to Develop Anthrax Strain
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Defense Intelligence Agency plans to develop small amounts of a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes deadly anthrax, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
"We plan to proceed" once internal legal reviews have been completed and Congress has been fully informed, said Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The existence of the project was revealed in Tuesday's New York Times, which said it was part of a broader research effort to improve U.S. defenses against biological agents.
Rumsfeld has identified biological weapons as one of the most worrisome national security threats.
Clarke said the purpose of developing a new strain of anthrax is strictly defensive: to ensure that an effective vaccine is available should a biological weapon be used against American troops.
She said it was reported publicly in 1997 that Russia may have been developing the new strain. The U.S. government asked Russia for a sample so it could test vaccines, but no samples were provided.
"We have a vaccine that works against all the known anthrax strains," she told reporters at the Pentagon. "What we want to do is make sure we are prepared for any surprises, we're prepared for anything that might happen that might be a threat. So in the early part of this year, the DIA started to look into ... how we could develop that modified anthrax strain so we could test our vaccines against it."
So far, the DIA has not produced any samples of the new strain, she said.
"The legal reviews that have been done to date indicate that the work would be compliant" with the Biological Weapons Convention, Clarke said, because it is defensive in nature and in small quantities.
She said she did not know exactly how much of the new anthrax stain the DIA planned to develop.
"With all the appropriate legal reviews, with all the appropriate interagency coordination and congressional briefing, we plan to proceed," she added.
The project is part of a broader effort, named Project Jefferson, that was required by Congress in 1997 to guard against technological surprises with regard to the biological warfare threat to U.S. forces.
Separately, the Times report said the Central Intelligence Agency built a replica of a miniature bomb, or bomblet, developed by the former Soviet Union to deliver biological agents. The CIA's purpose was to study how well the bomblet could disperse the agents under different atmospheric conditions.
The Times said the United States feared the bomblet was being sold on the international market.
CIA spokesman William Harlow said Tuesday he could not discuss specific work in this area.
"One of our missions is to learn about potential biological warfare threats to the United States," Harlow said. "Occasionally, laboratory or experimental work is required to understand the significance of intelligence gathered about potential foreign threats. Everything we've done in this respect was entirely appropriate, necessary and consistent with U.S. treaty obligations and was briefed to U.S. National Security Council staff and appropriate congressional oversight committees."
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the CIA has done laboratory tests of foreign munitions to determine how they work and to validate intelligence already collected.