Biosecurity Mini-history: Early Use of Bioweapons

Hellebore flowers. Credit: SiGarb 21:59, 28 March 2006 (UTC)
Hellebore flowers. Credit: SiGarb 21:59, 28 March 2006 (UTC)

While most people today think of biological weapons as a relatively modern advancement, it is important to recognize that their existence predates recorded human history. Ancient civilizations had a working knowledge of plant and animal toxins, as well as of devastating diseases such as plague and smallpox.  While these people had yet to discover the origins of such diseases, they were aware of how diseases could spread from one person or animal to another. Continue reading

A Teachable Moment

Views on nuclear weapons are often linked to strong emotions. On August 6, 2010, the text announcing my podcast on nuclear security issues to FAS members and on the FAS Website used a strong, emotionally charged word to describe the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That word was “unconscionable.”

An FAS member wrote to me expressing her disagreement with the use of that word because it is:

“an unequivocal judgment about the American decision to drop the two bombs.  This may be the opinion of whoever wrote the text, but it is NOT necessarily the opinion of all of the members and supporters of FAS.  I do not believe it was the opinion – before the end of the war – of all of the founders of the original organization that became FAS.  It is an arrogant claim that we would have all made a different decision under the circumstances of the war.”

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A Teachable Moment

Written by FAS President Dr. Charles Ferguson

Views on nuclear weapons are often linked to strong emotions. On August 6, 2010, the text announcing my podcast on nuclear security issues to FAS members and on the FAS Website used a strong, emotionally charged word to describe the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That word was “unconscionable.”

An FAS member wrote to me expressing her disagreement with the use of that word because it is:

Continue reading

A Systems Approach to Yemen’s Critical Environmental Issues

9 August 2010

More than just a resource, water is the essential force for life.  And in an arid region such as the Middle East, its scarcity forces water and those places with abundant water to take on near-mythical properties.  Called Felix Arabia or Happy Arabia by the Romans, Yemen was long the breadbasket of Arabia, renowned for lush green mountains and abundant agricultural output.

Fast-forward 2000 years and a variety of environmental, social, and political issues strain the water resources of this country—there isn’t enough precipitation, enough surface water, or enough groundwater.  Fossil reservoirs are becoming quickly depleted, with some scientists measuring groundwater depletion rates in the Sana’a basin of 5-6 meters per year. And this demand will not decrease; with a population growth rate of over 3% for the country and about 5.5% in Sana’a, the need for water will increase across the residential, commercial, and especially agricultural sectors.

Add to this the energy demands of a growing population eager to develop a higher standard of living, and the challenges and limitations becomes more complex still.

The entire Yemeni power grid has an electrical generation capacity of only 900MW, enough electricity to run only 550,000 average houses in the American Mountain West region**.  Meanwhile, only 30-40% of the population is grid connected and of those with grid connections, the majority encounter frequent—even daily—power outages.  Assuming that 40% of the population is connected, the Yemeni power grid has enough electricity to provide only 4.2MWhr of electricity to each household every year—less than half of that used in any region of the United States.  And as this limited capacity must meet not only residential needs, but also the demands of the commercial, agricultural, and industrial sectors, the grid is already severely strained.

These anecdotes illustrate the critical environmental challenges faced by Yemen–challenges that collectively are likely to threaten the security and stability of Yemen within the next decade. Moreover, these interrelated challenges illustrate that all environmental issues must be tackled in a systems framework. It is not enough to consider one problem in isolation.  As the issues themselves are highly interconnected and interdependent, the multiple and varied effects of any given project, model, or solution must be considered.  Only by doing so can academia produce the applicable, nuanced research needed to improve Yemen’s environmental future.

As evidenced by numerous conversations with experts in engineering, water, renewable energy, resource management, policy, and environmental geography, the key environmental challenges facing Yemen relate primarily to water, energy, and agriculture, as well as pollution, climate change, and ecosystem management and conservation.  Some considerable work is being done by experts in Yemen in these areas; however, university faculty are constrained by limited resources.  Without exception, all experts interviewed have expressed the need for applied research that addresses these environmental challenges, yet is sensitive to the political, cultural, and social realities of present-day Yemen.

