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What If the FBI Is Right


August 12, 2008; Page A19

If the FBI theory on the man responsible for the anthrax attacks of 2001 is correct, then the threat of bioterrorism is far more troubling than we have imagined.

I am not a scientist, and will leave the debate on the scientific evidence against Bruce Ivins to the sort of thorough, independent examination recommended by Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa). But such an examination is crucial. It could have profound national security implications, which have been missed in most public discussions of the case. Here's why:

In the years since 1999, while I've provided an executive-level course on the threat of bioterrorism to more than 3,000 senior military officers, plus scores of other presentations, lectures and seminars, one of the most frequent questions asked is, "If the Unabomber had been a biologist instead of a mathematician, could he have produced a sophisticated bioweapon?"

The answer has always been "No: That would require a team of individuals." However, if the FBI is right about Ivins, such a lone individual can produce such a weapon.

This would be a watershed. The arsenals of the U.S. and the USSR once included bioweapons, but producing them required a massive scientific and industrial effort. In 1969, President Richard Nixon unilaterally removed bioweapons from our arsenal, and the U.S. led an international effort to ban biological weapons. The Soviets signed the Biological Weapons Convention, but continued their massive program into the early 1990s. That program, too, was a giant effort: At one time, more than 30,000 scientists and technicians worked in their illegal bioweapons program.

Since then, the intelligence community has been aware that revolutionary advances in biotechnology now provide nonstate actors with the potential to build and deliver highly sophisticated bioweapons. This was stated in an unclassified Defense Science Board report in June 2001, and repeated by virtually every subsequent government and think-tank assessment.

However, in all of these assessments, most believed that it would still take a team of scientists, or perhaps a team of highly skilled technicians led by a scientist, to produce a sophisticated bioweapon. Now that received wisdom may be obsolete.

If the FBI theory on Dr. Ivins is correct, we could be living now in a world where a single individual -- with no prior training in weaponization of pathogens -- can convert anthrax spores into a dry-powdered weaponized form that was of a quality equal to (some would say better) than that produced in the not-too-distant past in billion-dollar, superpower arsenals.

It is important to keep in mind here that Bruce Ivins had no training or experience in the weaponization process. His government work was limited to vaccine development.

We also need to keep in mind that the type of anthrax spores that the FBI alleges Ivins weaponized are available in laboratories around the world. For that matter, they are also contained in soil from Amarillo, Texas, to Azerbaijan. Furthermore, if the FBI theory is correct, the equipment used for the weaponization process is now available in thousands of academic and industrial biology labs, or you could just buy it on LabX.com or eBay.

A thorough, independent scientific analysis of all evidence the FBI has amassed should be an immediate, top priority of the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress. Yes, it is something that the Ivins family deserves. But more important, our national security rests on determining whether the threat of bioweapons has reached a new, more dangerous plateau. If the FBI is right, the threat is greater than most have assessed.

Col. Larsen (U.S. Air Force, Ret.) is a former chairman of the Department of Military Strategy and Operations at the National War College, and the author of "Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions About Security for You, Your Family, and America" (Grand Central, 2007).