Posts Tagged ‘Bioweapons’


Doomsday on the Cheap

Friday, January 4th, 2013

One of the really salient issues about nuclear weapons is that they are expensive. There's just no way to really do them on the cheap: even in an extremely optimized nuclear weapons program, one that uses lots of dual-use technology bought off-the-shelf, to make a nuclear weapon you need some serious infrastructure.

A piece of gold the weight of Little Boy would have cost between $5 and $6 million in 1945. The fissile material for Little Boy cost well over $1 billion. So it would actually have been a pretty good bargain at the time if Little Boy had cost its weight in gold. Also, I knew that making a highly-realistic model of Little Boy in Blender would come in handy someday.

A piece of gold the weight of Little Boy would have cost between $5 and $6 million in 1945. The fissile material for Little Boy cost well over $1 billion. So it would actually have been a pretty good bargain at the time if Little Boy had cost its weight in gold. Also, I knew that making a highly-realistic model of Little Boy in Blender would come in handy someday.

That's not to say that you need to redundantly overspend as much as the Manhattan Project did, or the US did during the Cold War, but even "cheap" nuclear weapons programs are pretty costly. There are a few multinational corporations that could probably pull it off if they were given carte blanche with the technology, but basically you're talking about a weapon that is made for, and by, states. (I'm not, of course, ignoring the possibility of hijacking someone else's infrastructural investments, which is another way to think about theft of fissile material.)

Solid gold B61s aside, this is a good thingIt actually makes nuclear weapons somewhat easy to regulate. I know, I know — the history of trying to control the bomb isn't usually cited as one of the great successes of our time, but think about how much harder it would be if you couldn't spot bomb factories? If every university physics department could build one? If they were really something you could do, from scratch, in an old airstream trailer?

Herman Kahn, 1968, by John Loengard, via Google's LIFE image archive

Herman Kahn, the great thinker of unthinkable thoughts, has a bit about the relationship between cost and doomsday in his 1965 book On Escalationwhich a someone in the audience of a talk I gave last month helpfully sent along to me:1

Assume that it were possible to manufacture a "doomsday machine" from approximately $10 worth of available materials. While it might be "unthinkable" that the world would be destroyed by such a "doomsday machine," it would also be almost inevitable. The only question would be: Is it a matter of minutes, hours, days, months, or years? About the only conceivable way of preventing such an outcome would be the imposition of a complete monopoly upon the relevant knowledge by some sort of disciplined absolutist power elite; and even then one doubts that the system would last.2

If the price of the "doomsday machine" went up to a few thousand, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars, this estimate would not really be changed. There are still enough determined men in the world willing to play games of power blackmail, and enough psychopaths with access to substantial resources, to make the situation hopeless.

If, however, the cost of "doomsday machines" were several millions or tens of millions of dollars, the situation would change greatly. The number of people or organizations having access to such sums of money is presently relatively limited. But the world's prospects, while no longer measured by the hour hand of a clock, would still be very dark. The situation would improve by an order of magnitude if the cost went up by another factor of 10 to 100.

It has been estimated that "doomsday" devices could be built today for something between $10 billion and $100 billion. [Multiply that by 10 for roughly current price in USD]3 At this price, there is a rather strong belief among many, and perhaps a reasonably well-founded one, that the technological possibility of "doomsday machines" is not likely to affect international relations directly. The lack of access to such resources by any but the largest nations, and the spectacular character of the project, make it unlikely that a "doomsday machine" would be built in advance of a crisis; and fortunately, even with a practical tension-mobilization base, such a device could not be improvised during a crisis.

In other words, since Doomsday Machines are phenomenally expensive, and thus only open as options to states with serious cash to spend (and probably serious existing infrastructures), the odds of them being built, much less used, are pretty much nil. Hooray for us! (Nobody tell Edward.) But as you slide down the scale of cheapness, you slide into the area of likelihood — if not inevitability — given how many genuinely bad or disturbed people there are in the world.

