Accessibility links

US Able to Protect Servicemembers from Biological Threat, Says Pentagon

The Pentagon has issued a statement asserting the military is prepared to protect its personnel from possible biological weapons attack.

On the surface, the Pentagon's assertion that it can protect military personnel from bio-weapons seems both obvious and unnecessary.

But officials say the unusual statement was intended to reassure troops, following some controversial remarks by the Army's top biological weapons defense expert.

Colonel Erik Henchal told a group of defense writers, the military's efforts to develop vaccines and other defenses against bio-weapons has been hampered by a lack of Congressional funding, as well as a lack of interest from pharmaceutical companies.

But the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs now says, the Pentagon has a range of measures, including vaccines and protective clothing, to protect servicemembers from biological threats.

William Winkenwerder says programs over the past decade have "significantly improved our ability to protect servicemembers."

The senior Pentagon official says the protective measures available to the military are strongest against anthrax and smallpox. He says the Defense Department has sufficient supplies of anthrax and smallpox vaccines to protect all at risk forces.

In his remarks to reporters, Colonel Henchal agreed anthrax and smallpox were at the top of the list of biological threats. But he warned that Iraq, as well as terrorist groups, might pursue other germ weapons.

The debate coincided with the release of an unclassified report by the Central Intelligence Agency on weapons of mass destruction, including biological weapons.

The report said discoveries in Afghanistan have revealed the al-Qaida terrorist group's research into biological weapons was more advanced than previously believed. It gave no further details. But an unconfirmed British news report this past week claimed al-Qaida had plans to produce ricin, a deadly toxin derived from the beans of the castor plant.

That report came as British anti-terrorist police found traces of ricin in a London apartment.