NEAL CONAN, host:

From NPR News in Washington, DC, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION. Among the infernal devises of warfare, chemical weapons evoke almost universal revulsion. Arms control specialist Jonathan Tucker.

Mr. JONATHAN TUCKER (Author, War of Nerves; Senior Fellow, Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute): There is something particularly horrendous about poison weapons. I think it's their insidious,invisible nature, and there may be a deep human instinct, a deep human fear of poison that is ingrained in human nature and hence helps to reinforce the norm against the use of these weapons.

CONAN: In a new book, Tucker traces the long debate between morality and military necessity, War of Nerves. Plus, the UN's new Human Rights Council and a verdict in the controversial rape trial of South Africa's former deputy president. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, after the news.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The Chemical Weapons Convention calls for all signatories to destroy their chemical weapons stockpiles by next year. It looks as if the U.S. and Russia will not make that deadline. The treaty allows for a five-year extension, but they probably won't be finished even then.

Even so, the CWC represents an important attempt to get the genie back in the bottle. International efforts to ban poison gas go back more than a hundred years, but arguments of military necessity, retaliation and deterrents developed in parallel. Even after the horrors of the First World War, the major industrial powers found reasons to justify ever bigger and more lethal chemical stockpiles.

In more recent years, chemical weapons became the poor man's nukes and spread to less developed countries and eventually to terrorists. In his new book, War of Nerves, chemical and biological weapons expert Jonathan Tucker traces the history of chemical weapons and chemical warfare and argues that we're now at a chemical weapons crossroads.

Later on in the program, the UN's new Human Rights Council will be elected tomorrow, and a controversial verdict in South Africa earlier today, where former Deputy President Jacob Zuma was acquitted of rape charges. But first, chemical weapons.

If you have a question about the history, the use, and the arguments for and against chemical weapons, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800- 989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Jonathan Tucker is a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute. His new book is War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaida. And he joins us here in studio A, and thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. TUCKER: Thanks for the invitation.

CONAN: You describe all of the previous treaties and conventions that we've had on chemical weapons, all of them declaratory or prohibitive, and all of those failed. Do you honestly think that this moment we have a chance to reach an effective ban?

Mr. TUCKER: I think the glass is definitely half full with respect to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force nine years ago; we just celebrated the ninth anniversary on April 29th. And, as of today, 178 countries have signed and ratified this convention and about another dozen have signed but not yet ratified. So I think the vast majority of countries have signed onto the concept that chemical warfare is unacceptable and stockpiles should be eliminated and never reacquired.

There are a small handful of countries, of course, that are still holdouts, the best known being North Korea, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, for complicated reasons that we can go into a bit later.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCKER: But I think the fact that the vast majority of countries and of humanity now believe that these weapons are unacceptable beyond the pale is a very positive development.

CONAN: Yet, a hundred years ago, the vast majority of humanity and the vast majority of nations believed these chemical weapons were uncivilized and beyond the pale, and put in the situation of military necessity, as they saw it, during the First World War; first, Germany found legalistic loopholes to get around it and thought, well, if we could just have this one breakthrough on the western front, it would end the war, and, yes, chemical weapons would be terrible, but war is even more terrible.

Mr. TUCKER: Mm-hmm. Yes, I - you know, as I point out in the book, there has been an ongoing race between military necessity and the taboo or restoring that taboo of chemical weapons. But I think that the - that taboo is so deep, so profound in human nature, that it will ultimately prevail. There are troubling developments in technology; for example, the emergence of incapacitating agents…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCKER: …the use of biotechnology, potentially, to develop new types of chemical agents to affect - to not only incapacitate but perhaps to affect people's behavior, is deeply troubling; and we need, for that reason, to constantly reinforce the norm.

CONAN: Yeah, but…

Mr. TUCKER: Vigilance is obviously absolutely essential. We can't be complacent.

CONAN: And, again, going around the edges of these definitions, but some people say these are non lethal weapons. This would be a good thing.

Mr. TUCKER: Well, if there were such a thing as a non lethal weapon. I take issue with the very definition. As we saw in the Moscow theater incident in 2002, when Chechen rebels held several hundred people hostage in the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, and the Russian special forces used - pumped in a gas that was supposedly a non lethal gas, but because it's impossible to control the concentration of a gas in an enclosed space, more than a hundred hostages ended up dying in that incident.

So that is, from the technical standpoint, I think, non lethal chemical is a misnomer, but also there is the slippery slope argument. If we stop - if we start permitting the use of incapacitating chemicals in tactical situations, then it could lead very easily to the use, again, of lethal chemicals on the battlefield.

