David F. Lasseter serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD). In this role, he supports the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Assistant Secretary of Defense For Homeland Defense & Global Security by developing and overseeing the implementation of strategies and policies of all Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction policy issues, to include preventing the proliferation of WMD-related materials; the DoD Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program; and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) defense; and overseas Oceans Policy for the Department, which includes advancing global mobility through freedom of navigation policy.

CTC: Can you briefly summarize the work of your office and the responsibilities of your role and position?

Lasseter: Sure. As you know, I’m the DASD for CWMD, and have been in this position since December 2019. My office supports the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (USD(P)) and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security (ASD HDGS) by developing and overseeing the implementation of strategies and policies of all CWMD policy issues. The Office of USD(P) is responsible for advising the Secretary on the formulation of the national security and defense strategy policy and assisting the oversight of its execution. Specifically for my office, CWMD Policy, we’re responsible for such things as: interagency communication on WMD arms control, such as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as well as chem and biological weapons conventions; also WMD interdiction support and helping shape and implement CWMD-related elements of UNSCRs (United Nations Security Council resolutions); reducing WMD threats against U.S. interests, which includes working with partner nations to reduce and respond to nuclear, chem, and biological threats via our DoD Cooperative Threat Reduction [CTR] Program, which you’ll probably hear me talk a fair amount about; and also responding to international CBRN incidents and coordination with international partners, both bilaterally and in multinational forms.

With respect to bio threats, the DoD CTR Program focuses on activities to prevent, detect, and respond to high-consequence biological incidents, regardless of origin. We continually consider the tools that we can bring to bear to mitigate threats from naturally occurring infectious disease outbreaks; accidental or deliberate release of especially dangerous pathogens; biological weapon development, proliferation, and usage; and then lastly, state and non-state actor interest in or deployment of biological agents.

My office coordinates quite closely with the U.S. interagency, as you can imagine, across the gamut—from DOJ, DHS, obviously throughout the IC [intelligence community]. The State Department is one of our close partners. And we also coordinate with international partners to ensure that biological threat reduction efforts are deconflicted and leveraged to maximize our U.S. investments while achieving the greatest threat reduction impact possible. So something we’ve focused on, especially over the last few years, is maximizing those investments and then endeavoring to get the greatest threat reduction impact we possibly can. On the international front, we participate in international forums like the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA)1 as well as the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.2

CTC: What strategic guidance informs your CWMD priorities and decision making?

Lasseter: Our priorities are informed by the 2018 National Defense Strategy. And I’d also highlight that [then] Secretary of Defense [Mark Esper] issued [ a ] strategic guidance document—it came out [in October 2020]—and it’s titled “The Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships.”3 The GDAP is a first-ever DoD-wide internal strategic guidance intended to align focus and synchronize DoD priorities for planning and assessment, as well as engagements and activities, messaging, and then also resourcing to implement this NDS [National Defense Strategy] Line of Engagement (LOE) 2. It’s a playbook really for approaching collaboration with allies and partners. We’re already using it regularly in discussions, whether it’s internal to the building here or in the interagency. Broadly speaking, the GDAP sets forth a coordinated DoD strategic approach and [as] I mentioned, common methodology guidelines for improving this LOE 2 performance in an era of strategic competition. [It] informs our near-term security cooperation and longer-term strategic and force planning with allies and partners. It’s used across a wide range of these LOE 2 activities, and in several instances, includes CWMD programs and initiatives. This guidance will help inform how we prioritize CWMD threat reduction activities with allies and partners, and better synchronize CWMD and the broader DoD toolkit.

CTC: It would be a bit of an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has had major disruptive effects and has been an issue that all countries have had to navigate. Given the responsibilities that you just explained regarding your role, when you evaluate the COVID-19 pandemic in both its current and longer-term effects and implications, what are the most important insights and takeaways that you and your office have learned?

