On August 20, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles at the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. The purpose of the attack was to destroy an industrial facility believed to be involved in the production of Empta, a chemical compound whose only known use is as a precursor for the deadly VX nerve agent.

The attack, which has generated its share of controversy, has had at least one welcome effect. In the process of removing the Al-Shifa plant from the map, it put squarely on the map the issue of the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons (CBW). But the strike also demonstrated the difficulty of attempting to slow, to say nothing of ending, this threat to the security of the United States and its allies—a threat becoming more and more grave by the hour.




Chemical weapons (CW) pose several distinct dangers.1 First, they can be used in combat to inflict tremendous casualties and shift the “correlation of forces.” This is especially true when they are employed against forces unprepared, illequipped, and/or untrained in chemical warfare. Using a nerve agent and mustard gas, for example, Saddam Hussein’s army in the Iran-Iraq war was able to shatter the “human-wave” attacks upon which the numerically superior Iranians pinned their hopes for victory.

But chemical weapons are useful even against forces prepared for them. Detonated over sites where tanks, infantry-fighting vehicles, ammunition, and other equipment are stored, or over military airfields, ports, and other facilities, persistent chemical agents (as opposed to those that readily dissipate) can be valuable in disrupting or even preventing mobilization. Such attacks could be particularly effective against a country like Israel whose defense relies upon the rapid response of its reserve units.

Finally, as a weapon of war, chemical attacks can seriously degrade the advantage that would otherwise accrue to armed forces equipped with high-technology weaponry. Typically, such systems require effective eye-hand coordination and unobstructed vision. By forcing soldiers into protective suits that inevitably interfere with performance, an attacker can severely compromise the qualitative edge that countries like the United States (and Israel) depend upon.



Aside from their use in war, chemical weapons are also instruments of terror. A number of states have demonstrated a willingness to employ such weapons against undefended populations to achieve strategic objectives. The Soviet Union did so as part of its effort to suppress the Afghan resistance, and so did Saddam Hussein against ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq. Toxin weapons—chemical agents produced by biological processes—are also thought to have been used by Soviet-equipped Laotian forces against the Hmong tribes in the early 1980’s. Before the Gulf war, in line with his genocidal designs against the Jewish state, Saddam announced his intention to rain chemical weapons down on Israel.

Nor is the ability to deploy chemical weapons against civilians any longer restricted to states. In 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shim Rikyo demonstrated its capacity to manufacture, stockpile, and employ the nerve agent Sarin; fortunately, only a few people were killed (and some 5,000 injured) in attacks in Tokyo’s subways that could have resulted in many times the casualties. In the case of the Al-Shifa facility in Sudan, its benefactor—and beneficiary—is said to have been Osama bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate terrorist. Whether or not this turns out to be true, it is clear that if Aum Shim Rikyo was able to secure the know-how and technology to manufacture modest quantities of chemical weaponry, bin Laden and other well-financed terrorists are or will soon be able to do so as well—particularly if they can secure technical support from sources in Russia (as the Japanese sect did) or (as is no doubt the case with Sudan) from Iraq.




Who is now equipped with CW arsenals, and is helping others acquire them?