Cost and control go hand-in-hand. Things that are cheap (both in terms of hard cash as well as opportunity cost, potential risk of getting caught, and so on) are more likely to happen, things that are expensive are not. The analogy to nuclear weapons in general is pretty obvious and no-doubt deliberate. Thank goodness H-bombs are expensive in every way. Too bad that guns are not, at least in my country.

But area where I start really thinking about this is biology. Check out this graph:

Cost of sequencing a human-sized genome, 2001-2012. From the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Cost of sequencing a human-sized genome, 2001-2012. From the National Human Genome Research Institute.

This graph is a log chart of the cost of sequencing an entire human genome, plotted over the last decade or so. Moore's Law is plotted in white — and from 2001 through the end of 2007, the lines roughly match. But at the beginning of 2008, sequencing genomes got cheap. Really cheap. Over the course of four years, the cost dropped from around $10 million to about $10,000. That's three orders of magnitude. That's bananas. 

I was already reeling at this graph when I saw that Kathleen Vogel has a very similar chart for DNA synthesis in her just-published book, Phantom Menace or Looming Danger?: A New Framework for Assessing Bioweapons Threats (John Hopkins University Press, 2012). (I haven't had a chance to read Kathleen's book yet, but flipping through it, it is pretty fascinating — if you are interested in WMD-related issues, it is worth picking up.)

Everything regarding the reading and writing of DNA is getting phenomenally cheap, really quickly. There's been a blink-and-you-missed-it biological revolution over the last five years. It's been caused by a relatively small number of commercial players who have made DNA sequencing into an automated, computer-driven, cheap process.4 It will probably hit some kind of floor — real-world exponential processes eventually do — but still.

I don't have anything much against DNA sequencing getting cheap. (There are, of course, implications for this, but none that threaten to destroy the world.) DNA synthesis makes me pause — it is not a huge step from DNA synthesis to virus synthesis, and from there to other bad ideas. But as Kathleen emphasizes in her book (and in talks I've seen her give), it's not quite as easy as the newspapers make out. For now. We're still probably a few decades away from your average med school student being able to cook up biological weapons, much less biological Doomsday Machines, in a standard university research laboratory. But we're heading down that road with what seems to me to be alarming speed.

Don't get me wrong — I think the promises of a cheap revolution in biology are pretty awesome, too. I'd like to see cancer kicked as much, and maybe even more, than the next guy. I'm not anti-biology, or anti-science, and I'm not in fan of letting a purely security-oriented mindset dominate how we make choices, as a society. I don't necessarily think secrecy is the answer when it comes to trying to control biology — it didn't really work with the bomb very well, in any case. But I do think the evangelists of the new biology should treat these sorts of concerns with more than a knee-jerk, "you can't stop progress" response. I'm all in favor of big breakthroughs in medicine and biology, but I just hope we don't get ourselves into a world of trouble by being dumb about prudent regulation.

What disturbs me the most about this stuff is that compared to the best promises and worst fears of the new biology, nuclear weapons look easy to control. The bomb was the easy case. Let's hope that the next few decades don't give us such a revolution in biology that we inadvertently allow for the creation of Doomsday Machines on the cheap.

  1. Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (Transaction Publishers, 2010 [1965]), 227-228. []
  2. Note the implicit connection here between knowledge and the importance of cheapness — when materials are cheap, knowledge becomes everything. Or, to put it another way, this is why computer viruses are everywhere and atomic bombs are not. []
  3. Here he cites his own On Thermonuclear War, page 175, but in the copy I have, it is page 145, footnote 2: "While I would not care to guess the exact form that a reasonably efficient Doomsday Machine would take, I would be willing to conjecture that if the project were started today [1960] and sufficiently well supported one could have such a machine by 1970. I would also guess that the cost would be between 10 and 100 billion dollars." $10 billion USD in 1960, depending on the conversion metric you use, is something in the neighborhood of 100 billion dollars today, with inflation. []
  4. I thank my friend Hallam Stevens for cluing me in on this. His work is really must-read if you want to know about the computerized automation of sequencing work. []

Mysteries of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

This is a nuclear-themed blog, but as you probably could guess, I'm pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to being interested in weapons of mass destruction. (Heck, I find conventional weapons pretty important, too!)

