Let us call it what it is: Sending mail laced with anthrax is an act of terrorism. Terrorists aim to cause terror, and in this they have succeeded, up to a point.
If they also aim to use biological weapons to kill on a large scale, they have not succeeded - not yet. To ensure their failure we need to act fast, following a largely scientific path.
We need first to determine what kind of anthrax was in the mailings. Was it basic material fermented in some basement?
Or was it more sophisticated, weapons-grade anthrax, which could have been made only by skilled people in possession of expensive equipment?
Findings from Senator Tom Daschle's office may suggest the latter. That would be serious.
When we know the answer to this first question, we can move to the second: Who has the requisite know-how and equipment?
Given the apparent quality of the anthrax mailed to the Senate, the candidate list for an answer to the second query is small. High-quality anthrax was made by the United States, Russia, Britain and a few other Cold War participants. The consequence of this is that there is a pool of scientists out there who have the know-how.
Their continuing access to the equipment used to make weapons-grade anthrax is a matter of much less certainty. All those nations signed the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, pledging to get out of the biological-weapons business and destroy their existing stocks.
It seems that all of them acted accordingly, except Russia, which continued a sizeable clandestine biological-weapons programme, including work on anthrax, until 1990.
Iraq also signed the 1972 convention. But at President Saddam Hussein's direction, it embarked on a substantial biological-weapons programme in which anthrax production had the leading role.
As the leader from 1997 to 1999 of the United Nations effort to remove Mr Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, I found one rule of thumb to have merit: The vigour with which Iraq conspired to defeat any given step towards arms control was a good indicator of how interested Mr Saddam was in the weapons
system at issue.
I concluded that biological weapons are closest to President Saddam's heart because it was in this area that his resistance to our work reached its height.
Iraq had problems in refining its crude anthrax to the more potent, longer-living form of dry, small particles. Mr Saddam's regime spent millions of dollars on the necessary equipment. Because of his resistance to our arms-control programme, we never knew precisely what he had achieved. But we know he
loaded anthrax into shells, bombs and missile warheads.
Iraq has not been visited by international weapons inspectors for the past three years. It is impossible to know what further steps Mr Saddam has taken, but all signs are that he has remained in the bio-weapons business.
If the scientific path leads to Iraq as the supporter of the anthrax used by the terrorist mailers in the US, no one should be surprised. Meetings between Mohamed Atta, an organiser of the Sept 11 attacks, and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in June last year may have been an occasion on which anthrax was provided to Atta. There have also been reports of meetings between senior Iraqi intelligence officials and members of Al-Qaeda.
The possibility of a Russian origin for the anthrax also needs to be investigated because of the scale of Russia's past programme and the collapse of its weapons laboratories.
Richard Butler is ambassador in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book, Fatal Choice: Nuclear Weapons And The Illusion Of Missile Defence. He contributed this article to The New York Times.
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