CONAN: You do A, I do B, and there we're tit for tat…

Mr. TUCKER: Right.

CONAN: …and there you go.

Mr. TUCKER: The question is where do you draw the line in a counterterrorist operation? There is a loophole in the Chemical Weapons Convention for domestic law enforcement, but I think in this case, it was arguably much more an extension of the Chechen war that was being fought out in Moscow than a true law enforcement operation.

CONAN: There is also an element of shame that seems to go back throughout the history of chemical weapons, and it was there in Russia, as well. They didn't admit that what the agent was. They didn't describe it, presumably because they didn't want to give information away, so the antidote wasn't available.

Mr. TUCKER: I don't know if shame was the explanation. I think the secrecy surrounding this weapon, also the fact that it should have been declared under the Chemical Weapons Convention and was not.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCKER: But they still have not admitted the exact chemical composition of the gas that was used in the Moscow theater incident.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our number, if you'd like to join us, is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Jim(ph), Jim calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JIM (Caller): Yes, hey. I am a - I'm a chemistry professor, and I find the term chemical weapon interesting, because a lead bullet is a chemical weapon; and so I'm just curious, as far as treaties go, what is the exact definition of a chemical weapon? Where do you draw the line in that definition?

Mr. TUCKER: There is a technical definition in the Chemical Weapons Convention, and it refers to weapons that by their poisonous action on physiological systems, on body systems, produce incapacitating or lethal effects. So, for example, incendiary weapons such as white phosphorus, although a chemical is not technically a chemical weapon because it produces its damaging effects through its burning or incendiary properties rather than its chemical properties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: Okay, it's an argument of semantics then.

Mr. TUCKER: Well, it's a very significant distinction under international law. There are other treaties that cover incendiary weapons, for example, or that cover bullets, so it's important to have very precise definitions in treaties for that reason.

JIM: OK, all right. Well, thank you for your answer.

CONAN: Okay, Jim. Thanks very much for the call.

JIM: All right, bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to - this is Viroon(ph), Viroon calling us from San Jose.

VIROON (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

VIROON: My question is that I've seen so many internationals bodies debating all these bans and things like that and spending millions and millions of (unintelligible) regulation and things like that, but in my memory or in my whatever, the history that I have read, I have not seen a single country being punished for using chemical weapons; so what's the point of having all this laws and bans in place when we can't implement it properly?

CONAN: Hmm. Well, as we look at it, Jonathan Tucker, certainly Iraq suffered no punishment for its use of chemical warfare against Iran, or for that matter against the Kurds, though belatedly, perhaps. And you point out that Egypt never suffered any serious punishment or even serious investigation, for that matter, of its use of chemical weapons in Yemen.

Mr. TUCKER: Well, that's true. I mean, these - these agreements are only as effective as they are enforceable, and that is a weakness. Even though these laws are on the books, they must be enforced to be fully credible.

Even so, I think the very existence of a norm that has been signed on by the vast majority of nation states has, in itself, a very powerful effect, a deterrent effect, on countries that would think of using these weapons. That doesn't mean there won't be use, but I think it's much less likely than if the treaties did not exist and these weapons were accepted as legitimate means of warfare.

VAROON(ph) (Caller): So basically, historically speaking, none of the country has been punished so far, and - just a curiosity?

Mr. TUCKER: In terms of formal legal proceeding, one problem is that the use of these weapons is not considered a crime against humanity, or it hasn't been formally designated as such. So that, for example, a head of state that employed such weapons cannot be brought before the International Criminal Court and made legally liable as an individual. These treaties apply to states rather than individuals. I think that might have a deterrent effect if a head of state who was contemplating the use of chemical weapons knew that such use was banned under international criminal law.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Isn't it also fair to say, though, that every case where they've been used, they've been used in a war, where even outside powers have interest in seeing who wins and who loses, interests that are more important to them, perhaps, than the violation of a treaty on chemical weapons.

Mr. TUCKER: Yeah, chemical weapons have also been used in a few cases by terrorists…

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. TUCKER: …so that would be an example of non state use. But, in general, you're right. There is a process of escalation. Usually, the -what happens is that countries start using tear gas, non lethal agents on the battlefield, and then escalate to ever-more toxic agents, initially blister agents, and finally, nerve agents, as happened in the Iran-Iraq War.

