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Top U.S. Intelligence Official Calls for New Partnership to Limit Weapons Proliferation

In efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, governments have tended to focus on controlling the technology, but the real challenge is to understand the people who seek technology for nefarious ends, a top U.S. counter-proliferation official told an audience at AAAS.

Ken Brill, director of the National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said it is crucial for analysts to get a better handle on the motivations and intentions of those who seek to acquire science and technology that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction.


Ken Brill

“What we’re trying to do is get better on the ‘people’ side,” Brill said. That involves better intelligence on who said what to whom and how various actors may be connected in a world where widespread access to information about science and technology poses new challenges. Working the “people side” is particularly important to prevent terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, he noted.

Brill spoke at an 8 December panel discussion hosted by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. He was joined by Lawrence Kerr, senior bioadviser at the National Counterproliferation Center; Melanie Elder, senior science and technology adviser at the Center; and Christopher Deeney, director of the inertial confinement fusion and National Ignition Facility program at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The panelists discussed an evolving relationship between the scientific community and the national security agencies, particularly when it comes to assessing the threats posed by possible proliferation of biological weapons.

Brill called for a “new strategic partnership” with the Department of Energy laboratories and others in the scientific community to help the intelligence community better anticipate possible proliferation issues. The United States once was orders of magnitude ahead of the rest of the world in science and technology, Brill said. Now, with the increasing globalization of science, he said, “we need to be particularly good in working with our scientists and technologists” to get the best advice possible on emerging trends and possible threats.


Gerald Epstein and Lawrence Kerr

Kerr said it is impossible for intelligence analysts to be totally informed about cutting-edge developments in the biological sciences, work that is carried out by tens of thousands of researchers around the globe. The intelligence community must reach out to working scientists for guidance, Kerr said.

“We need to find ways to ask for their help and not threaten their mission,” he said. Kerr heads a team of six scientists with doctorates in the life sciences who serve as a bridge to specialists in the academic, biotech, and pharmaceutical sectors as well as to non-governmental organizations.

Elder said the interplay between counterproliferation specialists and working scientists also is important for keeping the analysts on their toes. It helps prevent the “surprise that happens when your thinking has stagnated,” she said. Intelligence failures can occur, she said, when “people get locked into an analytic thread” and fail to recognize new scientific developments that might have implications for national security.

Elder also cautioned that others, whether rogue nations or terrorist groups, will not necessarily follow the same path to a weapon as the traditional powers did. “People don’t have to do it the same way we did,” she said.

The underlying challenge is obvious, according to Gerald Epstein, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and moderator of the panel discussion. “Science asks hard questions, but we don’t think nature is lying to us,” Epstein said. When intelligence analysts pursue hard questions, he said, “People are actually trying to get in the way and make you get the wrong answer.”


Christopher Deeney

Still, the discipline involved in both pursuits is much the same, Deeney said. Insights emerge when researchers, whether scientists or intelligence analysts, are open to new data, rigorous questioning by peers, and the interplay of different avenues of investigation. “Whether in scientific analysis or intelligence analysis,” Deeney said, “multiple views bring you to the truth.”

“Dual-use” research has been a particularly vexing issue. The debate over studies that have implications both for civilian and military applications has been fueled by developments such as the synthesis of a polio virus using mail-order DNA and the creation of a more lethal mousepox virus, a close relative of smallpox. In 2004, the Bush administration created a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity as a step toward a government-wide effort to anticipate security-related issues in life sciences research. The NSABB is designed to foster a public discussion of all aspects of dual-use research.

Kerr argued that it may no longer be useful to consider a distinction between biological research that is purely beneficial and that which might be applied toward weapons development. “We have matured into a world,” he said, where virtually all life sciences research and development, testing and evaluation “is dual-use by its very nature, meaning it has the potential to be misused.”

In efforts to anticipate biological threats, the intelligence community has been very good at following the movement of equipment that might be useful for those seeking to develop weapons, Kerr said. “For years, we’ve been good at following things,” he said. “Where a fermenter of such a size went, we could probably tell.” More difficult, he said, has been trying to “get next to people who can decide the intent of an organization or a state,” to know when decisions are being made that could lead to weapons development.



Melanie Elder

The whole thrust of biosecurity efforts, Brill said, is to protect the integrity of science while giving the public confidence that “those who are the guardians of science are using it responsibly.” Elder stressed that “we do not use intelligence resources against U.S. citizens, residents, companies and organizations.”

But intelligence agencies have been seeking voluntary cooperation from experts, who typically are quite responsive when asked specific questions about the state of the science in a particular field, Kerr and Elder said. At the heart of the process, the panelists said, is a respect for the science and the benefits it can bring.

“It would be very possible to demonize the life sciences today,” Brill said. “It would be quite easy for somebody on a 24-hour news network to go after genetic engineering” or other research. “Whether in the intelligence, policy, academic or commercial communities,” Brill said, “we need to be thinking about how [to] protect the integrity of the science so it can deliver the benefits that are palpably there.”

At the same time, he said, there must be a culture that “respects the need to secure some things, to be aware of some things, to be sensitive to the potential for misuse” of certain technologies. The scientific community and the intelligence community both need to find ways to reassure a skittish public that the research is safe and being used responsibly, he said.

The intelligence community also needs to expand the number of people who think about proliferation issues, Brill said, including social scientists and others who can help better understand the motives, financing and leadership of terror groups and rogue states. At the same time, he said, science and technology will continue to be fundamental to the success of the counterproliferation effort.

“If we don’t sustain technical excellence, we fail absolutely,” Brill said, “no matter how good we do at motivations and intentions.” He added: “We need to take advantage of the skills that the S&T community has to help us think through these issues so we understand what matters and what doesn’t.”


Earl Lane