Middle East Instability Increases Proliferation Threat, Former U.S. Official Says

Then-U.S. special negotiator for chemical and biological arms control issues Donald Mahley addresses the 2001 Biological Weapons Convention review conference in Geneva, Switzerland.  Recent political turbulence in the Middle East could raise the risk of biological- or chemical-weapon proliferation in the region, Mahley warned in an interview (AP Photo/Donald Stampfli).
Then-U.S. special negotiator for chemical and biological arms control issues Donald Mahley addresses the 2001 Biological Weapons Convention review conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Recent political turbulence in the Middle East could raise the risk of biological- or chemical-weapon proliferation in the region, Mahley warned in an interview (AP Photo/Donald Stampfli).

WASHINGTON -- Expanding instability in the Middle East is a matter “we ought to be watching with some concern” for the possible proliferation of biological or chemical weapons, according to a former top U.S. official who worked on containing these threats (see GSN, Dec. 5).

“That's a part of the world in which all kinds of things can happen,” said Donald Mahley, an arms control veteran who served as U.S. special negotiator for chemical and biological arms control issues, “some with … zealotry that defies all logic.”

Mahley noted that numerous Mideast nations are not bound by the Biological and Chemical weapons conventions. His comments to Global Security Newswire come amid the Assad regime’s continued struggle to stay in power in Syria and recent revelations about undeclared chemical weapons in Libya (see GSN, Nov. 15).

Syria’s extensive chemical arsenal is believed to comprise hundreds of tons of nerve and blister agents. There have been concerns from outside that the ongoing internal strife in the nation might open the door for those materials to be put to use or acquired by violent extremists.

Asked about Syria’s potential use of chemical weapons, Mahley replied, “With all of the Middle Eastern countries, you have a lot of irrational programs that have gone on for a long time.”

Mahley said Libya “doesn't know exactly which [political] faction is going to come out on top” following the ouster and death of longtime dictator Muammar Qadhafi. He said, though, that the transitional government was cooperative in reporting newly discovered chemical weapons stockpiles.

Although he was in charge of U.S. efforts to dismantle Libya’s WMD programs in 2004, Mahley was never told of these chemical weapons in the aftermath of Qadhafi’s seeming decision the previous year to give up all of his nuclear, chemical and biological ambitions. The regime in Tripoli at that time declared only roughly 25 metric tons of mustard blister agent and a large stock of precursor materials.

Mahley revealed that he only had a dozen U.S. and British inspectors to cover all of Libya’s WMD programs on the ground. The team had no “mandate” or “resources” to make random, surprise inspections that could have discovered the undeclared chemical weapons, Mahley noted. The team’s transportation was provided by the Libyan regime.

Mahley has long experience in dealing with weapons of mass destruction, from serving as a nuclear weapons officer in the Army to being a key U.S. figure in establishing the Chemical Weapons Convention. His diplomatic roles have included serving as U.S. representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from 1997 to 2002 and as deputy assistant secretary of State for threat reduction, export controls and negotiations from 2004 until his retirement in 2008.

In the lengthy interview, Mahley discussed the ability of North Korea and many other nations to produce biological weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the new challenges facing its enforcement body. In the edited excerpts below, Mahley, who emphasized he is only expressing his personal views, also spoke of how easily terrorists could make biological weapons.

Q:  What did you think about the decision at the recent Chemical Weapons Convention member states’ meeting in resolving the issue of the April 2012 chemical weapons disposal deadline violations by the U.S., Russia, and Libya, without any penalties? (see GSN, Dec. 1).

Mahley:  Look, the only one who's really concerned about trying to make a major point of this are the Iranians. Everybody else understands this is essentially a question of trying to keep what's already under control, under control until you can get through the technical issues of getting it destroyed.

Q:  Iran points out it had chemical weapons used against it.

Mahley:  Iran's skirts are not clean with respect to chemical weapons either. The United States for a long time has had a very strong suspicion about undeclared chemical weapons capability in Iran. And we are going to continue to have that suspicion as time goes forward.

