Special Reports



Our world is in a sorry mess. Hard, almost unacceptable to take on board in the heat of summer, now vacation time has arrived with the promise of beaches and sea. The superb gladiatorial soccer world cup has just finished - a fitting place for nations to confront their rivals through eleven young athletes facing the same number, with a neutral referee whose decisions are final. Would that life was like that!

And yet, the real world of survival - survival of our civilisation and indeed maybe our species, is banished to a level just below active consciousness. We know well that the insidious threats are there but we prefer not to contemplate them. Consequently inertia and the never ending search of 'civilized man' for pleasurable diversions, has at least since the end of the cold war blunted the instincts of our race for survival, and that is a luxury that it is clear we can no longer safely indulge.

The post WWII generations - us, are responsible for a situation where existing ultimate weaponry, WMD's, the means of devastating much of the planet, now looms ever larger on the horizon as an increasing threat. This has passed the point of theory, and without serious leadership and applied restraint, we may remain within a permanent and a deteriorating danger zone for the foreseeable future. 

The weaponry of mass destruction has outpaced its scientific and military antidotes and the problem is not primarily nation states, where ill will might be made manageable - after all, the concept of assured retaliatory destruction, has proven to be a powerful deterrent for any nation. At most, only a handful of states * can be believed to ever approach the line of no-return in brandishing such weaponry. Even they are not irrational in the last analysis - they seek a political objective and believe such positioning will assist in that achievement. 

The high danger of course is of people from groups with irrational self-appointed missions, which we are now all very aware exist in the form of terrorism, and it is in this regard that we are in trouble. There is a probability that with all of the WMDs in the world, in all of the places where they are stored, that sufficient money, or extreme enough threats, or a radical enough belief system might somewhere, sometime, yet unlock the access to them, or to those who know how to create them. History suggests that this is so. 
There has certainly been and may still be an illicit private global market offering WMD expertise, technology, materials and designs for weapons.

The political measures required are simple enough in concept but seemingly impossible in practice. This amounts to nation states subordinating many elements of their cherished independence to a common world authority, because with 200 separate states having 200 individual attitudes to the situation, there is little chance of entirely containing the immense problems other than on a temporary level, which isn't good enough to solve the problem. By its nature, this must have a total solution, or it's potentially a disaster for all. 

But with the US, the most powerful player by far, and the only single nation at this time having the status to provide the vital leadership, moving steadily away from international authorities of almost every kind, then it just isn't going to happen. We see Bush's USA with just four and a half percent of the worlds population, turning inwards and perhaps brashly preferring to rely in all things upon their own weapons-based technologies and resources. Were it not for their need for the oil that they just do not have, then they would probably have become totally isolationist by now. 

In January 1946, the very first resolution passed by the brand new United Nations General Assembly called for, "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction." Nearly sixty years later in September 2005, fourteen years after the end of the cold war, the United Nations World Summit was unable to agree on a single recommendation on disarmament and non-proliferation.

But the world already contains some 27,000 nuclear weapons, the vast majority (90%) in the arsenals of the USA and Russia, of which about 12,000 are deployed operationally and a smaller number are actually right now in missile silos or launchers, on almost instant activation, targeted on - well, that's another mystery. 

Can the rest of the world just build on the currently ineffective UNDC or another agency with the resources to cope, even without the US? If this administration won't give the necessary leadership then others must. What is achievable is that there should be a general insistence on elevating WMD disarmament to the top of the international agenda - and keeping it there. The best hope thereafter is that in two years a new administration in Washington will come to power and possibly moderate or even reverse the nay-saying and jingoism that characterizes the Bush /Cheney government, and hopefully take the lead. Implementing the test-ban treaty now would clearly inhibit the further development of nuclear weapons. Negotiating an international ban on the production of fissile materials would block new entrants and hobble any future arms race. 

At the end of nearly half a century of the cold war confrontation just fifteen years ago, we thought that big-time threats were in the past. We collectively breathed deep sighs of relief that the world, our families and ourselves had not after all been incinerated, or poisoned, or deliberately diseased, despite the high-tech weaponry that had emerged from WWII and the cold war. As of right now, we are somewhat worried because Iran is perceived as a rogue and may develop a nuclear weapon, although not for another seven to ten years, according to US intelligence in the public domain. North Korea may or may not already have such a weapon, nobody outside that country is sure, so the safest course is to assume that they do - at the same time as noting that their missile delivery systems at this time are not up to much . The fear of course remains of a rapidly escalating chain reaction of horrors from perhaps small beginnings, from these or other distant places - the world having shrunk, so that nowhere is any longer too remote where WMDs are concerned. 

