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In the President's Words: Assessing the Risk of Germ Warfare

Date: Fri, 22 Jan 1999 09:59:10 -0800
From: Ron Epstein <>
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Subject: In the President's Words: Assessing the Risk of Germ Warfare

January 22, 1999

In the President's Words: Assessing the Risk of Germ Warfare


WASHINGTON -- Following are excerpts from an interview with President
Clinton on the threat of biological and chemical weapons, conducted
Thursday by The New York Times, as transcribed by the White House:  

QUESTION How worried should we be? Is this serious today, and is the threat
rising? Is it going be more serious in the future? 

 PRESIDENT CLINTON I would say that if the issue is how probable is it in
the very near term, an American city or community would be affected, I'd
say you probably shouldn't be too worried. 

 But if the issue is, is it a near certainty that at some time in the
future there will be some group, probably a terrorist group, that attempts
to bring to bear either the use or the threat of a chemical or biological
operation, I would say that is highly likely to happen sometime in the next
few years. 

 And therefore, I would say the appropriate response is not worry or panic,
but taking this issue very seriously . . . and then to try to make sure we
are doing everything we can to stop this. 

 Now, we know right now -- we know that a lot of what we've done already
has delayed WMD programs, some of which I can't talk about, but slowed the
development of WMD programs of missile technology development that might
deliver such weapons and other things. And we're doing everything we can to
stop or slow down the ability of others insofar as we know about it and can
do something about it. And meanwhile we're doing everything we can both to
develop defenses and emergency responses. 

 But I think we've got an enormous amount of work out there ahead of us . .
. And a lot of this has to be done with great cooperation between the
Federal Government. We need cooperation of the private sector on the cyber
issues, the computer issues. We need cooperation with local government on
public health response issues, exposure -- if there appears to be an
outbreak. We had all these sort of false alarms of anthrax in California --
how many? More than a dozen I think in the last month. So we need to be
able to diagnose and to treat and also to manage those things. 

  Q. Does one of these threats worry you more than another, and does any
one in particular keep you awake at night? 

 A. Well, I have spent some late nights thinking a lot about this and
reading a lot about it. I think in terms of offense versus defense, if you
go back to where we started, the thing that I'm most interested in -- and
you will see we've allocated several hundred million dollars basically to
research and to applied research -- the thing that I'm most interested in,
is developing the ability to quickly contain biological agents.  

 A chemical attack would be horrible, but it would be finite. You know,
it's just like -- for the people who went through Oklahoma City, nothing
could be more horrible. But it didn't spread. And the thing that bothers
people about biological agents is that, unless they're properly diagnosed,
contained and treated, that it could spread.  

 For example, we know that if all of us went to a rally on the Mall
tomorrow with 10,000 people, and somebody flew a low-flying crop duster and
sprayed us all with biological agents from, let's say, 200 feet, that no
matter how toxic it were, half of us would walk away for reasons no one
quite understands. You know, either we wouldn't breathe it, or we'd have
some miraculous resistance to it. And the other half of us, somebody would
have to diagnose in a hurry and then contain and treat.  Otherwise it would
be kind of like the gift that keeps on giving. 

 I'm not trying to be macabre, but you asked me what keeps me awake at
night, and that bothers me. And that's why the thing that I thought was
most important about what we did last year . . .  we'd studied for a year
all this -- especially this biological issue -- is we had this work going
on in 12 different places in the Government. So we had to organize our
efforts, so that we could be accessible to local governments, so we could
work with them, to set up their own preventive mechanisms. 

 And I have to tell you, it may be . . . that we may have to have a perfect
defense. I mean, instantaneous. We may have to depend upon the Genome
Project, interestingly enough, because once the human genes' secrets are
unlocked, then . . . they could take a blood sample, and there would be a
computer program which would show us if we had -- let's say we had a
variant of anthrax. 

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company