Q:  Is there danger in Libya’s new discovery of undeclared chemical weapons material?

Mahley:  Do we worry about the idea that in Libya, now that you no longer have a repressive government, there may be a question that the weapons out there might be of greater access to terrorists? Yeah, you do. On the other hand, the new government has been very straightforward in saying, “Oops, we think we've got some stuff here, and we're certainly going to declare it to the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons].”

It becomes a security issue in trying to make sure you do everything you can to help the Libyans make those storage areas secure. For example, in the Libyan declared stockpile, when we went in in 2004, that chemical agent, it wasn't weaponized, but the agent itself was stored in warehouses in the suburbs of Tripoli with a simple padlock on the door. And we said, “Uh-oh!”  So, we got them to relocate that stuff to a secure military ammunition depot with a real bunker and real military security around it.

One of the good things about Libya is that it's not a highly populated, urban country. So, the idea that you're going to be able to pull a snatch and run to hijack these things and then get them off into areas where you couldn't track them down very quickly is a little remote.

Am I concerned that those particular weapons are suddenly going to become a top priority for al-Qaeda or even Hezbollah? The answer is no.The Libyans never mastered the idea of making nerve agent. I doubt other places are going to sell them their front-line VX or anything like that. [The undeclared stocks are] most likely mustard [blister agent], and if they're 20 years old and been sitting around in the desert, it's not going to mean this is the most lethal chemical agent that you could ever think of.

Q:  In a turbulent nation like Libya, are you worried about the material falling into the wrong hands?

Mahley:  Certainly a country that's as turbulent as Libya and is struggling now to find a stable government and doesn't know exactly which faction is going to come out on top in their own sudden political struggle -- something they haven't had to worry about in 40 years -- I don't think that's as stable as we would like it.

Q:  You were in charge of the U.S. effort to inspect Libya's chemical weapons on the ground. Do you feel the Qadhafi regime was honest with you?

Mahley:  Well, if they had other chemical weapons they didn't tell us about, the answer is obviously no, they weren't. At the time, did I have any reason to suspect that they were trying to do an evade and escape? The answer is no. Our intelligence had uncovered [Libya’s chemical weapons efforts].

The amount of equipment, the amount of time, the amount of precursor material they had was consistent with the amount of mustard that they had, and so therefore, there were no big unaccounted-for gaps in the books. So, from all of that, along with the attitude that the Libyans displayed in terms of how cooperative they were in answering our questions at the time, did I have any reason to think that there was a big program they were hiding? No, I didn't.

Now, at the same time, did I have enough people or, frankly, a mandate to just go wandering around the Libyan countryside saying, “Hmm, what's that building over there? That looks like it's something that might be interesting. Let's go over and see what's stashed inside of that.” No, I didn't have that. 

The size of the team was very limited. The transportation was provided by the Libyan government, so if we had wanted to just take a car and drive around the countryside, we wouldn't have been able to do that. Unless we had wanted to go in confrontationally to the Libyan government, there wasn't any way to expand the scope beyond what we were doing.

The other thing is that there was a somewhat greater emphasis in that exercise about wanting to make sure that their nuclear program not only got stopped, but that we were able to document the connection between that program and the A.Q. Khan network.

Q:  How did your inspections compare to the U.N. inspections in Iraq that followed the first Gulf War.

Mahley:  The mandate we had was much less punitive and much less comprehensive than the mandate [U.N. inspection regimes] had in Iraq. … I've never actually counted up the amount of manpower that was used in the [U.N. Special Commission] inspections, but it was a hell of a lot. Essentially the same or maybe even more manpower than the entire OPCW has for a global mandate, and certainly more than the 12 people that I had for the mandate in Libya.

Let me make sure that we underpin this with the appropriate caveat. Given the level of cooperation that the Libyan government was demonstrating, and given the intelligence information I had in terms of what did I suspect I needed to go try to find out, I had no reason to think that I needed to have rights to go out and wander around and poke my nose in anyplace in Libya that I wanted to go. But had I thought that, I would then not have had the resources to do it.

