The United States remains vulnerable to deadly biological warfare attacks that could kill tens of thousands of people, several weapons specialists told Congress on Friday.
Four bioweapons experts told the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats that terrorists could easily manufacture bacterial weapons like tularemia, an infectious disease that U.S. bioweapons tests in the 1960s revealed capable of producing deaths in the tens of thousands through weaponized infectious diseases.
Rogue states like North Korea and Syria also are suspected of having germ weapons and stockpiles, the experts said.
“Unfortunately, some of the best potential bioweapons exist in nature and are readily available,” retired Army Maj. Gen. Phillip Russell told the hearing.
“This information is widely available on the Internet,” he said. “The equipment is for sale on the Internet. We have seen a tremendous shift of advantage to the adversaries, in this regard, because of the ability of a very small group of people with the expertise to manufacture these weapons. And the weapons are very, very dangerous.”
Russell warned that the Pentagon is unprepared for an attack using biological weapons and has no preventive medical countermeasures for two of the most deadly agents.
“I believe that a significant national vulnerability exists that will persist unless action is taken to improve our countermeasures development efforts,” he said.
Brett Giroir, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives at Texas A&M University said he also worries about biological weapons attacks.
“I share Gen. Russell's concern about the known threats,” he said. “As a critical care physician, I've treated both SED and tularemia and the thought of having hundreds or thousands of such patients can not even be comprehended by the medical community.”
Russell said he took part in a two-year study of U.S. offensive biological weapons programs that were ended in 1969. It determined that in certain attacks, bio weapons could kill up to 100,000 people.
“The U.S. offensive biowarfare program was very large, very well- funded and very successful,” he said. “By 1969, when the program was terminated, it had achieved the ability to deliver lethal and incapacitating agents in a dry powdered aerosol over very large areas—up to hundreds of square miles.
The agents studied included tularemia and staphylococcal enterotoxin B, known as SEB.
“Tularemia is one of the most infectious agents known, and when delivered by aerosol in high doses, causes a severe respiratory disease that can be fatal,” Russell said. “Tularemia is widely disseminated in nature and easily obtained. SEB causes rapid incapacitation and is also lethal in high concentrations.”
Both agents and the means to deliver them were manufactured by the U.S. military and stockpiled, he said. The arms would be used in combination: one for rapid effect and the other for lethality.
“Both of these agents are readily available to anybody who can isolate a bacteria,” he said.
Russia, China, and Iran—not mentioned by the experts during the hearing—also are suspected of having large-scale biological weapons programs.
The State Department annual report to Congress on arms compliance made public recently stated that China, North Korea, and Russia engaged in activities with biological weapons applications. On Russia the report was categorical in stating, “Russian entities remained engaged … in BW-relevant activities.”
Russell said tularemia is 10,000 times more infectious than anthrax, an agent used in the 2001 attacks in the United States that the FBI linked to Fort Detrick bioweapons specialist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008. Anthrax however lingers longer and is a “very, very dangerous” bioweapon, he said.
Bruce Bennett, senior defense analysts with the RAND Corp., said North Korea has a major biological weapons program that included anthrax, cholera, smallpox, and plague, the latter two being infectious diseases.
“North Korean special forces are a likely means of delivering biological weapons,” Bennett said. “The North has some 200,000 special forces, some of whom could deliver devastating biological attacks against South Korea, Japan, and even the United States.”
Depending on wind, weather, and population density, “these forces could infect perhaps 50,000 people per kilogram of anthrax used,” he said.
“North Korean biological weapons pose potentially serious though uncertain threats to South Korea and to the United States,” Bennett said. “This threat should press the United States and South Korea to pursue more complete protections.”
Giroir said genetically modified biological weapons—those that can be designed to attack people with specific genetic markers—are also a threat.
However, Giroir warned that the U.S. government and military need to be prepared for a completely unexpected “unknown unknown” bioweapon—some new type of agent that could emerge.
Such preparations would include frequent testing and exercises against biological weapons attacks, stockpiling vaccines and antidotes and readying facilities and laboratories for rapid production and distribution of anti-biological weapons materials.
Amy Smithson, with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said Iraq under Saddam Hussein developed biological weapons capable of causing liver cancer and gangrene.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas) said biological weapons threats should be at the top of the list of emerging threats to U.S. security.
“Today's hearing is a reminder that the national security threats to our nation do not go away or wait patiently while we try to straighten out our budget woes,” he said.
“There are very real and very significant dangers in the world, and the foremost target is America and Americans.
Russell said one of the problems for government is a lack of coordination between agencies and inefficient and uncoordinated efforts.
The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of civilian biological warfare defenses and the Pentagon deals with military biowarfare defense. The Department of Health and Human Services also is responsible for countering the effects of bio weapons.
“The fundamental answer is senior leadership and direction,” Russell said. “If there's strong central senior leadership, the agencies will respond and work together. If there is not, they will not. They will go their own way. And there's a lot of history to support that view.”