VAROON: Varoon, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

VAROON: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: As we look at the enforcement regimes on these - on the chemical weapons, and, again, it's - if they don't have it, we don't have to have it is an argument. But, as we pointed out - you pointed out earlier, I think, in alluding to the Middle East, there are still situations where Syria, for example, wants chemical weapons to balance Israel's nuclear weapons. And there are other imbalances like that, that people think can be addressed by chemical weapons.

Mr. TUCKER: Yes, one difference, I think, is that there are effective defenses against chemical weapons. They impose certain military liabilities. So one of the rationales when we did have a chemical weapons program was that, on the one hand, we needed to deter the Soviets. We have, of course, other weapons of mass destruction; we have nuclear weapons; we have very powerful, conventional forces.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCKER: And our troops are very well protected against chemical weapons. But if they go into a chemical environment, they have to suit up. They have to wear what's called MOP gear, which is extremely debilitating, particularly in a hot, desert environment; and troops cannot wear protective gear for very long, only for, perhaps, a few hours at a time before they really become severely impaired. So that is an argument for also trying to ban these weapons, if at all possible.

CONAN: Our guest is Jonathan Tucker. He's the author of a new book about the history of chemical warfare from World War I to al-Qaida called War of Nerves.

If you'd like to join our conversation, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK; e-mail is talk@npr.org. We'll be back after a short break. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today with Jonathan Tucker, an expert on the history and use of chemical and biological weapons. His new book is War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaida. He's with us here in Studio 3A.

Of course, you're invited to join us: 800-989-8255, e-mail, talk@npr.org. And let's get another caller on the line: Josh(ph). Josh is calling us from Grass Valley in California.

JOSH (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOSH: I was wondering if your guest could please speak a little bit to the history of Iraq's acquisition of chemical weapons, just when it was that they acquired them, and who they acquired them from.

Mr. TUCKER: Okay, Iraq actually began to acquire chemical weapons as early as the 1970s. And, initially, they did so under the cover of acquiring a pesticide industry. And, unfortunately, many western countries, and a few companies in the United States, provided dual-use equipment, that is production equipment that could be used to make legitimate chemicals, but also, and in the case of Iraq, was used to make chemical weapons.

And this is a rather sad chapter, but there have been developments since then that are designed to make these supply relationships much more difficult. We - in 1985, there was an organization called the Australia Group that was established that imposes harmonized export controls on dual-use chemicals, precursor chemicals, and equipment that can be used to make chemical weapons, in order to impede the efforts of proliferators to acquire the necessary technology.

This regime is not 100 percent airtight, but it has made it much more difficult for proliferators to acquire the necessary technology.

JOSH: Were there any other countries that had contributed to their -besides the United States - other countries - can you speak to (unintelligible)?

Mr. TUCKER: Yes, yes. Well, Germany, Switzerland, Italy. There were a wide variety of countries that provided dual-use equipment, sometimes unwittingly, but, in a few cases, wittingly. There have been - there were trials in Germany of Karl Kolb, for example. This was a company that was deeply involved in Iraq's chemical weapons program and provided turnkey plants for the production of mustard and nerve gas in Iraq. So clearly, there is a - there were unscrupulous businessmen that were deeply implicated because there was a lot money to be made in this kind of dark business.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It should be pointed out that Iraq was hardly the first country to try to hide its chemical weapons project as an insecticide project.

Mr. TUCKER: Yes, that's right. Egypt also acquired a nerve agent capability under the cover of a pesticide program. And long before that, the Nazis produced - actually discovered nerve agents in the course of pesticide research. And they actually discovered a chemical called tabun that was so - so lethal that it could not be used safely as a pesticide and was turned into a chemical weapon.

CONAN: Josh…

JOSH: Thanks very much. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Josh.

It was interesting - in fact, we talk about intelligence failures, World War II, the United States, Britain, France did not know that Nazi Germany had these incredibly powerful weapons. On the other hand, the Germans did not know that the Allies didn't.

Mr. TUCKER: Yes, that's right. There has been historical debate over why chemical weapons were not used in World War II, and there are a number of different theories. One is that mutual deterrence prevailed. The Nazis knew that the Allies possessed large stock of phosgene and mustard gas, which had been invented during World War I and were stockpiled in large quantities.

But the Germans had discovered a new generation of chemical weapons called the nerve agents quite by chance, during pesticide research, as I mentioned. And they considered, on many occasions during the war, the possibility of unleashing these secret weapons, but they were deterred by, actually, an intelligence failure. The German intelligence suspected that the United States and Russia had also developed nerve agents.

