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Smallpox: U.S. Government Is Endangering Americans to Run Risky Foreign Policy

An intelligence review by the Bush administration has concluded that four nations-Russia, France, North Korea, and Iraq-have secret caches of the smallpox virus. Also, press reports indicate Vice President Cheney is pushing for a rapid, mandatory vaccination program, while Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson is advocating a voluntary program until a better vaccine can be developed. Cheney is pushing for a universal, mandatory vaccination program because he-as an administration hawk—is leading the rush to war with Iraq and apparently worries about the possible consequences.

But does it make any sense to put the entire U.S. population at risk from the most horrendous disease ever inflicted on the human race in an attempt to preempt Saddam Hussein from using a weapon that he most likely would not use unless attacked? If Saddam did attempt an attack on the United States with smallpox, the probability of its success is unknown and probably unknowable. But smallpox is very deadly. All of the wars of the 20th century killed 110 million people while the victims of smallpox numbered a staggering 300 to 500 million. That it is not worth the risk. Unlike many other biological weapons, that dangerous disease can be rapidly transmitted from person to person.

The Bush administration is treating North Korea, which is suspected to have at least two nuclear weapons, gingerly. But an Iraq with smallpox, if cornered, could be just as deadly.

The administration insists that the United States must attack and remove Hussein because he will eventually use weapons of mass destruction against the United States or give them to terrorist groups. Given the track record of Hussein avoiding such actions despite opportunities to do so, the burden of proof is clearly on the administration—before taking the nation to war—to demonstrate that he would indeed use such terrible weapons. The historical record indicates that Hussein has refrained from using chemical or biological weapons against states that possess large arsenals of nuclear weapons-for example, Israel and the United States in the Gulf War. Furthermore, he has not given chemical or biological weapons to the Palestinian groups that he supports vis-a-vis Israel.

And Hussein is unlikely to provide them to al Qaeda for use against the United States. Terrorist groups are radical and have no home address, as does Iraq. Iraq’s distribution of such super-weapons to terrorist groups could be uncovered and result in massive retaliation by nuclear-armed powers. Also, terrorists with incompatible ideologies-for example, al Qaeda—ultimately could end up using those weapons against Iraq. In fact, Hussein does not even entrust the custody of biological and chemical weapons to his regular army units, but instead restricts their possession to more loyal elite forces. In short, the bulk of the evidence indicates that Hussein is “deterrable” under normal circumstances.

But all bets are off if the United States threatens the existence of Hussein’s regime or Hussein himself. He would then have no incentive not to use chemical or biological weapons against Israel, U.S. forces or the U.S. homeland. The CIA agrees with that assessment, noting that Hussein would probably be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States—unless he is attacked. If attacked though, the intelligence agency believes he would have no incentive not to provide help to Islamic terrorists seeking to use super-weapons against the United States.

Cheney’s advocacy of a mass, mandatory vaccination program is an implicit admission that the threat of an Iraqi smallpox attack is real. Yet this realization does not inhibit Cheney or other hawks in the administration from continuing to beat the drums for war. These hawks need to realize that their vendetta against Hussein for past transgressions may endanger the citizens they swore to protect.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

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