December 18, 2010

WikiLeaks: Lax Security Could Lead to Bio-Weapon Threat

According to comments in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable made public on Friday, U.S. officials fear lax security at Indian laboratories could make the facilities targets for terrorists seeking biological weapons to launch attacks around the world.

The cable was part of a trove of documents sent from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi that was obtained by WikiLeaks and published Friday by the British newspaper The Guardian.

The leaked documents dealt with accusations of Indian torture in Kashmir, India's complaints about Pakistan's handling of the Mumbai terror attacks, and the concerns of Rahul Gandhi that Hindu extremists posed a great threat to Indian and Islamist militants.

One of the cables from June 2006 raised concerns that terrorists groups could take advantage of weak security at Indian laboratories to seal "bacteria, parasites, viruses or toxins."

"Terrorists planning attacks anywhere in the world could use India's advanced biotechnology industry and large biomedical research community as potential sources of biological agents," read the cable, marked "confidential."

"Given the strong air connections Delhi shares with the rest of the world and the vulnerabilities that might be exploited at airports, a witting or unwitting person could easily take hazardous materials into or out of the country."

"Getting into a facility to obtain lethal bio-agents is not very difficult here," one expert, whose name was redacted from the cable, told U.S. diplomats.

Another expert said that academic research facilities maintain only very loose security procedures.  

"The harsh reality is that you can bribe a guard with a pack of cigarettes to get inside," the expert was quoted as saying.

One source told diplomats that India's thousands of biological scientists also might be recruited.

An Indian government official dismissed the concerns as "far-fetched and faithful."

However, Suman Sahai, a biotechnology expert, told The Associated Press (AP) that security is still very poor at biotech firms, even after four years when the cable was written.

She told AP that the regulatory system is porous, employees are easily influenced and those leaving public laboratories to work for private companies often steal seeds, genetic material and other sensitive property before they head out the door.

India has suffered devastating conventional terrorist strikes, including a 2001 attack on its parliament and the 2008 attack by 10 Pakistan-based militants that sieged the city of Mumbai for 60 hours.

The cable said that Indian officials made it clear they were focusing more on a possible nuclear or chemical attack than a biological one, which they considered unlikely to happen.

The cable said that India's surveillance system and its public health system were ill-prepared for the possibility of such an attack.

While many countries are poorly prepared for a bioterror attack, the cable said, "few live in the kind of dangerous neighborhood that India does, where terrorism, lax security, petty corruption, high population density, weak public health and agricultural infrastructures, and a booming and sophisticated biotech industry coexist."

Another cable revealed the extent of India's frustration with rival Pakistan, where it says that the Mumbai plot was hatched and received army support.

According to the cable, India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told FBI director Robert Mueller that Pakistan had "done damn near nothing" to prosecute the Mumbai suspects.  

An Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao was quoted saying that Pakistan's military is "hypnotically obsessed" with India's military.  She also said that peace talks would remain on hold until Pakistan did more to dismantle terrorist networks that target India.

The cables also discussed a 2005 briefing by the International Committee of the Red Cross that accused India of the widespread use of torture in Kashmir.

The cable said that the Red Cross said it interviewed 1,491 detainees in Kashmir between 2002 and 2004 and found that many had been beaten, hung from the ceiling, put in stress positions, sexually abused or tortured with electricity, water or a round metal object known as "the roller."

The cable said that the agency raised issues with India for a decade and the continuation of the practice led the agency to believe the government condoned the torture.

On Friday, ICRC spokesman Christian Cardon said in Geneva that the briefing referred to in the cable did take place.

In response to the accusation, Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said Friday: "India is an open and democratic nation which adheres to the rule of law. If and when an aberration occurs, it is promptly and firmly dealt with."


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