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Perspectives on the Asymmetric Threats Facing Our Nation

An interview with

Dr. Robert Kadlec

Former Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Biodefense Policy

Conducted by

Dr. Lani Kass

Corporate Strategic Advisor and Senior Vice President, CACI

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Question: What do you see as the most surprising event since the last Asymmetric Threat Symposium in May 2012?

Dr. Kadlec: I'm going to do something counterintuitive here – I'm not going to talk prospectively or currently, but historically. Peter Roman, the Goldwater-Nichols scholar, did some research that looked at the Eisenhower policy regarding chemical and biological weapons. It culls source documents and National Security Council notes and minutes where President Eisenhower personally was involved. What was interesting – and I think demonstrates and reinforces some of the issues raised during my comments at the symposium – was that people like Eisenhower, particularly, looked at the value of chemical and biological weapons from the strategic perspective, in that they offered more options, short of all-out nuclear war or even the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

So, in some ways, it reaffirms what we could probably establish today, that countries that may not be endowed with nuclear capabilities might find alternatives that are much more obtainable because of new technology and the global diffusion of relevant information today. I think this underscores the strategic logic of why we really do need to be a little more forward leaning with these problems. It would offer our adversaries – and by adversaries, I mean not only states and nation states, but some national groups and, now, potentially, individuals, radicalized or otherwise – the means to inflict strategic harm on the United States.

I think there is a very useful analogy to be made with cyber, which has, quite frankly, monopolized the public attention and the strategic conversation at the expense of the biological or even the chemical issues – to our collective detriment. Because we have diverted our focus from a set of issues to a single issue, we have taken our eye off the ball that could do significantly more harm and could genuinely pose an existential threat to the American way of life.


Question: Can you expand on our strategic vulnerability to these kinds of circumstances?

Dr. Kadlec: Not only is the horizon getting more complex with the diversity of potential chemical and biological threats, but I also think we suffer from tunnel vision on the immediate challenge posed by cyber and the fascination with nuclear downsizing – what we have done is crowd our domain for a strategic debate. We are now at the point of deliberately letting some of those capabilities that we attained in the last 10 years wax away. Our defensive capabilities are deteriorating.

And to underscore this reality, the ongoing budget crisis puts at risk the capabilities that were created as a hedge against the risk of this kind of warfare or terrorism. Prior to 9/11, Congress created a strategic national stockpile of vaccines and medical countermeasures that would be administered to people affected by either biological or chemical attacks.

Over the last decade, medical countermeasures against smallpox, anthrax and other likely threat agents were developed, purchased, and stockpiled. This effort is administered by a non-national security agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). What is very unsettling is that the funds used for this national security purpose are not categorized as such by either the Office of Management and Budget or the appropriators in Congress, so they are subject to budget cuts that will reduce the size and robustness of this capability.

Worse, since biological defenses are not part of the strategic conversation, HHS is now deliberately shedding some of these capabilities in order to divert money to other things. And those other things have largely been the implementation of the Affordable American Care Act.


Question: Have there been any developments that have accelerated the ability or lowered the threshold for producing pathogens or biologically engineered "bugs"?

Dr. Kadlec: Yes, but again, this is more of a consequence of a historical understanding of the problem. It relates to the Eisenhower period, but it manifested itself in 1970, when they identified the use of combination toxins for military utility that would not only boost the effect, but also increase it. It's like a little bit of history that has been rediscovered, but certainly, a gap in our understanding, when we focus on the future and we say, "Oh, gosh, you can do all these cool things and mix genetic materials." Well, we were doing that in the late 1960s and 70s and didn't fully appreciate it. So in some ways, a gap in our understanding and our approach to this problem has been the inability to effectively understand the synergies between combinations of agents.

So we think of smallpox, and while we hear anecdotes of somebody putting something bad in smallpox, there are other things that are easier to do that don't require even high containment laboratories and are more lethal and easier to obtain. And I think it just demonstrates our immaturity of thinking about it. An example is a toxin, a byproduct of Staphylococcus aureus, that causes food poisoning but was identified in our biological weapons program as being a very effective incapacitant. By the time we ended our program, we observed by coincidence that if you mixed it with another toxin from another bacterial agent, you could not only lower the dose of the agent you would need, but also significantly increase its lethality.

So it was this idea that you could do things fairly low-tech, by today's standards, but still effectively undermine our ability to defend. It has a clear military utility, and these things would be very hard to detect. It would be very hard to defend against, and quite frankly, we've never quite put our head around that problem set. And we still haven't.


Question: If you were advising the Obama administration, what one piece of advice would you give on how to best uphold and defend the Constitution?

