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Protective Oversight of Biotechnology

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Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, virtually all discussion of security policy in the United States has concentrated on the implications of those events. In the immediate aftermath, there was a riveting fear of further assault, and the counterattack against the Al Qaeda network, assumed to be responsible, was given overriding priority. Over its initial phase at least, that effort has been more effective than initially expected and has not generated the political backlash that was considered to be a significant risk. The sense of imminent threat has certainly not been eliminated, but it has been mitigated to the point that broader implications can legitimately command attention in particular the chilling realization that the disaster would have been far greater had mass destruction technologies been effectively used. It is now embarrassingly evident that we should have been more careful about access to the controls of flying airplanes. By extension we need to be more careful about things that are a great deal more dangerous than airplanes. However successful the continuing suppression of terrorist organizations might be, it is yet more urgent to manage much better than we have both the materials that enable large-scale destruction and the knowledge out of which they arise.

That realization was powerfully reinforced by the subsequent experience with powdered anthrax sent through the United States mail system. As is now widely recognized, the material used in two of the four contaminated letters that have been identified could have been far more destructive had a more effective method of dissemination been used. The few grams contained in the letters could readily have endangered thousands of people, conceivably tens of thousands. A kilogram of that material effectively broadcast could kill hundreds of thousands. Authorities have not yet managed even provisionally to identify the person or group who sent the contaminated letters, let alone to determine any association with the Al Qaeda network. The difficulty of answering these questions after an attack underscores the futility of expecting intelligence, security, and law enforcement officials to identify and eliminate all potential terrorists before they strike. It becomes critically important therefore to enlist biologists, doctors, and other members of the scientific community in a comprehensive effort to monitor inherently dangerous materials, knowledge, and activities as carefully as possible.

John Steinbruner is the Director of the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland.