Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-136)



Mr Hancock

  120. I would like to ask two questions about what you have said and then go back to the point about the acquiring of biological and possibly a small nuclear device. On the information you have given already, Mr Hay talked about the retraining of former Soviet scientists and said there are schemes for that to happen. One of the first things that Mr Bush did when he came to office was to cut that programme and that programme has not yet been reestablished for funding to employ those unemployed scientists from the former Soviet republics. The EU money has also been cut quite dramatically. It is important that our record shows the accurate picture of that, rather than what you suggested, that there were well-funded programmes in existence to give these people jobs. The truth is that a lot of these people are not unemployed and many more will be unemployed soon. That ought to be established on this record here. You, Dr Ranstorp, talked about $15 billion being cleaned up in South America. If you are to believe what the American Government is saying, that represents less than that; that is just on the Al-Qaeda organisation. That represents less than 1 per cent of the money that is being stopped from going into circulation by the actions that have been taken by states so far. I think there as to be, for the accuracy of this record, some establishment of the facts behind what you have told us there. I do not think it is fair for you just to say $15 billion is put through a cleaning exercise in South America, without establishing the credibility of that to this organisation. I think at some stage you need to put the record straight on that.

  On the issue of terrorist groups in particular, I would be grateful if any of you could give any evidence at all that there is a determined effort on the part of terrorist groups—and Al-Qaeda in particular—in trying to acquire biological or chemical weapons or a weapons system already in existence, buying some shells or whatever, possibly from the former Soviet Union states, or a small nuclear device. I think you need to clear the record regarding the two statements, first, and then answer that question. I think the $15 billion is a very important issue.
  (Dr Ranstorp) Let me declare, for the record, that I was not saying that Al-Qaeda was generating $15 billion, I was merely saying there seemed to be information, which is not verified, which is speculation, about how much money is being laundered in a particular area, unrelated to Al-Qaeda or any terrorist organisation; merely, perhaps, to state that the tri-border area of Argentina and, particularly, Paraguay and Brazil contain a lot of illicit activity that may reflect the amount that I stated. Secondly, let me say something about evidence pertaining to the desire of Al-Qaeda to pursue chemical and biological weapons. There is a separate, from the encyclopaedia of Jihad, manual or handbook that deals with chemicals—only with chemicals. The difficulty is that those chemicals can also be used in conventional explosives. Therefore, there is nothing to suggest that Al-Qaeda deliberately has been seeking, from the information I have seen, chemical agents to disperse as a weapon of mass destruction. Therefore, there is still no clarity on the exact intent, nor the exact level at which Al-Qaeda is seeking to try to develop and acquire these things.

Mr Jones

  121. In terms of the $15 billion you talked about, what percentage of that is linked to Al-Qaeda in South America? Is there any evidence that they are laundering money for that grey area in South America?
  (Dr Ranstorp) There is no evidence to suggest al-Qaeda's link to any of the money that I mentioned, which is an estimate. It is important to recognise that there are a lot of other radical Islamic groups in Latin America. There have been arrests but there have not been any arrests of any Al-Qaeda members. However, there is cause for concern that Al-Qaeda may find it advantageous, given the multinational linkages that exist in that area that fuse organised crime groups with radical Islamic groups that have used terrorism.

Mr Hancock

  122. Mr Hay, then I will ask my final question.
  (Mr Hay) I have to pass on whether Al-Qaeda is trying to provide these agents. I do not know, I do not have the sources to draw on. In responding to your comment about the money that was available for Russian scientists, yes, it is certainly true that this is one of the first programmes that President Bush cut when he came into office. I was not trying to imply that the money available was in any way adequate. As I think I said earlier, there is money—quite a lot of money—from the United States and the EU that was made available, but I think this is an issue that is being looked at again and I know that there are a number of individual collaborative programmes which operate between individual universities and Russian scientists. However, the programmes that are available are probably not of the order that we would like to see. I am very well aware that was one of the programmes that was cut, but there is still funding available.