Q:  How many of the 12 people the U.S. and British government gave you were chemical weapons scientists or inspectors?                        

Mahley:  Two.  I mean, two chemists.

Q:  And any biological weapons experts?

Mahley:  I was a biological weapons expert. And in terms of nuclear, we had, I think, three that amounted to nuclear physicists. … Now, don't denigrate that in the sense that we had a lot of people that had a lot of inspection experience and a lot of verification experience. But in terms of chemists and physicists, that was about the extent of it. Do I wish I had some more people? No. It would have made the entire thing an enormously more complicated decision matrix in terms of what are you going to do. It is unlikely at any extreme that I would have had enough people to canvass the country and therefore potentially to find these undeclared stocks wherever they were sitting. And certainly not that I would have been able to get there to keep the Libyans from moving them.

Q:  The OPCW is the monitoring body for the Chemical Weapons Convention. What should be the focus of OPCW as member nations complete elimination of their chemical stockpiles?

Mahley:  The OPCW has a different problem in front of it, because they're now going to have to shift to become more of a nonproliferation organization, where before they've spent most of their manpower in the verification bureau looking at chemical weapons destruction.

Well, chemical weapons destruction, even though it's not finished, is going to [fall] right off the cliff in terms of level and breadth of activity very quickly next year because we're going to be down to a couple sites, the Russians a couple sites, the Libyans may have a site going -- and that's about it.

So they're going to have to talk about how do we now think about finding a clandestine chemical weapons program that's going to become our raison d'etre. That's a different skill set.

Q:  Do you think they're going to be able to do that with the budget size or staff they have currently?

Mahley:  And the kinds of expertise they have. I think it's going to be very questionable. …That's where the challenge inspection came in. A challenge inspection is a request by any country to the OPCW to inspect a specific location regarding the chemical weapons treaty.

Q:  Do you have full confidence in the organization since there’s never been a challenge inspection?

Mahley:  Do I have full confidence that the OPCW is guaranteed to keep the world safe from a chemical weapons program? No, I don't have full confidence in that. Do I believe the OPCW is a very good instrument to have for a number of things that it does and things that make having a chemical weapons program more expensive, more complicated, and more difficult? The answer to that is yes.

Q:  How have environmental concerns affected the destruction of U.S. chemical weapons?

Mahley:  One of the things I regret about the United States's destruction program is that, during the middle of the 1990s, we paused in the program when we'd already done a great deal of work to make things environmentally safe as best we could. But suddenly we decided we wanted to try to find the perfect environmental solution. And so, we actually kept ourselves out of the destruction program for about three or four years while we sought to do studies that would suddenly find this magic bullet. We never did.

We're now back to doing it about the same way we were doing it before. And all that did was cost us time and money and not get things done.

Q:  There are new reports the U.S. is watching Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. Should the world be nervous that strongman Bashar Assad could use them against his own people?

Mahley:  With all of the Middle Eastern countries, you have a lot of irrational programs that have gone on for a long time. And certainly, I think this is one of the things that we ought to be watching with some concern, and I'm sure we are watching with some concern, as suddenly stability starts to disappear in those countries.

... Am I worried about the fact that we've got a bunch of Middle Eastern countries that aren't part of the Biological Weapons Convention? Oh, yeah, because that's a part of the world in which all kinds of things can happen, some with … zealotry that defies all logic.

Q:  The U.S. opposes a verification protocol to the BWC. Do you think there should be one? (see related GSN story, today).

Mahley:  The answer is absolutely no. You put a verification protocol in, and all of a sudden, you have established what it is countries have to do to remove themselves from suspicion of having a biological weapons program.

Now, I don't think there's any reasonable doubt that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Common sense says that's true. But the international community will not come to that judgment. Translate that into the Biological Weapons Convention, that means you can have all kinds of inferential evidence a country has a biological weapons program, and unless you actually catch them with literally a biological weapon loaded and ready to use, nobody's ever going to take the step of saying, “we've now got to punish these people for having a biological weapons program.”