For terrorism has cancelled distance as a factor. The World Trade Centre and the Pentagon attacks of 9/11 by Islamic terrorists who actually trained for that mission within the US itself; the train bombings of Madrid and then of London by home-grown terrorists in the name of Islam; the nerve-gas Sarin poisoning in the Tokyo subway by another religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo. 

The mind-set hitherto has been to link ultimate weapons with nation states as the only organizations with the resources to create and deploy them. But that probably accurate thinking needs to be supervened by the realization that once arsenals exist, they are by definition vulnerable to be raided or otherwise leached by determined terrorists or criminals. Nations may create and store the weapons, but are less and less likely ever to have cause to use them. The focus should now be on their progressive elimination, because terrorists who are care nothing for their own survival, are highly likely to use them, if only they could get hold of them. 

Of course individual terrorists can learn to construct an Oklahoma bomb or a London Tubes bomb, which are terrible enough, but it is obvious that the bigger and dirtier the bang, the better their particular terrorist cause is perceived by them to have been served.
However, the science, let alone the materials and use of ultimate weapons are just not readily available to anyone lacking the resources of government. The Aum Shinrikyo nerve-gas attack described was the eleventh attempt following ten earlier failures. Even with conventional explosives, two weeks after the four simultaneous London bombings of July 7th 2005, a further four backpack bombings were attempted in London, but in each case, only the timers went off, which fortunately failed to set off the explosive.

The matter of ultimate weapons, in the chemical, biological and nuclear areas of scientific activity, commonly known as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), is set to be with us for at least a large chunk of the 21st century. After that, it might of course be too late, as if they move from the theoretical to the practical to the deployed stage, then perhaps survivors in centuries to come might characterise this as the age where knowledge finally trumped wisdom. Because it was possible to weaponise different varieties of science-based mass murder, then all it took, they may conclude, was the certainty over time that by accident or design, eventually they were going to be used.
Assumption that nation states can probably be brought back from any brink, history may record the most likely outcome - that God commanded it (without telling the rest of us), of some small select band, known only to each other; or that the governing regime of a weapons state believed that in order to survive, they needed to activate it pre-emptively; or even that some major corporation, having developed it, lobbied successfully for its use.

Historically in a world that has endured so much, the human story is at its nadir not when hordes of Mongols are erecting pyramids of human skulls, or Vikings slaughtering everything that breathes, but when the plagues come. The most recent, the 'flu pandemic of 1918 - 20 which prematurely killed off some 20 to 40 millions worldwide (some say more) - many more incidentally than the butcher's bill in the so-called 'Great War' (WWI) that had just concluded in 1918, with an estimated 9 million fatalities and an equivalent generation of young women where many grew old perforce, without young men to partner. Plagues, a general description for infectious disease, came regularly over the centuries to all those nations of the world in contact with any others, as it was spread unwittingly by travelers, principally through shipping. The Bubonic plague is well understood now, but when it was inflicted upon a people, it was somehow equated by the local priestcraft as a divine pay-off for one or another relative form of wickedness, and someone, or some minority people - in Europe it was gypsies, jews, or just strangers, that usually took the blame.

It was absolutely not understood in medical terms, except that isolation was observed to be the appropriate and only effective means of limiting the scourge. Medical science, the healing art has made giant strides over the past two centuries, but it is now the case that other men of other sciences have picked up the pursuit of knowledge baton, not this time for cures, but of destruction on a superscale the capacity for which has manifested itself in three different forms, with a potential fourth: 

Biological weapons - are the deliberate return of the plagues of old, but this time in weaponised, deliverable form, in the service of a state, although they have never yet been used by weapons states. The dangers of an 'own goal' means that only sophisticated delivery systems could make them a viable weapon, and that reduces the dangers to such nations that are both scientifically sophisticated enough, and wicked enough, and sufficiently careless of retaliation or blow-back, which cannot amount to many. 