  • Water:  With some models predicting Sana’a will run out of water within 20 years at most, water is the most pressing of Yemen’s environmental needs.  Key areas for research include: groundwater monitoring and health, water efficiency and limiting water use (especially in the agricultural sector), harvesting new water, adaptation to water scarcity, desalination, and applying traditional water management models.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  data collection; monitoring and modeling of water resources; local climate change modeling to predict future water availability; pollution monitoring and mitigation; collection of best practices for water in arid environments; urban and agricultural management and use practices; traditional water management and storage methods; water scarcity adaptation; increasing energy production so as to not increase the sector’s water demand; desalination; transparency in the water sector; water quality standards; and the likely outcome and difficulties associated with water allotment conflicts; saltwater intrusion; and rainwater harvesting.
  • Energy:  With a limited electricity supply dependent upon natural gas and oil for production and a highly decentralized population, sustainably electrifying the grid will be a difficult challenge.  Key areas for research include:  rural electrification, application of renewable energies, the environmental impact of fossil fuels, minimizing water use by the energy sector, and energy use in the built environment.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  data collection and mapping; energy use and supply monitoring and modeling; renewable potential of Yemen; application of renewable energy technologies to agriculture and small industry; developing a decentralized energy grid; linking water collection and desalination technologies to renewable energies; applying renewable technologies to urban environments; exploitation of geothermal energy; traditional building technologies to minimize residential energy use; urban planning; reducing energy losses to grid; transparency in the fossil fuel sectors (especially related to environmental impacts); technology transfer of best environmental technologies for drilling and transport; pollution caused by electricity production and transportation; impact of exhaust gas on localized climate changes and public health; and collection of best practices from the fossil fuel sector.
  • Agriculture:  Responsible for 90% of Yemen’s annual freshwater use, agricultural problems are highly interrelated with the country’s water and pollution issues.  Key areas for research include: water monitoring, pollution, and management; alternative crops, technologies, and techniques that minimize water and chemical use in agriculture; and food production to meet the needs of a growing population.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  improved agricultural data; monitoring of water use in agriculture; adopting cost-effective new practices and crops to minimize water use; management of wells and water for agriculture; environmental impact of insecticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals; the real water use and environmental impact and costs of qat; deforestation for agricultural needs; desertification; application of traditional water management practices; cash crops to make small agriculture cost effective; application of renewable energy technologies to agricultural needs such as water harvesting, sills, and pumps; intensive farming to increase food production; and local climate change modeling to predict changes in agriculture seasons.

India and Pakistan: Whose is Bigger?

India-Pakistan nuclear competition on display again

By Hans M. Kristensen

If Indian news reports (here, here, and here) are any indication, India has once again discovered that Pakistan might possess a few nuclear weapons more than India.

This time the reports are based on an article Robert Norris and I published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which we provide estimates for the number of nuclear weapons in the world.

In 2009, our report on Pakistan’s nuclear forces triggered a statement from the chief of the Indian army that if the warhead estimate in our report was correct then Pakistan had moved beyond what is needed for deterrence. The unintended acknowledgement: so had India.

In 2008, reports about the arrival of the first Chinese Jin-class SSBN at a naval base on Hainan Island were followed by suggestions that India needed to build perhaps five new Arihant-class ballistic missile submarines.

As far as I can gauge, apart from nuclear testing where India started first, Pakistan has always been a little ahead in warheads, fissile material, and delivery systems. But neither country can claim any nuclear moral high ground; both are increasing their nuclear arsenals, both are producing more fissile material for nuclear weapons, and both are diversifying the means to deliver nuclear weapons and extending their range.

The two countries are now at a warhead level about equal to that of Israel (~80 warheads). But whereas it took Israel 40 years to reach that level, India and Pakistan have done so in only 12 years. And they’re apparently not done.

Although neither government wants to say so publicly, India and Pakistan are in effect in a nuclear arms race. It might not be of the intensity of the Cold War arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, but it is a race nonetheless for capability and systems. Pointing to the other side having more only underscores that dynamic.

Indian and Pakistani security will probably be served better by trying soon to define just how big a nuclear force is sufficient for minimum deterrence so that “prudent planning” doesn’t take them to a new and more dangerous level.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Extending the Relationship: The U.S. and Science in Yemen

As they wrap up their meetings on the development of the International Science Partnership (ISP) between the U.S. and Yemen, Dr. Charles Ferguson and Lindsey Marburger share their perceptions on the future of the ISP, the needs of Yemen and the Yemeni scientific community, and areas for collaboration between American and Yemeni researchers. Click here to access this blog, found on the new Earth Systems blog.

A New Step for Yemeni-U.S. Science Engagement

6 August 2010

Welcome to Sana’a.  To set the scene for the city, imagine eight inches of rain a year, falling on a city at 7000 feet with a population of 2 million, growing at over 5% per year.  Add in a limited and sporadic electrical grid, a water-hungry cash crop (qat) that has replaced much food production, a tradition of flood agriculture, and an instable political and security situation, with limited government control outside the main cities.  Foreign governments and media cry out with warnings of terrorism and express concern as to whether Yemen will become the next “failed state”.  With this as a background, we asked ourselves, “Do Yemeni researchers have the interest and the capacity to engage in long-term collaborative science projects with the U.S. scientific community?”

After two days of successful meetings and conferences, we can answer yes to both these questions and state that the International Science Partnership (ISP) vision is one step closer to fruition. Even more importantly than the capacity for research that the Yemeni science community has demonstrated, the leading faculty, government ministers, and NGOs have all affirmed a wholehearted support for the ISP and for greater science engagement with America.

FAS President Charles Ferguson affirms this message, stating that this visit has been one of the most positive experiences of his career.  Never has he worked with a scientific community and a ministry so positive and enthusiastic about science engagement and so willing to share their knowledge and visions.