Lasseter: That’s a good question. We’re undertaking an internal lessons-learned effort; the objective is to produce a list of lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been worked on for a number of months. It’s quite robust. From my vantage point, I think there are three big lessons we’ve learned across the biothreat reduction space. First, we must recognize that while bio threats have significant health and economic impacts, they also have real security implications, so we must continue to engage partner defense sectors, work to bridge the divide between military and civilian counterparts, and probably most importantly, I’d say, promote whole-of-government efforts towards biological threat reduction efforts.

Second, given the dual approach to biological threats, it’s imperative that DoD works in close coordination with interagency and international partners. While DoD has global reach, we cannot do everything. We constantly remind our friends of that. In addition to working closely with other U.S. departments and agencies, we must cultivate a strong network of like-minded nations to pool resources and share responsibilities for common biological threat reduction goals. This includes working through international forums like the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction and the Global Health Security Agenda.

And third, I’d say that the Department must continue focusing on preparedness and preventive efforts in order to mitigate the impact of the next biological event, whenever that may occur and by whatever means. By helping partner nations build their biosafety, biosecurity, and bio surveillance capabilities and ensuring—this is important—that the nations are able to fully own, sustain, and operate such capabilities on their own, we reduce long-term reliance on DoD and, in turn, the U.S. government and, at the end of the day, build a network of capable partners able to address emerging biological threats collectively.

CTC: You just mentioned security implications, and the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the vulnerability of the United States to biological threats. What is your assessment of the biological threat landscape moving forward? And what threats do you see as most concerning?

Lasseter: In my view, it seems we’re closer to an inflection point where the threat landscape could overcome our prevention/detection response capabilities. This pandemic has demonstrated the wide-reaching and destabilizing impact that infectious disease outbreaks can have on the world [and] may result in greater interest by non-state actors and terrorist organizations in developing biological threat weapons. More generally, and equally impactful, the current pandemic may erode norms around the development and deliberate use of biological agents. Although international norms condemn these type of weapons, witnessing the impact of a pathogen of pandemic potential first-hand has the chance to embolden state or non-state actors to pursue and use biological agents.

There also may be an increase in interest by terrorists and non-state actors in exploiting security vulnerabilities of laboratories housing especially dangerous pathogens. Facilities that lack appropriate biosecurity measures could allow actors who wish to do harm to acquire or divert pathogen samples. Adding to this problem are the increasing number of high containment facilities worldwide that house the most dangerous pathogens; some of those facilities lack suitable security measures to protect their stockpiles.

I believe that [the] biological threat landscape is diverse and frightening. We all now know first-hand the impacts of highly infectious, naturally occurring outbreaks. What most concerns me are lethal, man-made, or genetically altered agents whose source is difficult to attribute. Relatedly, ambiguity will also characterize the biological threat landscape moving forward. We have to accept that. When people start getting sick, it won’t be immediately clear whether we’re under attack or experiencing a natural outbreak. As advances in biotechnology allow bad actors to craft these novel agents, things will only become more ambiguous. Regardless of the source, we have to act quickly. We’ve got to leverage all of DoD’s resources to respond effectively. The DoD organizations that traditionally deal with public health and those that traditionally deal with bioweapons defense have to come together, as well as working with our international and interagency partners. We work together now; we’ve got to continue doing so, and thus leveraging internal [forums] such as the CWMD Unity of Effort Council4—that’s an internal DoD forum—and international ones, like the GP [G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction] and even GHSA.

In the response category, DoD likes to be well prepared—to know what it’s dealing with before responding—and strategic guidance helps with deliberate planning. We sequence political decisions and political determinations before operations, but in the realm of bio threat response, the Department, and perhaps the broader national security community, may need to reconsider the established processes when confronted with an active bio threat. Putting operations before politics and strategy is uncomfortable—it takes us out of the processes and procedures we are accustomed to—but the operational response to disease is the same regardless of its origin, and acting quickly is critical. It doesn’t mean the Department would act alone or of its own accord in a crisis; it just means it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to tell us right away whether we’re dealing with a natural disease or attack and then respond accordingly. So, discerning the origins of the threat will need to occur in parallel with the operational response.

