrorist attack were to happen, Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, would be one of the biological agents most likely to be used. Biological agents are germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops.” (The Threat) Anthrax hold potential to be used as a biological weapons because of its overall ease of use. For example:
- Anthrax spores are easily found in nature, can be produced in a lab, and can last for a long time in the environment.
- Anthrax makes a good weapon because it can be released quietly and without anyone knowing. The microscopic spores could be put into powders, sprays, food, and water. Because they are so small, you may not be able to see, smell, or taste them.
- Anthrax has been used as a weapon before. (The Threat)
With this in mind, anthrax does not necessarily require much technical knowledge to develop a weapon that can be used to contaminate livestock and/or a local population. However, anthrax is limited in its scope due to the fact that much like BSE, anthrax is not contagious and therefore victims must come in direct contact with the containment to become ill.
Much of the above information has focused on types of diseases that can be acquired from animals through unsafe livestock handling practices. However, the threat of biological weapons use also comes from the fact that after the fall of the Soviet Union, weapons proliferation of WMDs has increased as non-state actors seek to obtain biological weapons.
An interesting aspect of the proliferation of bioweapons is the fact that nations are not always looking for weapons to be used against an outside enemy. These types of weapons are being used to repress rebellion and/or uprisings within nations, for example “A state might pursue biological weapons as a means of deterrence or coercion. Beyond the dangers of state use, however, these programs risk leakage 12 of capabilities to terrorists that are notably higher than with nuclear programs. The small size and low visibility of biological agents make them more vulnerable to theft or acquisition by bribery.” (Danzig) Evidence in the use of biological weapons to end a civil war can be found in Syria and the actions of the Syrian government. The United Nations has investigated claims of the use of chemical weapons on the part of the Assad regime and found the following “"The United Nations Mission collected clear and convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August 2013” (Abdelaziz, Gorani, & Bickford 2013) While Syria may be the first nation in modern times to be identified as using chemical weapons. The use of said weapons are not unheard of, for example chemical weapons had been used in the 1980s during the Iran/Iraq was “the use of CW (chemical weapons) by both sides created a number of dangerous precedents that continue to resonate. From a global perspective, the use of CW by Iraq and allegedly Iran demonstrated that Third World weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferators could potentially generate significant tactical military and strategic political benefits from the use of such instruments in conflict.” (Ali 2001) The use of biological weapons has become so popular among third world nations during war time is because unlike nuclear weapons “biological agents do not require substantial delivery systems. Even if terrorists do not obtain weapons from states, they may nonetheless tap into knowledge developed in state programs to accelerate their own abilities to produce and employ biological weapons” (Danzig) In terms of WMDs biological weapons are relatively easy to develop due to the fact that many of the weapons that can and/or will be used are developed naturally so that no major knowledge is needed to develop the weapons. In addition, if the plan is to contaminate a food supply this would make the dissemination of biological weapons even easier.
During the period of the cold war there were restrictions in place to prevent the use of WMDs. Both sides during the war understood that if these weapons were used the other side would retaliate in kind with no real winner in the end. However, now that the cold war has ended the world has become more unstable as other nations are working to fill the power void left behind by the end of the Soviet Union. In this case, addition to this non-state actors having more of an impact on international relations and as such may be more willing to deploy WMDs where nations would not.
It has been said that “Because of their relative ease of purchase and development, biological weapons have been called “the poor man’s nuclear bomb.” (Danzig)
The cold war offered the international community safety and security. Power was balanced by the United States in the west and the Soviet Union in the east. Both political and military systems were kept in check by the other. Once the Soviet Union collapsed that created a power void with smaller nations vying with one another in an attempt to fill the power void left behind by the Soviets. The ability to buy and/or steal weapons, and/or buy the technology required to build a WMD has become easier due to the fact that there is now a power void.
The power void left behind by the Soviet Union has another unexpected impact. That being the rise of the non-state actor. Non-state actors can include ethnic groups that are seeking independence and/or a larger voice in government or insurgent/terrorist groups. Biological weapons are appealing to these groups because little advanced knowledge is needed to develop the weapons, especially considering that some disease can to transfer from animal to human.