  • Russia has the largest stockpile on the planet. Although estimates vary widely, the figure cited in arms-control documents—some 40,000 agent tons—is almost certainly understated by a substantial degree. Despite strenuous Russian representations to the contrary, there is also reason to believe that the Kremlin is continuing to amass chemical weapons—including, according to defectors from the Russian CW program, new strains specifically designed to be more lethal, more effective in penetrating Western defenses, and less susceptible to antidotes. Compounding the threat posed by Russia’s arsenal is the steadfast refusal of its political leadership to enforce export-control regulations against the spread of CW technology.
  • China also has a sizable and active production complex, despite the fact that, like Russia, it has signed and ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). China has also aggressively exported CW technology to other states. According to a March 1996 report in the Washington Post, virtually complete factories suitable for making chemical weapons have been transferred to Iran; later that same year, according to the Washington Times, China delivered to Iran some 400 metric tons of carbon sulfide and other chemicals used in the production of nerve agents.
  • Thanks in no small measure to this assistance, Iran is today considered to have the largest CW stockpile in the third world. According to the Proliferation Primer, a U.S. Senate report published in January 1998, Iran—another signatory to the CWC—“fully intends to maintain a chemical-weapons capability well into the future.” The country’s newest ballistic missile, the Shahab-3, is believed to be capable of delivering chemical weapons against Israel and other targets throughout most of the Middle East.
  • Then there is Iraq, which, despite seven years of sanctions and the most intrusive on-site inspections regime ever implemented, continues to pose a significant CW threat to U.S. forces and allies in the Gulf. In July 1997, Rolf Ekeus, then-chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), warned that Iraq was still hiding chemical weapons and that “3,000 kilograms of VX” were “missing.” UNSCOM’s most recent six-month report notes the continuing inadequacy of procedures that are supposed to account for chemical and biological warheads and munitions capable of being outfitted with mustard gas. According to UNSCOM, approximately 46,000 chemical weapons (some of them disarmed, others battle-ready) have been retained by the Iraqi government.
  • “Since the late 1980’s,” the Proliferation Primer reports, “North Korea has . . . expanded its chemical-weapons program and has placed a high priority on military and civilian chemical defense. According to the [U.S.] Department of Defense, Pyongyang is currently capable of producing large quantities of nerve, blister, and blood chemical-warfare agents.”

North Korea’s capabilities were spelled out in a document released last year by the South Korean military. Not only has the North amassed a 1,000-ton stockpile—70 tons of which could be used immediately upon South Korean population centers—but it continues to produce 15.2 tons of chemical weapons each day; in a time of crisis, that figure could be stepped up to 40 tons per day. Given Pyongyang’s willingness to sell virtually everything in its inventory, it also seems likely that North Korea will offer for sale the chemical (and, perhaps, biological) weapons that go aboard the missiles it is now making available to countries like Iran, Syria, and Pakistan.

  • An August 1997 report on the Christian Broadcasting Network revealed that Syria “appears to be deploying deadly new nerve agents loaded onto missiles at sites near the cities of Hama and Homs.” Other sources similarly suggest a substantial Syrian capability for delivering chemical weapons—notably, its arsenal of up to 150 Scud missiles built with the assistance of China and North Korea. The possibility cannot be ruled out that, with the Middle East’s largest chemical-weapons stockpile and an eroding conventional capability, Syria may be tempted into a devastating preemptive strike on Israeli population centers.




Given the foregoing litany, it should be obvious that the Chemical Weapons Convention—signed in 1993 and ratified last year after intense debate in the U.S. Senate—is not preventing the parties to it, let alone nonsignatories, from pursuing active chemical-weapons programs. And yet, until last month’s attack on the Sudanese plant, this treaty has been the centerpiece of the Clinton administration’s efforts to contend with the proliferation of chemical weapons. The story of this agreement offers a cautionary lesson for all those nations, the United States among them, that may be doomed to pay a heavy price for its inherent shortcomings.

For decades, the idea of banning chemical weapons had languished in the salons of multilateral arms controllers—and languished with good reason. As successive American governments recognized, and as the aftermath of the Khartoum attack bears out, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish between facilities producing a range of legitimate chemical products for civilian use (fertilizers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, etc.) and those producing chemical weapons. Moreover, even if a plant is engaged in the manufacture of commercial products, there is no known means of ensuring that its equipment will not shortly be put to CW-related uses. It was for precisely this reason that the United States properly declined when in the early 1990’s Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi proposed to allay our concerns about his suspected chemical-weapons facility at Rabta by offering to subject it to on-site inspection.

There is a related consideration here. Knowingly or not, industrialized nations have fostered the spread throughout the developing world of “dual-use” infrastructures with at least the capability of producing chemical weapons. West Germany’s assistance to Libya in building and outfitting its Rabta complex—supposedly for peaceful purposes only—is an infamous but hardly unique example. Exporters of chemical technology are either indifferent to the potential for misuse or willing to overlook it in the interest of making a sale.

With these facts in mind, U.S. policy-makers generally agreed that in controlling chemical weapons, the best hope lay in the Geneva Convention of 1925, which prohibited their first use—a relatively verifiable if not currently enforceable restraint. But in 1984, then-Secretary of State George Shultz, with the active support of Vice President George Bush—the latter had made a personal cause of the campaign to outlaw chemical weapons—took it upon himself to announce that the United States would place on the table a treaty for a global ban on production, stockpiling, and use. Despite four years of negotiations that confirmed the inadvisability of a chemical-weapons convention, Bush, now campaigning to succeed Ronald Reagan, promised to be the President who would “rid the world of chemical weapons.”