CTC: The 2018 National Strategy for Countering WMD Terrorism5 noted that “in contrast to chemical, radiological, and nuclear weapons, some biological agents are contagious and may thus spread in an uncontrolled manner. Furthermore, such agents are the only other class of WMD that has the potential to match nuclear weapons in the scale of casualties they produce.” However, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former head of NATO’s CBRN Battalion, recently noted in this publication, “for years, biosecurity has been the poor relation of the ‘other’ securities for one simple reason: policymakers and analysts failed to grasp just how devastating a highly transmissible new virus in a highly interconnected world could be, and viewed a devastating global pandemic or catastrophic bioterror attack as very unlikely.”6 And recently in this publication, General Michael Nagata (Retired), said that “During my career as a CT operational practitioner, all the way through my final years as the senior CT strategist at NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center], the amount of energy, focus, and resourcing devoted to bioterrorism is a small fraction of what is still given today to more conventional threats.”7 Given all that, are there assumptions about the likelihood or impact of bio-threats by your community that have changed as a result of the pandemic, or that you think still need to be further scrutinized?

Lasseter: The biggest change of perspective we need in the broader national security construct is that threats from a biological agent are real and nobody is immune from them or their potential impacts. Biological threats are national security threats. As such, they need to be planned for and have appropriate protections against them. The processes that the Department has in place to allocate the money necessary from a budgetary standpoint ensure the Department is prepared to counter the threats that we face, to include bioterrorism. Understanding, back to the beginning, that the threats from a biological agent are real and their impacts can be tremendous.

David Lasseter

CTC: We are now in a period of budgetary pressures in many aspects of CT,8 and with the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn, those pressures may increase. How can the United States ensure that it continues to protect against bio threats in the decade to come?

Lasseter: We’ve got to continue to resource effectively. We’ve seen tremendous resourcing from the Congress and the taxpayers at the end of the day and reallocation of resources at the executive branch into combating COVID, including creating these vaccines in record time. We have processes in place to ensure the necessary funding is there. We will just need to continue to properly resource biodefense capability, to include research in engineering, detection capabilities, countermeasure advancements, and so on.

CTC: In recent testimony, you noted that “emerging biotechnologies, including gene editing and synthetic biology, may reduce the barrier to biological weapon development as they become more readily accessible by the general public.”9 In the August 2020 issue of CTC Sentinel, West Point scientists assessed that advances in synthetic biology and widening access to the technologies involved “is leading to a revolution in science affecting the threat landscape that can be rivaled only by the development of the atomic bomb.”10 Synthetic biology is an enormous force for good, but as the 2018 U.S. strategy for countering WMD Terrorism noted, “advances in biotechnology could theoretically allow even a single individual working in a laboratory to engineer pathogens that could have catastrophic effects.”11 What is your view on the transformative potential of threats from this sphere, and what can be done to prevent a bad actor from engineering a pathogen more virulent and even more transmissible than the virus which causes COVID-19?

Lasseter: This is an important question and will be critically important going forward. You’re correct in your assumption that advances in synthetic biology and other related biotechnologies hold the potential for both promise and peril in their application. And so we’ve got to be cognizant of how such technological shifts can alter the threat landscape [and] impose new defense and security challenges. We’ve heard it said that biological weapons are ‘a poor man’s nuke,’ given the potentially enormous impact of their usage. I think COVID-19 has further accelerated this mindset. The U.S. has had a watchful eye on bio threats and has elevated bio threats as a core national security priority over the past several years—as I mentioned earlier, including the release of the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy. The NBS has created a cabinet-level Biodefense Steering Committee for executing and directing the strategy.

But that said, work remains. We must continue to build upon the work of the NBS, work in close coordination with interagency and international partners, and seek to establish stronger norms and enforcement mechanisms when it comes to the proliferation and usage of dual-use technologies that could potentially aid a bad actor seeking to engineer a novel pathogen. It’s incumbent upon freedom-loving countries and the biotechnology industry, frankly, to stay ahead of those threats. This requires monitoring intellectual investment in detection and diagnosis, and medical countermeasures, but also timely, accurate, and fulsome information flow among public and private sector entities.

