WASHINGTON – The Syrian government might have a restricted capacity to manufacture weaponized disease agents for use against its enemies, U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said on Tuesday.
“Based on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production,” Clapper said in prepared testimony for the Senate intelligence committee.
While the Assad regime has not demonstrated a capacity to wed biological materials to a specialized delivery vehicle, “it possesses conventional and chemical-weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery,” he said, echoing previous U.S. assessments.
Clapper did not discuss the potential Syrian bioweapons danger in greater detail as he and other top intelligence officials appeared on Capitol Hill for a hearing on national security threats to the United States.
Nongovernmental analyses have noted a significant increase in the nation’s pharmaceutical sector over the last two decades as well as its well of biological science know-how. Those assets, however, are not necessarily indicative of an offensive biological program.
The Obama administration’s top intelligence official also reaffirmed previous warnings that the "increasingly beleagured" government of President Bashar Assad could resort to using chemical weapons to stave off defeat in the nation’s bloody civil war.
More than 70,000 people are believed to have died in fighting since 2011. Syria’s estimated stockpile of hundreds of tons of nerve and blister agents could “inflict mass casualties,” Clapper told lawmakers.
“I know the president has expressed that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line for the United States,” committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in her opening remarks. “And I would predict that the United States Senate would demand a strong and swift response, should the use of such weapons occur.”
There is also the concern that nonstate actors such as Assad ally Hezbollah might seize or be given some component of the chemical arsenal, according to Clapper. “The United States and our allies are monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile,” he said.
“Traditionally, international agreements and diplomacy have deterred most nation-states from acquiring biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, but these constraints may be of less utility in preventing terrorist groups from doing so,” Clapper stated. “The time when only a few states had access to the most dangerous technologies is past.
“Biological and chemical materials and technologies, almost always dual-use, move easily in our globalized economy, as do the personnel with scientific expertise to design and use them,” he noted in the written comments. “The latest discoveries in the life sciences also diffuse globally and rapidly.”
Iran is technically capable of producing nuclear weapons and has ballistic missiles that could carry those warheads, Clapper said. He made a slightly veiled reference to the nation’s production of higher-enriched uranium, which is seen as a key step toward preparing weapon-grade material.
It remains to be seen whether the Middle Eastern state moves to ultimately manufacture nuclear weapons, according to Clapper’s testimony. Tehran says its atomic program has no military component.
“We judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran,” Clapper said. Under questioning during the hearing, he acknowledged that economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States and other nations had not “at least publicly” forced Iran to take a new tack in the long-running dispute.
Delegates from Tehran and six major powers are due to meet again next month for talks on a plan to resolve the nuclear impasse. The U.N. nuclear watchdog, meanwhile, also hopes to advance its probe of Iran’s nuclear activities.
While North Korea’s nuclear arms program – most recently demonstrated in a Feb. 12 underground atomic explosive test – is believed aimed at securing the nation against attack, “we do not know Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine or employment concepts,” Clapper said.
“Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or allies to preserve the Kim regime, we do not know what that would constitute, from the North’s perspective, crossing that threshold.”
He also noted the increase in aggressive North Korean rhetoric that has accompanied the U.N. Security Council’s move to punish the regime for the nuclear test. Pyongyang in recent days has threatened pre-emptive nuclear attacks on South Korea and the United States and has declared the 1953 Korean War armistice null and void.
“The rhetoric, while it is propaganda laced, is also an indicator of their attitude and perhaps their intent,” Clapper said. “So for my part I am very concerned about what they might do and they are certainly, if they chose -- so chose could initiate a provocative action against the South.”