Biological Weapons:

Effort to Reduce Former Soviet Threat Offers Benefits, Poses New Risks

NSIAD-00-138: Published: Apr 28, 2000. Publicly Released: May 3, 2000.

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Benjamin F. Nelson
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed efforts to reduce the threat of biological weapons proliferation from the former Soviet Union, focusing on: (1) the potential threats that the former Soviet biological weapons institutes could pose to the United States; (2) current and future U.S. efforts to address these threats; and (3) risks associated with the expanded U.S. effort and executive branch plans to mitigate them.

GAO noted that: (1) the former Soviet Union's biological weapons institutes continue to threaten U.S. national security because they have key assets that are both dangerous and vulnerable to misuse, according to Department of State and Defense officials; (2) these assets include as many as 15,000 underpaid scientists and researchers, specialized facilities and equipment, and large collections of dangerous biological pathogens; (3) these assets could harm the United States if hostile countries or groups were to hire the institutes or biological weapons scientists to conduct weapons-related work; (4) also of concern is the potential sale of dangerous pathogens to terrorist groups or countries of proliferation concern; (5) State and Defense officials told GAO that since 1997, Iran and other countries have intensified their efforts to acquire biological weapons expertise and materials from former Soviet biological weapons institutes; (6) much of the former Soviet biological weapons program's infrastructure, such as buildings and equipment, still exists primarily in Russia; (7) the U.S. strategy for addressing these proliferation threats at the source has been to fund collaborative research activities with the institutes to: (a) reduce their incentives to work with hostile states and groups; and (b) increase their openness to the West; (8) for fiscal years (FY) 1994 through 1999, the United States allocated about $20 million to fund collaborative research projects to help redirect former biological weapons scientists to peaceful research activities; (9) for FY 2000 through FY 2004, the executive branch plans to spend about $220 million to expand its efforts to engage former Soviet biological weapons institutes; (10) about half of these funds will be used to continue efforts to redirect scientists toward peaceful civilian research; (11) key risks to expanding the program include sustaining Russia's existing biological weapons infrastructure, maintaining or advancing Russian scientists' skills to develop offensive biological weapons, and the potential misuse of U.S. assistance to fund offensive research; and (12) to mitigate risks associated with research on dangerous pathogens, the United States plans to use U.S. experts residing in Russia--if Russia permits--at the institutes to monitor the projects.

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