Published on ForeignPolicy.com on October 13, 2009
By Lynn C. Klotz and Edward J. Sylvester
Article summary below; read the full text online
In the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government set out with unprecedented haste and vehemence to root out terrorists or state agents plotting similar assaults anywhere in the world and to prepare the United States for the aftermath should any succeed. But despite the unprecedented devastation, aerial hijackings had occurred before and the kinds of measures needed to prevent their recurrence were generally understood. Although there were well-founded fears of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, this was also nothing new. The United States had already lived with the threat of nuclear attack for more than half a century.
But the lethal anthrax-letter mailings that quickly followed 9/11 represented something new and potentially even more terrifying. The letters containing laboratory-grown anthrax spores mailed to U.S. Senate and media offices killed five people and left many more permanently injured. This was a small number compared with the World Trade Center casualties, but the so-called Amerithrax attacks foretold what true biowarfare might bring, a new threat with the awful prospect of mass deaths and unstoppable pandemics on a scale never before known and against which we would be defenseless.
The Bush administration’s response was to hastily cobble together a massive, largely secret, biodefense program that has so far cost $50 billion to $60 billion. The number of high-biosecurity laboratories working on pathogens has multiplied to more than 1,000.
These labs dot the map in locations ranging from university campuses to hospitals to research institutes, from densely packed urban centers to quiet residential neighborhoods. The research juggernaut has received little public scrutiny and, as with other security programs launched in those tense days, it’s worth asking if it has really made the United States any safer. We think that the race to develop countermeasures to biological weapons might have actually increased the probability of a bioterrorist attack and made it more difficult to achieve the kind of international cooperation that can truly reduce this threat.
Lynn C. Klotz is a senior science fellow with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Edward J. Sylvester is a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. They are the co-authors of Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense Is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure, which comes out Oct. 15.