Cheery Reading: "WORLD AT RISK The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism"

In case you haven't seen the headlines the lase couple of days, Bob Graham and Jim Talent say we are doomed.  Mostly.  Sort of.  Maybe?

Here is the page to download the report.  In summary, the commission predicts an attack using a weapon of mass destruction with in the next five years.  They are more worried about biological weapons than nuclear ones.

Despite the grim tone of most of the text, here is something useful to squawk back at Chicken Little:

...One should not oversimplify or exaggerate the threat of bioterrorism. Developing a biological weapon that can inflict mass casualties is an intricate undertaking, both technically and operationally complex. 

That is among the more optimistic statements in the entire document.

I caught Bob Graham on the Colbert Report last night, and the interview helped me figure out what has been bugging me about the language used by the report and its authors as they talk to the press.  No, not the part where Graham and Colbert -- two grown men in suit and tie -- used copies of the report like GI Joe figures in desktop combat (see 2:30 -- that brief interlude was enlightening in a different way):

The lightbulb went off when Graham said "The most important thing we can do is make sure that we, and the rest of the world, are locking down all the nuclear and biological material so that it is not capable of leaking into the hands of terrorists."

That sounds great, and the report goes on at length about securing BSL-3 and -4 facilities here in the US so that nasty bugs are kept behind locked doors, doors that are guarded by guys with visible guns.  That constitutes a particular kind of deterrence, which is fine.  As I have spent far too much of my life working in clean rooms trussed up in bunny suits, I can only feel sympathy for the folks who will have to deal with that security and suit up to work in the lab every day.  But those bugs are dangerous, and biosafety in those facilities is no joke.  The near-term threat is undoubtedly from bugs that already exist in labs.

But this is where things start to go off the rails for me.  Graham didn't have a lot of time with Colbert, but his language was disturbingly absolute.  I am concerned the Commission's views on biological technologies aredysfunctionally bipolar.  Here is what I mean: Even though the text of report reassures me that the people who actually put words on the page have a sense of how far and how fast biological technologies are proliferating (which I get to below), the language used by the official spokesman involves "locking down all the biological materials".  I worry that "locking down" anything might be construed in Washington DC, or by the populace, as constituting sufficient security measures.  See my article from last year "Laying the foundations for a bio-economy" for an update on what has happened as a result trying to "lock down" methamphetamine production in the US.  Short summary: There is more meth available on the streets, and the DEA acknowledges that its efforts have created an environment in which it actually has worse intelligence about who is making the drug and how it gets distributed.

Frankly, I haven't quite sorted out all of the things that bother me about the report, the way we talk about security in this country, and the inevitable spread of powerful biological technologies.  What follows are some additional notes and ruminations on the matter.   

Here is what the text of the report has to say about the threat from DNA synthesis technologies:

The only way to rule out the harmful use of advances in biotechnology would be to stifle their beneficial applications as well--and that is not a realistic option. Instead, the dual-use dilemma associated with the revolution in biology must be managed on an ongoing basis. As long as rapid innovations in biological science and the malevolent intentions of terrorists and proliferators continue on trajectories that are likely to intersect sooner or later, the risk that biological weapons pose to humanity must not be minimized or ignored.

Hmm...well, yes.  I'm glad they acknowledge the fact that in order to benefit from the technology it must be developed further, and that security through proscription will retard that innovation.  I am relieved that this part of the report's recommendations do not include measures I believe would be immediately counterproductive.  The authors later write:

The more that sophisticated capabilities, including genetic engineering and gene synthesis, spread around the globe, the greater the potential that terrorists will use them to develop biological weapons. The challenge for U.S. policymakers is to prevent that potential from becoming a reality by keeping dangerous pathogens--and the equipment, technology, and know-how needed to weaponize them--out of the hands of criminals, terrorists, and proliferant states. 

The charge in the last sentence sounds rather infeasible to me.  Anyway, the Commission then puts responsibility for security on the heads of scientists and engineers working in the life sciences: 

The choice is stark. The life sciences community can wait until a catastrophic biological attack occurs before it steps up to its security responsibilities. Or it can act proactively in its own enlightened self-interest, aware that the reaction of the political system to a major bioterrorist event would likely be extreme and even draconian, resulting in significant harm to the scientific enterprise.

...ACTION: The Department of Health and Human Services and Congress should promote a culture of security awareness in the life sciences community.

Members of the life sciences community--universities, medical and veterinary schools, nongovernmental biomedical research institutes, trade associations, and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies--must foster a bottom-up effort to sensitize researchers to biosecurity issues and concerns. Scientists should understand the ethical imperative to "do no harm," strive to anticipate the potential consequences of their research, and design and conduct experiments in a way that minimizes safety and security risks.

(This bit sounds like the Commission heard from Drew Endy.)

...The currently separate concepts of biosafety and biosecurity should be combined into a unified conceptual framework of laboratory risk management. This framework should be integrated into a program of mandatory education and training for scientists and technicians in the life sciences field, whether they are working in the academy or in industry. Such training should begin with advanced college and graduate students andextend to career scientists. The U.S. government should also fund the development of educational materials and reference manuals on biosafety and biosecurity issues. At the same time, the responsibilities of laboratory biosafety officers should be expanded to include laboratory security and oversight of select agents, and all biosafety officers should be tested and certified by a competent government authority.

The phrase "culture of security awareness" appears frequently.  This creeps me out more than a bit, particularly given our government's recent exhortations to keep an eye on our neighbors.  You never know who might be a sleeper.  Or a sleep-walking bioterrorist.  I make this point not entirely in jest.  Who wants to live in such a paranoid culture?  Particularly when it is not at all clear that such paranoia makes us safer.

To be fair, I called for something not too dissimilar in 2003 in The Pace and Proliferation of Biological Technologies.  It only makes sense to keep an eye out for potential bioterror and bioerror, and we should have some sort of educational framework to make sure that people are aware of the potential hazards as they hack DNA.  But seeing that language in a report from a legislatively-established body makes me start imagining Orwellian propaganda posters on the walls of labs around the country.  Ick.  That is no way to foster communication and innovation.

On a different topic, here is something that opened my eyes. The report contains a story about a Russian -- someone in charge of weighing out uranium for his coworkers -- who was able to continuously steal small amounts of fissile materiel because the scales were officially recognized to be calibrated only to within 3%.  By withholding a little each time, he amassed a stash of 1.6 kg of "90 percent enriched uranium", while the official books showed no missing materiel.  Fortunately the fellow was caught, because while he was a clever thief he was a not-so-clever salesman.  As part of subsequent non-proliferation efforts, the US government paid for more accurate scales in order to prevent another incident of stealing "a bomb's worth of uranium, bit by bit".  Holy shit.

It is nice to hear that this sort of leak has been plugged for the nuclear threat.  I hope our government clearly understands that such plugs are few and far between for biological threats.