CTC: We’ve talked about and you’ve shared some of your thoughts about aspects of the future biological threats that you’re concerned about. We’d like to drill down a little bit about the future, potential bio threats from terrorist groups. No terrorist group has come close to carrying out a significant biological attack. Even the well-resourced Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan in the 1990s fell well short.12 However, the landscape appears to be shifting in relation to this area, as in 2018, German police thwarted an alleged plot in Cologne in which a jihadi terrorist in the West for the first time successfully produced the toxic biological agent, ricin.13 Furthermore, in light of the impacts of COVID-19 and the lowering “education training costs, time, and equipment threshold required to modify and employ pathogenetic organisms as biological weapons,”14 there’s concern a rogue scientist could help/be recruited into a terrorist group, decide to act alone, or that a terrorist group might develop the capability to engineer a deadly pathogen ‘in house.’ In your assessment, what types of terrorist threat actors or groups are the most cause for concern when it comes to weaponizing biology?

Lasseter: It’s been publicly reported that al-Qa`ida and ISIS, among other extremist organizations, have had interest in acquiring WMD. We also know through public acknowledgment by the State Department that the U.S. government cannot confirm Russian or Chinese compliance with the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention].15 That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as we all know how the Russian Federation and PRC flout and disregard international norms and laws, even those treaties which they ratify or to which they accede. However, in general, one significant concern we have is what we refer to as pathogens and toxins of security concern, and these are biological agents based on HHS [Health and Human Services] and USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] select agent and toxins lists. These biological agents and toxins are deemed to have the potential to pose a severe threat to both human and animal health and may have the potential for weaponization by nefarious actors. This is why we continue to push for a strong international posture on biosecurity, and we’ll continue to work with our interagency counterparts in the biodefense arena.

CTC: How does your office view the international do-it-yourself bio community and the potential of a deliberate or accidental threat emerging from these non-state actor communities?

Lasseter: Do-it-yourself bio is a very real concern, and we need to be attuned to the democratization of biotechnology and how it will provide opportunities for non-state actors to do great harm with really very few resources. There are limited opportunities to interdict these threats because the technologies involved are dual-use and commercially available. That said, when we look at the full spectrum from WMD threats, this is not the one that keeps me awake at night. That may change as biotechnologies become even more accessible down the road. COVID-19 should make it clear to all [that] the transmission of infection by naturally occurring viruses can occur quite easily, and that could also be the case [with] those produced and deliberately released by individuals.

CTC: Can you elaborate a bit more on the role of your office in preventing, detecting, and responding to high-consequence biological incidents, whether they’re natural outbreaks like COVID-19 or the result in the future of the malicious development and release of especially dangerous pathogens?

Lasseter: As we talked about, my office focuses on activities to prevent, detect, and respond to high-consequence biological incidents regardless of origin, and in one team within my office, the Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, program specifically works to reduce the proliferation of biological weapons and biological weapon components and biological weapon-related technologies and expertise. This team is also charged with facilitating the detection and reporting of diseases caused by especially dangerous pathogens, regardless of whether they are naturally occurring or the result of accidental or deliberate release.

The CTR program works with international partners to accomplish its threat reduction mission in three key ways. First, we assist partner nations in developing sufficient capabilities to counter biological threats, most notably by working to improve biosafety and biosecurity and biosurveillance capacities, really with the goal, as I mentioned earlier, of transitioning ownership and sustainment of these capabilities to the host nation. By doing so, CWMD policy is reducing long-term reliance of partner nations on DoD assistance and is building a network of capable partners able to address emerging biological threats collectively. If we’re going to provide the resources and capabilities, they’ve got to be able to endure those or sustain them after we finish providing that assistance. The key aspect to our support to partners is for the partner nations to gain an independence that is sustainable and not completely reliant on our support.

Second, [with] the CTR program, we promote cross-border collaboration between partner nations to encourage regionalized, networked approaches toward biological security and actively encourage partner nations to assume regional leadership roles in this space. This includes data-sharing regarding outbreaks of especially dangerous pathogens; promoting the biosafety, biosecurity, and biosurveillance best practices within a region; fostering international scientific research engagements; [and] integrating national biosafety, biosecurity, and biosurveillance capabilities into regional efforts, thereby leveraging the collective assets to advance shared threat reduction objectives. A lot of that is the information flow. It’s great if one country in Southeast Asia for example knows information, but if they’re not able to share it or they don’t share it in a timely manner with their regional friends and partners and even beyond, then it’s harder for the region. And now in the global environment we’re in, it’s harder for the global environment to get that information.