I had previously read a two interesting reviews — one by Steven Aftergood, another by David Hoffman — of Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas' new book, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (Harvard University Press, 2012). My prior knowledge of this topic came from reading Hoffman's book, The Dead Hand (which is a disturbing and fascinating read in and of itself, and well-deserving of its Pulitzer), and from an association I had with Matthew Meselson as a graduate student at Harvard, but the reviews hinted that there was a lot of new stuff here.

So I was pretty excited to snag an invitation to hear Milton Leitenberg speak at the Wilson Center, at a small talk last Friday afternoon, organized by my friend Kathleen M. Vogel. I was one of maybe four "academics" in the audience; the rest of the people there were affiliated with the intelligence community in one way or another — I didn't ask for details, but it was not a classified talk (obviously, or they wouldn't have let me in there).1 Below are some of the things that really grabbed me about Leitenberg's talk, with a preface that I'm working from notes here, and biology isn't really my strongest suite, so if I write something outlandish, blame me, not the book.2

Two generations of BW

Leitenberg and Zilinskas periodize the Soviet biological weapons program into two phases. The first generation was from 1928 through 1971, and used classical genetic selection techniques — Mendelian selection and its subsequent variations. The very early program was an outgrowth of a chemical weapons program, and made the USSR the only country in the world at the time (the first?) to have a devoted BW program. (France may have had one at the same time; Japan would start its own up soon after.) In 1939 the Soviet BW program was taken over by none other than Lavrenty Beria, the security chief/rapist/executioner who also later ran the Soviet atomic bomb project.

"Inside the biological weapons factory at Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union was prepared to make tons of anthrax if the orders came from Moscow." Via National Security Archive/Andrew Weber

The second generation program, from 1972 until 1993, is the really interesting one. This one used new molecular genetics techniques — genetic engineering. The goal was to produce better and different "bugs" — with a high priority placed on changing the surface properties of the bacteria and viruses, so that not only would pre-existing antibiotics and vaccines not work, but even the detection methods would be erroneous.

What makes this especially surprising is that the USSR wasn't exactly known as a genetics powerhouse, a inevitable result of their long foray with Lysenkoism. Leitenberg says that the second generation program was pushed by the biologists, who saw it as the way to quickly reboot Soviet genetics post-Lysenko. A new, high-tech BW program was seen as a way to re-build Soviet biology after a generation of persecution.

Twelve "recipes"

As with most Soviet R&D, the strategy was first copy whatever the US was doing, and then move forward with their own lines of research. It's not a bad strategy in a world where you do know there's a country that is throwing gobs of money at a scientific program. It was a strategy made somewhat easier because of the relative openness of the US; when the US declassified and published designs for biological bomblets, the USSR copied them and used them for their own program.

The US E120 biological bomblet, which was apparently copied by the USSR after it was declassified.

I would just note that we often, in this literature, making "copying" seem like an easy thing, but it's really not — a huge amount of work still goes into replicating a basic design. In any case, I'm always surprised that we Americans acted personally offended when the USSR copied US technology — as if it were a form of high-stakes academic plagiarism or piracy. Hey, they were just going after solutions that were known to work, and it's a pretty high compliment, is it not? I don't think we should take this sort of thing personally.

