Use of Attribution and Forensic Science in Addressing Biological Weapon Threats: A Multi-Faceted Study
Bidwell, Christopher A.
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The threat from the manufacture, proliferation, and use of biological weapons (BW) is a high priority concern for the U.S. Government. As reflected in U.S. Government policy statements and budget allocations, deterrence through attribution (“determining who is responsible and culpable”) is the primary policy tool for dealing with these threats. According to those policy statements, one of the foundational elements of an attribution determination is the use of forensic science techniques, namely microbial forensics. Unfortunately, using forensic science in an attribution setting is not a pure scientific endeavor. It involves the interplay among science, law, policy, law enforcement, public health, and the media communities. This convergence of different disciplines and professions all focused on reaching a common understanding of a suspicious activity is a difficult problem to work through in a domestic context, and even more so if a suspected BW event has transnational or global implications. In such instances, acceptance of an attribution determination would be dependent on how the leadership in other nations processes and accepts information that would be generated, how they would perceive the nature and the source of that information, and how their decisions regarding a response would be made. Consequently, how the attribution determination is made, and more importantly, how it is presented to foreign leaders, is critical if an investment in the science behind forensics is to pay off. This applies not only to cases wherein the attribution determination points to a guilty person, organization, or country, but also in situations wherein false accusations must be discredited. This policy conundrum is exactly what is being played out in Syria today with regard to allegations of chemical weapon’s usage with parties attempting to promote evidence that endorses their political objectives, while challenging the credibility of evidence that does not. Given such predicaments, this report explores the science-law-bureaucracy-media response dynamic for attribution determinations regarding potential manufacture, possession, and/or use of BW by walking through each of these elements individually, with a focus on the use of forensic evidence, particularly microbial forensics. This report explores the many challenges faced by policy makers in trying to convince others of the validity of an attribution determination and offers suggestions for improving the process. Key points that this report makes are as follows: A good attribution capability is as valuable as a BW deterrence tool. A good attribution capability requires well developed science that not only meets scientific scrutiny but also legal scrutiny. Legal constructs act as a good lens to look at BW attribution evidence not just in the courtroom, but in the court of public opinion and in the minds of policy leaders. Forensic determinations, while based on science principles, require collaboration with other disciplines and communities, such as legal, law enforcement, public policy, public health, and communications. In order to be policy relevant, the science behind microbial forensics must be well accepted by the international science community, but more importantly, the non-science community. With regards to BW, microbial forensics is a useful policy tool, but must overcome general suspicions and unrealistic expectations towards forensic science in general.
Design, layout, and edits by Allison Feldman. Cover Photo: © poba, iStock by Getty Images.
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