RINF.COM. August 13, 2008
| Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, chief medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional subcommittee on July 22 that the risk of a large-scale biological attack on the nation is significant and that the U.S. government knows its terrorist enemies have sought to use biological agents as instruments of warfare. Runge also said that the United States believes that capability is within the terrorists’ reach.
Runge gave his testimony before a subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology that was holding a field hearing in Providence, R.I., to discuss the topic of “Emerging Biological Threats and Public Health Preparedness.”
During his testimony, Runge specifically pointed to al Qaeda as the most significant threat and testified that the United States had determined that the terrorist organization is seeking to develop and use a biological weapon to cause mass casualties in an attack. According to Runge, U.S. analysis indicates that anthrax is the most likely choice, and a successful single-city attack on an unprepared population could kill hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Later in his testimony, Runge remarked that many do not perceive the threat of bioterrorism to be as significant as that of a nuclear or conventional strike, even though such an attack could kill as many people as a nuclear detonation and have its own long-term environmental effects.
We must admit to being among those who do not perceive the threat of bioterrorism to be as significant as that posed by a nuclear strike. To be fair, it must be noted that we also do not see strikes using chemical or radiological weapons rising to the threshold of a true weapon of mass destruction either. The successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in an American city would be far more devastating than any of these other forms of attack.
In fact, based on the past history of nonstate actors conducting attacks using biological weapons, we remain skeptical that a nonstate actor could conduct a biological weapons strike capable of creating as many casualties as a large strike using conventional explosives — such as the October 2002 Bali bombings that resulted in 202 deaths or the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191.
We do not disagree with Runge’s statements that actors such as al Qaeda have demonstrated an interest in biological weapons. There is ample evidence that al Qaeda has a rudimentary biological weapons capability. However, there is a huge chasm of capability that separates intent and a rudimentary biological weapons program from a biological weapons program that is capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Misconceptions About Biological Weapons
There are many misconceptions involving biological weapons. The three most common are that they are easy to obtain, that they are easy to deploy effectively, and that, when used, they always cause massive casualties.