Tech Visionary Focuses Now On Biological Weapons Threat

Nathan Myhrvold, who made his name with inventions at Microsoft, is focusing these days on a different kind of technological advance: the threat from biological weapons. Myhrvold's in Washington this week to meet with national security leaders. He wants to convince them to spend time and energy on terrorist attacks that could cause the greatest damage.

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Next, we'll introduce you to Nathan Myhrvold, who made his name as a prolific inventor at Microsoft. These days, he's focusing on a different kind of technological advance - the threat from biological weapons. Myhrvold is in Washington this week to meet with national security leaders, and try to convince them to spend time and energy on potential attacks. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Nathan Myhrvold is turning his entrepreneurial mind to a dark subject: What if the bad guys put down their pressure cooker bombs and picked up a vial instead?

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Biological terror is interesting because it is so damn cheap and yet can be even more lethal than nuclear.

JOHNSON: But he worries authorities are so busy trying to smoke out homegrown extremists inspired by al-Qaida that they're not thinking about more creative and destructive plots. And that, Myhrvold says, is a big mistake.

MYHRVOLD: In this case, the adversary is going to be hidden. It's going to be a small lab of people who could be cooking up a bio-terror weapon. They're very unlikely to announce themselves until after the attack.

JOHNSON: Myhrvold says authorities need to be devoting resources to that problem now - making major investments to research unknown pathogens, reordering U.S. intelligence priorities, and figuring out the role of law enforcement and the military. For example...

MYHRVOLD: How do we interdict? You know, do we knock on the door and say hi, police; please put your hands up? What if they break the vials?

JOHNSON: He's taking that message to official Washington this week. So why would the attorney general and the CIA director make time for a guy who now runs a patent company outside of Seattle? Well, Myhrvold is considered a technology visionary. And he says some of the same factors that drive innovation among tech startups apply to terrorist groups, too.

MYHRVOLD: Our ability to modify DNA, to manipulate infectious organisms, is only going to get greater. The ability of terrorist groups to use both cyber-terror means, but also using computers as a tool in command and control, all those things are making tiny groups more lethal than the greatest super powers.

JOHNSON: In his world, the terrorists are the startup and the U.S. is the one stuck in the mud.

Ben Wittes for one thinks Myhrvold is worth a listen. Wittes is a founder of Lawfare, a leading national security blog that published Myhrvold's paper on strategic terrorism.

BEN WITTES: I think there is a very legitimate conversation to be had about whether, as Myhrvold suggests, we are too focused on the small bore tactical terrorist event and insufficiently focused on the, you know, catastrophic - in his formulation - potentially species-ending level terrorist attacks.

JOHNSON: Wittes doesn't agree with all of Myhrvold's solutions. What U.S. agents are already doing to try to prevent an al-Qaida attack, Wittes says, may help catch many bio-terrorists too.

WITTES: If you're interested in preventing, you know, strategic level terrorist events, one of the ways to do that - and it may be one of the best ways to do that for a lot of people - is to focus on groups that want to commit acts of violence in the first place.

JOHNSON: That won't stop everyone with technical know-how, especially isolated types such as the Unabomber or the man accused in the 2001 anthrax attacks. But it could be the best way to dismantle small groups before they act.

For his part, Myhrvold says he's putting a lot of energy behind his ideas, to make sure government leaders are thinking creatively about threats. Cyber attacks are getting a lot of attention Myhrvold says.

MYHRVOLD: But we shouldn't get so over-focused on cyber things that we miss stuff that kills people. 'Cause, frankly, if you give me a choice of stealing my credit cards or killing me, take my credit cards, please.

JOHNSON: He wants the U.S. government to consider its choices now, before something awful happens to prove him right.

Carrie Johnson NPR News, Washington.

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