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Deceit, danger mark U.S. pursuit of new WMD

VIENNA, AUSTRIA — VIENNA, Austria - Illegal biological and nuclear weapons production is on the rise - in the United States.

Ignoring the internationally recognized Biological Weapons Convention, the U.S. Army has patented a grenade capable of delivering biological and chemical agents.

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The irony wasn't lost on the watchdog group Sunshine Project, which observed, "Hans Blix might have an easier time finding illegal weapons if he were inspecting near Baltimore [at the Army's Edgewood Arsenal facility, where two of the inventors work] instead of Baghdad."

The Pentagon's bid to resume biological weapons research hinges on misleading language: Developing deadly biological weapons is illegal, so the grenade and other potential biowar devices are labeled "nonlethal."

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Similarly misleading language is being used to beef up the nation's nuclear weapons program. The House and Senate recently ditched the ban on researching low-yield nuclear devices, and approved funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a bunker-busting weapon said to be 10 times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb. The justification? Nuclear weapons will only be researched, not tested or deployed.

Small coincidence that the House and Senate simultaneously called for accelerated resumption of underground nuclear testing on U.S. soil. The message is clear: Research nuclear weapons today, test and deploy them tomorrow.

The Bush administration's race to get back into the biological and nuclear weapons business is alarming in a world struggling with weapons of mass destruction overload.

The secrecy and downright sloppiness of the U.S. weapons program, however, raises red flags.

Case in point: A whopping $6 billion has been earmarked to expand the U.S. biodefense program, and contenders have begun to abuse the public trust to get their hands on the money.

In February, for example, the University of California, Davis (UCD) took a full 10 days to inform nearby communities that a rhesus monkey had escaped from its primate breeding facility.

Coincidentally, UCD has been vying for government funds to set up its own "hot zone" biodefense lab, which in the future could use primates for biological weapons testing.

What if that monkey had been infected with Ebola or some other virus? Would the public have been informed?

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In Maryland, home of the biowar grenade, the Pentagon recently unearthed more than 2,000 tons of hazardous biological waste, much of it undocumented leftovers of an abandoned germ warfare program. Meanwhile, the FBI drained a pond for clues into 2001's anthrax attacks that killed five people.

None of this does much to inspire trust in the U.S. biological weapons program; unfortunately, the situation is equally grim with the nation's nukes.

America's most reputable nuclear weapons facility recently announced it had "lost" two vials of plutonium; officials at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory have said the plutonium was probably mislabeled then accidentally discarded.

The missing plutonium doesn't bode well. According to Peter Stockton, senior investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, "We have virtually hundreds of tons of plutonium and enriched uranium in the system. This raises questions about the reliability of that system."

Meanwhile, thousands of radioactive materials have been lost or stolen worldwide, and the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that more than 100 countries have inadequate controls over their radioactive devices.

The bottom line: In such a dubious environment, do we really need to invest in more homegrown WMD?

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Apart from the ethical implications of using biological and nuclear weapons on civilians abroad, we should consider the risks these weapons programs create in this country.

Taxpayer dollars would be better spent cleaning up past bioweapon excesses and tracking loose nukes.

Heather Wokusch is an American free-lance writer based in Vienna, Austria.


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