This turned out to be not the case, even though there was research going on very actively in both countries, they did not make the breakthrough involved - required, in coming up with a molecular structure that was uniquely toxic. And, as a result, the Germans were self-deterred from initiating the use of the weapons.

By the end of the war, of course, their cities were very vulnerable to aerial attack, and Roosevelt and Churchill made explicit deterrent threats that if the Germans initiated the use of chemical weapons, the Allies would respond in kind and devastate German cities.

CONAN: And, Adolph Hitler, himself, had been gassed during the First World War and had a strong aversion to the use of chemical weapons -well, outside of concentration camps, anyway.

Mr. TUCKER: That's correct. Hitler, during one of the final battles of World War I, had been exposed to mustard gas and temporarily blinded, which was a deeply traumatic experience. So he had a deep aversion to chemical weapons. And even though members of the Nazi inner circle, such as Goeble, Borman, and Lye(ph), advocated on many occasions for the German use of the nerve agents against the Red Army; Hitler always equivocated, could not make up his mind, I think in part, because of his deep aversion to these weapons.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Jim(ph), Jim in Ann Arbor Michigan.

JIM (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JIM: I was very curious where - in a related question to what you were just talking about - the pharmaceutical industry, and the use of various drugs that could potentially be used as, you know, chemical weapons. I think that in the grand scheme for something like mustard gas, it would be unlikely. But, for example, the Chechan incident, the theater incident that you just discussed, could they have been using an inhalational anesthetic for that and, hence, that could be categorized as a, quote, "chemical weapon"? Where do we draw the line? And also, is there any history of the pharmaceutical industry being manipulated in a way to produce potential agents?

Mr. TUCKER: Okay, in terms of the composition of the gas that was used in the Moscow theater incident, it's believed to have contained pheninthal(ph), which is an anesthetic gas that is widely used in operating theaters around the world, of course, under very controlled conditions. But it's believed that the gas was a complex mixture that contained other elements that are not fully understood.

In terms of the role of the pharmaceutical industry and the chemical industry, during World War I, the chemical industry was deeply involved in production of chemical weapons. And, in fact, they lobbied strongly against the ratification of the Geneva Protocol, which was the first treaty to ban the use in war of chemical weapons back in 1925. And, in part, because of the lobbying efforts of the American Chemical Society and the chemical industry, the treaty never came up for a vote in the Senate. And it was not until 1975, 50 years later, that the United States finally ratified it.

Today, the chemical industry is a strong advocate of chemical arms control. In fact, they played a key role in the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention back in 1997 in persuading the Republican-controlled Senate to support this treaty, even though there were concerns that it would have an adverse effect on industry because it involves intrusive inspections of chemical plants, and there was concern about risk to proprietary information, for example. But the chemical industry, knowing the public relations benefits of opposing and eliminating any association with chemical warfare, was a strong advocate of the treaty.

So that was, I think, a very important change of heart on the part of the chemical industry. The pharmaceutical industry is more involved in the Biological Weapons Convention, in terms of the productions of vaccines and other biological products.

CONAN: Jim, I thank you very much for the call.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Carlo(ph). Carlo in Gainesville, Florida.

CARLO (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CARLO: I just have a general question, and it has to do with - wondering whether you could expound on the morality and the ethical aspects of industrialized nations developing weapons of mass destruction and, basically, selling them to other countries when we know that these weapons are being fabricated, basically, to annihilate the private citizens of different countries, not necessarily soldiers of an aggressor nation. So - I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, is that right, Jonathan Tucker? Do you - certainly in World War I, they were intended for use against military troops, even Yemen…

Mr. TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: …and the Egyptian case, were attacking what they thought were -clearly they made mistakes, and civilians were hit…

Mr. TUCKER: Right.

CONAN: …but Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds is unusual in that respect.

Mr. TUCKER: Yeah, I think it's important to distinguish between tactical weapons and strategic weapons. Chemical weapons were really designed for battlefield use. They - very large quantities are required to cover these - the size of a city. So they are not really contemplated as strategic weapons the way nuclear weapons would be used against entire cities. So perhaps there is some distinction there. Whether chemical weapons should be called weapons of mass destruction is somewhat debatable. They are really more tactical or battlefield weapons.

The whole issue of morality, when one gets into the military realm, is very, very difficult. What is considered legitimate or just -conventional explosives do terrible things to the human body.

CONAN: After the First World War, I think it was Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart, the famous military historian and theorist, who, in his history of the First World War, said in a lot of ways these were more human weapons than bullets and shrapnel.

