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Dr. Bob Norton

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Bob Norton is chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group and a long-time consultant to the U.S. military, federal and state law enforcement agencies. He writes periodically for SPW]

As threats and threat actors continue to evolve, the agriculture and food industries will have to come to terms with new realities, including biological weapons. Biological weapons are in many ways easier to produce than they were even a few decades ago.

Delivery systems remain a constraint, but technology is evolving rapidly. The nation faces the very real possibility of threat vectors merging within the next few years, with a biological weapon dispersed using drones. If adversaries, alone or in concert with others, succeed in damaging the U.S. food supply, whether by biological weapons or other means (e.g. cyber-attack), our society will be irreversibly changed, just like it was in the aftermath of 9-11. Life as we know it today will not be the same.

Now, the year 2001 seems a lifetime away. On Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. irrevocably changed from “Fortress America” to a victim of four coordinated terrorist attacks that killed 2,996 people and injured more than 6,000. My memories are vivid, in part because of the loss of people I knew and respected, both at the Pentagon and in New York City. People thought for a time that I had perished on American Airlines Flight 11, but that was Robert Norton and his wife Jackie, two wonderful people from Lubec, Maine who were on a much-anticipated trip to attend a family wedding.

The country’s mood was almost palpable. People were terrified, but from that fear came unity of purpose. We knew we were at war, and in the coming weeks the nation would learn a great deal about this enemy. Those of us who worked in national security believed to a person that the airplane attacks were only the first wave. We fully expected more, and soon the second wave seemed to begin.

Call To Duty

Bacillus anthracis — anthrax

In early October, I received a call from a friend at the FBI. He asked, “Bob, do you know anything about anthrax?” My friend and I had worked on other related bioterrorism matters, some going back as far as Desert Storm. I suspect he already knew my answer. Yes, I did know something about anthrax, as well as biological weapons. By the time the Amerithrax Investigation concluded, I had learned more about anthrax than I had thought possible. FBI agents, other government officials, and I had many discussions about biological weapons and biological warfare. The U.S. learned a lot about biological warfare. Some of the lessons learned were old and forgotten and had to be relearned. Other lessons were entirely new.

One hard lesson was that our forensics capabilities were subpar. That fact would haunt the anthrax investigation and color both government and military responses. What we thought we knew about biological weapons programs was influenced by the experiences of dealing with both the actual victims and the psychological and political fallout, which heavily influenced decisions.

Had there been no anthrax attacks, in my opinion our nation’s would have been very different. The plane attacks precipitated a very rapid punitive mission into Afghanistan by small teams of Special Forces soldiers and CIA operatives. The evolving worry about continued terrorism eventually morphed that mission into an invasion. The anthrax attacks and the reasonable conclusions of an active biological weapons program also drove in part the decision to invade of Iraq. Politics drove the rest.

Now we know the intelligence was wrong. The omnipresent Middle East turmoil intensified, and the mistaken assumptions and decisions in the aftermath of 9-11 continue to have serious implications today. Whoever was responsible for the anthrax attack initiated a events that cascaded into a series of unanticipated tragedies. We are where we are in the world today in no small part because of those events.

Threat Assessment

So where are we today in terms of biological warfare? Are we safer? In relative terms, we are. The U.S. has invested heavily in biosecurity programs that, had they been in place in 2001, would have resulted in a different response by law enforcement and public health personnel. Beyond better coordination at the national level, however, national security realities are more mixed. Our adversaries certainly have not diminished in number. Some, particularly nation states, have grown stronger, in part because our attention was diverted from the larger and more long-term threats to fixate on the firestorms in the Middle East.

Although al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden were deadly adversaries, they were not existential threats capable of destroying us as a nation. Adversarial nation states (e.g. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea) took advantage of our fixed gaze on Afghanistan and Iraq. Although not exactly ignored, they did not receive the attention they warranted. Decisions made in the wake of 9-11 still influence our nation’s national security posture today. The lesson for us all is that decisions made today, with even the best intentions, may help or impede our ability to deal with the threats and opportunities tomorrow.