Whilst governments have not used bio-weapons there is always it seems, the individual 'crazy' (that the US in particular has spawned - not just the massacre by high explosive of federal employees in Oklahoma City, or the various sniper mass-murders). There is a still unsolved, unclaimed episode from late 2001, of packages of cultivated anthrax being sent through the US Mail that so soon after 9/11, for a time held much of the nation in some kind of near hysterical paralysis. It was assumed that they were under attack, probably as the media initially suggested, from Iraq, until laboratory analysis showed that this micro-enemy came from US sources. There followed an epidemic of copy-cat incidents with sachets of flour, talcum powder, etc, and actually there were about eleven lethal cases of anthrax inhalation from this origin, which has been generally accepted to be down to some home-grown murderer without a cause. 

Chemical weapons have a resonance in Europe and the US from WWI when primitive forms of mustard gas and others were first employed as a weapon against opposing soldiers. Latterly, twenty years ago, the Iraq government of Saddam Hussein used them, it is alleged supplied by the US and its allies, in its war against Iran and in repressing the Kurds of Iraq. Knowledge more recently about the infinitely greater lethality of newer, state-of-the-art chemical weapons, have elevated them in public consciousness as well as that of the armourers of nations, to the status of an ultimate weapon. As we have seen, religious terrorists, Japan's Aung Shinrikyo have used this terror weapon, their attack killing 12 subway commuters and hospitalising thousands in Tokyo. 

Nuclear weapons are well understood, but unlike chemical and bio-weapons they are not internationally outlawed. Nothing in humanity's history could have been more dramatic than the nuclear air-burst explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in each case killing about 120,000 people. This happened in three waves of death. About 45% were killed instantly. Many more died over subsequent months and years after suffering the most frightful injuries - beyond human endurance; or later still over a longer period in the radioactive aftermath. It was in retrospect, the fortunate ones in the civilian communities targeted, that were instantly and dramatically vaporized, leaving no trace that they had ever existed, compared to those who lingered on to an excruciating slower death. Now apart from the 'secular' bombs of the P5 of the Security Council, there is a Hindu bomb, a Moslem bomb and a Jewish bomb, albeit in the hands of their relevant nation states. 

As in so many problem areas, the key fact is that the world has no agreed international body of authority able to implement decisions over individual nations. This severely limits the effectiveness of international agreements and creates the inability to agree, as in the case of nuclear weapons. There is to be sure, an international agreement on non-proliferation, but three nations that elected not to sign that, India, Israel and Pakistan, are now nuclear weapons states. North Korea that did sign it has publicly stated its withdrawal from the agreement. 

There has been an attempt to get universal agreement on embargoing nuclear testing, probably the most effective way of stimulating nuclear disarmament, but without the US it cannot happen. The US, leading the field with over 2000 nuclear tests, as well as the only bombs ever used in war - those on Japan in WWII, claims it is still free (after nearly 60 years experience), to conduct more tests should it so wish, and along with North Korea refuses to sign the test-ban treaty. Yet it was the quid pro quo to persuade non- nuclear states to originally sign-up for the nuclear non- proliferation pact, that the nuclear holding states would in return progressively dismantle their nuclear armouries. This they have failed to do, indeed new generations of weapons are in the offing. There is therefore no moral high ground when it comes to persuading the Irans of this world that they should not aspire to belong to 'the nuclear club' of currently eight, (or nine if North Korea is included).

It is suggested that to the three ugly sisters of WMD may need to be added the concept of cyberwar as a dread and devastating form of weaponry. The savant Philip Bobbitt in "The Shield of Achilles," postulates attacks on the critical infrastructure that has rapidly emerged through advances in communications technology. He describes this at an international level as the superinfrastructure which consists of a whole cluster of vital and high priority services which are controlled by the three linked networks of :-Telecommunications, including landlines and satellites and cellular communications; Information technologies - collectively involved in over 500 million computers world wide; and the Internet -a global interconnected network encompassing even back in 2002, about 300 million devices worldwide. Together these three linked networks support hundreds of millions of hours of connectivity every day. 

In 2001, for example, more than 95% of all internal communications within the US Defence Department went by the public switched network. This dependence is increasing and with it so increases the vulnerability. The vulnerability goes far beyond the obvious paralysis to the armed services if their logistical supply chains were interdicted and suddenly rendered unusable. Air traffic control, missile launch systems, ground to air and maritime communications civil and military, railway systems, road traffic management, would suffer equally. The banking and financial services on which all advanced economies depend, are deeply enmeshed in the need for reliable access and massive use of the three networks described. Modern pumping mechanisms, whether of water supplies or oil are computer controlled. Electrical power generation and distribution likewise. The list is virtually endless. The literal "civilisation as we know it," can be seen to have become entirely vulnerable to cyber attack. How many days of the simultaneous collapse of all these systems could our modern nations take, before anarchy sets in? 