Bioweapons proliferation from the former Soviet Union is of particular concern. This is due to the fact that the Soviet Union ran “biological Weapons Convention in the largest and most advanced biological warfare establishment in the world.” (Alibek, &Handleman 1999, p. 8). This program operated at both the government and civilian level (the civilian part of the program was known as Biopreparat) all told, this program was operating from at least 50 facilities located in “Moscow, Leningrad, Obolensk, and Koltsovo (Siberia) and standby production facilities in Omutninsk, Pokrov, Berdsk, Penza, Kurgan, and Stepnogorsk (Kazakhstan).” (Tucker 1999) These facilities employed approximately 700,000 scientists and support staff. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and therefore the bioweapons also collapsed, putting the scientific staff that worked on the program out of work. This cased the potential for brain drain, which is those with the advanced knowledge of bio weaponry selling their knowledge to the highest bidder. Another potential danger that may exist from the former Soviet bioweapons being sold, there is ample evidence that indicates that not only is Russia maintaining an illicit biological weapons program, some of these weapons are being sold to rogue nations, for example “U.N. inspectors investigating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program claim to have discovered confidential documents confirming Russia's sale to Baghdad of a fermentation tank that could be used to produce biological weapons.(n51) The 5,000-liter vessel is ostensibly used to manufacture protein for animal feed.(n52) However, in 1995 Iraq was forced to destroy a livestock factory that contained fermentation vessels similar to this one after it admitted that the facility had been built for the purpose of manufacturing biological weapons.(n53) Although Moscow "resolutely rejects" the allegation that it supplied Iraq with "equipment or materials which could be used for prohibited purposes, whether in the biological or any other sphere," the charge demonstrates that Russia has become a prime suspect for the spread of weapons technologies to Iraq and elsewhere.(n54) Indeed, Western intelligence officials have determined that Iran's BW program, which has been active for about ten years and may receive Russian assistance, is close to perfecting new strains of plague and other diseases.(n55) In the cases of Iran and Iraq, however, it is not clear if the boost from Russia had the blessing of Moscow or if it was a freelance effort by rogue elements with access to key technologies.(n56)” (Graeves 1999) In the case of brain drain and the case of selling weapons, Russia has proven to be willing to engage in both activities. Allowing for proliferation of biological weapons to rogue nations and non-state actors.
The danger of this sort of proliferation among non-state actors as there have been incidences where these groups have used bioweapons. In 1995 the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo developed sarin gas and deployed it in the Tokyo subway system “killed 12 people and injured 5,000 more.” (Phipps 2001) Aum had attracted members that had the knowledge to develop biological weapons and had the ability to disseminate them. The fact that this incident occurred at all shows that other such groups may also have the ability to develop biological weapons.
There is additional evidence that indicates that other terrorist groups have also been inquiring about buying biological weapons and/or the components to build them. It is believed that Al Qaeda has had anthrax, or the organism which anthrax is derived from, since 1997. This organism was purchased by bin Laden through the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It was disclosed in June of 2003 by the Central Intelligence Agency that Mohammed Atta and Zacarias Moussaoui had inquired about crop dusters since they had been considering using this type of method in order to disperse biological agents including anthrax. “An early September 2003 Newsweek article included a rumor by a Taliban source that at a meeting in April 2003, bin Laden was planning an “unbelievable” biological attack, the plans for which had suffered a setback upon the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) the previous month in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.” (Getman 2003) Furthermore, though authorities had not found any conclusive leads into who or whom was responsible forte 2001 anthrax mailings, it is disconcerting that a viable biological agent could be delivered throughout the country through the United States Postal Service. This action can cause several fatalities through the process giving potential terrorist a means to use to deliver a biological agent. So far attempts to use biological weapons have been focused on the discrimination of a disease causing vector. However, as this report has already shown there are zoonotic diseases that can be spread from animals to humans. This points to the fact that the US food supply needs to be closely monitored to ensure that nothing and no one is able to contaminate food.
