Brian P. Hanley*
Research Scientist, Butterfly Sciences, USA
Received January 05, 2013; Accepted February 19, 2013; Published February 25, 2013
Citation: Hanley BP (2013) Security in a Goldfish Bowl: the NSABB’s Exacerbation of the Bioterrorism Threat. J Bioterr Biodef S3: 013. doi:10.4172/2157-2526.S3-013
Copyright: © 2013 Byers RJ, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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If our potential adversaries are understood, publicity drawing the attention of bioterrorists to plausible bioweapons is the primary contribution the NSABB makes by censorship recommendations. Attempting censorship by attracting the entire world’s attention to information of concern is obviously counterproductive.
It is equally problematic to curb research in an attempt to prevent those outside our borders from understanding how to create bioweapons. That horse is, “Out of the barn and in the next county”. Locking the barn door is not going to change this. Proliferation of molecular biology, vaccine and other knowledge across the world has already taken place. Thus, the best course is to make sure that we understand what human bioterrorists could do as well as we understand what nature can do. To date, nature has been the worst bioterrorist, but in theory human engineering can be worse.
Medicine is biodefense. The focus needs to be on response capability and surveillance, just as in any other infectious disease control. Attempting to track, outwit or contain terrorists should be left to clandestine intelligence services that are equipped to understand and interdict them. Perhaps it is true that such capabilities in our clandestine services are poorly developed or directed. The remedy for that, though, is to work to improve matters by prodding politicians rather than operate independently in attempts at interdiction that may be counterproductive. Science, law enforcement, the military and intelligence services need to work together and understand each other’s appropriate roles.
“... we only became aware of them (biological weapons), when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concerns that they can be produced simply with easily available materials....”
al Zawahiri internal memorandum, April 15, 1999 
In considering policy relative to Dual Use Research, (DUR), the record of academic analyses of the USSR serves as a warning to those in other fields. Sovietology missed predicting the USSR’s breakup and virtually every major event of the cold war . We cannot allow something similar to happen in biodefense. This is doubly important because bioscience and medicine are the “armed forces” that understand the technology and how to use it. But there are other, ‘soft factors’ that are critical to understand – motivations, group dynamics, strategy, capability, ideology, enough empathy to get inside the enemy’s head without becoming sympathetic, and enough humility to know when one is out of one’s depth in the arena of ‘soft factors’.
Information dissemination into and through societies across the globe, methods and motivations of violent actors, current events, and understanding of strategic advantage are not scientific matters. However, without understanding and using such materials, it is impossible to provide an intelligent discussion of the national security matter that is bioterrorism. Thus, for scientists to have a meaningful role in national security policy matters requires study and logical inference outside of the realm of hard science.
It follows that to make a useful contribution to the question of DUR, this paper makes use of such materials and inference.
Bioweapons in the USSR
The USSR created a sophisticated bioweapons program with an attack protocol that would follow up nuclear missiles with ICBM delivery of organisms such as engineered smallpox-ebola and multidrug resistant plague. The object was to further decimate weakened populations .
As documented by the former second in command of the USSR’s Biopreparat program, using the simple method of lying, this program evaded the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) of 19721. The existence of the 1972 treaty created a barrier to all other signatories, thus conferring a strategic military advantage2. Whether the entire Biopreparat (Биопрепарат) weapons program was shut down when the USSR transitioned to the Russian Federation is an open question3.
Open and closed societies
The history of the USSR bioweapons program highlights the difference in functioning that a rule of law, open society nation has from closed society nations . The former is exampled by the functioning democracies in the developed world, of which the United States is a member. In an open society, most matters are discussed and settled openly, and transparency is positively valued. In the United States, freedom of the press is in our constitution and we have tools such as the freedom of information act to enforce governmental transparency.
Closed society is exemplified by dictatorships, quasi-dictatorships and military juntas around the world. Closed societies are totalitarian, secretive, and use oppression to suppress opponents. North Korea is the most outstanding example of a closed society in the world today. It is a totalitarian state that has large prison camps containing multiple generations of political prisoners, and practices torture, even over minor matters .
