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U.S. Department of Defense
News Briefing
Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Presenter: Victoria Clarke, ASD(PA)

[...]

Q: A different topic. Can you describe in any way the current efforts of the United States to conduct research into biological weapons and what the purpose of that research might be, and whether it falls within the confines of the Chemical -- Biological Weapons Convention?

Clarke: Again, we've said pretty consistently that we're very concerned about the threat of offensive biological weapons, of the proliferation of materials and technology that could enhance the proliferation of chemical and biological warfare. And we are doing work in places. All of the work is consistent with U.S. treaty obligations. All of the work is thoroughly briefed and gone through a heavy consultation process, both interagency and the appropriate legal reviews and the appropriate congressional briefings.

Q: What is the purpose of that research?

Clarke: The purpose is to protect the men and women in uniform and the American people from what we see is a real and growing threat.

Q: Does this research involve creating any germs in the laboratory?

Clarke: There has been, about 1997, I think it was, and what you're talking about, is some reporting about developing a strain, a new strain of anthrax. In 1997 there was a journal called "Vaccine" which reported on a new or modified anthrax strain that the Russians may have been developing. We have a vaccine that works against most of the known -- all of the known anthrax strains. What we want to do is make sure we are prepared for any surprises, we're prepared for anything else that might happen that might be a threat. So about in the early part of this year, the DIA started to look into the feasibility, and doing all the legal consultations, doing all the appropriate interagency consultations to look into how we could develop that modified anthrax strain so we could test our vaccines against it and make sure we prevent against any surprises, and make sure we could protect the men and women in uniform from potential threats.

Q: Are you growing it?

Clarke: Right now there is no work going on on the modified anthrax strain. The director --

Q: Is it going to go forward?

Clarke: The director has made it very clear that he wants further interagency consultation work done -- that's with the DoD and other agencies; that he wants the legal reviews to continue; and further congressional briefings.

Q: Director of DIA?

Clarke: Yes.

Q: Well what work has been done prior? You say no work is being done now. Was this strain actually developed prior to today?

Clarke: In the United States? No.

Q: By the U.S. government --

Clarke: No.

Q: -- it wasn't?

Clarke: Right.

Q: Was it worked with? Did you get a hold of agent? Were there other bio-agents that were created for these programs?

Clarke: No.

Q: No bio-agent of any kind was created for these programs?

Clarke: For this particular program that we're talking about, which is this modified anthrax strain that was reported on in 1997, I believe it was, in this magazine "Vaccine," we have had consultations with the Russians about this, we have had cooperative efforts with the Russians on biological warfare in the past. But on this particular strain, no work has been done.

Q: And the U.S. had asked for a sample of the Russian and that was not provided; is that correct?

Clarke: To date, it has not been provided. And I've asked, I don't yet have the answer; I know as early as '97 we started talking to them about providing a strain so our folks could take a look at it and test the vaccine and see what we can do to prepare against those sorts of threats.

Q: The U.S. then didn't attempt to simulate that vaccine or create its own version of -- not of the vaccine, but of the agent, rather?

Clarke: No, that's what I was trying to say. Earlier this year, the DIA started to look into what it would take to get the legal approvals, to get the interagency coordination, to do the congressional briefings, to look into developing that strain so they could test vaccines and they could see what we have to do to make sure we're protected against it.

Q: That appears to be the path that you're now headed down, is doing that interagency process, making sure it is legal, and then going ahead and developing or growing this strain?

Clarke: Correct.

Q: That is? Okay.

And secondly, on the issue of making bomblets, which are some of the pieces of technology that other countries have done to dispense biological weapons, has the United States made these small bomblets for experimenting or any other reason?

Clarke: That comes under the Clear Vision program, which is a CIA project, so you should direct your questions over there.

Yes. Second row.

Q: In the -- you say the Russians haven't provided samples of this strain of anthrax. Have they provided notes or research or anything? How would we know that we're going to get the same strain that they came up with?

Clarke: You know, that we'll have to get back to you with some information. I just know there's been ongoing work with them in a cooperative nature on other elements when it comes to biological warfare. There's been a fair amount of communication lab to lab, if you will. But I don't know about all those aspects of -- [Update: the Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction Program is funding a collaborative research project on anthrax monitoring with the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk, Russia. In August 2001 the State Research Center applied to the Russian Export Control Commission for a license to transfer the anthrax strain to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The application is currently pending a decision of the Russian Export Control Commission, and the U.S. government will seek Russian approval of the export license.]

Q: To the best of your knowledge, has the United States developed other strains of biological warfare agents in an effort to study them, strains of basically banned biological agents?

Clarke: I'll have to take that question. [Update: no, we do not develop biological weapons within the DOD.]

Q: Do the Russians acknowledge that they have, in fact, produced this hybrid strain of anthrax?