Once elected, Bush authorized a number of concessions designed to conclude the treaty. Among the more irresponsible were two initiatives taken after Desert Storm in 1991: that the United States would “forswear the use of chemical weapons for any reason, including retaliation in-kind with CW, against any state, effective when the [Convention] enters into force”; and that the United States would “drop its position that we must be allowed to keep 2 percent of our CW stockpile until all CW-capable states have joined the Convention.” With these steps, the United States was launched on a glide-path to unilateral chemical disarmament.

Although President Bush was able to see the treaty finalized before he left office, it was left to his successor, Bill Clinton, an eager partisan of the CWC, to seek Senate approval for it late in his first term. In the fall of 1996, however, faced with virulent opposition, he withdrew the treaty rather than risk rejection. Six months later, with critical assistance from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the Clinton administration succeeded at last in securing the two-thirds majority needed for ratification. Central to its success was the oft-repeated representation that the Convention was a legacy of Presidents Reagan and Bush—proof if ever there were one of how an ill-considered commitment by parties who think they are in control of events can be shamelessly exploited by later parties to legitimize the bad deal that results.




Among the numerous claims made for the Chemical Weapons Convention in the course of the Senate debate were that it would banish poison gas; protect American troops from chemical attack; and either stop rogue nations or terrorists from building chemical weapons or give the “international community” the tools to prevent, halt, or punish those who did so. Each of these claims is spurious.

The CWC cannot prevent—or even ensure detection of—the covert production of chemical weapons. Since sites are easy to conceal, even the sorts of inspection permitted by the CWC may not “prove” illegal activities. And even if evidence is forthcoming and compelling, it is unlikely to be judged dispositive by an “international community” reluctant to support the United States in a dispute with a fraternal third-world regime. Does anyone think that a consensus supporting the U.S. position on the Sudanese plant would ever emerge from the sort of international investigation Khartoum has demanded? The same would be true of efforts to prosecute violations of the CWC by appealing to the institution created to implement it, the multilateral Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

A further complication arises from the fact that foreign companies are likely to be implicated in—and thus seek to excuse—suspect activity arising from the sale of dual-use technology. At a press conference in Amman on August 22, Ahmad Salem, a Jordanian engineer who asserts responsibility for putting together the construction plans for the Al-Shifa plant, claimed, probably correctly, that “some of the equipment used at the factory was supplied by Swedish, American, Danish, Belgian, and other foreign firms.” He added, emphatically: “There is no chance this factory could be used to produce chemical weapons; it was designed to produce medicine for people and animals.” He could be right about the character of the design, as well; but modern pharmaceutical technology can be—and often is—used for both civilian and chemical-weapons-related production.

What is more, far from inhibiting the proliferation of chemical weapons, the CWC will assuredly exacerbate it. The Convention’s data-exchange and on-site inspection requirements, for example, offer a ready avenue for the unauthorized transfer of sensitive and proprietary information—in other words, industrial spying. Such espionage by foreign governments and enterprises is already a serious problem, and U.S. chemical companies, as world leaders in their industry, are an especially attractive target. In testimony before the Senate in May 1997, Bruce Merrifield, a former Under Secretary of Commerce who has considerable experience with the chemical industry, asserted that access provided under the CWC would permit a trained engineer or chemist from a foreign country to identify a company’s trade secrets even without actually entering its facilities.

Similar concerns are now being voiced, ironically enough, by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), one of the most outspoken original proponents of the CWC. During the Senate debate, the CMA insisted that “routine inspection of chemical facilities can quickly and efficiently verify compliance, . . . with little or no disruption in production activities.” But a CMA report published in August 1997 under the title Economic Espionage: The Looting of America’s Economic Security in the Information Age takes a more realistic view, citing the ease with which foreign operatives can obtain confidential information using techniques that “range from ‘dumpster diving’ or ‘trash trawling’ . . . to elaborate multifaceted efforts including high-surveillance and other information-collection methods.”