Violent non-state actors
In today’s world, violent non-state actors (VNSAs) must be added to this equation. VNSA is an acronym used by the military to describe persons, groups and movements engaged in asymmetric warfare that are not identified with a nation-state [6,7]. Asymmetric warfare is a term for methods and strategy used by militarily weaker parties to do battle with a conventionally stronger adversary. Guerilla warfare is a classic example of a form of asymmetric conflict. What we loosely call terrorists are also VNSAs.
Dual use research
Concerns about potential dangers of recombinant DNA originated prior to the Asilomar conference of 1975. The Asilomar conference formalized the first set of guidelines on genetic engineering . Early scientific concerns about recombinant DNA evolved into applying the established concept of dual-use technology for nuclear weapons to biology [9,10]. After the publication of polio synthesis and the IL-4 mousepox papers, scientists became concerned about dual use research (DUR) that could be used for weapons . It has been ten years since the CIA formally stated that biologically engineered disease could be worse than any natural disease . DUR in biosciences and what to do about it has been a topic of discussion for over a decade.
VNSA use of bioweapons
That VNSAs have obtained and deployed biological weapons has been a concern for some time . Two VNSAs4, the Aum cult and the security chief5 of the Rajneesh organization, have done so, although their attempts at deployment created no known mortality from biological weapons [13,14]. The Aum cult’s leader drove weapons acquisition, but it was the Rajneesh group’s leader who blew the whistle to authorities when he found out what Anand Sheela had done .
NSABB legal authorities
Today, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reviews scientific research papers for DUR developments. The authority for the NSABB is based in an amendment to 42 U.S.c. 217a, section 222 of the Public Health Service Act, and Public Law 109- 417, section 205 of the Pandemic and All-Hazards and Preparedness Act . Those relevant sections state:
42 § 217a. Advisory Councils or Committees
The Secretary may, without regard to the provisions of title 5 governing appointments in the competitive service, and without regard to the provisions of chapter 51 and subchapter III of chapter 53 of such title relating to classification and General Schedule pay rates, from time to time, appoint such advisory councils or committees (in addition to those authorized to be established under other provisions of law), for such periods of time, as he deems desirable with such period commencing on a date specified by the Secretary for the purpose of advising him in connection with any of his functions .
SEC. 205. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity shall, when requested by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, provide to relevant Federal departments and agencies, advice, guidance, or recommendations concerning--
(1) A core curriculum and training requirements for workers in maximum containment biological laboratories; and
(2) Periodic evaluations of maximum containment biological laboratory capacity nationwide and assessments of the future need for increased laboratory capacity .
The White House web site states regarding the NSABB, “The NSABB is charged with advising on ways to minimize the possibility that information and technologies emanating from vitally important biological research might be misused to threaten public health or other aspects of national security” .
Formal authority of the NSABB to make recommendations to censor scientific publications appears to be voluntary under the law although other authorities may exist based on prevention of public health disaster . Leaving that question aside, the fundamental premise of the NSABB is that it is intended to improve security and public health. The major question of this article is whether security is improved when the NSABB censors material.
First test case – Fouchier and Kawaoka
The first major test case was the H5N1 work of Fouchier and Kawaoka which was eventually published [21,22]. The NSABB issued a recommendation on 20th of December, 2011 recommending that some elements of the papers be withheld . This created a media firestorm that persisted for months. The WHO disagreed, and the NIH requested an appeal. The NSABB reversed itself March 30th of 2012 . Press coverage of the “killer virus” was extensive for months afterward. Investigations have resumed in 2013 .
Medicine’s needs in order to respond
The primary need of medicine is the dissemination of accurate information that allows optimum, timely response to disease. Historically, bioscience has provided openly communicated literature and done its best to educate physicians. This need of medicine for openly communicated information is in opposition to the interests of secrecy that seeks to prevent dissemination of DUR. Since in a basic sense, most of medicine and science is potentially applicable to terminating as well as saving human life, the question of where to draw a line is thorny.
