Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security; Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense Is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure

In This Review

Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security
By Gregory D. Koblentz
Cornell University Press, 2009
256 pp. $35.00
Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense Is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure
By Lynn C. Klotz and Edward J. Sylvester
University of Chicago Press, 2009
272 pp. $27.50

Koblentz provides an up-to-date and comprehensive analysis of biological weapons as a strategic problem that should become the standard text in the field. He is alive to the paradoxes of the topic: these are weapons that cause disease yet arise from efforts to discover cures, they are absolutely prohibited by an international treaty that nobody seems to think has removed the danger they pose, and they are presumed to be widely available but are rarely used. They are compared to nuclear weapons, but, as he notes, they do not work for deterrent purposes. They did not help Iraq, for example, in 1991. At the core of the book are detailed case studies of what is and was known about Iraqi, Soviet/Russian, and South African programs. The book draws lessons about intelligence, verification, and oversight, and also about what strategic value the offending countries sought to extract by pursuing such weapons. (Its analysis of the failure to get an accurate reading of the Iraqi position in 2002 is withering.) Through a careful examination of actual cases, Koblentz has done his best to get the true measure of the bioterrorist threat.

A point made by Koblentz on how biodefense programs might advance offensive knowledge is fully developed in the forceful analysis by Klotz and Sylvester, whose message is contained in its subtitle: that U.S. efforts at biodefense are counterproductive. The authors do not deny the inherent nastiness and danger of biological weapons. Their claim is that by talking up the threat, policymakers have caused a vast network of high-security laboratories to spring up, which dabble in the most dangerous biotechnologies -- theoretically to improve defenses but in practice creating new risks of accidents and leakage while making the rest of the international community suspicious about what is really being planned. The authors make a plausible and disturbing case, arguing for a reduction in the number of laboratories that are allowed to handle the most dangerous organisms, far more oversight and transparency, and greater international cooperation.