May-June 2008 Vol. 42, No. 3
Biowarfare isn't a new threat, rather one that's always changing. We asked MIT bioweapons expert Jeanne Guillemin to put the issue into perspective.
THE FUTURIST: In your book Biological Weapons, you discuss the Japanese biowarfare efforts in Manchuria as well as those of the United States and the Soviet Union. Is there any single episode or event in the history of biological warfare that stands out as particularly relevant today?
Guillemin: In the Tokyo War Crimes Trial of 1946-1948, Occupation officials could have prosecuted the Japanese biological weapons activities as war crimes. Instead, the crimes were buried in intense secrecy. The United States and other prosecutors turned a blind eye to the evidence even as U.S. military intelligence personnel were offering immunity to Japanese program scientists in return for technical information, not unlike the bargains the United States made with Nazi weapons scientists.
Like the Nuremberg trials, the Tokyo trial brought international attention to horrendous crimes against humanity, but, influenced by Cold War antagonisms, it left out Japan's horrendous biological weapons research on forced human subjects, (which rivaled any of the horrors revealed in Nuremberg) and the repeated, intentional infection of thousands of Chinese with fatal diseases. Japanese leaders already in the dock could have been charged with violating international laws against harming civilians in war and the use of biological weapons.
By not prosecuting them, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and subsequently the Soviet Union were able to pursue their own secret biological weapons programs without fear that their scientists and officials would be dragged before a similar court for war crimes. It matters today that individuals, including heads of state, who might be contemplating biological weapons activities understand that these weapons are now internationally illegal, according to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
THE FUTURIST: How is advancing technology changing the threat of biological warfare in the twenty-first century?
Guillemin: Technology by itself is not the driving force behind the threat of biological weapons. That force continues to be political. But for the sake of discussion, we can say that the technology for biological weapons is characterized by two levels of threat. One is residual, emanating from the old program, (including those of the United States and the Soviet Union), in which the weapons potential of anthrax, tularemia, plague, and other infectious diseases was developed.
Many barriers exist to protect targeted populations. The political problem, which was demonstrated in the U.S. response to the 2001 anthrax letters, is that those people on the margins of mainstream society will be less well protected than those of higher social status or income. The other threat concerns innovations in human genetics and neurology that someone could exploit for military ends in the same way that physics and chemistry begat weapons in previous centuries.
THE FUTURIST: How do you see this threat evolving in the next 10 years? The next twenty years?
Guillemin: Just as in the past, the threat of specific technical innovations will directly depend on government secrecy and on willingness of skilled scientists to dedicate themselves to military programs that appear to be in the interests of national defense, though they defy international law. Unfortunately, history shows that the military pursuit of advantageous knowledge can lead to capabilities that are more offensive than defensive. In World War II, based on faulty estimates of German capabilities, the Allies moved forward with important germ weapon innovations that they initially claimed were for retaliation but that had inherently offensive potential. The mass production of anthrax bombs is an example. The Soviet Union covertly expanded its own program during the 1970s and 1980s, explaining to its scientific cadre that the expansion