This question of where to draw a line on secrecy is complicated by a little discussed matter. In an open society, is it possible to debate such matters – without simultaneously informing interested parties what they should try?
Political sensitivity to frightening stories is shown in the passage of the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act which created the NSABB . A basic rule of news media is – if people can die, people are dying or people are dead, that will get prominent coverage unless it is overshadowed by greater carnage7 or a culturally more sympathetic story [30,31]. This tendency of the news media has strong effects on viewers .
Stories capable of moving Stories about carnage or potential mass death of American citizens off the front page8 are rare. A classic example of overshadowing (albeit where civilian US citizens were not threatened) can be seen in the “Olympics War” in the Republic of Georgia in 2008 . Because of the more sympathetic story of Michael Phelps and other Olympians, there was little coverage. However, news organizations did travel there, and geared up for covering a war – but the conflict terminated a day prior to the Olympics closing, and it began during the opening ceremony in Beijing.
Lacking good public relations cover, the NSABB’s censorship recommendations on a virus plausibly deadly to millions of Americans is irresistible news media fodder. This irresistibility is made even more intractable by the long period of time that such a story is live. Nothing in science is over and done in a week or two, so it would take an extraordinary overshadowing event or series of them to prevent news media from reporting on a disease potentially deadly to millions of people.
The NSABB’s censorship recommendations will always contain threat of mass death coupled with the threat being aimed at the USA’s citizens. If there is no such threat, why would the NSABB recommend censorship? Thus, it is inevitable that media outlets will thoroughly report such stories. Science journalists, at least, understand this implicitly, as shown by headlines on the NSABB censorship . In an open society, there is no way to prevent it.
Today virtually everyone in the world has access to television, the internet, or cell phone messaging/data to get news. Internet access in the developing world was 20.5% in 2011, with mobile internet services surging; 29% of Arab states population is estimated to use the internet, although the spread is wide, correlating with per capita income . Cell phone subscriptions worldwide hit 6 billion in 2011, with 600 million new subscriptions that year, mostly in the developing world; as of 2011, there were 778 developing world cell phone subscriptions per thousand people . CNN and other Western television channels were widely available through direct broadcast in the middle-east 16 years ago . News organizations today are globally networked and direct western channels such as CNN and BBC have global reach . Where Western news services do not directly penetrate, local ones such as RT and Al Jazeera9 do. The NSABB story was distributed on the web sites of Al Jazeera and RT (Novosti) [38-40].
VNSAs sworn to make war on the United States use the internet to gather actionable intelligence . Thus, it follows that whenever the news media are prompted to give front page coverage to a story, that story is seen or reported indirectly to VNSAs and they make use of it for war making purposes .
In the USA, news media historically provide little coverage of events beyond our shores . Conversely, news events in the USA take place in the equivalent of a department store window, as this country is considered a major source of news . This tends to result in naïve actions on the part of concerned scientists and citizens who may presume that other nations have as little attention for the USA as we do for them. This is illustrated well by the 1999 Al Zawahiri memo .
The NSABB originally decided that details useful to synthesis of the H5N1 virus passaged in ferrets should be kept secret, indicating concern about synthetic production of the virus in sophisticated laboratories.
This decision appears to have been taken without considering the strategic environment of terrorists seeking biological weapons, nor mapping out scenarios. Scenario building and capability assessment is fundamental to such policy decisions; or it should be . To set up scenarios, it is necessary to think about who the adversaries are and how they would operate. The discussion here is of necessity an overview of a nuanced topic, provided for orientation purposes.
Overview of VNSAs
Being a VNSA can be extremely lucrative at the top, netting hundreds of millions of dollars tax free . A common evolution of VNSAs is to become proxies for the interests of a nation state which supports the VNSA with money and weapons. What the client state wants is effectiveness pursuing some foreign or domestic policy objective. A state engaging in proxy warfare does not need more than a handful of its own people involved, a relatively small budget and does not risk war on its own territory. Proxy war and saber rattling excuse a lot of domestic failures and this is the cheapest and safest kind of war for a state to engage in understanding and countering the motives and methods of warlords .
