U.S. rejects biological weapons checks

GENEVA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is sticking to the U.S. refusal to negotiate monitoring of biological weapons, the top U.S. arms official said Wednesday.

But Ellen Tauscher, under-secretary of state for arms control and international security, said Obama’s administration wanted to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention because of growing threats from terrorism and pandemic disease.

Tauscher said it would be difficult to monitor compliance because a biological weapons program could be disguised within legitimate activities and rapid scientific advances made it hard to detect violations.

“We believe that a protocol would not be able to keep pace with the rapidly changing nature of the biological weapons threat,” Tauscher told a meeting of states that have signed the 1972 convention.

The Cold War-era treaty, the only major international arms pact to lack an inspection mechanism to check against cheating, commits parties not to develop, stockpile or use biological weapons and to promote the peaceful uses of biology and technology. It has been ratified by about 160 countries.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, rejected a draft inspection protocol to the convention in 2001.

Tauscher said the Obama administration’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, released Tuesday, recognized that there was no comprehensive strategy to deal with gaps in efforts to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons and scientific abuse.

“President Obama fully recognizes that a major biological weapons attack on one of the world’s major cities could cause as much death and economic and psychological damage as a nuclear attack could,” she said.

Advances in the life sciences, which have put such weapons within the reach of groups as well as countries, meant the United States was more concerned about the possibility of bioterrorism than state-sponsored biological warfare.

The U.S. strategy aims to improve access to life sciences to combat infectious diseases, establish norms against the misuse of life sciences, and coordinate activities to influence, identify and stop people who try to misuse life sciences.

The strategy also requires U.S. agencies to work with the World Health Organization to help other countries deal with outbreaks of natural disease, such as H1N1 swine flu, which in turn will help them deal with bioterrorism, Tauscher said.

Reporting by Jonathan Lynn; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Noah Barkin