updated 5/21/2004 9:38:37 PM ET 2004-05-22T01:38:37

Arms control advocates are warning the Bush administration that proposed research for a new homeland security center may violate an international ban on biological weapons and encourage other countries to follow.

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In a statement posted on the Internet, three arms control experts say proposals for the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, established by Congress last year, appear to flout the prohibition on development of bioweapons.

“The rapidity of elaboration of American biodefense programs, their ambition and administrative aggressiveness and the degree to which they push against the prohibitions of the Biological Weapons Convention are startling,” the authors said.

The writers are Milton Leitenberg, an arms control expert at the University of Maryland; James Leonard, who headed the U.S. delegation that negotiated the bioweapons ban in 1972; and former U.N. weapons inspector Richard Spertzel.

Maryland center planned
Their critique, posted by the journal Politics and the Life Sciences, stemmed from a presentation last winter by Lt. Col. George W. Korch Jr., deputy director of the Homeland Security Department’s center, to be housed on the grounds of Fort Detrick, Md.

Korch said in February that the center might study whether deadlier bacteria and viruses could be developed to ensure that U.S. defenses would be effective among the most dangerous pathogens. Other areas to be studied could include developing aerosols that contain deadly germs and new methods of delivering germ-warfare agents.

The department stressed that its institute would comply with the biowarfare convention’s ban and all federal laws.

“I categorically deny that we will be developing offensive weapons,” Gerald Parker, director of the department’s office of science-based threat analysis and response, said Friday.

Defense vs. offense
All sides acknowledge the difficulty of determining what constitutes defensive biological research, which the convention permits, and development of bioweapons, which it forbids.

Leitenberg said the administration should consider how research at the center, even if it would not violate the convention, will be interpreted by countries that may be eager to do similar research, also in the name of defense.

“Several of these (measures) all by themselves would be no problem at all,” Leitenberg said. “The question is what this looks like as a whole.”

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