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The Great Illusion

In a recent Washington Examiner column, Gene Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute, suggests that we worry too much about serious threats to national security. He posits that we are in an era of great peace and stability.

To downplay the threat of bioterrorism, Mr. Healy quotes Milton Leitenberg from the University of Maryland: “The idea that four guys in a cave are going to create bioweapons from scratch — that will be never, ever, ever.”

The statements of both Mr. Healy and Mr. Leitenberg require rebuttal.

Mr. Healy believes that: “Free trade leads to a wealthier world, and a wealthier world is a safer world.” He also quotes the new Human Security Report: “Greatly increased levels of international trade and foreign direct investment have raised the costs of conquest and shrunk its benefits.… In today’s open global trading system, it is almost always cheaper to acquire goods and raw materials by trade than to invade a country in order to steal them.”

While a strong supporter of free trade, this line of argument always takes me back to the Nobel Prize winning book, The Great Illusion by Norman Angell, first published in 1909 and one of the best selling books of its era.

The great military historian John Kegan best described Angell’s work: “Europe in the summer of 1914 enjoyed a peaceful productivity so dependent on international exchange and co-operation that a belief in the impossibility of a general war seemed the most conventional of wisdoms. In 1910 an analysis of prevailing economic interdependence, The Great Illusion, had become a best-seller; its author Norman Angell had demonstrated, to the satisfaction of almost all informed opinion, that the disruption of international credit inevitably to be caused by war would either deter its outbreak or bring it speedily to an end.”

Four years later, the world learned that this economic interdependence would neither deter war nor keep it short. Following World War I, Angell revised his work and re-released it in 1933, arguing it is almost always cheaper to acquire goods and raw materials by trade than to invade a country. (Do you understand why I had the déjà vu when I read the quote from the recently released Human Security Report?)

Bottom line: I am not ready to nominate the authors of the Human Security Report for the Nobel Peace Prize. The world remains a dangerous place, arguably far more dangerous than either 1914 or 1939. People have not changed, but technology has, and that is where Mr. Leitenberg continues to mislead and misinform.

“The idea that four guys in a cave are going to create bioweapons from scratch — that will be never, ever, ever.” This is a favorite sound bite of Mr. Leitenberg and it is frequently quoted in the press. Like many of his statements, it is factually correct and totally irrelevant to the debate.

The more appropriate quote comes from Dr. Gerald Epstein at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “I don’t worry about terrorists in caves becoming biologists, I worry about biologists becoming terrorists.” Most competent analysts spend little time worrying about guys in long robes and unkempt beards sitting in a cave brewing up a dangerous bioweapon. And one doesn’t need to be a Nobel Prize Laureate microbiologist to become a bioterrorist — a small group of graduate students with a budget of less than six figures could likely succeed.

According to Mr. Leitenberg’s biographical information on the University of Maryland web site he has not worked as a “scientist” since 1966. Laboratories and technologies have changed dramatically since the time of his last laboratory experience four decades ago, when it did take superpower technology to produce a sophisticated biological weapon.

Mr. Leitenberg frequently claims it is difficult, if not impossible for a non-state actor to:

  • Acquire a sample of a deadly pathogen
  • Weaponize a pathogen
  • Effectively deliver weaponized material

All three assertions are wrong.

A recent report by the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC clearly demonstrates the ubiquity of deadly pathogens. The short article and inter-active map clearly demonstrate where one could have found 30 of the pathogens on the U.S Select Agent List (including the causative agents for: anthrax, plague, tularemia, Ebola and Marburg) during a recent 22-month period, when these all caused cases of human and/or animal infections/deaths. Locating, locking down, and eliminating nuclear weapons material may be sound approaches to keeping these materials out of the hands of terrorists, but such an approach cannot possibly protect us from bioterrorists. These deadly pathogens, the raw material for bioweapons, are readily available in nature.

Weaponization was the most challenging part of developing a bioweapons program when Mr. Leitenberg was working in a laboratory. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Everything one needs to know about weaponization (creating 3-5 micron-sized particles, adding stabilizers to reduce environmental degradation, and eliminating electrostatic charge) is common industrial practice, well-documented in the private sector. Just take a look at the tutorials offered at last October’s conference of the American Association of Aerosol Research.

Mr. Leitenberg’s assertion that effective delivery of a weaponized pathogen is a serious technical challenge is egregiously wrong. He should ask about a recent test of the biosensors at the Pentagon. In this test, a simulant was used to test the sensors’ ability to detect a release of bioweapon-sized particles upwind of the Pentagon. A $50 leaf blower was used as the delivery device — technology that is most likely available to terrorists.

Mr. Leitenberg is obviously a favorite of the CATO Institute. Several years ago I was invited to debate Mr. Leitenberg at CATO. I was a bit surprised when I arrived and discovered that Mr. Leitenberg was going to have 20 minutes for his remarks, and I was given only five. I almost left before the event, but then realized, it only takes about five minutes to refute his long outdated assertions.

It is delusional to believe we are not living in a dangerous world, arguably, far more dangerous than any other time in history. It is also misguided to accept the ill-informed assertions of Mr. Leitenberg, a man who chooses to remain out of touch with the realities of modern biotechnology.