Dr. Kadlec: I am going to say they need to understand the current strategic direction that we have chosen. We have chosen to basically equate biological agents with natural diseases, which is not only wrong, but dead wrong. And what they have failed to incorporate is the essential Clausewitzian principles that are ascribed to other kinds of warfare but have to be considered in this kind of discipline as well in order to build credible defenses. And we have not done that. We have basically said: "Well, this is like the flu." No, it's not. It's not the flu on steroids. It's the difference between horseshoes and nuclear weapons.

That's the strategic disconnect that has occurred. Part of it is this element of distraction. I talked about affordable health care. Part of it is self-deception, where we focus exclusively on cyber. We recognize the vulnerabilities in a cyber world. It's costing us a lot of money in the cyber world, but what I think people are failing to understand is a discrete – and not necessarily large-scale – use of biological weapons.

I will just highlight one example. There are about five million riders in the New York subway system. In the 1960s, when there was less than a quarter of that, U.S. bio-weaponeers performed some tests that revealed if you take a few grams of something as simple as dry anthrax and put it in the subway system, it would infect several hundred thousand people (and probably several million people in current day). And it would effectively shut down the subway system of New York for decades because we couldn't clean it up effectively.


Question: In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake for the United States to forfeit that capability and asymmetric advantage to our adversaries, both state and non-states?

Dr. Kadlec: A prima fascia assessment would result in saying yes. We gave up a powerful capability. I, however, think that, confronted with the strategic scenario of that time, it was the right decision. Put it into the context and the dialogue that happened in the late 1960s between Kissinger and Nixon and Laird – they were confronted with a pretty stark landscape.

First of all, it was a bipolar world, and the U.S. had demonstrated that we were a superpower using a highly sophisticated set of technologies that were fairly limited in access and availability at that time and could demonstrate nuclear lethal equivalence with biological weapons. Russia could also do that. The view was that over time these enabling technologies would be increasingly available to other countries that could potentially challenge our strategic nuclear superiority.

If the U.S. continued its pursuit of bio-weapons, others could, and would do so, too. But Nixon made a strategic decision to try to redirect the world away from these weapons. There were three essential parts to his approach: unilateral renouncement with the threat of nuclear retaliation for any biological weapons use, commitment to draft a treaty enforcing a global ban, and enhanced medical defenses.

So the President made his announcement in November 1969. The U.S. joined the negotiations drafting a treaty banning biological weapons in 1975. But what we ended up with was a treaty that was not verifiable, a treaty with no teeth. Finally, the commitment to enhance medical defenses was embodied in a presidential executive order that was not implemented.

Following the strategic redirection and declaratory policy, quite frankly, we stopped paying attention. We felt like that was sufficient, and we had a nuclear hammer to threaten people. And I think that is the mistake, and we didn't invest in bio-weapons medical defenses then. Having said that, science and technology at that time probably didn't afford a lot of opportunities or options for that kind of defense.

Despite the intent for strategic redirection in the not-too-far-distant future – literally, decades, two decades to be exact – countries like Iraq and others, and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, demonstrated their intent and ability to access this capability. We still hold on to our declaratory nuclear threat to those who may use these weapons, but the credibility of that threat has lessened particularly against non-state actors.

That's why I think you have to perform the strategic reassessment to evaluate whether our existing deterrence statements adequately address the risk from biological weapons.


Question: Of all the bio-threats and asymmetric threats, which one scares you the most?

Dr. Kadlec: One of the things we stumbled on in Iraq in 2003 was discussed at a very interesting symposium that occurred at the University of Baghdad in the spring of 2002. In the course of the symposium, as it was translated, they talked about using an influenza strain that had been genetically engineered to secrete a cobra toxin.

Was this speculation? Was this science fiction? Was this something they had? Who knows? However, that is the one that is stuck in my head. First, it's technically feasible. Second, it would be easily producible – meaning that it wouldn't really require highly advanced technology to do – and third, it would be exquisitely lethal. And the psychological impacts would be extraordinary.

You would basically start out with a cold, and the next thing you know, you would either be paralyzed – and no one knew exactly how this would be expressed – or you would bleed from every orifice, or maybe both.


Question: Which threat do you think is the most likely?

Dr. Kadlec: : One of the agents, which in the end was the principal agent of the United States and the former Soviet Union, was a thing called Tularemia. Al-Qaeda apparently was interested in it too. The beauty of that agent, if there is such a thing, was that a very low effective dose – a handful of five or ten organisms – could get you sick. Fifty of them would probably kill you, and to give you some standard of comparison, for Anthrax it takes 8,000 to 10,000 spores to get you sick, but they won't kill you.

That organism is very difficult to treat because it is naturally very sensitive to many antibiotics, so the challenge is that there are so many options. And the opportunities for surprise, both tactical and strategic, are so great. That's why vigilance requires not only paying attention, but developing capabilities that lessen your vulnerability to these kind of threats.