If the Army's assumptions are correct, germ research at sites such as Dugway Proving Ground is making the nation safer. But if independent scientists' fears are legitimate, such research is starting a germ arms race.
The Senate Government Affairs Committee heard evidence on both sides Wednesday - and looked into questions about whether such research is safe and needed; whether the Army is too secretive; and whether development of outlawed biologic weapons is possible.Meanwhile, some congressmen - including Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah - used the hearings to promote bills they are sponsoring to force more Army openness, turn over Army medical testing to a civilian agency and outlaw development of biologic arms by private corporations - which, ironically, is currently legal.
The hearing also served as a platform for some of the nation's top scientists to blast Army plans for a new lab at Dugway, which would make aerosols out of the most deadly germs known to man to test such devices as face masks.
Army and Bush administration officials opened the hearing, testifying that development of better defenses against germ attack is needed because 10 countries now may produce such arms.
Jim Hinds, deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy, added, "Biological weapons are poor candidates for successful arms control" because weapons are easily made virtually anywhere - making verification of arms bans nearly impossible.
"The continued development of these weapons by others requires that the U.S. maintain a defensive capacity to constrain the use of biological warfare against our forces and blunt the effectiveness of an attack if it should occur," he said.
But some of the nation's top biologists said - as did Owens - that the Army's reasoning is flawed because stepping up research is seen as the first step to developing new biologic arms in violation of a 1972 treaty, which could lead to a new germ arms race.
"Our growing enthusiasm for Army-controlled biological research has convinced many observers both at home and abroad that we are heading into an offensive biological posture," Owens said.
"As a result, other countries are encouraged to develop first a defensive capability, then tempted to create an offensive capability of their own. It's all contributing to the exceedingly dangerous proliferation of biological weapons."
That is one reason Owens has introduced a bill to transfer Army medical testing to the civilian National Institutes of Health, and another bill to force the Army to publish each year a list of all deadly germs with which it is working and where. He said that would create more openness and reduce worry.
Scientists who support those measures include Victor Sidel of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jonathan King and University of California at San Francisco biologist Keith Yamamoto.
And while Army officials said information they are obtaining through defensive research does not help develop new weapons (which they said would take years more work to produce if ever allowed), scientists disagreed.
King used the Dugway germ aerosolization lab to illustrate why. He said using germs to test effectiveness of face masks also produces data on how long germs survive, what size droplets are optimal and what processes they are resistant or sensitive to.