A threat of a different nature lies in the extraordinary opportunity for mischief-making against the U.S. and its allies afforded by the regime of on-site inspections. Inspectors from governments unfriendly to the West are likely to find “evidence” of illegal chemical production and stockpiling even where none exists. This will be an especially grave problem for Israel if the Netanyahu government makes the mistake of ratifying the CWC, which its predecessor signed in January 1993.

No less troubling is the other side of this particular coin: training offered by the OPCW to equip inspectors to ferret out covert programs may wind up teaching foreign nationals how to defeat such inspections in their own countries. David Kay, one of UNSCOM’s former chief inspectors, recalls an Iraqi official’s delight in telling how he had used his experience as an inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency to conceal Saddam Hussein’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear arms in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Saddam was able to engage in this sort of deception as a result of the NPT’s “Atoms for Peace” program. But the CWC contains, in Article XI, its own version of this program, derisively dubbed “Poisons for Peace” by former Under Secretary of Defense Fred Iklé. In obliging member nations to cooperate in the field of chemical activities “for purposes not prohibited under this Convention,” it creates a cover for trade that contributes to the proliferation it is supposed to ban.

According to the OPCW’s deputy director John Gee, there are already huge discrepancies in reports concerning the transfer of chemicals that could be used to manufacture weapons or adapted to serve that purpose. Even more glaring is the collaboration between China and Iran on a factory making glass-lined equipment that, as the Washington Times noted last October, is “essential in the production of chemical-warfare agent precursors.” Since the factory is a “dual-use” facility, China and Iran, both of which have ratified the CWC, are able to contend that what they are doing is not only legal but, in light of the Convention’s Article XI, wholly unobjectionable.

In short, the CWC is inherently unverifiable and fatally inadequate to the job of detecting or proving the existence of covert activity. Anyone doubting this need look no further than Saddam Hussein’s success in defeating the vastly more intrusive, timely, and comprehensive inspections that have, until recently, been conducted in Iraq to find and destroy prohibited weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. At the same time, the CWC openly enhances the opportunities for signatories to acquire the very weapons the CWC ostensibly exists to deny them.




The fact that the Chemical Weapons Convention is unverifiable and counterproductive, however, has not stopped President Clinton and other arms-control enthusiasts from issuing a call to “update,” along the same lines, a 1972 convention covering biological weapons.

As I noted at the outset, biological weapons (BW) have much in common with chemical weapons. Both, thanks to their potential for mass destruction and the ease with which they can be produced and stockpiled, are the “poor man’s atom bomb.” But biological weapons are also significantly simpler to produce than chemical weapons—and if the objective is to sow terror and indiscriminate destruction, far more efficient.

For these reasons, Russia, China, and virtually every rogue state are believed to harbor active BW programs centering on naturally occurring or genetically altered strains of such terrifying diseases as anthrax, botulism, plague, and smallpox. Some have gone so far as to “weaponize” these viruses. Worse yet, Russia and Iraq are said to have experimented with “cocktails” combining more than one virus to maximize a weapon’s lethality and complicate defensive measures against it.

The horrific threat posed by the deliberate dissemination of such substances has not been mitigated by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which, unlike the CWC, makes no pretense of verifiably banning production or stockpiling. It is, rather, a gentleman’s agreement, an international declaration of good intentions without means of assuring the detection or punishment of violations. Hence the Clinton administration’s proposal to add provisions modeled after those of the CWC.

That proposal is seriously misguided. Should the negotiations now under way with other countries bear fruit, the effect will be even more contrary to American and Western interests than in the case of the CWC. As Alan P. Zelicoff, a scientist at Sandia National Laboratory and a technical adviser to the U.S. delegation to the BWC negotiations, warned in a letter to the Washington Post last January:

Facilities engaged in legitimate activities can be incorrectly assessed to be in violation of the Convention. Conversely, sites that are demonstrably in compliance with the Convention easily can convert to illicit activity within hours after the departure of inspectors. . . . In just a few days or weeks, biological weapons can be manufactured in militarily significant quantities in a site no larger than a small house.

