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U.S.: Expert Says Terrorists Limited In Use Of Mass Destruction Weapons

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing yesterday to explore the threat of weapons proliferation and the fear that terrorists may try to use weapons of mass destruction against the West. The chief witness, a State Department official, testified that terrorists are for now probably technologically incapable of attacking Western targets with weapons of mass destruction.

Washington, 20 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A State Department official told a U.S. Senate hearing on 19 March that terrorist groups are probably not capable of attacking America or other Western nations with a weapon of mass destruction.

Carl Ford, an assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that even a terrorist organization as large and as well trained as Al-Qaeda probably could not obtain or deploy a weapon with a nuclear, biological, or chemical warhead capable of wreaking devastation on an American city.

"The sophistication of the weapon, the sophistication of the delivery means that, while best [most likely] done by terrorists, probably is beyond their planning and scientific capability to put together effective weapons of mass destruction," Ford said.

In fact, Ford said, even states with well-regulated military and scientific infrastructures would have trouble using such weapons. But he stressed that this does not mean that the U.S. and its allies should not remain vigilant against their use.

At the hearing, called to explore the terrorist threat of weapons of mass destruction, Ford testified that the State Department has concerns about eight countries that he says are involved in one way or another with the development of such weapons. These states are Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Cuba, Russia, and China.

He gave particular emphasis to Russia, even though Moscow has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning such arms. He said the U.S. government believes that Russia still has an offensive biological warfare capability, even though it insists that it is involved only in defending itself against biological attacks.

Ford also expressed concern that some unemployed Russian scientists may not be able to resist financial offers from other countries seeking to enhance their biological warfare programs.

A senior member of the committee, Senator Jesse Helms, said Russia provides valuable assistance to the chemical and biological weapons programs of Syria and Iran. He asked Ford what the impact would be on these two countries if Russia stopped helping them.

"Well, I think it would make a considerable difference," Ford said.

But Ford added that Russia alone is not to blame for proliferation of chemical and biological weapons to these countries. He said nations in Europe, including some U.S. allies, also help Syria and Iran develop such arms.

Ford said Russia's involvement in weapons proliferation originated when the Soviet Union shared its chemical and biological weapons technologies with countries that were either allies or otherwise friendly with Moscow.

The committee's chairman, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), said it seems to be impossible to discuss weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons, without eventually discussing Russia. But he stressed that Moscow seems sincere in its desire to destroy these remnants of its Soviet past, and not to proliferate.

"[I] keep coming back to Russia. There's certain obvious, clear, able-to-be-delineated concerns that, unlike with regard to Iraq, unlike Iran, North Korea, Libya, or any other place, there is at least in part a willingness to genuinely cooperate -- genuinely cooperate," Biden said.

Ford agreed, saying he believes Russia wants to destroy its chemical weapons capabilities: "Clearly the Russian government is prepared to take this step, but they can't afford it. It's too expensive. And they're going to have to get some help from us or the international community or they're not going to be able to do it, certainly on the time schedule that we'd like to see them do it."

In his questioning of Ford, Biden noted that the U.S. government estimates that Russia's defense budget for this year is $5 billion -- a small fraction of the $369 billion that U.S. President George W. Bush has asked for the American military next year.

The senator agreed with Ford that it is essential for the U.S. to help Russia cover such costs -- which he estimated at no more than $10 billion a year.

Jack Spencer is a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, an independent policy research center in Washington. He says he has no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin is sincere in wanting to destroy the last traces of Soviet biological and chemical weapons. And Spencer agrees that the Russian government probably is not rich.

But Spencer told RFE/RL that he is concerned about the payments from the U.S. and other Western countries that Moscow says it needs to do the job.

"They play this game that they acknowledge the problem, and they say they can't afford it, therefore they generate income from the United States. But on the other hand, they invest money in things like the SS-27 ballistic missile," Spencer said.

And, Spencer added, Russia sells material and expertise to countries such as Syria and Iran. This way, he said, Russia profits twice -- for not proliferating on the one hand, and for proliferating on the other.