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Bush Campaigns to Strengthen Biological Weapons Agreement

By James Gerstenzang

Declaring that the threat posed by germ warfare and terrorism “is real and extremely dangerous,” President Bush opened a campaign Thursday to strengthen and expand the provisions of a 1972 treaty banning biological weapons.

His proposal would extend many of the treaty’s terms to the criminal level, taking the treaty from a government-to-government pact regulating actions by countries to one also encompassing the behavior of individuals.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which 144 nations have ratified, bans the development, production and possession of all biological weapons. But “the source of biological weapons has not been eradicated,” President Bush said. “Instead, the threat is growing.”

In a statement seemingly linking the outbreak of anthrax cases in the United States to the terrorist hijackings, Bush added: “Since Sept. 11, America and others have been confronted by the evils these weapons can inflict. This threat is real and extremely dangerous. Rogue states and terrorists possess these weapons and are willing to use them.”

While Bush and some senior administration officials have said that they would not be surprised if Osama bin Laden, who they say is responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, has also had a hand in the spread of anthrax, the FBI and the CIA say they have found nothing that connects the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network to the germs.

The president proposed that the 144 treaty participants enact “strict criminal legislation” prohibiting biological warfare activities, bring the United Nations into investigations of suspicious outbreaks or allegations of biological weapons use, and establish a code of ethical conduct to guide the work of bioscientists.

His measure would also commit the signatories to improving international efforts at controlling disease and enhancing procedures to speed response teams to sites of disease outbreaks. It would also establish mechanisms in each country to oversee the security and genetic engineering of pathogenic organisms.

Signatories to the treaty are scheduled to meet in Geneva for three weeks beginning Nov. 19. Treaty review sessions are held regularly every five years.

If accepted by the other nations, the administration’s plan would redefine the pact to take into consideration global geopolitical changes, such as the increased fear of bioterrorism, that have occurred over the past three decades. But it would not, Bush conceded, offer “a complete solution to the use of pathogens and biotechnology for evil purposes.”

Although given sudden timeliness by the terrorist attack and the mysterious spread of anthrax, the president’s announcement reflects the latest twist in a seven-year effort to modernize the treaty.