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Book Chapter

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Over the past two decades, concern about the threat posed by biological weapons has grown. Biowarfare is not new. But prior to the recent trend, the threat largely centered on state use of such weapons. What changed with the end of the Cold War was the growing apprehension that materials and knowledge would proliferate beyond industrialized states’ control, and that “rogue states” or nonstate actors would acquire and use biological weapons. Accordingly, in 1993 senators Samuel Nunn, Richard Lugar, and Pete Dominici expanded the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to assist the former Soviet republics in securing biological agents and weapons knowledge. The Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act gave the Pentagon lead agency responsibility. Senator Lugar explained, “[B]iological weapons, materials, and know-how are now more available to terrorists and rogue nations than at any other time in our history.” The United States was not equipped to manage the crisis.

The actual acquisition of unconventional weapons by nonstate actors augmented concern. In 1984, for instance, the Rajneesh cult in Oregon sought to prevent the local community from being able to vote against its land development plans. The group contaminated local salad bars with Salmonella typhimurium, infecting 751 people. In 1995 Aum Shinrikyo released a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, killing twelve people. And in 1998 an American citizen, Larry Wayne Harris, obtained plague and anthrax (a vaccine strain) and isolated several other dangerous bacteria. His aim was to disseminate biological agents on U.S. soil, using a cropduster, to alert the U.S. government to the Iraqi biological weapons threat, and to create a separate homeland for whites.

These and similar incidents pointed to an alarming trend: from previously a dozen or so investigations per year, in 1997, the FBI opened 74 investigations related to the possible acquisition and use of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear materials. The following year, it investigated 181 possible incidents. Eighty percent of the cases turned out to be hoaxes, but a significant number represented unsuccessful attacks. By January 31, 1999, Monterey Institute for International Studies had compiled an open-source data base of 415 such incidents—most of which occurred toward the end of the twentieth century—where terrorists had sought to acquire or use weapons of mass destruction.

Publication Citation

Laura K. Donohue, Pandemic Disease, Biological Weapons, and War in LAW AND WAR: (Sarat, Austin, Douglas, Lawrence, and Umphrey, Martha Merrill, eds., Stanford University Press, 2014)