The Department of Homeland Security has the following to say about the danger of contaminated food supply:
- Food or water, especially ready-to-eat food (vegetables, salad bars) could be intentionally contaminated with pathogens or toxins. The water supply is less vulnerable because dilution, filtration, and the addition of chlorine can kill most disease-causing organisms. (Biological Attack Human Pathogens, Bio-toxins, and Agricultural Threats) While it would be difficult for the US water supply to be contaminated due to the fact that water supplies are protected against pathogens, there is still a potential that water can be the target of attack.
- Infected animals can cause people to become ill through contact with the animals or contaminated animal products. (Biological Attack Human Pathogens, Bio-toxins, and Agricultural Threats) More concern should come from the fact that livestock can be a major source of infection that can spread disease. This is especially so due to the fact that US food supplies are increasingly coming from locations outside the US.
According to the USDA “The United States imports significantly greater numbers of cattle than it exports. Canada and Mexico are the only significant cattle suppliers to the U.S. market because of to their geographical proximity and the complementarity of their cattle and beef sectors to that of the United States.” (Melton 2012) Given the fact that a large part of the US cattle supply is imported contamination does not need to occur in the US. This could prove dangerous due to the fact that “Cattle imported from Mexico tend to be lighter-weight cattle intended for stocker or feeder operations in the United States.” (Melton 2012) This provides an additional danger that cattle does not have to be designed for human consumption. Contaminated cattle meant for feed can infect cattle that is designed for slaughter.
Cattle for consumption is also imported from Canada, “at least three-fourths of cattle imports from Canada are destined for immediate slaughter - either cows or fed steers and heifers.” (Melton 2012) Due to the fact that cattle is imported for US consumption, it is also important to protect nations that import cattle, again, this is because cattle can easily be contaminated somewhere outside the US and brought in already contaminated therefor causing danger for US consumers.
Two combined impacts of the end of the cold war are the fact that the nation, has lost some influence on the international stage and the non-state actors have gained influence on the international stage. Both of these events were caused by the fact that former Soviet protectorates were able to gain independence and as such, differing ethnic groups within these former protectorates have attempted to gain influence. A prime example of this are the events occurring in Chechnya and more recent events among rebel groups in the Russian Ukraine.
These events are important to due to the fact that nations are constrained on the types of warfare they will engage in and also what types weapons that will be used during war time. Non-state actors are not constrained by international treaty or even international agreement among nations that WMDs are beyond the pale. With this being the case, it is becoming more likely that the non-state actor will be attempting to buy and/or find an individual with the knowledge to build biological weapons. Biological as opposed to nuclear weapons are more likely to become the weapon of choice due to the fact that biological weapons do not require the same amount of technological training to build. In addition, given the fact that some biological vectors are naturally occurring there is potential that public health officials would miss sings of a larger infection and/or weapon release.
Biological weapons have also become a popular weapon among the non-state actor due to the fact that “Gram-for-gram, biological weapons are the deadliest weapons ever produced.” (Biological Threats| NTI) Large amounts of a biological agents would not be needed to produce desired results. What all of this means is that research can be taking place in small labs that are difficult for the intelligence community to identify. In addition as stated above anthrax and BSE are both naturally occurring, there is also the potential that public health officials would be slow to react to a disease outbreak, allowed it to spread? Also, technology has advanced to the point where disease vectors can be genetically engineered. “Soviet scientists engineered diseases to make them resistant to known medical treatments and also purpo|rtedly created “superbugs” by crossing the properties of highly lethal and contagious diseases. From a public health perspective, both the emergence of new diseases and the natural evolution of pathogens are constantly changing the nature of the biological weapons threat. For example, emerging diseases such as Ebola have proven highly infectious, lethal, and beyond the control of contemporary medicine.” (Biological Threats| NTI) At this point it is also important to note that the Ebola virus had been identified in the 1970s (in sub-Saharan Africa), at that point researchers believed that an infected individual would be unable to travel from the isolated villages to larger population areas not only in Africa, but also in Europe and the United States. All of this changed in 2014 when the Ebola virus was identified in medical aid workers returning from Africa. During this crisis, the disease did not spread into the general population. However, simply because it did not during this outbreak, does not mean that it never will.
The knowledge and understanding of the danger of biological weapons have long been recognized by nations. International treaties to ban the development of said weapons began in the 1970s “The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction, was opened for signature on 10 April 1972. The BWC entered into force on 26 March 1975.” (UNODA- The Biological Weapons Convention) By its nature the BWC stated that nations that were part of the treaty would be unable to develop defensive biological weapons, however it would be acceptable for nations to develop an offensive program one in which vaccines for diseases would be developed if another nation would be use biological weapons. This “offensive” programs operate in secret therefore it is not possible to say with certainty that defensive biological weapons programs have not continued on since the 1970s. It also cannot be said with any amount of certainty that biological weapons technology has not been shared with rogue nations. Intelligence reports that the following nations may be in possession of biological weapons technology “China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Taiwan, as commonly-discussed potential biological weapons countries, but without a clear standard of evidence and with varying degrees of certainty.” (Biological Threats | NTI) Due to the fact that being in position of biological weapons and/or a defensive biological weapons program would run counter to international treaty, nations that may be in possession of one would not exactly be willing to admit that they are in possession of one.
The more nations that begin to develop biological weapons, the more it becomes possible that these weapons may find their way into the hand of non-state actors. These non-state actors are also much more likely to use such weapons.
Popular culture can be used as a barometer of the fears of society. During the 1980s popular culture was focused upon what would happen if there would to be nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was well known at that point that the Soviets were our enemy, the Soviets were something that society should fear. As the cold war ended, there was less focus on who and what society should fear.
After 9/11 the focus shifted, television programs and movies were based around Arab fundamentalists, Society should fear the unknown terrorist. The next attack should from the Arabs. As in previous generations the terrorist became the nameless, faceless enemy yet took on the fear of being a “terrorist” and that “terrorism” from the outside was the new modern concern.
Social fears have shifted again from something even more nameless and faceless than the specter of terrorism. The new fear is based around disease outbreak. Be it a natural outbreak and/or some form of terrorist attack. Biological weapons have become the new cause celebrity. While it is impossible to say how many biological weapons have been produced and/or what nations are in possession of these weapons. The fact remains that these weapons do in fact exist and all major nations of the world, including the United States, Britain and Russia have admitted to developing them.
Treaties have been put in place that ban the production of these weapons, but at least one nation, Russia has admitted to violating that treaty and continued to develop biological weapons for offensive use. The United States on the hand has claimed that while the offensive biological weapons program ended in the 1970s after the BWC a defensive program continued, to defend the United State if the need were to arise.
The Department of Defense operates United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). USAMRIID has been in operation “Since 1969, USAMRIID has served as the Department of Defense's (DoD) lead laboratory for medical biological defense research. While our core mission is to protect the warfighter from biological threats, we also investigate disease outbreaks and threats to public health. Research conducted at USAMRIID leads to medical solutions—therapeutics, vaccines, diagnostics, and information—that benefit both military personnel and civilians. USAMRIID is a subordinate laboratory of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.” (About USAMRIID) The function of USAMRIDD is to research diseases and to create vaccines to protect that US military and general population from disease. Reportedly this is a defensive program that protects the United States from the threat of biological weapons and/or disease research. This means that the United States is also in possession of biological weapons that can be used to attack the United States and its enemies.
In closing, this fear is not as farfetched as it may seem. In late 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax attack took place in the United States, known as Amerithrax. In this case “letters laced with anthrax began appearing in the U.S. mail. Five Americans were killed and 17 were sickened in what became the worst biological attacks in U.S. history.” (Americthrax or Anthrax Investigation 2010) The Amerithrax attacks were perpetrated by one home grown, lone wolf terrorist believed to be Bruce Edwards Ivins. Dr. Ivins worked for USAMRIID and used this position to obtain the anthrax was used in the attacks. Ivins took his own life when he found out that charges were going to be filed against him for the attacks. Therefore it is not known for certain that Dr. Ivins was the Amerithrax attacker or that he worked alone, in addition, no motive has been found. What is known is that Anthrax was easily transported through the US mail system. Causing illness, disease and death. While all of this occurred on a small scale, we may not be as lucky the next time.
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