Mr. TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And, of course, we've gone on to invent more horrible chemical weapons, but, nevertheless, he was not alone in his theory.

Mr. TUCKER: Yes. But there was something I think uniquely horrible and insidious that fed into deep primal fears in human nature that I think has made these weapons easier to ban or easier to de-legitimate to make beyond the pale than other categories of weapons.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCKER: It is perhaps to be hoped that, in the future, nuclear weapons will fall into the same category, that we will someday view nuclear weapons with the same horror that we view chemical weapons. But, for a variety of political and other reasons, that is not the case today.

CONAN: Email question from Jeffrey(ph).

(Reading) “What chemical weapons have been used by America? And if they have, who were the stakeholders?” His word, not mine.

Mr. TUCKER: Okay. The only time the United States has used lethal chemical weapons was in World War I. And we entered into the war quite late in 1917. The first use of chemical weapons in that war was by Germany in April of 1915. So the war had been going on for more than two years by the time the U.S. intervened and, at that time, there was large-scale use of chemical weapons by all sides.

And the U.S. was totally unprepared for this new threat. We had to be supplied with defensive equipment by our allies. And there was a crash program, a mini Manhattan Project, back in 1917, to develop large quantities of mustard gas and other—phosgene - other chemical weapons, so that we would be in a position to retaliate. But since World War I, the U.S. has not used these weapons.

We stockpiled them in very large quantities during World War II. And then during the Cold War, when we engaged in a kind of chemical arms race that was much more shadowy - paralleled the much more high profile nuclear arms race. But literally tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons were produced both by the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. And we're now dealing with the legacy of that Cold War arms race in our efforts to destroy these weapons.

CONAN: We're talking today with Jonathan Tucker about his new book War of Nerves. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And one of the most disturbing parts of that Cold War legacy was the experimentation on human beings of nerve agents of various types. Not just in this country, but in the Soviet Union and Britain.

Mr. TUCKER: Yes. There was a very extensive program of human experimentation, not involving deliberate killing of individuals, but determining the effects of low dose exposure to mustard and nerve agents. Both at Porton Down in England and at Edgewood Arsenal in the United States, which were the two leading chemical weapons research and development facilities in the U.S. and Britain. And there was one incident, a very tragic incident, that I describe, in which a young man of 20 in Britain died during an experiment. His name was Ronald Madison.

And the circumstances of his death were secret for many, many years. They were classified. And it was only a few years ago that there was a re-inquest into his death. And it was determined that he had died under circumstances of a chemical weapons test. And the judge determined that it was - there was no military rationale for the test. It was inappropriate. But he was not going to hold the scientists legally liable for that incident.

CONAN: And let's get Andy(ph) on the line. Andy's with us from Des Moines.

ANDY (Caller): Yeah. I have a quick question about, you know, it was well known that the Japanese widely used the chemical weapon during World War II, especially in China and southeast Asia. Even now, they have tens of thousands of these chemical weapons left over. But the clean-up effort was very slow by Japanese government. It's very hard to believe that the second, you know, economical power in the world is doing this, you know, this slow job. Is this part of the thing covered by the chemical convention or anybody can do something about it?

Mr. TUCKER: Yes. Absolutely. Japan did use chemical weapons and biological weapons against China during World War II, and after the war Japan abandoned large stockpiles of chemical weapons in northeast China. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which both China and Japan are parties, the two are negotiating an arrangement for the destruction of these abandoned weapons. And under the treaty Japan is liable, is financially responsible for destroying the weapons. But there have been difficulties in these bilateral negotiations between Japan and China.

For one thing, there is a disagreement on the size of the abandoned stockpile. With the Chinese claiming that there are two million munitions that remain to be recovered. And the Japanese claiming it's only about 700,000.

ANDY: But it's a problem that the Japanese, you know, they have well documented archives, but it is very difficult for them, you know, to completely open the archives as, you know, why are they left over and how many. But, you know, I mean, we have - the international society pushed very hard on Germany, you know, the government, to open all their archives, even for the art that was stolen. Why can't the Japanese government open this archive when we're talking about human life?

Mr. TUCKER: Yeah. I can't answer that question. I just know that Japan has agreed to destroy its abandoned weapons in China and that under the treaty this is an obligation of parties that have - not only Japan, but any other country that has abandoned chemical weapons is responsible for destroying them.

