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Last Updated

30 Dec 2002

Source: Boston Globe, December 30, 2002

Weapons 'inspectors'

Canadian activists plan to spotlight US research on germ, chemical warfare

By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff

Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Jonathan King argued for years that the United States should welcome international inspectors to look at programs involving chemical and biological weapons here.

But 25-year-old Christy Ferguson was not exactly who he had in mind.

Ferguson, a Toronto-based peacenik, plans to travel to this country in February with a group of Canadian activists to inspect laboratories the group says are developing weapons of mass destruction. Never mind that Ferguson studied philosophy, not physics. Never mind that she wouldn't know weaponized anthrax if it wafted under her nose. No one - not even Ferguson herself - thinks the group will be allowed inside labs that conduct US military research. Indeed, she's banking on that, since her group can't afford protective suits or fancy germ-detectors anyway.

''We might just be able to plant a sign saying, `This facility is suspected of containing weapons of mass destruction,''' said Ferguson, an organizer with the Center for Social Justice, the Canadian organization spearheading the ''Rooting-Out-Evil'' inspection initiative.

But, at a time when America is pushing to go to war over Iraq's alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, the publicity-seeking Canadians have struck a chord with a group of US scientists who worry that the United States is secretly developing its own chemical and biological weapons program in defiance of international law. These scientists, some of whom are based in Boston, have quietly begun circulating the activists' e-mails to their colleagues for discussion.

''There is justification to be concerned that we are getting back into the business of ... hostile exploitation of biotechnology,'' said Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, who recently received an e-mail about Ferguson's group and was once a close adviser on biological warfare to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The United States officially shut down its biological weapons program in 1969 and led the world in the ban on germ warfare by helping to draft the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972. Congress ordered the destruction of US chemical weapons in 1986 and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. The only research conducted now, the Bush administration says, is for defending against biological and chemical weapons, which is allowed by the treaties.

But, in recent months, American scientists have stepped up efforts to prove that the United States is conducting secret research that may violate the international agreements. Perhaps the most compelling and embarrassing evidence has come from the high-profile investigation into the weaponized anthrax found in last year's rash of terrorist letters, which led investigators to probe American researchers and conclude that the anthrax was probably made in a US facility.

''During the course of the anthrax investigation, it came out that the US has been weaponizing anthrax for years,'' said Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a member of the antiwar research and advocacy group, the Federation of American Scientists, who has conducted a detailed analysis of the terrorist letters. ''No one realized that and it has been done secretly. ... The view of this administration is that we can do it, but nobody else can do it. And therefore, we're going after Iraq.''

Scientists also point to the fact that just one month ago US officials shot down a last-ditch attempt to enact a new international agreement that would have sent inspectors to monitor biological weapons in all participating countries, including the United States.

The protocol, which more than 100 nations had been negotiating for seven years, would have added monitors and sanctions to the ban on biological weapons, which currently operates as a ''gentlemen's agreement.''

State Department officials said they rejected the proposed protocol because it would be too difficult for monitors to tell whether biological agents in labs were being researched for war or for defense. In testimony before Congress last year, officials also expressed concern that letting international weapons inspectors in US labs could provide rogue nations and terrorists with ''a road map'' of the kinds of defenses the United States has been able to create and the vulnerabilities that remain.

A State Department spokeswoman said the issue is not the possession of biological weapons, but the willingness to use them.

''The US government does not kill its own people,'' she said. ''We have democratic values and open elections, unlike Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who uses gas and chemicals to kill their own people and their neighbors.''

Another point of disagreement between the State Department and many scientists is the definition of the term ''defensive.'' Government officials say to find cures or defenses for chemical and biological weapons, researchers must first manufacture the weapons, an act that some scientists believe violates the treaties.

Last year, The New York Times published an expose of three projects the government considers vital defensive research and advocates say raises alarm bells: a mock germ bomb, a dummy germ-factory, and plans at the Pentagon to genetically engineer a more potent version of the anthrax bacterium.

''The question is not whether the US crossed the line'' on those projects, said Lynn Klotz, a Gloucester-based scientist involved with the Federation of American Scientists' working group on biological weapons. ''The more important issue is that we ought to be taking moral leadership in terms of the biological weapons. We shouldn't be anywhere near the line.''

In the cloistered hallways of the labs, the scientists have practiced their own brand of activism. King, the MIT biologist, once collected the signatures of 1,500 scientists on a pledge against the military use of biological research. Rosenberg and Klotz worked on a ''code of ethics'' for biodefense programs and started a grass-roots education program to warn biologists about the possible destructive uses of their work. Meselson was among a group of academics that drew up a new biological weapons treaty that would make violations a crime under international law, enforceable by any court in the world.

''This is a threat to the species,'' Meselson said. ''It rises above considerations of national security, important as they may be.''

But with all their efforts, the scientists acknowledge that they have never managed to raise much awareness among the public. That's why news of the Canadian activists has stirred intrigue and some support.

''Over the last year, the major force in the world weakening the biological weapons convention has been the United States,'' King said.

Such sentiments have sparked news agencies from London to Japan to contact the activists behind www.rootingoutevil.org for interviews, and prompted the interest of at least one Canadian member of Parliament.

''You have to be prepared to actually go in, have a discussion, view what's taking place there, and be prepared to follow up,'' said Libby Davies, the Parliament member representing Vancouver East who once led a ''citizens' weapon inspection team'' to the doors of a Washington state nuclear submarine base.

But the group of activists who thought up Rooting Out Evil over breakfast one morning appear unaware of just how timely their protest is and unprepared for the avalanche of serious phone calls and requests for information. When Ferguson coined the term, she had no idea that she would be asked so many questions about chemicals, treaties, or germs.

David Langille, spokesman for Center for Social Justice and the main organizer of Rooting Out Evil, did not know that the anthrax in last year's letters is believed to be US-made, let alone the names or locations of the laboratories where it could have been manufactured. He had not heard that the United States rejected a bid just weeks ago that would have sent real inspectors to view facilities. ''I'm slightly embarrassed not to be on top of that,'' the 51-year-old activist admitted.

Pouring over a map an American group gave him of US labs where work on biological and chemical weapons might be taking place, Langille said the activists are not even sure which sites they might seek to inspect.

''We're still collecting intelligence,'' he said. ''It has to be within driving distance.''