Finally, we work with other donor nations to pool resources and share responsibilities for common biological threat reduction goals. I mentioned we work through international forms like the G7 Global Partnership and Global Health Security Agenda to identify mutual threat reduction objectives, align in deconflict activities, and then pool resources. That’s a little snapshot of what CTR does and how they do it.

CTC: Picking up on this thread, you mentioned technical assistance and technology as being an important component of the work of the CTR team as well as your office more broadly. What has the current pandemic taught us about the use of technology to detect, identify, track, and manage the spread of pandemics, whether the result of national, natural, or malicious forces in the future?

Lasseter: It’s an intriguing question. COVID-19 has taught us that the global threat of a biological agent is significant and can occur without warning. And this is a novel virus. While we can and should research and study those naturally occurring viruses, it’s impossible to predict or know the certainty of what viruses might emerge. What we need are flexible platforms to identify and respond to a biological incident. This will need to be a team effort between the public and private sectors, and with international allies and partners. Healthcare, pharmaceutical, information, technology sectors are routinely at the cutting edge of societal advancements, and so improvements have been made this year as a result of the pandemic and their collective innovation, often teamed with U.S. government agencies as we’ve seen over the course of 2020. Through information sharing and coordination, these networks that are in place with international partners and the interagency will be stronger for having worked so hard in responding to this pandemic. We will need to dedicate ourselves to continuous improvement, and this improvement will start with awareness and monitoring and needed to prevent future pandemics.

CTC: You recently testified that “there also may be an increased interest by terrorists and non-state actors in exploiting security vulnerabilities of laboratories housing especially dangerous pathogens. Facilities that lack appropriate biosecurity measures could allow actors who wish to do harm to acquire and/or divert pathogen samples. Adding to this problem are increasing number of high containment facilities worldwide that house the most dangerous pathogens; some of these facilities lack suitable security measures to protect their pathogen stockpiles.”16 As recently noted in CTC Sentinel, “there are now around 50 Biosafety Level 4 facilities around the world, where the deadliest pathogens are stored and worked on, and this figure is set to increase in the next few years. This is a large increase over the last 30 years, creating bigger risk of a breach. Of equal, if not greater concern are the thousands of Biosafety Level 3 labs globally, which handle deadly pathogens like COVID-19.”17 What is the U.S. government doing to protect against dangerous biological materials being stolen or accidentally released both at home and overseas? And to what extent are concerns about cyber issues and potential cyber vulnerabilities a part of that work?

Lasseter: Yes, these are genuine concerns, and DoD works closely both within the Department and with interagency partners to help protect against dangerous biological materials being stolen or accidentally released from facilities housing such samples. My office primarily accomplishes this task through the work of the CTR program that I mentioned, specifically the Biological Threat Reduction Program line, BTRP. More generally, the CTR policy team is tasked with developing strategic guidance for the DoD CTR program, which involves a rigorous prioritization to determine where we need to focus DoD CTR programs, [ a ] unique mission set, to tackle this challenge, and as I mentioned earlier, the DoD CTR program works with partner nations to improve their biosafety, biosecurity, and biosurveillance capabilities. The key component of this is working with partner nations—either [to] construct new laboratory facilities or renovate existing facilities that currently face significant capacity, safety, or security concerns.

The CTR program has a standing policy of opposing the proliferation of high containment laboratories [HCLs] that house the most dangerous and virulent pathogens and require the highest level of associated biosafety and biosecurity practices and standards to ensure pathogens are not accidentally or deliberately released. The construction of these high containment laboratories and proliferation of related equipment technologies is further regulated by several U.S. government-wide policies, including the high containment laboratory policy. These policies provide stringent oversight and review by the U.S. interagency into any proposed activity that would proliferate HCLs or provide capabilities that would upgrade a lower level BSL facility into a higher level.

