A confidential Bush administration review has recommended that the United States not accept a draft agreement to enforce the treaty banning germ weapons, American officials said.
The recommendations appear certain to distress allies, who back the draft accord and are concerned that the new administration is concentrating too much on new military programs and not enough on treaties and nonproliferation.
After six years of negotiations, diplomats in Geneva have produced the draft agreement, known as a protocol, which would establish measures to monitor the ban on biological weapons.
A 1972 treaty, which 143 nations have ratified, prohibits the development, production and possession of biological weapons. But the treaty has always lacked a was to verify compliance.
The Clinton administration cast the new protocol as an important tool to stem the spread of biological weapons. And international negotiators in Geneva have been rushing to complete it by November.
But the Bush administration has taken a far more skeptical approach. In a unanimous review, its interagency team concluded that the current version of the protocol would be inefficient in stopping cheating and that all its deficiencies could not be remedied by the negotiating deadline.
"The review says that the protocol would not be of much value in catching potential proliferators," a senior American official said.
The White House has yet to formally endorse the conclusions of the review, but because all the relevant agencies agreed to it, the White House is considered almost certain to go along. The real issue is what steps to adopt in light of the recommendations, and how to handle the issue diplomatically. Although the review strongly objects to the current version of the protocol, it does not rule out fresh attempts to address the monitoring issues.
The review is also emerging as a sensitive diplomatic issue. Bush is headed to Europe next month and his administration has been under fire for steering too unilateral a course on foreign policy, by backing away from the Kyoto accords on global warming and, to a lesser extent, the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty. So the White House is anxious to avoid a new split.
Tibor Toth, the Hungarian diplomat who has overseen the effort to negotiate the protocol, will fly to Washington early this week to try to change the Bush administration's mind, American officials said. "If the world community fails to agree on a protocol to strengthen the ban on biological weapons after six years of talks, it will send a very unfortunate message," Toth said.
Under the 210-page protocol, parties agree to declare their vaccine production facilities, the largest biodefense installations and facilities that do genetic engineering or aerosol studies with germ agents that are most likely to be used in weapons.
As for inspections, a new executive council would be established and a majority vote of the body would be required before an investigation of a suspicious plant could be carried out. This procedure, insisted on by American industry, is less strict than a similar provision in the treaty banning chemical weapons.
Defenders say that the goal of the protocol was never to provide air-tight verification but rather to increase the chances that cheaters would be caught and thereby deter violations. Some monitoring and openness, they say, are better than none.
But critics of the protocol say the accord would not provide much security. A nation that was determined to cheat could find a way to do so and might use the limited inspections to throw other nations off the trail, they say. In this view, the United States would open itself up to inspections and get little in return.
When the Bush administration took office, the issue came to the fore. Donald A. Mahley, the American negotiator at the talks, proposed a review. The interagency group he led included working-level officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, the Commerce Department, the Energy Department and intelligence agencies.
The review found 38 problems with the protocol, a handful of them serious. But its basic assessment was critical. It concluded that the verification measures in the treaty were unlikely to detect cheating. At the same time, the review also concluded that these same provisions might be used by foreign governments to try to steal American secrets.
The review recommended that the United States not support the draft protocol that Toth had overseen. And it concluded that there was not enough time to fix all the problems before the negotiating deadline.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has approved the review, which has been circulating in the administration. Officially, however, the White House insists that the review has not been completed, in part because it has yet to figure out a new policy.
If the White House, as expected, affirms the review it has several alternatives. One is to try to improve the accord before the November deadline but to accept the fact that the United States is unlikely to obtain all desired changes. There is little or no support for this approach in the administration.
Another is to ask that the deadline be extended so that negotiators would work on a substantially different protocol.
The United States could take a different approach, in essence proposing a stripped-down version of the protocol that would provide for investigations when there are alleged violations of the convention.