The USA used proxies in Afghanistan against the USSR’s occupation . And just as with rogue states supporting proxies, a huge amount of money was stolen from us as we supported the precursors to today’s Taliban10 against the Soviets .
Interest in bioweapons
More problematic VNSAs are independent idealists such as Osama bin Laden and the rest of Al Qaeda. Their money can come from control of resources such as diamond fields or drug trade , or it can come from contributions of wealthy donors or through front organizations . Of these VNSAs, the religious fanatic has been the most worrisome. It is true that past performance is no guarantee of future results in terrorism, but biological warfare in the past 40 years has, with the exception of the USSR, South Africa, Iraq, and possibly France [3,15], been pursued by religious fanatics both domestic and foreign [13,14]. VNSAs are the sole parties known to have deployed them since WWII, so this type should be considered carefully11. In addition to foreign, domestic actors should be considered, both because of trans-national recruitment and other groups (viz. Asahara’s direction of the Aum cult and Rajneesh’s rogue security).
The 9-11 attacks cost Al Qaeda on the order of $500,000 to pull off . In 1999, al Zawahiri provided $2000 - $4000 for anthrax development . Higher budget operations than 9-11 are certainly possible, but a budget on the order of $500,000 is reasonable, removing costs of such things as regulatory compliance from the scenario. As well, lower budgets should be considered.
Education is sometimes raised as a barrier, and it probably is significant. However, education and skills barriers are slowly falling, with private parties doing molecular biology as a hobby in the USA . In the middle east are many excellent universities with ambitions to perform research , although bioscience research is still weak . But even the not so well educated can be interested in bioweapons. I have personally fielded a request for directions on how to culture rabies from a party believed to be in Pakistan that was obviously ignorant. While anecdotal, it does suggest a continuing interest in biological weapons even in the less educated.
Physicians are present in the ranks of current VNSAs despite the Hippocratic Oath. The number two man in Al Qaeda, Ayman al- Zawahiri was a physician . The terrorist cell in England that placed two car bombs was composed of physicians . A UK National Health Service doctor on sabbatical in Syria kidnapped and shot a journalist this summer . The obvious implication is that presence in the club of colleagues does not exempt someone from potentially being a VNSA.
However, many physicians probably lack the necessary skills to perform gene synthesis, recombinant engineering, or cell culture and virus culture. At minimum, the latter skills are needed for bioweapons development, and the former are required for advanced bioweapons. That said, personal experience has connected me with researchers in vaccinology all over the world, and vaccinology develops skill sets that transfer well to bioweapons development.
A poorly financed but sufficiently educated VNSA looking at the Fouchier and Kawaoka H5N1 papers would be most intrigued by the passaging method. This method appears in early news stories about their work. It also appears in other easily available open sources such as Laurie Garret’s past work. Passaging is a method that could be applied using caves or tents and prisoners after immunizing the production team with low tech vaccine. The cost would be low, only marginally above the cost of maintaining a guerilla camp. Dispersal could be done using martyr-seeking volunteers traveling on commercial aircraft or perhaps using slightly more sophisticated methods.
A well financed VNSA with lab facilities capable of advanced DNA sequence synthesis would most likely already have a plan in process. Even terrorists are unlikely to finance laboratories without some plan for what they will do with them. (In 1999, al Zawahiri parted with $2000 - $4000 .) To get the funding necessary to build a sophisticated lab, it would be necessary to make promises for delivery. Even with cheap equipment acquired second-hand, cost of supplies and premises will be significant, as is the learning curve. Thus, a product, or a set of products, would be expected to be planned from the outset. There are also quite a few potential organisms other than H5N1 that could serve the purpose of terrorist attack at least as well.
