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U.S. Bioterrorism Vote May Weaken Anti-Terrorist Coalition

A recent international conference on germ warfare ended in anger and chaos after the United States cut off discussions about enforcing the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

The 1972 treaty, ratified by the United States and 143 other nations, bans the development, stockpiling and production of germ warfare agents, but there is no enforcement mechanism. We now know that the former Soviet Union continued to do secret research on bioterrorist weapons long after the treaty was ratified. The purpose of the recent conference, which was held in Geneva, was to negotiate legally binding measures to enforce compliance.

On the final day of the three-week conference, the United States stunned its European allies by terminating the enforcement discussions. Tibor Toth, a Hungarian official who was the conference?s president, says they have decided to suspend their work for a year instead of bringing the meeting to an unsuccessful end. ?The differences between positions seemed to be irreconcilable, at least in the time remaining today,? he says. ?The draft final declaration was 95 percent ready.? The United States is the only country to announce its opposition to the proposed enforcement protocol.

The breakup of the meeting brought European complaints that President Bush is not paying attention to the concerns of its allies. This could effect compliance with the anti-terrorism coalition Bush assembled after the September 11 attacks. The U.S. has already been strongly criticized by its allies for refusing to sign the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A State Department official says the Bush administration believes the enforcement rules under discussion would not prevent terrorist nations from acquiring or developing biological weapons if they?re determined to do so. ?If the conference had continued, there was a danger that continued negotiations would have undermined our concerted efforts to strengthen the convention,? the official says. Administration officials say the U.S. remains committed to countering the threat of biological weapons.

John R. Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, has accused some signatories to the treaty, including Iraq and Iran, of having already violated it, and says, ?I wish we could have continued talking, but it was obvious that we would not reach an agreement. There were just too many areas of disagreement. A cooling-off period will be a good thing.?

The Federation of American Scientists issued a statement calling the U.S. action ?sabotage,? and says that European diplomats ?privately accused the U.S. of deceiving them.?

Elisa D. Harris, the National Security Council?s director for nonproliferation during the Clinton administration, says that ?the Bush administration has blown up an international meeting aimed at making it more difficult for countries to acquire these biological capabilities.?

But Larry M. Wortzel, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that refusing to be a party to doomed verification efforts is ?the sanest thing this administration has done.?

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