A related component of BTRP’s policy toward laboratory construction and renovation is promoting the consolidation, sequencing, and destruction of pathogen samples. A significant threat vulnerability is the proliferation and substandard storage of EDP [especially dangerous pathogens] samples in several laboratories throughout countries, which frankly lack proper safety and security measures. These samples are then vulnerable to accidental release or theft or even diversion by individuals seeking to use a sample to inflict harm. When BTRP helps construct or renovate laboratory facilities, it does so with the intent [that] the country will then use the facility as one of the primary—most times the only—central repository for pathogen samples, so this consolidation policy involves physically transporting EDP samples from smaller facilities scattered throughout the country to the central facility in order to minimize the number of sites holding dangerous cultures.

Another interesting capability [that] BTRP provides comes in assisting countries with procuring genetic sequencing equipment. This type of technology allows scientists to use their existing especially dangerous pathogen samples to create a digital blueprint of the pathogens’ genetic makeup. This negates the need for a laboratory to store the physical EDP sample and can allow for the destruction of the sample. Doing so greatly reduces the risk of the release of the physical pathogen sample due to accidental or deliberate actions, and sequencing brings the added benefit of assisting with more rapidly and precisely identifying pathogens than traditional laboratory methods or [what have] been traditionally methods, which then provides greater insight into disease transmission and virulence.

We’re now exploring in greater detail the issue of cyber security. That’s been of great interest across many sectors, but now even more so with these facilities that store digital genetic information of dangerous pathogens, including those facilities that we partner with to help sequence and destroy physical pattern samples.

CTC: We want to shift gears for just a moment and ask a question that looks at the intersection between commercially available technology or other related technologies and the future threat potential in the bio arena. You recently testified that “advances in drone technology may aid in targeted dissemination of biological threat agents.”18 How is your office working to counter this threat?

Lasseter: It’s a fear of mine, given that the use of drone technology is becoming more rampant. We’re actively analyzing how drone technology as well as other emerging technologies, like you mentioned, will impact the bio threat landscape. We’re also exploring where there are tools in our toolbox in CWMD or the appropriate mechanisms for addressing such threats. Any of these emerging technologies, whether drones or synthetic biology or additive manufacturing [3D printing],a is not the responsibility of one department or agency. We would be failing if all of us weren’t involved. We’ve got to work collectively with our interagency and international partners to address such threats. We’re already holding regular dialogues with interagency colleagues, including the Department of State, about exactly this. Other DoD programs such as our colleagues in the JPEO CBRND—the Joint Program Executive Office for CBRN Defense19—are also working in this space to help posture for advance early warning of potential biological attacks including such things as standoff detection20 and improved sensor technology.

CTC: The COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated how essential biological countermeasures, in particular vaccines, are to responding to dangerous viral outbreaks. There is hope that two “next- generation” mRNA vaccines—the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines—will help bring the current pandemic under control, and some experts believe it may be possible to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine using the mRNA platform so that “the next time this happens, we’ll have a vaccine already made, ready to be shipped out, and used very quickly to prevent the next pandemic from taking over.”21 Does funding for vaccine research needs to be a national security priority? And how can the U.S. government and the private sector work together in this space?

Lasseter: I’m definitely pleased to see the success of Pfizer and Moderna and the others. [It’s] wonderful to see the emergency use authorizations. There are so many incredible people working on vaccines for COVID-19, and their remarkable work will be a foundation on which we can build future vaccine development. The Department allocates money for vaccine development through our chemical and biological defense program, and this program has done great work in creating vaccines for anthrax and other biological threats of concern. There’s a very good working relationship with our defense programs and the private sector; I think you’ve seen this through Operation Warp Speed.b This relationship [is] going to need to continue in the protection of our national security for years to come. There’s great work that the community is doing to enhance platforms that will further expedite the creation of vaccines now and into the future.