Since smallpox, the 1917 influenza virus and other sequences are already in public domain; those with access to sophisticated facilities should be able to generate them. Such VNSAs could also create something along the lines of the USSR’s smallpox-ebola virus12. A little bribery, or a few key infiltrators into a commercial facility and there it is. Alternatively, a well financed effort could build a state of the art facility, or owners of one could be sympathetic enough to allow its use for the VNSA war making effort. Considering these points, it becomes clear that while an H5N1 that was highly contagious and lethal could be of interest, most likely any such facility would already have worse plans.
Weaponizable organisms can also be collected from the field and cultured by people who obtain equipment. In an exercise, I put together equipment, exclusive of supplies and premises, for such a lab for under $10,000. Anthrax is endemic to the developing world where many VNSAs make their home . It is easily collected in the field and can be cultured in materials available to agrarian people.
Biosafety standards have their roots in Ft. Detrick work from 1944-
1969 and the CDC first published the 4 level biosafety advisory in 1974
. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, what we now consider
BSL-4 organisms were mostly handled with standard lab bench-top methods. It was accidents of transmission that resulted in changing such practices. Even as late as 2003, standards for things like transport were fuzzy, as illustrated by the Butler case . There is no reason why bioweapons seeking VNSAs can’t use less safe bench-top methods of yesteryear13.
Currently, the NIH is floating a proposal to the NSABB regarding what would or would not get funded . The implicit idea behind not funding certain research is that it will make citizens safer. However, this concept has significant issues. It is founded in two assumptions: That adversaries would not perform effective work of their own (in a time when biotechnology and molecular biology capability has spread across the globe); and that the benefits of censorship outweigh the benefit of medicine (e.g. biodefense) being fully informed about a possible threat.
In the case of the Fouchier and Kawaoka H5N1 work, nature could generate a similar virus – that was the reason for the effort in the first place. Since scientists should be informed about what changes to look for in a more easily transmitted version, it makes sense that such research be done. A similar argument applies to understanding what an adversary could deliberately engineer, although the latter is more subject to debate.
What we all want is to maximize public safety. Any proposition that censorship of DUR is, or could be, an effective method of interdiction of bioterrorism needs to be thoroughly justified.
Other methods of interdiction do have significant merit. For instance:
“…identify and observe non-state actors that have apocalyptic prophecies, confront local authorities and recruit people with advanced degrees”.
“…monitor the purchases of materials connected with chemical or biological agents and to identify groups that seek information about WMD”.
“… develop methods for detecting WMD use during the research and development stages” .
To that list, I would add that bioscientists should be alert to the possible presence of persons sympathetic with bioterrorism in their university laboratories. It is illogical to presume that they are not present.
The net result of the NSABB’s censorship recommendations was to shout in the ears of our enemies precisely what the NSABB did not want them to find out. The papers that received censorship recommendations would have likely vanished into the ocean of scientific publications without being noticed if left alone. Thus, the NSABB action represents a ‘Potemkin perimeter’ – undertaken to create the impression of protection that does not do so.
The NSABB needs to clearly explain how VNSAs who do read scientific journals could be prevented from creating bioweapons by such minor acts of censorship as the Fouchier and Kawaoka papers – even if it were possible to execute such censorship in absolute secrecy. There are so many ways to approach creating bioweapons that, realistically, it is not credible that another drop added to the ocean of science  could make a difference. Once that is explained, the NSABB needs to explain how censorship benefits society after adding the factor that every possible inimical party will always be informed of what is censored – because we live in an open society.
Even if censorship could be implemented while preserving secrecy about the topic of censorship, how realistic is it to believe that universities can safeguard such information from VNSA agents who target it by going to the university? University professors do not have the training, legal authority nor inclination to implement operational security (OPSEC) effectively. Additionally, students have rights and can claim to be discriminated against in an open society. If censorship were implemented, that would make the information that much more valuable to a bioterrorist (assuming it really matters) because medical response personnel would generally be unaware of it. This would represent, on a small scale, the same kind of strategic advantage that the USSR gained by moving ahead under cover of the BWC.
