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W.E. Gutman: The new alchemy of terrorism

Posted: March 12, 2010 6:43 p.m.
Updated: March 14, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Terrorism is not a new form of warfare. It is as old as the human race. For millennia, acts of terror were committed by individuals and groups in support of ideological causes.

What distinguishes the present from previous periods in history is the coincidence between the vastly greater methods available to terrorists and the increasing number of targets, especially in urban, industrialized technologically advanced societies.

One such method involves transforming nature into an instrument of death.

Waging war with toxic chemicals and lethal microbes is a subject abhorrent to contemplate. The notion that micro-organisms and chemicals can be "weaponized" is the stuff of extreme nightmares. Alas, nightmares are now spilling into everyday reality.

Welcome to the Little Shop of Horrors, the "Brave New World" we never expected would dawn. Chemical weapons and, to a lesser extent, biological weapons, are remarkably easy to acquire and cheap to produce, hardly more complex than conventional munitions.

They do not involve high-technology. They are inexpensive and the basic ingredients for, say, a nerve agent such as sarin (used by the Nazis and more recently in the Tokyo subways) are similar to those for fertilizers and insecticides.

These are inherently sinister weapons of terror that react with human tissue, injure and destroy organs, and ultimately kill.

Equally frightening is the ease with which biochemical weapons can be acquired. These scourges are available not only to major powers but to developing nations with a demonstrated flair for apocalypse.

In 1996, 14 countries were known to possess them - 10 more than had been anticipated. The number now exceeds 40. Fifteen to 20 other nations are shopping around for raw materials. Some may already be stockpiling these weapons of mass destruction.

Despite recent cryptic allusions by the Obama administration and similarly fuzzy murmurs by the media that biochemical agents, not nuclear devices, loom as the terrorists' weapon of choice, the depth and quality of U.S. intelligence on their capabilities and intentions remains less than adequate.

According to a former member of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Review Commission, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "there is reason to doubt that if any nation or group achieved a sudden breakthrough in weaponry or delivery systems capability, the U.S. would learn of it in time to pre-empt an attack or marshal the resources to neutralize it fast enough to reduce the inevitable death toll."

As early as 1985, the commission warned that "proliferation is an extremely serious danger which requires more vigorous action than ever." It added that U.S. and allied governments have failed to devise and take strong measures against known potential users and that response against this mounting threat has been "lacking."

The commission agreed with the French position that "use of biochemical weapons must not be allowed to become banal." There is danger that this is precisely what is happening today.

Neil C. Livingstone, a pre-eminent authority on terrorism who predicted the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center on CNBC six months before they occurred, said that the U.S. currently possesses no effective defense against this real and present danger, and that America's open society is highly vulnerable to this brand of terrorism.

To the extent that the gaps in U.S. intelligence result from an overdependence on photographic and electronic data-gathering technology, while neglecting human intelligence, the problem may reflect a glaring deficiency in modern U.S. intelligence methods.

We should be worried. Biochemical warfare is probably the most harrowing national security issue the U.S. must resolve.

While traditional solutions have been identified in the form of weapons-acquisition programs, alliance policies and diplomatic initiatives, no approach has yet secured a clear consensus.

The problem stems from deep-rooted feelings that, in some way, biochemical weapons go beyond the "acceptable" level of battlefield brutality. Any issue involving such a high degree of emotion is likely to encounter difficulty in the formulation of a sound and all-inclusive policy.

The 2006 death-by-poison of former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko - with traces of radioactive thallium and polonium 210 - remind us that as the grand histrionics of international politics unfold on the world stage, a subtler, deadlier game of "catch me if you can" takes place every day, far from the flourish and affectation of global diplomacy.

Less well-documented, perhaps ignored because of its enormity, is a more troubling reality.

Modern alchemists in laboratories around the world are hard at work transmuting pathogens and concoctions of staggering toxicity into instruments of mass destruction.

Upcoming columns will examine the origins and evolution of a clandestine industry that specializes in turning nature into a doomsday arsenal.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author, and the co-founder in 1986 of the now-defunct intelligence magazine, NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) Defense and Technology. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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