The Soviet BW program had five major subprograms: 

  • Bonfire, the main program, which succeed in making multi-antibiotic resistance for bacteria and modified antigenic structures for viruses (bad things)
  • Factor, which sought higher virulence out of existing agents, as well as higher stability and new outcomes — which are basic goals for any BW program, but again, were being done with molecular genetics methods for the most part
  • Hunter, which attempted to make hybrids of bacteria and viruses — apparently they were trying to come up with agents that were essentially bacterial, but if you used antibiotics to kill the bacteria, they would then release viruses into the system, which sounds like something from a movie
  • Chimera, which were working on "exotic viral genes" (i.e. making better Ebola)
  • Flute, which were trying to attack neuropeptide regulators, bioweapons meant for targeted assassinations

All together they produced twelve "recipes," as they called them, which were "type-verified" and ready to produce. Some of these were mass produced to the tune of hundreds of tons. Leitenberg and Zilinskas were able to identify eleven of them, and they're scary — anthrax, plague, tularemia, and Marburg virus, to name a few ones that even I recognized — but the identity of the last one is still a mystery to them.

Unclear motivations

The million dollar question, though, is why the Soviets were doing it in the first place. I mean, post-1972 they were violating their own commitments to the Biological Weapons Convention — a treaty with no verification methods, but still a treaty. They were also completely convinced that the US must be doing their own BW work and violating the treaty themselves. Why? Because it's what they'd do. (A nice illustration of the errors of assuming the enemy thinks like you do.)

"The inside of a 20,000 liter fermentor at a plant in Kazakhstan." Photo via Center for Cooperative Threat Reduction.

But also, apparently, they were egged on in this idea by a collaborative Army-FBI operation in the late 1960s that fed them disinformation. Apparently the Soviets witnessed a test of a biological agent  near Johnston Island, in the Pacific Ocean, sometime in the 1960s, and the Army-FBI operation decided that would really throw them off if they, through a double-agent, made them think that it was the test of a different biological agent, and added on to that -- oddly enough -- the line that the US was continuing a vigorous biological program. In the early 1970s, when SALT and the BWC were on the table, someone finally realized that this was a very bad idea, and they "cancelled" the disinformation effort. But how do you withdraw disinformation? Issue a statement that says, "sorry, that part of your intel was totally fabricated?" Who is going to believe that?

Even more strange, though, is that the USSR apparently didn't have any strategic delivery mechanisms for the BW program. That is, they couldn't actually target them on the US, according to Leitenberg and Zilinskas. They couldn't fit them on ICBMs (they looked into it, but the program went nowhere), and the only planes that could disperse them were slow and wouldn't last five seconds in NATO airspace. And apparently they weren't thinking about using them on the Chinese, either.

So who was the BW program for? What was it for? Why have a secret BW program that you couldn't use? Why keep a BW program through the 1980s and even early 1990s? Leitenberg isn't really sure.

A few obvious possibilities stand out 1. maybe they did have strategic delivery and L. and Z. are just wrong on that; 2. maybe they just thought they'd work that out later (in the same way that the US put off serious work on the nuclear waste issue for the future); 3. maybe they were planning to use them in a way we really aren't considering (e.g. tactically, though Leitenberg says there weren't any tactical munitions); 4. maybe it was just bureaucracy run amok, egged on by scientists and generals who were ever eager to keep the funding flowing. I'd like to believe number four, because it would be the most amusing to me, but that doesn't really pass logical muster.

The program even persisted into Gorbachev's time, and Gorby himself apparently lied his pants off to the United States on this point. During the Gorbachev era, apparently only four people in the higher echelons of the Soviet government knew the "full story" about the BW program. George H.W. Bush apparently didn't push Mikhail on this point, even though he had intelligence which said, straight up, that Gorbachev was lying. Leitenberg describes this as a "terrible" thing to have done, to avoid that confrontation. (Leitenberg says that he thinks Gorbachev would have liked to mothball the BW program, but found his hands pretty full with everything else that happened during the USSR's endgame.) The flagrant violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, though, created all sorts of diplomatic complications for the late USSR — even though the BWC lacked verification, and thus was easy to cheat, it did create huge headaches to be caught out in 20 year lie.