Our primary requirements to safeguard public health against bioterrorism (and natural epidemics) are detection and response capability. That capability is best served by dissemination of all research information so that there is no problem with diagnostics, surveillance, or tracking of any conceivable disease.
We need to remember that it was an alert physician who diagnosed the anthrax letter attack. What we must do is ensure that every physician knows as much as possible about biological warfare. That will protect us. Censorship of science is a lost cause and should be abandoned.
The record of the incidents in Oregon shows that it was scientists striving to avoid appearing bigoted toward Rajneesh who stopped that investigation, and authorities took a similar veering approach in Japan toward Aum [12,15]. One hopes that things have changed in today’s world. However, scientists learn to require outstanding degrees of proof before accepting a proposition as fact. That posture is very different from the intelligence collection methodology that collects possible signs and weighs them as probabilities against scenarios. Thus, scientists should attempt to act in concert with intelligence and police agencies rather than working independently to interdict VNSAs. Scientists, who wish to be active, should educate themselves far outside their specialties in order to make a positive impact on bioterrorism.
1This book, ‘Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World--Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It’ is required reading for anyone purporting expertise in bioweapons policy.
2I am well aware that the 1972 convention is a sacred cow among a great many scientists and activists. That status implicitly proposes that since the treaty was well intended, and it would have worked if everyone had obeyed it, it must have accomplished good. That logic is prima facie fallacious.
3Given the record, Occam’s razor says that prevarication and dissembling should be assumed by the Russian Federation. However, rendering an opinion on the matter, I don’t think a Russian Federation bioweapons program is militarily significant to the rest of the world regardless its status. State actors have severe strategic limitations on use due to blowback and retaliation concerns that VNSAs do not have.
4I am leaving out the use of a bioweapon by organized crime in Moscow, Russia, that is described by Ken Alibek in ‘Biohazard.’ That incident was a mafia hit without a political component or attack on ordinary citizens required to class it as a VNSA conducting asymmetric warfare. Making that distinction does illustrate the gray areas of bioterrorism.
5There are indications that the Rajneesh cult incidents were entangled with an embezzlement scheme by the security chief, Anand Sheela. She handled money for the group and left it with a $55 million debt. After evading pickup in a mix-up of dates of her release from prison, she made her way to Switzerland and purchased a chain of hospitals.
6I will leave aside the issue of what, exactly; Al Qaeda is – whether it is a loose association or a distinct entity with formal command structure. Discussing the subtleties of this and its relationship to Wahabbism, Sayyid Qtub’s “In the Shade of the Qu’ran”, and the Muslim Brotherhood, is far too complex to do here. For the purposes of this paper, the precise structure has minor bearing on interest in or capability of delivering bioweapons.
9Al Jazeera is controlled by Qatar’s emir. This probably makes it more temperate and aware of the impact of news stories such as the influenza story than Western channels, since Qatar is generally friendly to Western powers.
10The USA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan made payments and supplied materiel to the Pakistani government. The Pakistani government in the present era could not find Osama bin Laden in the middle of Abbottabad while we paid them more billions.
11The Amerithrax case is probably Ivins, a scientist, but not conclusively nailed down. Scientists and colleagues as VNSAs are, however, to be expected. Drawing a sharp line between state and non-state actors is justified because the motivations, concerns over blowback, war making effects and effectiveness, and vulnerability to military retaliation and sanctions for state actors is very different. Details of that are far too involved to more than mention here.
12Generally speaking, gene synthesis companies in the USA are fairly likely to detect and flag requests for DNA known to be potentially inimical. However, obviously, lab staff could produce them without anyone being the wiser. Outside our borders, it would be even easier.
13Not using good biocontainment practices would be helpful to detection of clandestine facilities. However, detection when incidents occur requires that authorities and epidemiologists be alert. Japanese authorities and scientists turned a blind eye to the Matsumoto sarin ‘accident’, and to the spraying of attenuated anthrax off a roof in Tokyo. American scientists turned a blind eye to the salmonella incident in Oregon.