Law, College of


Date of this Version



Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), Vol. 96 (MARCH 13-16, 2002), pp. 275-278


The threat of biological weapons, once an obscure topic to most Americans, achieved new prominence and urgency in the United States with the anthrax letter attacks that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A number of infections traced to a handful of anthrax-laced letters focused unprecedented attention in America on the danger of biological weapons (BW). Coupled with continuing reports of attempts by terrorists to acquire weapons of mass destruction, this has made efforts to prevent BW proliferation a high priority for the U.S. government.

Notwithstanding the new prominence of the BW threat, the U.S. government recently withdrew its support of a seven-year effort to create a new protocol to improve monitoring and inspections under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).1 Concerned that the protocol's approach would compromise sensitive biological defense and confidential business information and would do nothing to increase compliance with the BWC, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, told a UN Conference on the Biological Weapons Convention that "the United States will simply not enter into agreements that allow rogue states or others to develop and deploy biological weapons," stating that the draft biological weapons protocol "is dead in our view and not to be resurrected."2 The United States also sought to focus attention on the number of BWC member countries with offensive BW programs. In response, domestic and foreign commentators strongly criticized the U.S. position, questioning America's commitment to this and other multilateral efforts.3

Although the United States rejected the proposed BWC protocol, it continues to com bat the threat posed by biological weapons by other means, including increased bilateral efforts to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons. In a recent meeting with the president of Russia, President Bush declared that "our highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction" and that “we will strengthen our efforts to cut off every possible source of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, materials, and expertise."4 In this regard, there is no greater threat than that posed by the legacy of the Soviet Union's BW program. In addition to five military microbiological facilities under the control of the Soviet Ministry of Defense, it has been reported that as many as forty-seven other scientific institutes and production facilities worked on biological weapons under the cover of numerous other Soviet ministries and organizations. Many of these only recently came to light after Russian President Boris Yeltsin officially acknowledged the existence of an offensive BW program in April 1992.5