Lessons learned

The real take-aways, for me, were:

  • Treaties without verification are not worth the paper they are written on, but before violating one, keep in mind how much of a bind you'll put your future, reforming leaders when they find out about it.
  • Disinformation that makes you out to be more scary than you are is a really bad idea.
  • Even though your country may not be weaponizing the coolest, newest scientific techniques (like genetic engineering), someone else might be. Be aware of that before proclaiming your field of research totally unnecessary for regulation.
  • Soviet WMD history seems like a super hard thing to do — a mixture of US intelligence reports, interviews with former participants who may or may not be interested in telling you the truth, and the occasional smuggled/given document which may or may not be true. In my experience, anyway, US WMD history is much more straightforward — there's a real culture difference.

Anyway, it sounds like the Leitenberg and Zilinskas volume will bring a lot of enlightenment to our discussions of the Soviet biological weapons program, even while it raises deeper mysteries.

This post was updated later in the day to clarify a few points after a communication from Leitenberg.

  1. Note to future self: the dress code for summertime, lunchtime talks with intelligence community folks in DC is slacks, shirt, open collar, no tie, no jacket. I wore a tie and was conspicuously overdressed — a rare thing for unfashionable me! []
  2. None other than Raymond A. Zilinskas himself once got on me at a talk I gave when I conflated the terms "mutated" and "genetic engineered" — which was helpful, in a way, because I won't make that error again! []

Tick, Tock, 2012

Monday, January 9th, 2012

It's that time again. Tick, Tock.

One of Herblock's creepy anthropomorphic H-bombs, from 1962. From the Library of Congress.

Every year, the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists get together to discuss whether, and how much, they should adjust their famed Doomsday Clock, ticking down to atomic midnight.

One of the coolest things about my recent relocation to Washington, DC, was being invited to attend the symposium (just as an audience-member) for the clock-changing event. I'm eagerly looking forward to it.

The last time the BAS folks changed the clock, in 2010, they turned it back by 1 minute, because of "worldwide cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and limit effect of climate change." Ah, such optimistic times! Only six minutes to midnight, still.

I would be inclined to shave that gained minute back again, at the very least, putting us at five minutes to midnight. My reasons are:

  • Possible political instability in North Korea following the sudden death of Dear Leader and the replacement with his young and untested son.
  • Constant drum-beating in the West for war with Iran, despite not much evidence that their program has been doing anything urgent since 2003.
  • Iran's apparent continued push for latent nuclear weapons capability. (Which is problematic both for its own sake, and the possible effects it has with regards to Western intervention, sanctions, etc., which are ratcheting things up on all sides over there.)
  • The efforts towards mitigating climate change have been fickle at best and seem to be losing public interest as the attentions turn entirely to the economy. I don't actually see the United States, much less the rest of the world, actually getting their act together on this anytime soon.
  • Pakistan-US relations seem to be getting especially testy, which bodes ill.

Or to put it another way, I think things are at least as bad as they were in 2007; I think the 2010 change was too optimistic. None of the above is terribly clever analysis, I'd be the first to admit. But it's about the same level of "ripped from the headlines" analysis that seems to have affected past clock changes.

But that's just me, and I'm a natural cynic. My views on the future vacillate between the pessimistic and the middling.

I'll be eager to see what other people have to say on this, at the symposium. I'll even try to update the blog with the positions I find most interesting, if I get the chance to. So check back at the end of the day for a bit more.

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Thoughts on Recent Bio-Secrecy

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

The New York Times ran a cover story today about a request by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to the journals Science and Nature to avoid printing certain details about new research on making a specific influenza virus strain more virulent ("Seeing Terror Risk, U.S. Asks Journals to Cut Flu Study Facts," December 20, 2011). It's an interesting case. Here are some quick, historically-tinted thoughts:

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