A top U.S. diplomat Monday accused Iraq, North Korea and three other countries of pursuing germ weapon programs, an unusually pointed diplomatic charge designed to put pressure on nations suspected of flouting an international ban on biological arms.
John R. Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary for arms control and international security, said that evidence of Iraq's biological weapon program is "beyond dispute," and that North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran are believed to be developing bioweapon capabilities of their own.
The United States long has suspected these countries of pursuing germ weapon capabilities. But Bolton's remarks reflect an aggressive new diplomatic posture shaped by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the subsequent outbreaks of anthrax.
"I plan to name names," Bolton said in a speech delivered on the opening day of a three-week conference in Geneva on biological weapons. "Prior to Sept. 11, some would have avoided this approach. The world has changed, however, and so must our business-as-usual approach."
The speech was seen as an effort to heighten international pressure on rogue nations at a time when U.S. officials believe they can credibly claim the moral high ground.
But critics said the United States undermined its position at the conference by neglecting to mention other suspected bioweapon producers, including Russia, and by refusing to take part in a proposed international germ weapon inspection program.
Meeting meant to bolster arms pact
The Geneva conference is aimed at strengthening the 30-year-old Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty that bans germ weapon production in more than 140 countries that have ratified the accord, including the United States.
Iraq, North Korea and Iran have signed the agreement, but are widely believed to be violating it. The two other countries Bolton mentioned -- Syria and Libya -- have not signed the agreement. All five countries deny the charges.
Bolton reserved his most forceful language for Iraq, saying only that Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network pose a greater danger to international safety.
"Beyond al-Qaida, the most serious concern is Iraq," Bolton said. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, he said, has "developed, produced and stockpiled biological warfare agents and weapons."
Arms experts said Iraq widely is believed to have produced weapon versions of anthrax, botulism and other germs and to have successfully loaded warheads with biological agents.
Many U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials have speculated in recent weeks that Iraq might be connected to the recent anthrax outbreaks in the U.S. that have killed four people.
There also are some links between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks. Intelligence officials in the Czech Republic recently reported that Mohamed Atta, suspected of being the ringleader of the men who hijacked four jetliners, met in Prague earlier this year with an Iraqi agent.
Bolton noted in his speech that a number of the hijackers had made inquiries about renting crop-dusting planes, and that the United States believes Bin Laden has tried to acquire biological weapons, "possibly with support from a state." He did not name the state.
Bolton said the United States also "believes North Korea has a dedicated, national-level effort to achieve a biological weapon capability," and probably already is capable of producing "sufficient quantities of biological agents for military purposes within weeks of a decision to do so."
"We are also quite concerned about Iran, which the United States believes probably has produced and weaponized biological agents," he added. Libya and Syria, Bolton said, "may be capable of producing small quantities" of biological weapons.
Bolton is regarded as the most doctrinaire conservative in the upper echelons of the State Department, and his speech is certain to play well in Republican circles that have been clamoring for a more confrontational U.S. international stance, particularly toward Iraq.
But many arms and Middle East experts were troubled by portions of Bolton's speech, including his reference to "other states I could have named, which the United States will be contacting privately."
David Kay, an arms control consultant who was chief nuclear weapon inspector in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, said Bolton exposed the United States to charges of hypocrisy by refusing to name the other countries.
Kay said Russia, China, Egypt and others almost certainly were left off Bolton's list to avoid straining the delicate anti-terrorism coalition that is critical to the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Bin Laden.
"The administration undermines itself" by playing diplomatic favorites, Kay said. "The very nature of that [Bolton's] statement says it's a two-tier system. It makes it easier for Iran to say, 'You're singling us out because of political opposition.'"
The United States also has taken heat for refusing to participate in a proposed biological weapon inspection program.
Treaties banning the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons already have provisions for such inspections, but the Biological Weapons Convention does not.
A false sense of confidence
Bolton acknowledged that the U.S. "has been criticized, both in the media and by foreign governments," for its position. But he said the limited inspections allowed under the proposal would permit countries to continue violating the accord with little chance of getting caught, creating a false sense of confidence in compliance with the treaty.
Some experts agree. Kay said biological weapon labs are much harder to detect than nuclear or chemical weapon facilities.
Germ weapon plants are far smaller, require tiny amounts of raw materials, and can be cleaned of any trace of illicit activity within hours, he said.
"A biological weapon that can kill thousands is measured in grams," he said. "For a chemical weapon that can kill thousands, you're talking about a ton. Very few of us who have conducted inspections believe we'll ever catch a state through normal inspections of that sort."
Still, critics said the inspection program would provide at least some level of useful deterrence, and that the Bush administration is being unnecessarily obstinate.
"In our view, the Bush administration is striking the wrong balance," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn., a private arms control advocacy group in Washington.
"There is no silver bullet," but even an imperfect inspection program, he said, would make it harder "to hide a large, state-sponsored, bioweapon program."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times