Somebody in Washington’s national security establishment just stuck it to France. In the Nov. 5 Washington Post, Barton Gellman reports that a U.S. intelligence review has found that four nations possess covert stockpiles of smallpox. Three of these nations are entirely predictable: Iraq, North Korea, and Russia. The fourth, France, is not:
U.S. officials said the French program is believed to be defensive in nature, and some of them expressed consternation that its inclusion in the … report was disclosed to a reporter. It could not be learned whether the Bush administration has objected to, or sought information about, the French program.
Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:
(1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes …
The crucial question is whether France’s smallpox stockpile exceeds what is necessary for “prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.” The Post hints that it does by citing Jacques Drucker, former director of France’s National Public Health Surveillance Center, to the effect that France favors smallpox research that is currently forbidden under international law.If the French are in violation, that makes a mockery of France’s complaint last December when the United States blocked a measure to add an inspections protocol to the convention:
France regrets that the parties were unable to agree on terms for strengthening the implementation of this Convention. … It calls on the United States to reconsider its position given the threat of biological weapons and developments in them.
Quite possibly, though, France is not in violation. After all, the Pentagon is known to have its own large stash of biological weapons, and the U.S. position is that this material is kept for “prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.” If France is in compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, then whoever let the Post know about its smallpox inventory may simply want to punish France and others who have criticized the Bush administration for its intransigence on adding the inspections protocol. Or, the leaker may be trying to undermine whatever moral authority the French can summon within the U.N. Security Council to block a war against Iraq. Or, the leaker may be trying to send a message to U.S. allies who complain too loudly about the Bush administration’s unilateralism on a host of issues, from global warming to steel tariffs. Indeed, the leaker may be trying to do any or all of these things even if France is in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention. (What could be more piquant than labeling France a rogue nation?) Alternatively, the leaker may simply have forgotten or not cared in the first place that the document contained sensitive information about a major U.S. ally. For France, that would be the most hurtful explanation of all.
[Update, Nov. 6: French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero today said, “We deny very firmly the allegations put out by the Washington Post,” according to a report by Agence France Presse. France, Valero said, “no longer possesses any sample of human smallpox in its laboratories, either civilian or military.”]
[Correction, Nov. 8: The most relevant international agreement is not the Biological Weapons Convention, but a decision reached two decades ago by the World Health Organization requiring eradication of all smallpox stocks outside Russia and the United States. (Both countries were supposed to destroy their smallpox stocks by 2002, but the WHO last May gave them an extension.) This agreement leaves the French no apparent wiggle room if it is stockpiling the virus. Barton Gellman of the Post elaborates in the following letter: