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Confidential Bush administration review has recommended that the United States not accept a draft agreement to enforce the treaty banning germ weapons, according to American officials.
The recommendations appear certain to distress allies, who back the draft accord and are concerned that the new administration is concentrating too much on new military programs and not enough on treaties and nonproliferation.
After six years of negotiations, diplomats in Geneva have produced the draft agreement, known as a protocol, which would establish measures to monitor the ban on biological weapons.
A 1972 treaty, which 143 nations have ratified, prohibits the development, production and possession of biological weapons. But the treaty has always lacked a means of verifying compliance. United States support for the protocol is critical to the effort to give the treaty teeth.
The Clinton administration cast the new protocol as an important tool to stem the spread of biological weapons. And international negotiators in Geneva have been rushing to complete it by November.
But the new Bush administration has taken a far more skeptical approach. In a unanimous review, its interagency team concluded that the current version of the protocol would be inefficient in stopping cheating, and that all its deficiencies could not be remedied by the negotiating deadline.
"The review says that the protocol would not be of much value in catching potential proliferators," a senior American official said.
The White House has yet to formally endorse the review's conclusions, but since all the relevant agencies agreed to it, the White House is considered virtually certain to go along. The real issue is what steps to adopt in light of the recommendations, and how to proceed diplomatically. Although the review strongly objects to the current version of the protocol, it does not rule out fresh attempts to address monitoring.
And the review is also emerging as a sensitive diplomatic problem. President Bush heads to Europe next month, and his administration has already been under fire for steering too unilateralist a course on foreign policy, by backing away from the Kyoto accords on global warming and, to a lesser extent, the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. So the White House is eager to avoid a new split.
Tibor Toth, the Hungarian diplomat who has overseen the effort to negotiate the protocol, will fly to Washington this week to try to change the Bush administration's mind, American officials said.
"Different constituencies seem to see different flaws, which indicates it is a pretty good compromise," Mr. Toth said in a telephone interview. "If it still needs to be fixed, we have the time. Barriers have been raised to nuclear and chemical proliferation. If the world community fails to agree on a protocol to strengthen the ban on biological weapons after six years of talks, it will send a very unfortunate message."
The first step to ban germ weapons was taken when President Richard M. Nixon and other world leaders signed the treaty in 1972, at the dawn of arms control. But the agreement had no means of enforcing compliance. That became an enormous concern after President Boris N. Yeltsin conceded in 1992 that the Soviet Union had violated the accord by maintaining a long-standing biological-weapons program after the treaty went into force. Then evidence was acquired after the Persian Gulf war confirming that Iraq also had germ weapons, heightening fears over biological warfare. Most of the dozen or so countries that are believed to have biological weapons programs - like Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea - are members of the 1972 treaty.
So a decade ago, during the administration of Mr. Bush's father, the United States and other nations began studying what could be done to monitor the treaty. Six years ago, they began talks on a new protocol.
There have been many obstacles. China, which has little experience with formal arms-control treaties, is reluctant to allow on-site inspections. Pakistan is concerned that inspectors searching for germ weapons might investigate its nuclear weapons sites. And in the negotiations Iran has been trying to weaken controls on the export of biological equipment and materials, saying they hurt its civilian economies.
The United States, for its part, has had conflicting motivations. On one hand, it has worked to limit the scope of visits by foreign inspectors in order to protect American pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, which dominate the worldwide industry and are concerned with protecting their trade secrets.
And at the behest of the Pentagon, the government tried to limit inspections of American biodefense installations, which develop vaccines and protective equipment and analyze the germ warfare threat.
As a result, the United States has not been as tough on verification as most of its allies. And yet Washington also hoped that the protocol would discourage cheating.
Under the 210-page protocol, parties agree to make known their vaccine production facilities, the largest biodefense installations and facilities that do genetic engineering or aerosol studies with germ agents that are most likely to be used in weapons. But it would not require a declaration of all types of facilities that could be used to make weapons, including food and beverage plants and some pharmaceutical plants.
As for inspections, a new executive council would be established and a majority vote of the body would be required before an investigation of a suspicious plant could be carried out. That procedure, insisted on by American industry, is less strict than a similar provision in the treaty banning chemical weapons, which stipulates that such investigations are to be done unless there is a vote by three-fourths of a similar body to block them. Inspectors under the biological protocol would have to be granted access 108 hours after an inspection was approved.
Defenders say the goal of the protocol was never to provide air-tight verification but rather to increase the chances that cheaters would be caught and thereby deter violations. Some monitoring and openness, they say, is better than none.
But critics of the protocol say the accord would not really provide much security. A nation that was determined to cheat could find a way to do so and might use the limited inspections to throw other nations off the trail, they say. In this view, the United States would open itself up to inspections and get little in return.
When the Bush administration took office, the issue came to the fore. Donald A. Mahley, the American negotiator at the talks, proposed a review. The interagency group he led included working-level officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, the Commerce Department, the Energy Department and intelligence agencies.
The review found 38 problems with the protocol, a handful of them serious. But its basic assessment was very critical. It concluded that the verification measures in the treaty were unlikely to detect cheating. At the same time, the review concluded that these same provisions might be used by foreign governments to try to steal American secrets.
The review recommended that the United States not support the draft protocol that Ambassador Toth had overseen. And it concluded that there was not enough time to fix all the problems before the negotiating deadline.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has approved the review, which has been circulating in the administration. Officially, however, the White House insists that the review has not been completed, in part because it has yet to figure out a new policy.
But as word of the review has begun to seep out, it is already prompting debate. Barbara H. Rosenberg, a specialist at the Federation of American Scientists, said the Bush administration should have worked to improve the accord during the last negotiating round if it did not like it. Instead, the United States was passive, with the new administration claiming that it could not act while the policy review was supposedly under way.
"The U.S. sat quietly throughout the sessions and said nothing," Dr. Rosenberg said. "It made no effort to improve the text."
But Michael L. Moodie, a senior arms control official in the first Bush administration, said the protocol was severely flawed and needed to be replaced by a new approach.
"The protocol was not going to get the job done," Mr. Moodie said. "It is it not going to deter proliferation." And if it was put into effect, he said, "we still would not be confident that there were not major violations going on."
If the White House, as expected, affirms the review, it has several alternatives. One is to try to improve the accord before the November deadline but to accept the fact that the United States is unlikely to obtain all the changes it would like. But there is little or no support for that approach in the administration.
Another is to ask that the deadline be extended so that negotiators would work on a substantially different protocol.
Or the United States could take a significantly different approach. Supporters of that idea, which is being actively discussed in the administration, say Washington should propose a stripped-down version of the protocol that would provide for investigations when violations of the convention are suspected. Such inspections, for example, might be carried out if there was a suspicious outbreak of disease, as happened in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1979 when anthrax spores escaped from a biological weapons plant.
There is a recognition within the administration that breaking off talks on biological-weapons monitoring altogether is not feasible because of diplomatic costs. That is especially the case because the administration is already involved in sensitive talks with its allies on the missile defense issue and has been eager to show that it is not ideologically opposed to arms control.
Still, the turnabout in American policy is likely to provoke concern from American allies, particularly the British, who have been very active on the treaty.
When Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Washington in February, he insisted that the United States promise to pursue nonproliferation measures and not just missile defense, and the Bush administration aed to mention nonproliferation in the statement that both leaders issued.