Intelligence & Biological Threat Assessment

State-based intelligence activity has traditionally formed the bulk of biological threat assessments. Yet, obtaining accurate intelligence on biological threats has proved challenging. For instance, the size, scope and sophistication of the extensive Soviet biological weapons programme took Western intelligence communities by surprise when it began to be uncovered at the end of the Cold War. Western intelligence communities also had to re-evaluate assessments made in the 1990s and early 2000s that Libya and Cuba had active biological weapons programmes, retroactively concluding that earlier judgements were incorrect. The most remarkable failure, however, was the incorrect assessment of Iraq’s biological weapons programme before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Today, the intelligence community is additionally struggling to keep pace with the rate of technical and societal transformation. To meet this challenge, there is a growing but unstructured requirement in Britain for greater engagement with outside expertise.

The growing emphasis on intelligence outreach provides an unparalleled opportunity for stakeholders, including scholars from a broad range of disciplines, to consider the role they might play in these efforts, as well as the various opportunities and difficulties that can shape these relationships. In my work, I aim to build a space for interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder and international dialogue on enhancing understanding and assessment of new biological threats, increasing engagement with intelligence communities, and developing recommendations for international policy responses to biological threats that are fit for purpose in the 21st century. In May 2019, I convened an international workshop with Prof Mike Goodman on ‘Intelligence-academia engagement’ at King’s College London for 20 senior civil servants, intelligence analysts, security experts, defence scientists and academics to discuss some of these issues in more depth.

Some of this work builds on a four-year project I led on socio-political aspects of biosecurity, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Running from March 2010 to March 2014, the project examined what can loosely be termed ‘the politics of bioterrorism’ and the policies and policy networks around biosecurity. It developed an understanding of the particular way in which bioterrorism has emerged and been framed in the Anglo-American context, emphasising the evidence drawn upon and the role played by different groups of individuals and institutions.

Through my research, I found that the initial framing of bioterrorism, conceived and pushed by Washington as high consequence ‘superterrorism’, was spread in the first decade of the 21st Century to international security forums and back to capitals around the world. In the last few years, however, security concerns about bioterrorism have become increasingly linked with health concerns. Bioterrorism, or the deliberate spread of disease, is no longer thought of as a stand-alone threat, but has instead come to be understood as one element of a spectrum of disease outbreak threats that also encompass natural outbreaks, unintended consequences, accidental releases, negligence and sabotage. Framing bioterrorism as a ‘catastrophic health event’ has opened up alternate responses and intervention strategies, with their own ‘path dependent’ possibilities and consequences, to keep us secure from the threat of disease in the second decade of the 21st Century. The project paid particular attention to the links between bioterrorism and synthetic biology.

Key  publications:

Lentzos, Filippa, Jean-Baptiste Gouyon and Brian Balmer (Forthcoming) “Imagining future biothreats: The role of popular culture” in Ursula Jaspers, Myriam Dunn Cavelty and Andreas Wenger (Eds.) The possibilities and pitfalls of prediction: Academic contributions to future-oriented policy-making. Routledge.

Lentzos, Filippa (2014) “The performativity of constructed uncertainty: Military money and secrecy in biology” Science as Culture Vol.23(4).

Lentzos, Filippa (2014) “The risk of bioweapons use: Considering the evidence base” BioSocieties Vol.9(1): 84-93.

Lentzos, Filippa (2011) ‘Hard to prove: The BWC verification quandry’ Nonproliferation Review Vol.18(3): 571-582.