Clarke: Not to my knowledge.

Yes.

Q: New subject?

Q: Can we please stick on this subject?

Clarke: I'm sorry. How about Pam, and then back to you?

Q: So far, what is the legal determination with regard to the Bio Weapons Convention? Does DIA think they're going to be able to push ahead with this with no problem?

Clarke: We're compliant.

Q: This -- right now you're compliant because you haven't done it yet. But if you do it, will --

Clarke: We're compliant, and the legal reviews that have been done to date indicate that the work would be compliant. The Biological Weapons Convention allows you to do work that is purely defensive in nature. It allows you to have small quantities of a known agent, limited quantities of an agent if you want to study it for the purpose of protecting people against that threat.

Q: And is -- does the United States consider what Russia did compliant with the Bio Weapons Convention?

Clarke: You know, we have, as I said at the start of this questioning, we have concerns about the spread of biological and chemical warfare-enabling technology whatever the source and whoever is engaged in those activities. We have raised these concerns about chemical and biological warfare with the Russians, and we will continue to do so.

Q: Victoria, in the New York Times article today, according to the Times, the Times and ABC News were given a tour of a germ warfare laboratory in Nevada. Can you explain what the purpose -- what that facility does and what the purpose of it is?

Clarke: The facility, the Battelle facility of one that looks at -- I'm sorry, it's not the Battelle facility, it's the DTRA facility. And they are looking at signatures -- and I'm clearly going to get beyond my level of knowledge here -- but looking at signatures which indicate biological activity. They're using commercially available equipment, using commercially available organisms.

Q: And did -- are there any germs or biological agents produced at that facility?

Clarke: You know, that -- I'm going to have to refer you to DTRA. But on this particular project that was referred to in the New York Times, again, they were using commercially available equipment and commercially available organisms to test again the signatures, which is your ability to -- the level of activity -- not the level, but the activities of organisms.

Q: Is that for detection purposes?

Clarke: I believe so.

Yes?

Q: What's the rationale for having kept this work a secret up to now?

Clarke: Which work are you referring to?

Q: The research that we've been talking about, these various projects --

Clarke: Well, the DIA, for instance, doing this work, is trying to protect us and protect the men and women in uniform against threats of chemical and biological warfare. There are certain countries that we know are trying to do very bad things out there. The less information we give them about it, the better. Intelligence activities tend to remain secret.

Q: This is going to sound a little cynical, but let me just ask, on behalf of the public, how can the American public be assured that as the United States government conducts this kind of research, which is aimed at protection, that in the process they don't -- they're not also at the same time developing some offensive capability or creating some new strain of dangerous bacterial agent?

Clarke: Well, for instance -- and I think we can provide you with a chronology of the activities that have to do with this modified anthrax strain -- the Jefferson project, as it's referred to. And you look at this -- there was a long litany of interagency coordination, legal reviews, congressional briefings, all of which are obviously to ensure the appropriate, you know, coordination. It's also to make sure that all the appropriate steps are taken to make sure we are compliant. This program's undergone serious, serious scrutiny by a number of people. We are compliant, and we will remain so. And the BWC does allow you to do these things, as Project Jefferson has done.

Q: Is it safe to say that -- as you said here, that the United States intends -- intends -- to go ahead and develop this strain of anthrax, unless something -- retain the interagency process, but you made pretty clear the United States feels that it would be legal, as of now, to do so, and you fully intend to do it?

Clarke: Yeah. And let me repeat, again, we take the threat of the spread of biological and chemical warfare very, very seriously. We have an obligation -- and it's an important obligation -- to make sure we protect, first and foremost, the men and women in uniform against those threats. There's absolutely an obligation and responsibility that we do so. So with all the appropriate legal reviews, with all the appropriate interagency coordination and congressional briefing, we plan to proceed.

Q: Just to be clear, we'd be talking about in this instance a minute quantity of bacterial agent, or how would you characterize how much of this anthrax variant should be produced?

Clarke: You know, the question I asked before I came down here, and gotten the answer back, was to actually define that a little more clearly. But the BWC does make clear "small, limited quantities" of a known agent. And I'll try to get a better definition of that for you.

Yes?

Q: Was the desire to maintain the confidentiality and details of these programs related in any way to the administration's decision not to participate in developing a verification and on-site inspection protocol for BWC?

Clarke: Absolutely not. I mean, remember, we are signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention. This administration has made clear one of its priorities is to work against the threat of biological warfare. That is one of our top priorities. Concerns with the protocol had to do, one, it couldn't really do what some said it might be able to do; two, the information that would be revealed about our biodefense capabilities, as well as confidential business information.

But I dare say almost every meeting of every high-level administration official over the last several months, as we've met with friends and allies on a variety of issues, this issue has been put on the table and said this is a concern; we want to do everything we can together around the world to reduce this threat.

