Joby Warrick Returns to Bioweapons Security Theater

Last night, Joby Warrick put up a dutifully transcribed article  in which the intelligence community is warning us to be very afraid that North Korea suddenly has bioweapons capability. Warrick had posted the video embedded in the article a week earlier, perhaps in an attempt to soften the terrain ahead of publishing the article. The bioweapons security theater beat is not at all new to Warrick. Just a little over four years ago, I noted the weakness of claims by the intelligence community, again transcribed by Warrick, that Syria suddenly was going to produce bioweapons.

The Timing

As with any cranking of the propaganda machine, it’s always informative to look at the timing of both the current event and the components on which it has been built. The seeds of this one go back about two and a half years. As you may or may not recall, the Army announced in May of 2015 that it somehow managed to screw up and ship samples of live anthrax bacteria to South Korea. Seizing on the propaganda value of this development, within a little over a week, Kim Jong Un staged a tour of a “biotechnology facility”.  Warrick’s article last night, along with many other breathless accounts of North Korea’s sudden prowess in biological weapons, relies heavily on this blog post by Melissa Hanham analyzing images from Un’s tour of that facility. Information from Hanham also figures prominently in the analysis of North Korea’s bioweapons capability in this report from Harvard’s Belfer Center, which Warrick also relies on for his article. Laughably, the Belfer Center report adopts Rumsfeldian framing by speaking in terms of knowns and unknowns.

With rhetoric now reaching fever pitch on North Korea’s nuclear technology and missile technology, it feels a bit suspicious that we’re now going back to information that first surfaced in July of 2015. Also, with the Trump Administration looking for distraction from Mueller’s probe, something as sensational as a bioweapons scare coming from one of the current chosen enemies fits the bill quite nicely.

The Claims

Warrick warns us in his third paragraph that:

North Korea is moving steadily to acquire the essential machinery that could potentially be used for an advanced bioweapons program, from factories that can produce microbes by the ton, to laboratories specializing in genetic modification, according to U.S. and Asian intelligence officials and weapons experts.

Let’s move on to more specific accusations:

State-run news media described the institute as a factory for making biological pesticides — mainly, live bacteria that can kill the worms and caterpillars that threaten North Korea’s cabbage crop. But to U.S. analysts studying the video, the images provided an unexpected jolt: On display inside the military-run facility were rooms jammed with expensive equipment, including industrial-scale fermenters used for growing bulk quantities of live microbes, and large dryers designed to turn billions of bacterial spores into a fine powder for easy dispersal.

Many of the machines were banned from sale to North Korea under international sanctions because of their possible use in a bioweapons program. But Kim, wearing a white lab coat and trailed by a phalanx of scientists and military officers, appeared almost gleeful in showing them off, striking the same rapt pose as when he visits the country’s installations for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Here is the photo with the fermenters in the background:

Here is the photo of the spray dryer mentioned above:

So the competing claims are that North Korea says this is a biopesticide facility that produces Bacillus thuringiensis for control of caterpillar pests on crops. The intelligence community is saying that this same equipment could be used to grow and weaponize the closely related Bacillus anthracis, the deadly bacterium used in the anthrax attacks of 2001.

The Reality

First, at least the Belfer Center report did finally get around to noting just how much of an effort is needed to develop and then deploy biological weapons:

It is unknown whether North Korea has the capability to weaponize all 13 types of agents, and whether North Korea has the capacity to produce a mass stockpile of stabilized biological agents. Regarding the first aspect, little information is available. The ROK Defense White Paper mostly mentions anthrax and smallpox, so these could be agents that North Korea has higher capability to weaponize. However, it is important to note that despite an investment of 40,000 personnel over 63 years (1928-1991), the Soviet Union’s BW program yielded only 13 weaponizable agents. Although increase in biological knowledge in the modern era could expedite weaponization, it is highly unlikely that all of North Korea’s agents are ready for weaponization.

So, yes, it appears that North Korea’s efforts, if there are any, fall far short of what the Soviet Union put into their bioweapons program.

