December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Recent events in the Middle East have once again focused the world’s attention on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons capabilities. But the threat posed by such weapons of mass destruction is not limited to the activities of Saddam Hussein.

Despite efforts dating back to the 1925 Geneva Protocol to ban the use of chemical weapons (which spread deadly agents such as nerve gas) and more recently to curb the proliferation of biological agents (such as anthrax and toxins that cause botulism), such weapons remain an international threat. So says Dr. Amy Smithson, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan national security think tank in Washington, D.C. Indeed, at least since 1995, when the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo released the highly toxic chemical sarin in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people, chemical and biological agents have been in the hands of terrorists as well. “The threat is very viable,” Smithson says. PEOPLE contributor Jennifer Mendelsohn spoke to Smithson, 39, at her office in Washington.

Which countries possess these weapons?

Iraq, which in the 1980s used mustard gas in its war with Iran and within its own borders against Kurdish civilians, is the only country known to have recently used a chemical or biological weapon of mass destruction. These weapons have been in the arsenal of the former Soviet Union since World War I, but Russia hasn’t used them. Other states known to have them include North Korea, Syria, Libya and Iran.

Does the U.S. have a chemical weapons program?

In 1985, Congress mandated that we destroy the lion’s share of our chemical weapons stockpile. Then, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, President George Bush stated that the U.S. would not use chemical weapons even if chemical weapons were used against U.S. forces. That’s where we stand: We have defenses, no offenses.

Do we manufacture biological weapons?

No. President Nixon shut down our offensive biological weapons program in 1969 and ordered the entire biological arsenal destroyed. But the U.S. maintains, and should maintain, a defensive program at Fort Detrick, Md., which entails research into vaccines, antidotes and other protective measures such as clothing, gas masks and decontamination.

Do chemical and biological weapons work in pretty much the same way?

The effects of exposure to a chemical agent like sarin are going to be virtually immediate. But the effects of a biological agent such as anthrax or botulinum toxin, which causes botulism, might not manifest for several days. At first the symptoms may seem innocuous and flu-like.

Have terrorists in the U.S. ever successfully used biological or chemical weapons?

The only known case of use in the U.S. was by a cult in Oregon, which poisoned salad bars with salmonella in 1984. Nobody was killed, although 750 people did develop temporary symptoms.

What is the government doing to prepare American civilians for a terrorist attack using biological or chemical weapons?

Under the Domestic Preparedness Program, some 120 U.S. cities have already or will receive enhanced training for police officers, firefighters and ambulance drivers. In addition, medical personnel will be trained to recognize the symptoms and to treat them if a biological or chemical agent is used in an attack.

How prepared are Americans today?

Training exercises have only taken place in a handful of places. They have revealed in some cases just how unprepared we are. For starters, we don’t have enough antidote stocked, although President Clinton has recently directed that the government stockpile sufficient antidotes. That’s partially because some of this stuff has a limited shelf life, plus the costs are quite high. Just how much expense is the U.S. taxpayer willing to bear? It’s a public-policy question that Congress and citizens are going to have to wrestle with.

Should Americans be doing something as individuals to protect themselves and their families? Have you personally taken any steps to be prepared for such an attack?

No, I’m not doing anything differently. I take the Metro [subway] to and from work every day. If I were to encourage Americans to do anything, it would be simply to maintain an awareness of what their neighbors are up to, and if there is suspicious activity, don’t hesitate to report it.

Why are these types of weapons attractive to terrorists?

Chemical and biological weapons are easier to acquire than nuclear weapons, which are expensive and technologically complex. The necessary equipment and ingredients are available in the commercial marketplace and are relatively inexpensive. Some very noxious things can be brewed in someone’s basement if he is willing to take that risk.

Are they difficult to deploy?

Not especially. Aum Shinrikyo put sarin into plastic bags and carried them in shopping bags onto subway trains. They used a sharp object like an umbrella tip to puncture the plastic bags, then stepped off the trains. So sophisticated delivery systems are not required. But one of the reasons the military doesn’t like these weapons is that they are unreliable in the field: The wind and the amount of humidity in the air can greatly decrease their effectiveness. They’re somewhat unpredictable.

Could the threat of biological and chemical weapons be eliminated?

Reducing the threat is realistic. Eliminating it totally? Probably not in my lifetime.

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