  123. My last question is in relation to the situation with regard to the United Kingdom and the MoD's role here. Do you think, in any way, the MoD has been complacent with regard to the use of biological and chemical weapons? Is that complacency in any way borne out of the experience in Tokyo where, despite the fact that a dozen people were killed and several hundred if not thousands were injured in some way, the effects were nowhere near as damning as people had first expected and, to a certain extent, the anthrax situation in America has been one more of a panic rather than a health-related one? Do you think the MoD's response in the past has been sufficiently robust enough? Do you think they are now beginning to learn some hasty lessons about what they ought to do in future?
  (Mr Hay) There are a number of points. I think the traditional thinking, if you like, on chemical and biological warfare had been large-scale attacks; if there was a threat from biological warfare it was likely to be an over-flight with some aircraft dispensing aerosols high up so that there would be significant dispersion and many thousands, if not tens of thousands, of casualties. I think what we have seen recently (when I say "recently" I mean over the last 20 years) is that there are three documented incidents in which chemical or biological agents have been used in terrorist-type activity, which is relatively small in relation to the use of explosives. So I think it is an indication that these are things that are less likely to be used by terrorist groups. I also feel—and the anthrax incident in the United States has indicated this—that another view of these incidents is that they have not been significant attacks on the military, they have been incidents involving civilians. There is, perhaps, a need to reflect on whether the resources available, if you like, for dealing with emergencies in the civilian context outside the military campaign are adequate and there is appropriate resourcing for these situations. The final comment is, really, in context, that these attacks have been low-grade, low-tech. There is certainly a lot of anxiety and fear generated by them, not helped, I think, by differing statements which have come out from different senior people, suggesting, of course, it was weapons grade material and then when you look at how the material was actually analysed it is very difficult, from the information that was put out, to come to the opinion that it could in any way be weapons grade because there was insufficient information in the public domain. So I think, for anything like this, there is a very clear need to have one or two reliable sources that people are happy with and believe in, and that the information is consistent. Otherwise I think it generates considerable anxiety.

  124. Professor Pearson, is it possible for you to give an indication of whether you feel from your experience of running Porton Down that we could actually defend ourselves, or a sizeable chunk of the population, from such an attack?
  (Prof Pearson) I think the first comment I would make is a fairly obvious one from a former member of the Ministry of Defence (and I suspect things have not changed) that the MoD has always been, in respect of terrorist activities, in support of the civil power. I do not think that has changed. I certainly believe that from my past knowledge and from what I have read since I retired (I have no contact with the MoD at this time nor have had over the last six years, so I am six years out of date as to what may have happened) that there is nothing to suggest that the co-ordination of the response has decreased. I think, certainly, what is available on the emergency preparedness websites dealing with disaster shows that the co-ordination of events fits in, but this is where we have to look at the difference between a state delivered massive attack, which is what the MoD is primarily concerned about, because they are concerned to protect the armed forces if they are engaged in a war, and these rather smaller activities which are not going to be militarily significant but they can create immense panic. It is the ability of the Ministry of Defence to give support to the Home Office to deal with these more small-scale activities. I would just add that one of the lessons we should learn from the focus of all of this is that ballistic missiles are by no means the chosen means of delivering chemical or biological agents. We should be very concerned about covert delivery and all the other things we have been talking about in relation to the attack in Tokyo and the anthrax attacks in America. So it comes down, I suspect, to resources and the ability of the Ministry of Defence to give support to the Home Office if there is a series of low-level threats or actual use in the United Kingdom.

  Chairman: Thank you. We are coming on later to UK preparedness.