Good decision-making is more likely when decision makers arm themselves with knowledge. A good understanding of current biological threats requires knowledge about the history of “germ warfare.” I recommend starting with a comic book of the same title by Max Brooks commissioned by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. The “graphic novel” begins with the discovery of pathogens and then journeys through the ugly history of Japanese biological warfare in World War II. The huge Russian biological warfare program, known as Biopreparat, is tangentially referenced, including mention of an anthrax outbreak due to a bioweapons lab accident near Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), Russia. Being familiar with the Russian program, I am concerned that what we knew then is still relevant.

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense is a privately funded entity established in 2014 to provide a comprehensive assessment of the state of U.S. biodefense efforts and to issue recommendations that will foster change. Former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Gov. Tom Ridge co-chair panel. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Rep. Jim Greenwood, and former Homeland Security advisers Kenneth Wainstein and Lisa Monaco are members.

Real-World Lessons

Shiro Ishii

Japan conducted the world’s largest biological warfare campaign on China using weapons developed by Unit 731, commanded by Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii, a physician captured by the U.S. after the war but never convicted for war crimes. Ishii, along with former Unit 731 scientists, were granted immunity in exchange for their data and allowed to continue biological warfare research for the U.S.

Thousands of Chinese died as the result of unspeakable vivisection experiments during project “Maruta,” and some of their experiments were even published in peer-reviewed journals, masking the use of humans. Units 731, 1644, and 100 all were responsible for attacks on Chinese civilians, killing perhaps more than 500,000 innocents with diseases like cholera, anthrax, and plague.

An accidental contamination of biological weapons in Chekiang, China, inadvertently killed more than 1,000 Japanese soldiers, illustrating the main problem with biological weapons – their uncontrolled spread, once released.

Sverdlovsk in 1978

The Sverdlovsk outbreak was the result of an accident at Military Compound 19. “Anthrax 836” had been cultured in large quantities, and spores were being extracted to produce a powdered, weapons-grade product allegedly for loading into Russian SS-18 ICBM missiles. A maintenance worker inadvertently left the filter off an exhaust pipe venting a safety hood. People downwind from the facility became ill with respiratory anthrax within a few days. Russia admitted a death toll of 105, although western medical intelligence experts speculate a much higher total.

The comic book also identifies nations speculated by the 1990s to have biological weapons programs (including China, North Korea, France and Israel) then brings the reader up to today with the specter of terrorists acquiring biological weapons. Potential contamination of food and beverages is prominent.

A second suggested read is the more academic report, The Digitization of Biology: Understanding the New Risks and Implications for Governance, published by the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University. The report discusses rapid biotechnology advances, both good and bad, and points out that as gene editing becomes more common, there is growing concern about use of the technique to develop biological weapons. They say that CRISPR-Cas9 increases risks that nefarious actors could use gene editing for malevolent purposes—for example, enhancing certain characteristics of existing pathogens or creating novel pathogens to cause harm.

The third suggested reading is a military blog post entitled 143. Dead Deer, and Mad Cows, and Humans (?) … Oh My!, by Lt. Col. Jennifer Snow, Dr. James Giordano, and Joseph DeFranco. The bloggers discuss the viability of developing and employing prions as biological weapons. They note that prion research has mostly been conducted in general laboratory spaces without federal or international surveillance or bioweapon reporting standards, and argue that such research should be regulated as dual use research of concern (DURC).

Fear Factors

For instance, a scenario in which prion-based agents were used to impact targeted markets or widespread animal resources could prompt public fears and serve to disrupt specific regional or global markets to incur disruptive effect(s) in international or inter-industrial competition or adversarial engagement.

The effecting actor could then offer viable alternative products or treatments to capitalize on the disruption, thereby establishing relative economic hegemony – and power – in both these markets, and perhaps on the world stage. If and when combined with a well-executed misinformation campaign, such an approach could yield multi-domain, multi-dimensional effects (e.g., in agri-markets, public health, safety and security, economic stability, and geo-political power) that would be iterative, robust, and likely evoke durable consequences.”

Should biological warfare commence, food and agriculture will be targets because they are foundational to America’s health, welfare, and economy. A reporter once asked John Dillinger why he robbed banks. His answer? “Because that where the money is!” That is why terrorists and adversarial nation states might attack the food supply. Food is what we eat. Our nation is dependent on the continued availability of a safe, secure, and economical food supply.

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