CTC: Pivoting a little bit, you previously mentioned that GDAP, and you’ve stressed that international cooperation and capacity building is critical in preventing, detecting, and responding to biological threats.22 In a recent issue of CTC Sentinel, one analyst stated that “unless countries around the world develop a comprehensive biosecurity strategy and coordinate their efforts, pandemics (either natural or engineered) could devastate the planet every decade.23 What key precepts need to guide the United States’ bio security strategy moving forward, and how can the United States bolts bolster international partnership capacity building, information sharing, and norms against the use of chemical and biological weapons?

Lasseter: First, I think we need to expect the worst and plan for the worst. Also, we must have coordination, as I said, among the United States government, private sector, even academic institutions, and the international community. It’s vital that we have investment domestically, internationally in biosafety, bio security, and bio surveillance by both public and private sectors, and additionally prevention, detection, and response capabilities need broad application and continued advancement. As I discussed, it’s necessary that we have a global understanding of the need for top-notch security of laboratories that are working on biological agents and toxins of concern. International partnerships are absolutely essential. The coordination my office does through the CTR program and with our partners and allies is absolutely vital. It’s got to continue, and improve frankly.

CTC: Stanford professor and biosecurity/synthetic biology expert Dr. Drew Endy recently warned in this publication that in the future, non-nuclear nation-states may try to develop catastrophic biological weapons to deter nuclear powers.24 Do you share this concern? What is your view on the transformative potential of bio developments for issues like deterrence?

Lasseter: It’s definitely possible, and I’ve known bioweapon capability might be effective at deterring invasion or aggression. The fact that states can more easily hide biological weapon program versus nuclear or even chemical weapons programs might make this option more attractive. And as we’ve talked about, the barrier to entry is lower. However, the threat of bioweapons attack would have to be credible really in order to function as a deterrent, and it may be difficult to prove one has an effective and deliverable bioweapon, let alone without showing other states exactly what it is and therefore allowing them to try to develop a countermeasure against it. I think the risk of miscalculation also seems high if you tell adversaries that you have a bioweapon and are willing to use it if necessary, and then an adversary suffers a serious natural disease outbreak, that adversary might believe you’ve attacked them and retaliate. So there would be interactive dynamics there that could create friction and then response. Finally, bioweapons programs aren’t replacements for nuclear programs; nuclear programs impart a certain prestige. I think we all recognize that, seeing what some countries have tried and will continue to try to do to develop programs. Showing the world that a state has advanced capabilities should be taken seriously, is also a component of that. So I’m not convinced that a biological weapons program would be viewed the same way, so the incentive to pursue nuclear weapons still exists.

CTC: When you look at the full spectrum of WMD threats, what potential scenario or development keeps you up at night?

Lasseter: I’ve had a career as a Marine and in intelligence and other things, but this job has broadened my aperture of concern. There are several threats across the CBRN spectrum that are of particular concern and that my office monitors closely. Start with China: lack of transparency on nuclear modernization as an issue, and as I referenced earlier, the inability for the free world to verify compliance with the BWC. For Russia: violations of international arms control agreements, lack of transparency on nuclear modernization, serial user of chemical weapons. In North Korea, WMD development; nuclear, chemical, biological capabilities and delivery systems; a history of proliferation and aggressive rhetoric against the United States. And North Korea poses threats by WMD proliferation development and use. For Iran, it’s the continued advancement of launch capabilities that could be used for long-range missile systems, missile proliferation, and expansion of its nuclear capabilities and knowledge. [With regard to] India and Pakistan, we all know that the conventional escalation leading to potential nuclear conflict is of great concern. I referenced the Russia Federation’s chemical use, but erosion of norms against CW use gives me great concern going into the future. I’m concerned about emerging biological and chemical threats, for example dual-use biological or even pharmaceutical-based agentsc conceivably being weaponized. The potential of gene editing and genomic sequencing using precision medicine, or biotechnology to do bad things, is a real concern to me.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s note: Additive manufacturing is “the industrial production name for 3D printing, a computer controlled process that creates three dimensional objects by depositing materials, usually in layers.” “What is Additive Manufacturing? Definition and Processes,” TWI.