It has long been something of a joke, that in any future war the action will all take place within the first few hours where a team of sixteen year-old skilled 'gamers' in the basement of the Pentagon, will be pitted against a similar opposing team of teenagers in another country, both working with the single objective of 'shutting-down' the enemy by cyber attack. Just as every self-respecting nation of any size with a defence department would have a section permanently working on contingency planning (but would never ever admit that they had say, a plan to invade Iceland), so it can be assumed that the nodes of vulnerability of our three interconnected networks are being permanently mapped and updated by potential hostiles as well as friends, hopefully only perhaps to be filed alongside Iceland.

Again, the risk of cyber attack is far more likely not to be from a nation state. Given the slender resources required and the hundreds of millions of personal computers distributed around the globe, it is more probable through the ingenuity of a 'computerate' younger generation, either enlisted in the cause of a terrorist group; or just as in some computer mayhem already caused (and not always reported), by a new species of solitary 'crazy,' known as a hacker, in it for the 'kicks' of beating the system. The fact is that the concept of being, 'bombed back to the Stone Age' may have been overtaken by the new potential reality of cyber-warfare

There are world inspection authorities which came to prominence over the much reported activities in Iraq before the US invasion. It was the causus belli of this military intervention that Iraq had WMD's possibly of all categories , a serious threat to the US and its allies, particularly Israel. The UN agencies tasked with inspection until they were withdrawn just before the invasion, were confident that there were at that time no nuclear weapons even at a vestigial state of development, nor had any evidence of chemical or biological weapons emerged. In the event, the most rigorous post-invasion inspections made by the conquering occupation forces showed that the UN inspection teams had proved to be right, and thus US intelligence wrong - the significant point being now that the US continues with a doctrine of pre-emptive attack if it 'believes' a nation is dangerous to it, a policy that has not been moderated in the wake of this failure of intelligence. 

It is now often forgotten, or doesn't suit the zeitgeist, that the main European opponents of the invasion did not say they wouldn't join in the invasion of Iraq, but that it would be premature before the UN agencies had made their final reports and until given cause. If thereafter the UN were to authorize the invasion of Iraq, as they had done in 1991 after Kuwait then it would be a legal invasion. That position looks pretty respectable compared with those of the US and UK today, after what have been described as, 'weapons of mass disappearance' and the 'mother of all misjudgements'! But the prime mover in this invasion, Vice-President Cheney is like his man John Bolton, now US ambassador to the UN, who has said that the UN was only of relevance to him, insofar that it supported the interests of the USA. 

The UN agency IAEA led by Mohammed ElBaradei is currently much in the news due to the tensions over Iran. He and his agency enjoy considerable international respect despite Vice-President Cheney's residual hostility. The IAEA reports on Iraq's nuclear status before the invasion (none), were not what the Administration wanted to hear. 

Hans Blix, the former Swedish diplomat who became Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997; from 2000 to 2003 was the Executive Director of UNMOVIC, the inspection commission doing the WMD investigations in IRAQ. He was later invited by the Swedish government to chair the recently formed International Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction whose definitive report, "Weapons of Terror," is now out (ISBN 91-38-22582-4). It is their well argued prime recommendation, along with many highly relevant detailed proposals, that disarmament, as an international priority on a sustained basis, must come centre-stage in world affairs. 

That seems to be the height of common sense. Even if the Bush / Cheney administration will agree to very little if anything, that affects the US, perhaps even the strengthening of the UN Disarmament Commission itself, this could suggest benchmarks to the successor administration in Washington. It could also give European governments some sense of joint purpose with other great nations and seek to revive the currently flattened international co-operation in this critical matter. After all, it affects nothing less than the continuation and undamaged progress of our civilization, and perhaps even the uncontaminated survival of the species. 

* Currently apart from North Korea, the USA and Israel are amongst them, as both have declared that they could retaliate with nuclear weapons against any biological or chemical attack. Moreover the US has stated its intention to pre-emptively attack any nation unilaterally perceived by them as a threat, without reference to the UN. Whilst India has ruled out 'First Use' of nuclear weapons, Pakistan has not. 

Publisher - Clive Lindley