Gregory D. Koblentz


On his book Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security

Cover Interview of November 22, 2009

A close-up

On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a dire warning to the United Nations Security Council in an effort to convince the international community that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in violation of Security Council resolutions.  He stated: “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.  And he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction.”

As we know now, these conclusions were not based on solid intelligence.  In fact, after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, investigation of Iraq’s WMD programs has shown that every single U.S. allegation regarding Iraqi biological weapon activities was wrong.  How did the United States get so much so wrong about Iraq’s biological warfare program?

Although the severity of this intelligence failure was a shock, intelligence agencies have a long track record of either underestimating or overestimating their adversaries’ BW capabilities and intentions.  The United States also encountered serious problems assessing the Iraqi BW program before the 1991 Gulf War and the Soviet BW program throughout the cold war—although our intelligence on these programs was better than commonly understood.

States developing biological weapons have strong incentives to keep their plans and capabilities secret due to legal, normative and strategic reasons.  As a result, these states engage in extensive deception-and-denial operations to conceal the existence and capabilities of offensive programs.  Properly assessing the information that is collected is complicated by the multiuse nature of biotechnology; the overlap between offensive, defensive, and civilian activities; and the lack of easily detectable signatures for offensive programs. As a result, biological weapons are a notoriously difficult target for intelligence agencies.

Good intelligence is the first line of defense against biological weapons. Conversely, poor intelligence complicates efforts to develop and deploy defenses, engage in diplomacy, conduct inspections, and undertake military operations.  Chapter 4 of the book describes the challenges in collecting and analyzing intelligence on biological weapons, examines the reasons for successes and failures in the Iraq and Soviet cases, and provides recommendations on how to prevent such intelligence failures in the future.