But there are additional problems with Kim Jong Un’s facility. It doesn’t appear to me to work either as a biopesticide production facility or a bioweapon facility. Warrick does finally get around to some of the problems:

Some weapons experts were skeptical, noting the absence of biohazard suits and protective gear typically found in laboratories that work with deadly pathogens. But since the release of the images, subsequent examinations have poked holes in the official story about the factory’s purpose. For one thing, some of the machines shown in the video were not visibly connected to any pipes, vents or ductwork. Experts also have questioned why North Korea would buy expensive industrial equipment at black-market rates, just to make a pesticide that can be purchased legally, at vastly cheaper rates, from China.

Here is what an actual facility for mass production of Bt looks like:

This slide shows both an industrial-sized fermenter and spray dryer. Clearly, the equipment Kim Jong Un is showing falls far short of the size used in actual industrial production, although at least the collection of fermenters in his photo is larger than one would expect for a simple research facility. [Full disclosure: a former co-worker of mine was at one time one of the primary fermentation operators at the Wasco facility.]

There are further problems with the loose “dual use” language employed by all of those who want us to fear North Korea’s biological capabilities. If we focus on the central question of whether Bt or anthrax is produced by the facility, we must deal with the biological and engineering differences between such facilities. First, Bt is only infectious to insects and so the human protection protocols are only aimed at the normal precautions taken in industrial production of microbes where workers are protected from exposure to high concentrations of bacteria or bacterial debris, but infectious concerns are not present. Minor amounts of residue or aerosols are allowed in a Bt facility but would be fatal in an anthrax facility. The level of biocontainment in the North Korean photos would, at best, be consistent with Bt, but might even fall short of that.

Of course, one could argue that North Korean workers in an anthrax facility would be vaccinated. But that seems to me to be the key piece of evidence missing in all the warnings we are getting in this bit of theater. US export of the only anthrax vaccine produced internally is controlled, although the level of control was reduced somewhat in 2005. However, if NSA and CIA aren’t working hand in hand to monitor the shipment of every vial of anthrax vaccine shipped outside the US (whether produced here or not), I want my tax dollars back. And the fact that we aren’t hearing that North Korea has started vaccinating workers against anthrax in any of its biotechnology facilities makes me think that they haven’t started a serious effort on this front.

One further bit of difference between Bt and anthrax facilities concerns the particle size achieved in the final product coming out of the process. A biological difference comes into play here. In the case of Bt, the final product is applied to plant leaves. Caterpillars eating the leaves are then infected when the bacterial spores germinate in the gut. The particle size in this case is fairly unimportant as long as it gets consumed. For anthrax, infection occurs when anthrax spores are breathed in and the spores travel to the smallest passageway in the human respiratory system.  Individual spores are only about one micron (one millionth of a meter) in length. Some of the material in the anthrax attacks of 2001 was specially treated so that individual spores would become easily suspended in the air. A very infectious particle size would be in that same one micron range.

The same PowerPoint presentation I linked above for the Bt production facility has this slide on particle sizes for commercially available Bt:

Spray drying equipment that produces really small particle size is restricted in access. The controlling authority is commonly referred to as the Australia Group list. From their publication, we have this on spray dryers:

Spray dryers that can produce particle sizes below ten microns are tightly regulated and North Korea would have great difficulty purchasing this technology. It would be foolish, in my opinion, though, to even use a spray dryer for anthrax instead of the more advanced technology in my link above.


It seems to me that both North Korea and the US are engaging in hyperbole about North Korean capabilities in biological weapons. I find reason for concern in this exercise of security theater, but it is primarily based on overstated capabilities being used as a basis for starting conventional military action. Let’s hope North Korean anthrax capabilities don’t become the next aluminum tubes.

23 replies
  1. Rapier says:

    Well chemical and bio weapons are the most reliable line in the sand there is. It’s like money in the bank. I suppose Iran’s program is going to be a hot item too. In fact I am surprised that isn’t the story. Flogging N Korea is such a loser. So much to lose and nothing to gain.

  2. wayoutwest says:

    We do know that NK is good at hiding their weapon’s R and D. Their Nuke program hardly slowed under Clinton’s appeasment program and went underground while aid flowed into the country. They have Nukes now and the means to deliver them so a little anthrax isn’t a big deal except for SK. who can’t escape their targeting. The building in the picture above looks like a storage warehouse for equipment meant for other actuall production facilities.

    Trump and his generals and SK know there is no conventional military action possible in NK without the destruction of Seoul and much of its population. They also know that NK has never honered any agreement they have made so all we can do is promise massive retaliation for any NK agression or attack.