[b] Editor’s note: “Using the resources of the federal government and the U.S. private sector, Operation Warp Speed (OWS) will accelerate the testing, supply, development, and distribution of safe and effective vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics to counter COVID-19 by January 2021.” “Coronavirus: Operation Warp Speed,” U.S. Department of Defense.

[c] Editor’s note: “Pharmaceutical Based Agents (PBAs) are a subset of incapacitating agents and mostly comprise chemicals that have been designed for medical pharmaceutical use but which in overdose, or certain exposure contexts, can cause either incapacitation, permanent injury or death.” D. J. Heslop and P. G. Blain, “Threat potential of pharmaceutical based agents,” Intelligence and National Security 35:4 (2020): pp. 539-555.

[1] Editor’s note: See the Global Health Security Agenda website at ghsagenda.org

[2] Editor’s note: See the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction website at gpwmd.com

[3] Editor’s note: “Secretary of Defense Allies and Partners Remarks at Atlantic Council,” U.S. Department of Defense, October 20, 2020; “Defense Secretary unveils a new strategy for bolstering allies and partnerships in an era of great-power competition,” Atlantic Council, October 20, 2020.

[4] Editor’s note: Some details are available at Terri Moon Cronk, “DOD Officials Warn of Increased Threat From Weapons of Mass Destruction,” U.S. Department of Defense, February 13, 2020.

[5] “U.S. National Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism,” December 2018, p. 6.

[6] Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, “Biosecurity in the Wake of COVID-19: The Urgent Action Needed,” CTC Sentinel 13:11 (2020).

[7] Paul Cruickshank and Don Rassler, “A View from the CT Foxhole: A Virtual Roundtable on COVID-19 and Counterterrorism with Audrey Kurth Cronin, Lieutenant General (Ret) Michael Nagata, Magnus Ranstorp, Ali Soufan, and Juan Zarate,” CTC Sentinel 13:6 (2020).

[8] See, for example, Grey Myre, “Ex-Counterterrorism Chief: Cutbacks Raise Risk Of New Attacks,” NPR, July 21, 2020; Daniel L. Byman and Andrew Amunson, “Counterterrorism in a time of COVID,” Brookings Institution, August 20, 2020; and Luis Martinez, “Pentagon weighs cutting most of its support to CIA’s counterterrorism missions,” ABC News, December 10, 2020.

[9] “Statement of Mr. David Lasseter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy Before the House Armed Services Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee,” October 2, 2020.

[10] J. Kenneth Wickiser, Kevin J. O’Donovan, Michael Washington, Stephen Hummel, and F. John Burpo, “Engineered Pathogens and Unnatural Biological Weapons: The Future of Synthetic Biology,” CTC Sentinel 13:8 (2020).

[11] “U.S. National Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism,” p. 1.

[12] William Rosenau, “Aum Shinrikyo’s Biological Weapons Program: Why Did it Fail?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 24:4 (2001); Dina Fine Maron, “Weaponized Ebola: Is It Really a Bioterror Threat?” Scientific American, September 25, 2014.

[13] Florian Flade, “The June 2018 Cologne Ricin Plot: A New Threshold in Jihadi Bio Terror,” CTC Sentinel 11:7 (2018).

[14] Wickiser, O’Donovan, Washington, Hummel, and Burpo.

[15] Editor’s note: “2020 Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report),” Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, June 2020, pp. 56, 60.

[16] “Statement of Mr. David Lasseter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy Before the House Armed Services Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

[17] De Bretton-Gordon.

[18] “Statement of Mr. David Lasseter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy Before the House Armed Services Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

[19] Editor’s note: See the JPEO-CBRND website at jpeocbrnd.osd.mil

[20] Editor’s note: See “Standoff Detection,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

[21] Jennifer Abbasi, “COVID-19 and mRNA Vaccines—First Large Test for a New Approach,” JAMA Medical News and Perspectives 324:12 (2020).

[22] “Statement of Mr. David Lasseter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy Before the House Armed Services Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

[23] De Bretton-Gordon.

[24] Stephen Hummel, Paul Cruickshank, and Don Rassler, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Drew Endy, Associate Chair, Bioengineering, Stanford University,” CTC Sentinel 13:10 (2020).

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up