By Titus Peachey (Mennonite Central Committee)
Development of biological weapons in the United States could pave the way for a collapse in worldwide control on germ warfare, scientists say.
Secret research on "non-lethal weapons" - similar to the gas used by Moscow special forces to end the theatre siege - could encourage other countries to work on new weapons, according to two international specialists.
In a paper to be published in the respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Professor Malcolm Dando and Mark Wheelis argue that US attempts to maintain secrecy over its work should raise concerns over whether there are violations of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).
But Pentagon officials say they have nothing they need to report. The renewed focus on the US's secret biological programme comes at a time when the Bush administration is threatening military action against Iraq if inspectors are not allowed full access to its scientific sites.
Professor Dando of the Department of Peace Studies at Britain's Bradford University said the US had developed weapons-grade anthrax as well as copies of Soviet cluster-bombs to disperse biological weapons.
The BWC specifically bans "weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or armed conflict".
Professor Dando said there could be no justification for innocent work on a cluster bomb, though he could not say whether the decision for the research would have been taken "coherently or incoherently".
It was hard to say whether the research was a contravention of the germ warfare pact, but "they are in the grey area," he said.
"Rather than being on the edge, it would be much much better to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention to close down any offensive work," Professor Dando said.
There was no need to work out the most dangerous thing that could be done by terrorists and then prove that it could be done, as that could simply encourage people by showing what was possible, he said.
"Social factors should come in," Professor Dando said. "It's like people saying there is a free market - it's a market with rules and regulations."
Without similar international control there could be "a revolution in the hostile application of biological science", he warned, calling on countries such as Britain to demand that the US submit to inspections.
A Pentagon spokesman told the BBC: "There are no projects or research into calmatives" - such as a sleeping gas for use in riot or hostage situations.
A spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate said no research was being carried on that would need the scrutiny of the signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention.
"We have lawyers who are experts... and they tell us right away if something is a technology they should or should not be looking at.
"We don't have to go to a higher entity - they keep us honest," he said.
Though research continues into what could be deemed a chemical weapon, the projects involve technologies such as a "mobility denial system" which is actually a compound that makes a floor so slippery that someone will fall over and not be able to get up.
"It would be unreasonable to go to these [weapons convention] organisations with some of the things we are working on," said the spokesman for the directorate, which he said covers all US military work on non-lethal weapons.
Professor Dando said new suspicions were raised when the US stopped proposals to allow inspections of research facilities among the countries which signed the 1972 BWC.
One possible reason for the rejection of inspections after 10 years of negotiation, Professor Dando said, was commercial confidentiality and national security - but that made no sense as the US allies such as Britain would have had similar concerns and were prepared to agree.