CONAN: Andy, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

ANDY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're going to talk about terrorism and chemical weapons after we come back from a short break. We're also going to be talking about the new U.N. Human Rights Council. Election is up tomorrow, what countries are offering themselves to judge other countries on their human rights record. We'll also be going to South Africa where there was a controversial verdict today in a rape trial where the former deputy president of South Africa was acquitted. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tomorrow, our mental health is just as important as our physical health, but getting the best mental healthcare is not always easy. How to get good and effective mental health treatment, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In just a moment a controversial verdict today in the trial of a former South African politician. And we'll be talking about the new human rights council at the United Nations.

But, Jonathan Tucker, I wanted to ask you - the last chapter of your book is about the spread of chemical weapons to non state actors. Of course, everybody remembers Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that developed sarin, a nerve agent, on its own and released it in the Tokyo subway. I have to say one of the most encouraging parts of your book was to read all the descriptions of the industrial processes required to develop these weapons. It's very difficult.

Mr. TUCKER: Yes. It is. It's much more difficult than I think is generally assumed, particularly to produce these chemicals in large quantities. And large quantities is what is needed for a mass casualty attack. These are nonliving chemicals and to create a lethal concentration over a large area requires literally tons of even an agent as toxic as sarin.

In the case of Aum Shinrikyo, this was, I think, an extraordinary cult. They were more akin to an organized crime syndicate, even though they did have elements of a quasi-Buddhist religious cult. But they were engaged in a wide variety of legitimate and illegitimate activities and amassed, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars. So they had extraordinary resources.

They recruited scientists from Japanese universities, including chemists and biologists. And even so, they were not able to produce large quantities of sarin. They produced small quantities. They imported a turnkey chemical plant from Switzerland, ostensibly for legitimate reasons. But actually set up a production line for sarin, but they were never able to get it operating effectively.

And to carry out the infamous Tokyo subway attack, they actually synthesized a relatively small amount of sarin in a laboratory, not using their big factory. They did it over a 24-hour period, so it was a very rushed job. The sarin was only about 30 percent pure. And they did not have a delivery system. They simply poured it into plastic bags, which operatives then took on subway cars and punctured with sharpened umbrellas. And, as a result, there were limited fatalities from that attack. There were 12 dead. Upwards of 1000 people had, more or less, nonfatal injuries.

But the psychological impact of this attack was devastating. And I think this is an important lesson: Even though it's difficult to inflict mass casualties with chemical or even biological weapons, they have a disproportionate psychological impact because of their insidious nature and the fact that they feed into our deepest fears.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. One last call on this subject. Scott(ph). Scott calling from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my question.

CONAN: Sure.

SCOTT: I have a question also about terrorism. You know, you were talking about non state sponsored terrorism with the Aum Shinrikyo, but, you know, clearly we're talking at - looking at, you know, al-Qaida type terrorism, which you may call it - well, at least, political terrorism. And also, some of the countries in the Mid-East, you know, have threatened various forms of terrorist activities. So, my question is, if there is not a successful effort to adequately stop proliferation of chemical weapons, how do you think that might impact the likelihood of proliferation through terrorism, number one? And number two, what do you think the likelihood that such terrorism taking place in American cities might be state sponsored or political terrorism?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUCKER: We do know that bin Laden has expressed openly interest in acquiring unconventional weapons. In fact, he said it was his religious duty to do so. There are allegations that when the government of Sudan was controlled by an Islamist, al-Tourabi, that there was close cooperation between bin Laden and the government of Sudan that may have included the development of chemical weapons.

And you may recall that the United States, during the Clinton administration, attacked a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, called the Al Shifa plant, on the grounds that it was involved in the production of VX nerve agent. Now, those allegations later came into question when there did not appear to be hard evidence of a link between that plant and chemical weapons production.

But even so, there is pretty clear evidence of interest on the part of al-Qaida in working with the government of Sudan to acquire chemical weapons. Now, whether they did so at al-Shifa is a matter of debate.

So I think this is a disturbing development. And to the extent that al-Qaida still exists as a coherent organization, I think they are likely to want to pursue chemical weapons. Whether they have the capacity to produce large quantities and to deliver them effectively, I think is unclear.

The scenario that actually troubles me the most is industrial sabotage, because we have many chemical facilities in this country that work with toxic chemicals, that store them on site, that transport them. And I think this is perhaps the most likely scenario of al-Qaida using our technology against us the way they did on September 11th, turning passenger aircraft into bombs.

They might try to turn our very own chemical plants into chemical bombs to be used against us.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the call.

SCOTT: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: And Jonathan Tucker, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. TUCKER: Thank you.

CONAN: Jonathan Tucker's new book is, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda.

Coming up next, the U.N. human rights commission.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.