Rachel Squire

  125. Thank you, Chairman. All of you have referred to the significance of this psychological fear. That is the phrase you used, Dr Ranstorp. Professor Pearson, you talked about the importance of the government sending the right message and how loners can be encouraged by, particularly, some of the massive media coverage and the possibility of mass anthrax attack. Mr Hay, you spoke about how fear and anxiety was not helped by different statements, and the importance of consistent information coming out. I would be interested to hear your views in terms of managing the information to the public. What sort of particular strategies and practical measures can we adopt to stop the current fear and anxiety but, on the other hand, not be accused of trying to conceal important facts or important evidence from the public?
  (Professor Pearson) I would certainly argue that what one is looking for is a sea change in departments' response to the media, in a sense, becoming much more pro-active rather than having information drawn out of them in a particular circumstance. I think it is terribly important to think about what you are saying when you are making a statement. The last thing I would wish to do is be critical of the United States, but when the statement was made about the safety of the mail, I felt that was completely the wrong message; the message should have been "We are taking all possible steps to ensure that the workforce are not exposed." Certainly the media coverage—showing the use of oronasal masks—can be remarkably effective in countering a biological hazard—I emphasise biological hazard. That sort of approach would, I think, have helped to reassure. It is terribly easy for us to get confused about possible contamination from a few spores of anthrax. I am acutely aware of Gruinard Island, off the coast of Scotland, which was used for anthrax trials in 1942-43. The Ministry of Defence quite rightly had a sign saying "Forbidden Place. Keep Off. Dangerous". There was concern that people going on to the island might have caught anthrax. I think that was extremely unlikely because there was no way they would have got enough anthrax to catch anthrax from that island even though there were spores in a small area. The island was decontaminated in 1986 and handed back to the original owners in 1990. The point is that—and I do not know enough about what happened in the United States—there can be very sensitive techniques for detecting traces of anthrax. The technique that Porton Down was using in Gruinard Island could detect three spores of anthrax in a gram of soil. Three spores per gram of soil. To come anywhere near, perhaps, catching anthrax you would need to inhale 8,000 to 10,000 spores. There is a big difference between trace contamination - the world we live in is full of microbiological organisms. We do not catch disease from one or two of them in the case of anthrax. So it is that balance we do need to bear in mind, and it is that sort of response that I think needs to be picked up should the occasion merit. I think there is a real danger that if you hype it up too much in advance you may get some loner saying "Let's see what I can do". I think pro-active, at the right time and to be prepared and certainly continue to put out the message. The Scottish Home Office (although it is no longer called that) for a long time has published advice about how to deal with possible terrorist induced disease, which is to do it the way you deal with any natural outbreak. That has been there for at least five years. I think that reassured people that that possibility is being addressed.
  (Mr Hay) I do not disagree with anything that Graham has said there. It is quite true that with anthrax you can get exposed to a number of spores . There is evidence from published scientific literature from the United States and others where people have worked in tanneries and with goatskins and hides, and there is anthrax in the air all the time. It is only once you get above a certain threshold that you come down with the disease. You can have a background contamination and it is not really going to cause any problem, as far as we know from the published evidence. So it is the way one puts out that message that is very important. I think it is also true to say that the Government talks about having a preparedness plan and that everything is working, but it is also true to say that there is not a lot of evidence in the public domain of just what that sort of structure is. I think it would be helpful if we had at least, maybe, one or two pages, if you like, just showing how the different departments linked up and how the overall programme operated, so if necessary someone could contact the relevant individual just to find out, if they had a concern. I think there is a more general issue, and if one is looking at biological warfare threat it is the need to know that the services would respond appropriately. I think if one is concerned about chemical and biological attack it is actually the existing resources and services that one would rely on. I think there is a need for improved disease surveillance. Disease surveillance works extremely well in the UK but does not work as well in other countries. I know the UK is interested in working with the World Health Organisation to improve disease surveillance worldwide. Techniques for rapid diagnosis of disease are important and something that you want to know is continuing and being funded. Vaccines. You do not know which biological agent is going to be used against you and the question of whether we should all be vaccinated or whether we should have some vaccines is something that one might need to consider. Looking at different treatment options, for many diseases there are not specific treatments, it is just supportive; you are trying to maintain the individual, so that the fluid balance is maintained. We need to work in that area as well, and I think we need to know that this is continuing. I think it is important to have a central message and to have that put out from a reliable source, that this is going on. This should carry on all the time, if you like, and be built on, and not just at times of crisis, so that that standard information is coming up on a continuing basis.


  126. I understand the sale of budgerigars and parrots in America has increased very significantly to people seeking a little assistance in detecting any chemical attack.
  (Mr Hay) For the wrong reasons, I think, yes.

  Chairman: I attended a seminar yesterday addressed by Russian academicians who said that the Russian intelligentsia were not remotely worried about opening letters with anthrax because almost all their letters are pre-opened anyway before they arrive. He was rather worried about some poor sergeant in the KGB who was far more vulnerable than he was. We have two further short blocks of questions, gentlemen.

Mr Jones

  127. Last week we had the MoD policy director who told us about the UK preparedness for terrorist attack; that the MoD had responsibility for the sea and the air and the Home Office had the responsibility for land-based attacks, and I think he finally got to the point eventually when he phoned a friend and said there was an un-named civil servant in the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat who oversaw it all, and he was quite dismissive about the appointment of a Tom Ridge character in the UK to oversee home security. Talking about the purpose for terrorist attack, particularly Graham Pearson's memorandum, where he states that the response plan should be based on existing plans to counter the outbreak of disease and accidental release of chemicals, I have three related questions: one, is the UK government organisationally and structurally well-prepared for terrorist attack, and is that split that the MoD policy director outlined between air and sea sensible, and are the current arrangements in place for dealing with more unconventional attacks, for example, disruption of information systems, or the suitcase bomb nuclear device which is certainly talked about a lot?
  (Professor Pearson) I am afraid I suffer from not knowing what the current structure within the MoD is—

  128. Neither did he, so perhaps you have something in common there!
  (Professor Pearson)—But certainly, at the time that I was still involved with the MoD, there was a very useful central focus to the policy dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical, and that ensured that there were not any inconsistencies in the way in which you respond to it, whether it is on the land, sea or air. Within the UK, and the response to what the Home Office needs, and this is partly why I raised the point earlier about my concern about animal and plant outbreaks, I think the MoD would say their concern has always been—and rightly so—the protection of the armed forces—in other words, men and women, not plants or animals, and I just wonder to what extent that particular bit is dealt with and I would certainly encourage you to push for that. Have I covered that?