Q: Nevertheless, the verification protocol would have allowed demand inspections by any party to the treaty. And had any party demanded inspection rights to these projects, the United States would have been obliged to provide those inspections.

Clarke: The protocol has lots of problems recognized by lots of people other than us. Foremost among them, it would make it very hard to do biodefense. It would make it very clear that some confidential commercial business information would be revealed. But again, I'd try to put the emphasis on what is really important, which is our commitment to the Biological Weapons Convention and the fact that we have made this issue and the priority of reducing the threat of chemical and biological warfare right front and center for this administration.

Q: Is it the intention of this administration to keep this kind of research as secret as the last administration did? Or is it the intention of this administration to be more forthcoming, to explain to the public what you are doing so there will be no misunderstandings about what the U.S. is doing behind closed doors?

Clarke: Let me clear up one thing and then come back.

No biological agents were produced, only simulants, as part of the research and the study in Nevada. So there were no biological agents used there, they were just simulants. I hope that clears that up.

And, I'm sorry, just do it one more time quickly.

Q: Is it the intention of this administration to continue the very extreme levels of secrecy surrounding all of these projects, which the administration says are benign and within the purview of the various conventions, or is it the intention of this administration, as has been indicated in a newspaper article today, to keep it even more secret than the previous administration?

Clarke: Well, I believe the intention will be to keep that information secret that we think by not doing so would have serious national security concerns. Giving those who have hostile intent information about what we can do to protect against the threats they might be carrying out against us is not a good thing.

Q: Does the revelation of these three projects threaten the United States?

Clarke: I feel pretty confident. You know, I've looked into this pretty hard for the last couple of days, and I feel pretty confident with the way this program is being run, the way it is being executed, the way it's being briefed throughout the interagency process and getting the appropriate legal consultations and doing the correct and appropriate congressional consultations, I feel confident that we're on a good path. And again, I go back to what I think is most important: the threat is real, it is growing, and it is the responsibility of the country, of the United States, the United States military and this administration to take steps to protect us against it.

Q: Let me try it again. Does the disclosure of these three projects threaten the United States? In other words, in the future, if the disclosure of this doesn't threaten the United States and letting the public know what you're doing doesn't threaten the United States, why not continue to follow that path in the months and years ahead? Or does this disclosure threaten the United States? Has it done harm?

Clarke: I don't think there is a level of detail that has been revealed that has done any harm to the program.

Q: So one might conclude then that it's okay to talk about this and other projects which are currently classified as secret or top secret. Or does the press have to rule it out?

Clarke: It's hard -- no, it's hard for me to make a blanket statement about all things going forward. But I will say this: if it's good and important that people know something about the level and the nature of the threat, absolutely. Is it good and important that people know what this administration is trying to do to protect them and their friends and colleagues and family members in uniform? Absolutely. But I just -- I can't help you on a blanket statement going forward.

Yes, sir.

Q: Another topic?

Q: One more.

Clarke: I'm sorry, one more.

Q: Just to pick up on the thread of Jack's question, do the scientists who are involved in this research, are they involved in any exchange programs with foreign counterparts, much like scientists at Los Alamos, where they might be susceptible to, you know, espionage or something like that? Do they come into contact with any of their counterparts overseas?

Clarke: There is cooperative work, yes.

Q: With which countries?

Clarke: You know, I'll have to take that question.

Q: But -- but their activities are monitored --

Clarke: (Inaudible due to cross talk) -- but they're -- yes, there are cooperative activities underway.

Q: And on the same subject, was the very existence of these programs classified as secret or top secret?

Clarke: What -- I'm sorry, what do you mean?

Q: Was the fact that there was work going on in this area classified as top secret? Was the name of these -- were the names of these projects classified? Were these things really kept so secret, or is it the details of what's going on in these projects that was categorized as secret or top secret?

Clarke: Well, I can speak to the Jefferson project, which has been going on since 1997. And the Jefferson project covers a variety of issues in terms of preventing surprise on biological and chemical warfare. They do the work such as we're talking about, or may do the work such as we're talking about on the modified anthrax strain. They study literature. They consult with others. The Jefferson project, for instance, is one that has been known. Now, the level of detail in some of these projects has not.

Q: So the existence of these -- of this project, at least, was not classified.

Clarke: The Jefferson project. That's correct.

Q: Right. But the details of the work that was going on under that project may have been classified.

Clarke: Yes.

Q: And you're not sure when it comes to the other projects.

Clarke: Right.

Q: Okay.

Clarke: If you want, we can get a more detailed list of the kinds of work that they do, because it's pretty extensive. And again, it's a broad range of work designed to prevent surprise and make sure we have the capabilities we need to protect us.

[...]


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