    China and Russia are the only powers who can possibly defuse this timebomb of a state that they helped to create.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Every building needs a lightning rod and every country needs one. For a long time, the US used Cuba that way, then Vietnam, Iraq, Iran. Here, though, Russia is not as much of a player as China. China seems to use Korea as a convenient foil rather than a serious threat, useful to deflect primarily US concerns, which themselves have only recently been elevated to such celebrity status. Meanwhile, China is busy along its eastern seas and investing in parts of the world that only a few, many now former, State Dept staff understood. Thanks, Rex. Thanks, Donnie.

  4. lefty665 says:

    In the buildup to Iraq the US went nuts over Bruichladdich, a scotch distillery on Islay, claiming the fermentation vats could be used to brew bio weapons. The distillery had a display on the subject. They called it “weapons of mass distillation”. Point being that US propaganda and fear mongering know few limits. Truth especially need not apply. The whisky was good and the workers preferred tweeds to hazmat suits.


  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Please tell me Roy Moore didn’t just say, “Some of my best friends are Jewish.  [My lawyer is, too.]”  My, what Philip Roth could do with that.

    Should we tell Roy that as a well-read West Pointer and twice former state supreme court justice, he should know that anyone who says that probably has no Jewish friends and makes clear that he doesn’t really want any.

    • Jim White says:

      I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I saw at least one tweet in response where it was claimed that the lawyer was a member of, and provided legal representation to: Jews for Jesus.

      You really can’t make this stuff up.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        “Jews for Jesus.”  How odd, since he was a Mediterranean peasant village Jew, who was made the centerpiece of an alternative religion, one that arose, in part, from the ashes of the Temple and surrounding Jerusalem, destroyed by a brutal occupying army.

        The Jews have witnessed “the end times” several times.  Let’s not encourage another.  But, hey, let’s put a newbie in charge of fixing history through a lucky coin toss.  What could go wrong?

  6. matt says:

    Great analysis, Jim.  This common sense deconstruction of fear mongering “what-if’s” is so important to internet search- that if one weeds through the crap, they might come upon your post and get some really decent information.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A guy who was in country with Roy Moore when he was a newbie officer in Vietnam tells a story about how Roy found himself “by mistake” in a brothel filled with very young girls, and promptly left because Roy said, “We shouldn’t be here.”

    I don’t think this story sends the intended message about uptight, upright Roy Moore. For starters, Moore was so popular with his men that he slept on sand bags so that no one could roll a hand grenade under his cot and frag him. (No ballistics to show which gun fired the killing round.) A disturbingly common response to officer ineptitude likely to get men killed for no good reason, along with disturbingly high rates of [officially denied] opiate addiction.

    Moore was a young man from West Point, so brittle about his newfound status that he ordered his men to salute him in the field. He might as well have worn gold buttons and a red coat, or a shiny bull’s eye on his back. Top priority for an enemy sniper was to kill an officer. That’s the guy other guys salute. So we know Roy has a flat learning curve.

    Back to the brothel. They are public places with lots of eyes and wagging tongues. Roy was obsessed with his status and uncomfortable exerting leadership. He’s unlikely to have lowered his status or endangered his fragile leadership by joining his men in a brothel.

    The stories about Roy’s predatory behavior in Alabama emphasize secrecy, the closed car parked in the dark place behind the shuttered restaurant. They focus on teens, suggesting he feels weak and incompetent and compensates by seeking out someone with less power and experience whom he can dominate and intimidate into secrecy afterwards. A public wartime brothel with open displays of child women and sexual acts is an unlikely venue for Roy Moore to express his inner man. Roy’s right, we shouldn’t be here.

    • harpie says:

      More from Alabama, today, via a thread from RVAWonk

      The child molester running for the U.S. Senate isn’t the only weird thing going on in Alabama politics right now. Let’s talk about some of that…<thread> […] Just after 4:30pm on Monday, Alabama’s Republican AG Steve Marshall filed a motion in the state Supreme Court to stay the earlier order.

      i.e., the state filed a court motion to halt the order that required election officials to preserve electronic ballot records. […]

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Alabama’s Attorney General, Republican Steve Marshall, must be moonlighting as an adviser to the president’s commission on elections in Honduras.