  129. You have, but what is your view in terms of whether there is a need for a home and defence director or someone to oversee and try and join this up? Certainly one thing that was concerning us last week was this division between the Home Office and the MoD split which certainly did not give a great deal of confidence to me that there was this unnamed civil servant somewhere who actually co-ordinated it. Are you confident that it is actually joined up enough? You refer in your memo to dealing with outbreaks of disease and accidental release of chemicals. Are you confident that it is joined up enough in terms of responding, for example, to something like September 11?
  (Professor Pearson) One of the reasons why I say that I believe the preparedness plan needs to be based on the existing plan to deal with chemical accidents or these outbreaks is that, by building on those, those accidents do happen from time to time and you, therefore, have an organisation in being that can carry out appropriate responses: you are not just sitting waiting for some event at some uncertain time in the future. That is why I very much believe that it is far better to build on existing capabilities than to try to have some unique response. The MoD quite rightly focuses, to my mind, on the chemical and biological weapon agents—this point again about nerve agents and mustard—not necessarily a toxic chemical which might cause sufficient damage, and you get into the need to look at the ability of detection, protection and medical countermeasures to deal with these other materials, which I think the MoD could quite rightly say is not part of their basic remit but is a question of how you bridge that gap between the civil sphere and the defence one.

  130. Have you any thoughts about appointing a director of home security or a minister in charge of home security?
  (Professor Pearson) MoD used always to have a policy focus which dealt with the military aid to civil power and that tried to pull together all of the defence support. I have no knowledge as to where that is in the present time and I think in a way it comes down to, and this is probably your main thrust of the SDR review, what is the world that we are living in? Is it a world of more peace-keeping and, if you are dealing with defence forces doing peace-keeping, are they likely to be exposed to this sort of civil problem overseas and, therefore, is there a need to broaden their ability to be able to operate not only in a traditional military but also in the civil peace-keeping.
  (Mr Hay) I do have the name of your unnamed civil servant but it is pre 11 September. I can pass it across to you later on. I am not quite sure what the protocol is here really.

Jim Knight

  131. We did get a name eventually.
  (Mr Hay) Well, it would be interesting to match them up and see whether they are the same! Just to come back on the questions you raise, if there were an attack with chemical or biological agents—Heaven forbid that there should be—it would be the emergency services who would be the initial ones in contact. They would be called to the scene, be it the fire brigade or the police, and if there were casualties the ambulance service would be there and individuals would be taken to hospital. Then there would be a need for some accurate and prompt diagnosis of what the particular problem was. If it was likely to be an attack with a biological agent, the attack would probably have happened and most of us would be unaware of it. Individuals would not be because with all the biological agents there is usually an infection that is going to occur and it happens sometimes after exposure. In that situation, it would be astute doctors who would identify the problem. If it is a communicable disease, then there is legislation in the UK for dealing with that. I do not know the details of that legislation but I understand that there are plenty of powers for the relevant physicians concerned and for them to take the appropriate action. Whether there is sufficient resourcing for all of the emergency services and whether that over-arching co-ordination works and is sufficiently funded, I read in various statements that some individuals feel that that is not the case. I think it is something worth considering. I would also like to finish by echoing Graham Pearson's comment about not just focusing on human diseases and things that affect humans. Plant and animal diseases are so important and the foot and mouth problems in the UK just exemplify that. It is instructive, perhaps, that when the United States had biological munitions which they destroyed under order from Richard Nixon in 1969, the vast majority of their stockpile was two fungi—one which attacked cereals and the other which attacked rice, so it is important to think of this and to consider Graham Pearson's comments and the relationship between MoD and others.


  132. There is a BA study group that said that in 10 years a biological weapon could be devised that could distinguish between racial groups. If that is true, that is pretty terrifying. There are a few individuals who would be targeted in this country!
  (Mr Hay) I am sure we all know individuals that we would target.

