Executive Summary: Microbes and Mass Casualties: Microbes and Mass Casualties: Defending America Against Bioterrorism

Report Homeland Security

Executive Summary: Microbes and Mass Casualties: Microbes and Mass Casualties: Defending America Against Bioterrorism

May 26, 1998 3 min read Download Report
James Anderson
Visiting Fellow

The threat of a major terrorist strike involving biological weapons occurring on U.S. soil is not hypothetical. Terrorist groups have used, or threatened to use, biological agents in a variety of circumstances, both domestically and internationally. As many as ten countries possess offensive biological weapons programs, including the People's Republic of China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Russia, and Syria. And the existence of these programs increases the likelihood that biological expertise will be transferred, directly or indirectly, to terrorist groups.

Biological weapons are extremely lethal substances that can be disseminated by various means, including aerial bombs, spray tanks, and ballistic missile warheads. They are easier and cheaper to produce than chemical or nuclear weapons. The lag time between infection and the appearance of symptoms makes it difficult to ascertain the exact time or place of a bioterrorist attack. Urbanization and the growth of modern transportation links increase the likelihood that a major bioterrorist attack will cause mass casualties because densely populated areas make lucrative targets; and transportation links, such as jet travel, make it possible that contagious substances can spread rapidly.

The growth of extremist groups espousing apocalyptic creeds also increases the threat of bioterrorism today. The Japanese cult responsible for the 1995 sarin attack in a Tokyo subway purchased a 48,000-acre range in Australia to test biological agents on livestock; sent members to Africa to obtain samples of the Ebola virus; and built two biological research centers, one in Tokyo and the other at the base of Mount Fuji. This terrorist group is known to have attempted at least four bioterrorist strikes in Japan while planning similar attacks in the United States.


Despite the growing danger of bioterrorism, the United States remains ill-prepared to manage the consequences of a major attack on U.S. soil. Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre admitted last December, "We are not currently equipped to handle a widespread terrorist attack that would involve biological weapons."

The Clinton Administration's counterterrorism plan involves an unwieldy array of more than 40 different federal agencies, bureaus, and offices. A major bioterrorism simulation exercise conducted in March 1998 revealed glaring coordination problems within the response structure. The exercise also suggested the U.S. public health system would be incapable of coping with the aftermath of a major bioterrorist strike.


The U.S. Department of Defense clearly has an important role to play in reducing the threat of bioterrorism. The Pentagon has designed specialized units to respond to terrorist incidents involving weapons of mass destruction within the United States. But depending on the location of the strike, it could be hours--perhaps even days--before federal units could respond in force. Local police and fire officials (the "first responders") therefore would bear the onus of initially managing the consequences of such an attack.

Further congressional action is necessary to reduce the danger of mass casualties from bioterrorist attacks in the United States. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Pressure the Clinton Administration to streamline and clarify the lines of responsibility for preempting, deterring, and responding to bioterrorism.

  • Increase funding for training and equipping first responders, according to the needs of specific locales.

  • Mandate national requirements for stockpiling antibiotics, and require the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to update quarantine procedures.

  • Fund the development of sensors capable of providing early of warning of biological attacks in major U.S. cities.

  • Insist on greater transparency of Russia's military biological facilities, as called for in the September 1992 Joint Statement on Biological Weapons, and initiate a focused bilateral program with Russia to channel the expertise of former Soviet biological warfare specialists toward constructive purposes.

  • Boost intelligence funding required to track terrorist organizations interested in biological agents. Require the intelligence community to publicize the names of former Soviet biological warfare specialists who share their expertise with rogue states.

  • Develop the equivalent of Megan's Law for individuals convicted of violating state and federal laws regarding the possession of biological agents.

  • Develop a sustained public education campaign on the threat of bioterrorism.


The threat of bioterrorism is growing, but a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil should not be considered inevitable. The development of a coherent strategy to defend against this terrorism would help deter bioterrorists and sponsors of state terrorism who otherwise might consider such attacks.

James H. Anderson, Ph.D., is Defense and National Security Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.


James Anderson

Visiting Fellow