Voulez Vous le Smallpox?

Who tattled on France?

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.

Is France in violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention? Here is a copy of the convention, which France signed. Article I of the convention states:

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:

Thanks for noticing the smallpox piece.

For what it’s worth, I think you took the wrong path in your analysis.

First, having the smallpox virus, by itself, doesn’t violate the Biological Weapons Convention. The convention is implicated only if a country is developing a pathogen as a weapon, which has fairly specific meanings – researching the best form for hardiness and dispersal, engineering strains to resist treatment, manufacturing in quantity, designing or testing delivery vehicles, and the like. There are legitimate research purposes for having pathogens that could be used as weapons. Ebola, Lassa and Marburg are examples. They are real diseases, and doctors have limited tools for preventing and curing them. Smallpox isn’t out there in the wild, but there’s legitimate work being done (in Atlanta and Koltsovo) to find a better vaccine and a treatment that does not now exist. Some of the research is potentially dual-purpose (learning how to treat it could help you make an untreatable form) but that’s another story.

Smallpox is special because of something else. The reason it’s a no-no to have it is that the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, voted in the early 1980s that all member nations must destroy remaining samples of the virus or transfer them to one of the two remaining repositories in the United States and Russia. France reported at the time that it had done so. If France has the virus, as the U.S. government believes, then it has broken its word and its obligation to the WHO – not the Biological Weapons Convention.

Second, I know it’s fun to guess the motives of those who leak, but you have enough experience as a reporter to know the whole model of “leaks” is often false. The presumption is that the source drives the transaction – either making first contact with a reporter, or offering up some tidbit at his/her own initiative when a reporter places the call. Presuming that, you try to divine the source’s agenda.

That kind of leak is (sadly) rare in my experience. For this story, it just didn’t happen that way. I can tell you how it did happen. Because of all the public attention to smallpox, and because of the Bush administration’s willingness to consider mass vaccination, I wondered whether the White House knew more than it was saying about the threat. I thought it possible that the government had information showing that the threat was actual, not hypothetical. So I starting getting in touch with people who would know. There was a conflict among my sources. The ones authorized to answer my questions officially said no. Others who had first-hand knowledge said yes. To resolve the conflict, I asked the ones who said yes to substantiate their answers. Those who talked about this were very reluctant to do so. Nobody gave me the whole answer at once. Every time I got a piece of the puzzle, I went back around and tried to get another. After considerable effort, I persuaded someone to provide me with the language of the CIA assessment. It was a surprise to me, and of no particular consequence to my sources, that the assessment included France. I can’t be more specific, for obvious reasons, but I am quite sure my sources had no political or diplomatic agenda – it was a “just the facts” kind of transaction involving people who care about smallpox, not statecraft.]