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Bioweapons treaty - still a good idea

Six years of negotiations to add enforcement provisions to the 1972 treaty outlawing biological weapons have halted. The reason: The Bush administration vetoed going ahead with a protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention that would have given states the right to obtain information about and inspect sites where biological weapons were suspected of being developed, produced, or used.

To escape blame, Secretary of State Colin Powell argued that the decision was not new: The Clinton administration "probably would have come to the same conclusion." But this and other statements seriously misrepresent the Clinton administration position and the value of the agreement itself.

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The Bush team argues that because the equipment and materials used to make bioweapons are also used for legitimate civilian purposes, the convention's ban can't be verified. Therefore, no additional measures could detect violations with high confidence.

The Clinton administration agreed that verification in this narrow sense was not possible. We also believed, however, that we had an obligation to try to strengthen the prohibition against developing and producing biological weapons, given that most of the dozen or so countries pursuing bioweapons capabilities - including states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq - are parties to the convention. Rather than verification, our goal was deterrence: to make it more costly and risky for cheaters to keep cheating.

The draft protocol under negotiation passes the test. It requires states to declare facilities and activities that could most easily be misused to develop bio-weapons. It contains consultation provisions to clarify questions that might arise from these declarations. It provides for on-site activities: random visits to promote accurate declarations, clarification visits to address questions about the declaration that aren't resolved through consultations, and challenge investigations to pursue concerns that a country is developing, producing, or using bioweapons.

The Bush administration also argues that these provisions could reveal trade secrets of American pharmaceutical or biotech companies or sensitive information about our military's biodefense activities. The Clinton administration shared these concerns, and worked hard to strike a balance between securing information about other countries and protecting US interests. The draft protocol not only meets this objective, but in some cases exceeds the protections agreed to in the Chemical Weapons Convention, which covers some of the same facilities.

The protections are numerous. The protocol's declaration forms do not require highly detailed information that could jeopardize trade or military security. And its on-site inspection provisions, unlike those in the chemicalweapons accord, tightly restrict the use of sampling, and place strict limits on the number of visits and level of access during nonchallenge visits. For challenge investigations, the protocol mandates the same kind of procedures that the first Bush administration and the US chemical industry deemed effective for protecting proprietary information under the chemical- weapons ban.

We recognized from the outset that a protocol wouldn't "solve" the bioweapons problem. But it would create internationally agreed procedures for pursuing evidence that others were developing or producing bio-weapons, something we lack today. It would also provide new data that would enhance our ability to detect and respond to foreign bioweapons programs. It would thus complement and help target the other elements of our nonproliferation policy.

In short, the Clinton administration would have embraced the protocol. We would have worked closely with our friends in Europe and elsewhere, all of whom support the protocol, to try to produce a successful conclusion. The Bush team's rejection of it leaves us isolated again - and without a valuable nonproliferation tool.

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Elisa D. Harris, a research fellow at the University of Maryland, coordinated US policy on biological weapons for the National Security Council from 1993 to 2001.