Jeffrey LewisNew Assessment of Cuban BW Effort

The lead paragraph of “In Stricter Study, U.S. Scales Back Claim on Cuba Arms” in the New York Times (September 17, 2004) leads:

The Bush administration, using stringent standards adopted after the failure to find banned weapons in Iraq, has conducted a new assessment of Cuba’s biological weapons capacity and concluded that it is no longer clear that Cuba has an active, offensive bio-weapons program, according to administration officials.

The intelligence community, however, never claimed that Cuba “had an active, offensive bio-weapons program,” but rather an “effort.”

Assistant Secretary of State Carl Ford, in testimony before Congress, emphasized that a “program” would be “something much more substantial than what we have seen” in Cuba. “We never tried to suggest we had a smoking gun,” he testified.

Ford was doing to the effort/program two step in June 2002 because, the month before, Undersecretary of State John Bolton had ever so slightly altered the intelligence judgment in his speech (leaving out the adjective “developmental”), making the statement more inflammatory. Powell tried to cover for Bolton:

As Under Secretary Bolton said recently, we do believe that Cuba has a biological offensive research capability. We didn’t say that it actually had
such weapons, but it has the capacity the capability to conduct such research. This is not a new statement.
…So Under Secretary Bolton’s speech which got attention on this issue again wasn’t breaking new ground as far as the United States’ position on this issue goes. [Emphasis mine]

Then, Powell “refused to allow Mr. Bolton to testify on this matter” before Congress. That left Ford to break some new ground in the English language:

SEN. LEVIN: The use of the words “has an effort” is an unusual construction of the English language. Now, you’ve said there’s a distinction between effort and program this morning.

MR. FORD: That’s correct.

SEN. LEVIN: Usually when you are making an effort, you are making an effort. You don’t have an effort usually. And it’s suggested there was a different construction when this was first drafted and then the word “program” was changed to “effort.” Is that correct?

MR. FORD: No, sir.

SEN. LEVIN: So this was always structured as “has an effort.” It was never “making an effort?”

MR. FORD: Well, the history has been told to me. I didn’t live it, so I can only give you my version of it. But my understanding is that the issue of whether it was a program or an effort goes back at least to the 1999 national intelligence estimate and that at least the distinction that we make is that a program has certain classic signatures that we developed in the intelligence community from looking at the Soviet Union and Russian CW/BW programs and it has certain components and that that is called a program because it has a multifaceted mini-components to it that are all designed to create military weapons that can be delivered by conventional military forces, artillery units, air forces et cetera.

An effort, in our minds, is the research and development necessary to create BW weapons in the laboratory that can be delivered in conventional means by putting into a weapon that may have already been built and you’ve bought from Russia for conventional purposes or more likely delivered in some unconventional way. And that it stops short of being a full fledged 100 percent major program to develop a stockpile of hundreds, thousands of biological weapons.

If you don’t know what a “multifaceted mini-component” is, don’t worry: the effort/program distinction is now moot. The New York Times reports “as a result of the reassessment, it is unclear whether Cuba has an active, offensive biological weapons effort under way.” No program, no effort, nothing.

In other words, the new assessment states even more strongly the intelligence community’s judgment that Cuba does not have an active bio-weapons program. The New York Times misled because they missed the distinction.

The New York Times leaves the incorrect impression that allegations of a Cuban bio-weapons program resulted from a methodological problem in the intelligence community that has now been fixed.

In fact, the real problem is partisan hacks like Bolton distort and smear inconvenient intelligence assessments. The new assessment makes it very clear that Undersecretary Bolton and the anonymous Bush Administration officials who told the Washington Times that “broad and deep evidence of Cuba’s pursuit of biological weapons” existed were off the reservation.

If the new assessment emphasizes the dual use nature of Cuban facilities as the New York Times suggests, it will be almost identical to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 1998 report, The Cuban Threat to U.S. National Security:

Cuba’s current scientific facilities and expertise could support an offensive BW program in at least the research and development stage. Cuba’s biotechnology industry is one of the most advanced in emerging countries and would be capable of producing BW agents.

Look at how Bolton characterized the 1998 DIA report, which is almost identicle to the 2004 so-called reassessment.”Why did it underplay the threat Cuba posed to the United States? A major reason is Cuba’s aggressive intelligence operations against the United States.”

Government officials who believe that dissenting voices are Cuban agents will not find a new assessment any more persuasive than its predecessors. We have a word for this worldview: paranoid.

As I said in my letter to the New York Times, the only way to change the Undersecretary’s mind, will be to change the Undersecretary.


A delegation from the Center for Defense Information (including my dissertation advisor, John Steinbruner) traveled to Cuba in October 2002 to examine some of the facilities in question. Although the delegates did not perform inspections, they found a surprising degree of openness that was more consistent with a civilian, rather than military, program.

One way to resolve this issue would be to adopt a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention that would pemit inspections of Cuban facilities in question. But Bolton torpepdoed that, too.