On our first day in Yemen the University of Sana’a hosted a conference to introduce and obtain feedback on the ISP, to review the energy and water research being carried out in Yemen, and to discuss research and resource needs.  Attendees included over 40 water and energy professors from Sana’a University, Aden University, Taiz University, and Hadramout University, as well as ministry researchers and environmental NGO officials.   Attendees contributed to the meeting by presenting the work being done in their department, their research needs, and the goals for their future.  The research presented was largely applied rather than basic or theoretical and covered a wide array of topics, ranging from the application of solar technology to desalination and agriculture to irrigation for arid climates, electrical grid optimization, and biomass utilization.

On the second day, we visited with the Minister of Higher Education, and the Minister and Deputy Minister of Water and the Environment.  Each of these officials gave an overview of the critical environmental issues facing Yemen, the country’s greatest needs, and how he would like to see a U.S.-Yemeni science partnership take shape.   Through frank and engaging discussions, we gained a fuller picture of the socio-cultural, political, economic, and resource challenges facing Yemen and the current approaches to solving these challenges.

And in answer to our query of where our program fits and where the United States fits in addressing these challenges, the ministers requested full engagement.   They implored FAS and the U.S. to break away from the sole-focus terrorism/guns/security conversation and to open a more productive dialogue.  A dialogue over shared environmental concerns and solutions, on education, and on developing technical capacity for Yemen to address its own internal challenges.

And what are these internal challenges and critical needs?  More coming soon…

HHS BARDA Awards Four Contracts to Medical Countermeasure Technologies

BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recently awarded four contracts for the research and development of innovative platform technologies in medical countermeasure development.

BARDA was established within HHS to manage the procurement and development of medical countermeasures, such as vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tools, for biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear agents, as well as for other public health emergencies, such as pandemic influenza and emerging infectious diseases. BARDA’s Strategic Science and Technology Division identifies and selectively funds research and technology that will improve the effectiveness and shorten the time and cost of medical countermeasure development. The innovative technologies awarded have all demonstrated success in late-stage clinical development for countermeasures against pandemic influenza and anthrax, two prevalent diseases of concern in public health and biosecurity.

Contracts were awarded to the following organizations to continue development: the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) in Seattle, VaxDesign Corp. in Orlando and Pfenex Inc. in San Diego. A collective total of $24.6 million is allotted for initial phases and up to $53.6 million over three years. Continue reading

FAS Podcast: FAS President Acknowledges Hiroshima Devastation on 65th Anniversary

Today is the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima. In acknowledgment of this unconscionable and historic event, FAS President Dr. Charles D. Ferguson speaks about the current state of nuclear security and the threat of nuclear terrorism to the international community in a special edition of the FAS Podcast: “A Conversation With An Expert.”

Topics discussed include an overview of the most urgent nuclear threats facing the international community today, the progress made by the U.S. government in the first half of 2010, FAS efforts to address nuclear security, and much more!

Download the podcast here.

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GAO Access to Intel Obstructed by 1988 OLC Opinion

The current dispute between the Obama Administration and some members of Congress over whether to strengthen oversight of intelligence programs by the Government Accountability Office is rooted in a 1988 opinion from the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which held that GAO access to intelligence information is actually barred by law.

In 1988, the GAO requested access to intelligence files concerning Panama as part of an investigation of U.S. policy towards Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega.  In response to an inquiry from the National Security Council, the Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion (pdf) stating that the GAO was not entitled to the requested records on Panama and Noriega.  Not only that, but the opinion (written by Acting OLC head Douglas W. Kmiec) concluded categorically that “GAO is precluded by the Intelligence Oversight Act from access to intelligence information.”

Today, the FBI cites that 1988 opinion to justify its refusal to permit GAO to perform a review of the FBI counterterrorism program and other matters previously studied by GAO.

The 1988 OLC opinion “has had a broad negative impact on our access to information at the FBI and several other agencies that are part of the intelligence community,” wrote Acting Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro in a recent letter (pdf).  “Moreover, we are concerned that this position is now being extended to cover agencies and activities that have long been subject to GAO oversight, such as human capital practices and vacancies within the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division.”

Mr. Dodaro’s June 15, 2010 letter regarding GAO access to government information was sent to Senators Charles Grassley and Richard Shelby.  A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

The OLC opinion that GAO’s access to intelligence information is “precluded” by law seems demonstrably wrong and in any case has been overtaken by events.  A Department of Defense Instruction (7650.01) explicitly permits GAO access to DoD intelligence information.  Do the Justice Department and the FBI believe that this DoD Instruction violates the law?  And if the law prohibits GAO access to intelligence information, why have dozens of GAO analysts (73 of them as of March 2008) been granted SCI security clearances that authorize such access?

“The [OLC’s] basic legal premise — that GAO lacks legal authority to review intelligence matters — is simply wrong,” one congressional official told Secrecy News.  “To make matters more interesting, the 1988 OLC opinion is based on an old, and in my opinion misguided, GAO effort to get raw intelligence related to the Noriega mess.  How it applies to GAO’s current efforts to conduct a human capital review at FBI is baffling.”

“The fact that the Obama Administration is trying to block GAO from doing essentially the same work it did under the Bush Administration is a stunning turn of events that no one expected,” the official said.