Given the inherently dual nature of biological weapons work … if you technically want to talk about what could be used to produce a biological weapon, you're going to have to include almost every advanced country in the world.                                

Q:  Are you worried about reports that North Korea, an unstable regime, is producing anthrax? And it's undergoing a transition of its own right now (see related GSN story, today).

Mahley:  Would I prefer to have a stable regime that wasn't thinking about doing that kind of thing? Yes, I really would. Does the very fact that somebody says, “Oh, my God, we know that they've stockpiled tons of anthrax,” does that particularly worry me? No.

I have no reason to believe that they could not produce in 30 days as much as they would need for any biological weapons attack they ever might want to launch, anyway. Why have it just hanging around, getting old, and potentially a storage problem to try to keep it effective?

The idea that they've got a stockpile of it, I really don't really believe they do. Because I don't believe they're quite that stupid.  I realize “North Korea is not stupid” is perhaps an oxymoron, but I don't.

Q:  So, the chilling bottom line is that, despite the Biological Weapons Convention, there really is no way to deter a nation from easily making biological weapons?

Mahley:  Right. There is no prevention that puts a physical barrier against a country having that capability. If you can produce a vaccine for mass inoculation of your population against endemic diseases, you can probably produce biological weapons.

Now, as we discovered when we had a biological weapons program, producing a dangerous pathogen and making that dangerous pathogen into a distributable biological weapon is an engineering problem which is not necessarily trivial.

But particularly if you're willing to say it doesn't have to be horribly effective, if it's 25 percent effective, that's fine, do I think that you've got a whole bunch of people that can have a biological weapons program? Oh, you better believe it!

Q:  What deterred Qadhafi from using his chemical weapons and what would prevent North Korea from using biological weapons in the future?

Mahley:  Unless you are confident that there isn't going to be anybody left that's going to be able to do anything to you, that's the thing. When you get small regimes like Libya or if North Korea had biological weapons and they were enormously successful in using them, what's the extent of what they might do? Well, they might actually kill 100,000 people in the United States, they could kill a couple hundred thousand people in Japan, kill 400,000 or 500,000 people in South Korea, all of which is horrible, horrific.

But it doesn't mean that North Korea is sitting on top of the world. There's a lot of retribution going to come their way real quick. 

Q:  We’ve seen anthrax deaths here in the United States. How easy is it for terrorists to make biological weapons?

Mahley:  Practically any terrorist group that's worth the title "terrorist group" can get their hands on dangerous pathogens.   

Q:  Secretary of State Clinton just said at the BWC review conference, how easily weapons could be to make with college-level chemistry and biology. She noted an al-Qaeda call for "brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction.” What could be the consequence of biological weapons attack?

Mahley:  The first thing that's going to happen, if they ever get around to it, is that it matters less the number of people they kill, as the panic that they cause. And the U.S. reaction to the October, 2001 anthrax episode is a classic example of that. It killed five people, and I'm very sorry for the five people … but it shut down the United States Senate for about two months and disrupted postal delivery in the Washington area for a whole bunch of time.

... About every six months, I go out to Fort Leonard Wood to the Joint Senior Leadership Conference. There's a bunch of military and reserve people who are first responders. We're worried about weapons of mass destruction responses. And I always tell them -- the way you deter that is you make the impact of a localized biological weapons attack by a terrorist much less effective.

I keep telling these first responders if we could sustain an anthrax attack that made 1,000 people sick at a Super Bowl by simply being able to surge the medical response, the triage, isolation, quarantine and the treatment to where it never got beyond that. And most of those 1,000 people recovered. We could go on about our regular business in the rest of the country regardless. That is the one element that has the chance of deterring a terrorist.

Because what he does is, he looks at that and says, “I spent all this time and all this effort, and I make myself out to be a really, really bad, bad guy by doing a biological weapons attack, and they shrug it off and go on with their business. And it's not worth it.”

December 23, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Expanding instability in the Middle East is a matter “we ought to be watching with some concern” for the possible proliferation of biological or chemical weapons, according to a former top U.S. official who worked on containing these threats.