  133. I think you are all safe in St Andrew's, Leeds and Bradford.
  (Mr Hay) We are north of Watford! I think this is an area that is a little bit outside my scientific field but I do some work in the area and I think the prevailing view is that that sort of technology is not good enough to allow that sort of approach at the moment. There is so much genetic diversity, if you like, in all of us—we are all a pot pourri of all sorts of races—that it is going to be probably quite difficult to identify individuals—certainly ethnic groups. You might be able to tailor something else later on but the technology is not sufficient to do that at present.

  Chairman: That is very reassuring.

Jim Knight

  134. Following on from Mr Jones' question, in many ways you gave comfort in that you thought that the structures in responding to an attack are more or less right but there may be some tweaking needed in terms of funding and focus, but at the same time the Secretary of State is wanting to add a chapter to the SDR, so he sees a need to look harder at the asymmetric threats that we saw on September 11, and I am sure we have the right concepts, forces and capabilities to deal with them. Do you think the Mod. is tackling the right issues with this extra chapter? They are talking about publishing in spring or early summer of next year: are they going about this with sufficient urgency?
  (Professor Pearson) I am afraid I have not seen enough detail of what they are actually addressing to be able to comment. I am sorry.
  (Mr Hay) I have not seen the detail either but obviously we would love to.

  135. We have had what is a major event on September 11 and we have talked about it all morning. Clearly a response is required, however comfortable we are about the structures. Do you think we need something more quickly than the middle of next year or can we afford the time to take the more measured response?
  (Mr Hay) I think it would be helpful maybe to have a continuous output, if you like, so that one is aware of on-going activity, to know where we are, and for you perhaps to identify gaps that might need filling and issues that you would want them to consider. I do not know the detail but I would like to see it. The middle of next year seems a little bit ahead but they may be wanting to reassure us that there is not any immediate threat in the UK.

Patrick Mercer

  136. Two very quick questions on international controls. We have had a memorandum from you, Professor Pearson, and a Guardian article of yours where you describe a "web of assurance" to counter the threat of chemical or biological attacks with four strands, three of which require international action, but you say that the current Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention regime lacks teeth and urgently needs to be strengthened and you mention the United States' refusal to sign the protocol strengthening the Convention. How robust is that web of assurance at the present time?
  (Professor Pearson) Thank you very much for letting me talk on the web of assurance. You talked earlier about assets and dealing with terrorist activities, and I wanted to pick up that international criminalisation, making it a criminal offence to work on chemical and biological weapons anywhere in the world, is a good step forward and I am very pleased to see that this Bill does extend the prohibitions in this country, and that was certainly one of the elements of the web of assurance. The other bit in the Bill which is extremely good is the control of dangerous pathogens and the strengthening of that and I think those steps, taken internationally as well as nationally, can help to make it harder for terrorists or criminals to get these materials and they can be prosecuted if they go for them. Coming back to the web of assurance and the four strands and the lack of teeth in the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. The states parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention ten years ago recognised that it did need to be strengthened and there have been ten years of negotiation which have led to a draft protocol that over 50 of the 55 states engaged in the negotiations have said should be enough to complete by this November. The United States on the third day in July said "We reject that protocol", and I personally have done an analysis, and I am happy to make copies available—not instantly—of the one I am holding up to you that is entitled, "The US rejection of the Comporate Protocol—a Huge mistake based on Illogical Assessments". 11 September has at least led to the United States revisiting this subject, and President Bush has just issued a statement about the biological weapons convention and how it might be strengthened. I think that is very good; it is showing signs of the United States re-engaging, moving forward, and next Monday, the Fifth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention opens in Geneva for three weeks to be attended by all the states parties to that Convention, and I believe it is crucial that that review conference does not fall into recrimination about the failure of the protocol negotiation, but that it reinforces the norm that biological weapons are totally prohibited and that it finds some way to move forward, to consider the proposals made by the United States, and to pick up where the protocol got to. I am in no doubt at all that this is why biological weapons presents the greatest danger of all the weapons of mass destruction, because it had the weakest international prohibition regime. You have the NPT and the Chemical Weapons Convention with their regimes with very little on the biological side. You have the prohibition but with no teeth, and that is one of the key things that needs to be rectified because, under that, you can encourage other states to bring in these national controls, such as in your legislation, the preparedness and the determination to take action if anyone threatens or uses biological weapons. While that is between states, it does extend to nationals of states, and is well worth having. It is not the complete answer but it is a useful adjunct.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for your presentations. We are all avid readers, so if you would care to send us some of your relevant recent publications we would be delighted to circulate them and read them very carefully. We appreciate your contributions.

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