        Amid vehement criticism of fraud in Honduras presidential election last month, voting booths were closed an hour earlier than usual.  Vote counting was halted when the liberal opponent had a five point lead.  The related computer hard drive(s) “failed”.  It was”reconstructed”, showing that the current dictator had won by a point and a half.

        Who says the School of the Americas (er, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) is a one-way street?  Imperial policing methods abroad always migrate home.

        • lefty665 says:

          Shades of Ohio in ’04. The state election system “went down” and was moved to the backup system (coincidentally, I’m sure, housed on RNC servers) late on election evening. When they “came back up” the lead had miraculously shifted from Kerry to Duhbya. Rove had his fingers in that too.

      • matt says:

        Sorry to be a jerk to some long time posters… as I’m a relative newbie here.  Please stay on topic and make comments related to the post.  It undermines the integrity of Jim White’s article and the EW website to have unstructured discussions littered about.

        • Jim White says:

          Meh. It’s not such a big deal. I have even taking part in some of the free-ranging discussion that has been going on. It’s not at all uncommon after a post ages a bit and there isn’t a live open thread.

          Thanks for the kind comments about the post.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        The Alabama Supreme Court seems, in practical effect, to have decided that the ballot images – the evidence used in normal vote counts and recounts – will be destroyed before any recount would be possible.  The paper ballots may still exist, but I don’t know of any mechanism where they would be re-entered and recounted.

        Bear in mind that one of Karl Rove’s most famous projects was to deeply politicize judicial elections in Alabama so as to ensure a Republican majority forever, and to use that success as a springboard for state legislative and executive offices, and on up the chain.  Alabama would then serve as a petri dish for GOP and neoliberal purposes.  It is that extremely partisan state supreme court off which Moore was twice thrown.

        • bmaz says:

          It is absolutely insane. The case still exists on the merits, but the entire corpus of evidence at issue is being allowed to be destroyed immediately. Just nuts.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          I bow to your greater expertise, but that’s how I see it.

          Even if paper ballots are re-entered and recounted digitally, the database comprising those votes would not be the same database used for the original count, and would therefore not be evidence of what was in the original.  How would any disagreement be resolved?  Is there even a mechanism for it?

          It’s questionable even whether the s/w used to create and analyze the second database would be identical with that used for the first.

          Unless the paper ballots are retained and there is a mechanism to resolve disputes by counting them by hand, and that manual recount would govern, then the Alabama state supreme court just told the state AG and secretary of state that the vote count is whatever they say it is.

          What’s good enough for Honduras must be good enough for Alabama.  Thanks, Karl.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Correction: Roy Moore and Bill Sailing arrived at an officers‘ brothel, by accident, not mistake, to celebrate the end of a third officer’s tour.  So the girls were very pretty as well as very young. (The story was covered in several media, including Crooks and Liars.)

      Btw, the Pentagon normally avoids admitting that any such places exist, let alone that they regulate them, certainly not to moms back home, even as former service member dads keep mum.  They certainly they don’t exist in Okinawa (or serve alcohol), where there are repeated rapes of local women.  Perpetrators, rather than face the consequences of their conduct unbecoming, are usually placed on a flight home.  That’s the kind of law and order Roy Moore and Donald Trump appreciate.


  8. wayoutwest says:

    @GK James

    Timelines about the Korean conflict can be useful especially if they begin with the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The political and diplomatic efforts of past administrations have one think in common they all failed to stop NK from becoming a Nuke power.

    Some people portray the US as the agressor in Korea and NK as a victim developing these weapons for protecion but as soom as they had Nukes Kim started threatening his neighbors, more than the US, with destruction. Kim and his generals don’t follow any outside rules so to think they wouldn’t develop chemical or other weapons is beyond foolish. Arguing over whether they already have them serves no rational purpose except for trying to make a partisan connection to Bush’s war. Trump handily defeated the Bush dynasty and I doubt he listens to the crackpots Bush followed.

    It’s strange and probably telling that South Korea is left out of most of these missives. The people who depend on us to defend them from an insane cult of personality on their border don’t seem very important to some people.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Which insane cult of personality would that be?  But I agree, Trump has enough of his own crackpots not to need the ones Shrub used.

    Americans, and South Koreans, too, might be better informed about all this if the cult of personality in the US put in place its ambassador to South Korea, and quite a few others that remain empty.  Jared has a few other things on his plate to mind the Korean store too.

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