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U.S.: Washington Says Germ Warfare Purely Defensive

Washington, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The White House has acknowledged existence of a clandestine U.S. research program on biological weapons but says it is a purely defensive measure aimed at protecting the military.

Spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday that the U.S. action is fully in accord with existing international agreements. Fleischer said, "Countering the threat of biological weapons is an administration priority and has been a priority of the United States government for a number of years. "

Fleischer made the comments following a report by "The New York Times" that such a program tests the limits of a global treaty banning such weapons.

The 1972 treaty forbids nations from developing or acquiring weapons that spread disease, but it allows work on vaccines and other protective measures. Fleischer said, "Unfortunately, the biological weapons threat around the world is growing, and it presents a real challenge to the United States, particularly a challenge in terms of protecting our men and women in the armed forces. "

U.S. government officials say the research is aimed at better understanding major steps a foreign country or terrorists would take to create a biological arsenal.

The projects, which were not previously disclosed, began under then-President Bill Clinton and have been embraced by the administration of President George W. Bush.

According to the newspaper, the U.S. Defense Department drew up plans earlier this year to engineer genetically a bacterium that causes anthrax, a fatal disease ideal for germ warfare.

The experiment was devised to find out whether the vaccine being given to millions of American soldiers is effective against anthrax.

Fleischer said, "We have a broad defense -- bio-defense capability that includes medical countermeasures, detectors, and protective systems, all of which are designed to protect American citizenry and American servicemen and -women."

The newspaper says the U.S. program included the building and testing of a Soviet-designed germ bomb that some have feared was being sold on the international market. However, it said the device lacked a fuse and other parts that would make it a working device.