America needs to be ready to counter threats any threats from any quarters, involving any type of weapons. That much is a given after 9/11.
But that doesn't mean all Americans should put blind faith in their government to do what it thinks is best, without oversight. Of all people, Utahns should know that.
In recent years, the Dugway Proving Ground west of Salt Lake City has begun to expand its operations dramatically. According to a recent environmental assessment report, the Army wants to do more research and testing so that it can develop reliable systems to detect biological weapons. The idea is that Americans don't want to be caught off guard if someone releases an anthrax bomb or some sort of effective smallpox virus delivery system into a crowded city.
And that's just smart planning. But in order to test such a system, the Army, one assumes, has to first develop such weapons of its own. New weapons could change the world as we know it. The Army ought to provide, at least in general terms, more information about what it is doing.
A recent Army document obtained by a watchdog group lists, in general terms, the projects undertaken at Dugway from 1998 through 2003. Some of the descriptions provide just enough information to raise serious questions. Take this one, for example: "Chemical warfare agent toxicity for both genders from different age and ethnic groups." That was a project undertaken in 1999. The description is just enough to make one wonder whether the Army is developing a weapon that could destroy only specific types of people.
There is reason to believe the Army is more careful than it used to be when it comes to conducting experiments and controlling the types of substances released into the atmosphere. But Utahns have more than ample reason to be skeptical of promises and assurances from people in high places. After all, Utah and Nevada remain the only two places the United States has repeatedly bombarded with weapons of mass destruction. The above-ground nuclear tests of the 1950s and '60s spread radiation throughout the region, as has been well documented by this newspaper. Back then, assurances were given that all was safe. Today, Congress has authorized payments to families devastated because of that false promise.
Today, however, Utahns must acknowledge that the world is at greater risk for biological weapons than at any previous time. Just last week, President Bush signed Project BioShield, a new law that provides incentives for private drug companies to develop vaccines and antidotes to bioterrorism. This passed with almost unanimous support in the House and Senate, and, indeed, it is important.
But the dilemma here is similar to what the world faced when the United States developed the first atomic bomb at the end of World War II. In developing solutions to bioterrorism, the government and private industry may well be unleashing new and deadly technologies on the world technologies that could be exploited by people with evil designs. And it could be launching a new sort of arms race.
A certain degree of secrecy is necessary for national security. But a stronger degree of openness than currently provided is necessary, as well.