The U.S. intelligence community has thousands of qualified personnel who analyze and collect data on weapons of mass destruction, but few experts in the sciences on which these potentially deadly technologies are based, said experts at a recent panel discussion.
The National Counterproliferation Center, which resides in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has hired a handful of experts to act as liaisons between the intelligence world and scientific community, said Lawrence Kerr, one of the advisers to the center and a holder of a Ph.D in cell biology.
“We have phenomenal analysts, phenomenal collectors, but we have to find ways of talking to the community so we can ask for their help and not threaten their mission,” he said at an American Association for the Advancement of Science panel discussion.
The advisers do not analyze or collect intelligence, but seek ways to leverage the expertise that resides in the life sciences community.
“How can we have that understanding within the intel community where it is not resident?” he asked.
Understanding the bio-technology world is particularly important. There are rapid developments, and virtually all the equipment for finding the cures for diseases are “dual use,” meaning the technology can be used for good or evil.
The intelligence community was already adept at tracking “things,” he said. But since all of this technology is dual use, that no longer works. The challenge is now trying to detect an organization, government or person’s intent.
“How do we get inside or next to people whose influence can actually decide the intent of an individual, an organization or a state?” he asked.
Open source material such as academic journals, where the vast majority of biological science knowledge is published, are helpful. It can help narrow down where to look, but it can’t give clues to the intent of a nation or organization that may be secretly working on a weapons program.
The game is already over as far as bio-weapons proliferation, Kerr said.
“The globalization of life science enterprise, the constructs, knowledge and expertise of how one would actually turn a biological pathogen into a weapon — that information is already widely spread around the world,” he said.