Moreover, the U.S. biotech industry is at least as vulnerable as the chemical industry to pilfering and other forms of espionage, and the consequences of technology transfers (both legitimate and illegal) are likely to be vastly more damaging. One can only hope, therefore, that cooler heads like Zelicoff’s will prevail. For, as he concluded his letter, “While biological-weapons proliferation is a serious security threat . . ., it is all too easy to make this terrible problem even worse with feckless measures.”




If agreements like the Chemical Weapons Convention are not the answer, are other options likely to prove more practical? The short answer is yes, although none of them, alone or in combination with others, can promise an end to the danger.

  • Multilateral agreements among nations with advanced chemical and biotech industries can be helpful in curbing the transfer of technology, supplies, and know-how to rogue states and their sponsors. In the past, an informal consortium known as the Australia Group has been able to shame member nations into better behavior. The utility of this sort of arrangement, however, is considerably reduced when the technology in question becomes widely available—which, thanks in some degree to the CWC itself, is fast becoming the case. This alone shows the folly of treaties that facilitate the movement of dual-capable equipment.
  • The actual threat posed by proliferation may be met in part by strict enforcement of the 1925 Geneva Convention. This accord, prohibiting the first use of chemical weapons, is relatively easy to verify; were mechanisms in place to ensure that violators faced real and substantial costs, some CW attacks might thereby be prevented.
  • The American cruise-missile attack on the Al-Shifa plant illustrates another option: the physical destruction of facilities suspected of involvement in chemical or biological weapons. This, in the final analysis, may be the only sure means of putting them out of business. But it has certain drawbacks as well.

For one thing, it is not always easy to ensure that the right facility is in the cross-hairs. Then, too, attacks on others’ sovereign territory cannot be undertaken lightly—certainly not too frequently in peacetime and perhaps, depending upon the target country’s capacity for lethal retribution, not at all. It is a tricky business to blow up CBW sites located in, or upwind from, populated areas—the locales favored by unscrupulous dictators for just that reason. Finally, in the wake of the American strikes, the already evident trend toward hardening and concealing weapons-production complexes underground is likely to accelerate.

  • The limitations of both diplomacy and direct action bring us at last to the issue of deterrence.

A formidable military posture—and the perceived will to use it—can cause some potential adversaries to think twice about initiating the use of chemical weapons. Others may be more influenced by a credible threat of thermonuclear retaliation. After the Gulf war, Iraqi officials let it be known that the possibility of a U.S. nuclear strike dissuaded Saddam from using whatever chemical and/or biological weapons he had on hand.

Would the United States really be willing to exercise its nuclear option in such circumstances? Concern that it would not has prompted some to urge that we be sure to retain a modest stockpile of binary chemical weapons (i.e., munitions composed of two relatively innocuous chemicals that combine to form a toxic agent only after being fired). Others, who believe the U.S. does not need a CW arsenal at this time, agree that we should not be precluded by dint of treaty obligations from acquiring one in the future.

In any event, Western nations are well-advised to develop and deploy means of protecting their forces and citizens against the effects of CBW attack, and the sooner the better. A realistic program would go well beyond training and equipping “first responders”—emergency, medical, and law-enforcement personnel—to include significantly improved intelligence to warn against the sources and timing of attacks; extensive planning for the relocation and treatment of those exposed; the production and stockpiling of antibiotics and other medications; and measures to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply against biological assault.

Above all, it is a scandal that the United States does not already have the means to protect its people as well as its troops and allies against the systems that deliver chemical and biological weapons. Our single biggest vulnerability in this connection is our inability to shoot down even a single ballistic missile aimed at our territory. This situation can be most readily remedied by modifying the Navy’s AEGIS air-defense system to enable it to intercept incoming missiles. But the Clinton administration, in deference to the 1972 ABM treaty, has refused to allow the existing infrastructure to be used for that critical purpose.



One way or another, chemical and biological threats almost certainly lurk in our future. Arms-control agreements, which anyway do not address but rather exacerbate the problem, are no substitute for the much more urgent task before us: to take the lead in dissuading those who may be contemplating such threats, to disable their capacity to carry them out, and—if all else fails—to make sure that we, our armed forces, and our allies are defended against them. As in so many other critical areas of foreign policy, what is required is realism and leadership—exactly the two qualities that are now in perilously short supply.


1 In what follows I shall be focusing primarily on chemical weapons. In general, however, everything that can be said of them can be said of biological weapons as well—in spades.


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