Kathleen M. Vogel, "Phantom Menace or Looming Danger? A New Framework for Assessing Bioweapons Threats"

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  • Kathleen Vogel Kathleen Vogel
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October 22, 2013

How do intelligence and national security analysts produce knowledge about contemporary biological weapons threats? How is that analysis used by policy-makers? 

Vogel examines a series of historical and contemporary case studies involving state and non-state actors — Soviet anthrax weapons development, the Iraqi mobile bioweapons labs, and two synthetic genomic experiments — to show how social factors at the laboratory, organizational, and political levels have shaped United States bioweapons assessments since the 1990s and continue to do so.

Drawing on theoretical perspectives from the field of science and technology studies and interviews with intelligence community analysts and policymakers, these case studies reveal important taken-for-granted assumptions and blind spots in how knowledge about biological weapons and proliferation has been produced. These shortcomings have led to failures in how U.S. bioweapons intelligence assessments have been conducted, interpreted, and used for national security policymaking.

To remedy these problems, Vogel proposes a new way of analyzing bio weapons-related technologies and broader WMD threats using a synthesis of technical and social science methodologies.

About the speaker:
Dr. Kathleen Vogel is an associate professor at Cornell University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Science and Technology Studies and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. Vogel holds a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from Princeton University. Prior to joining the Cornell faculty, Vogel was appointed as a William C. Foster Fellow in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Proliferation Threat Reduction in the Bureau of Nonproliferation. Her research focuses on studying the social and technical dimensions of bioweapons threats and the production of knowledge in intelligence assessments on WMD issues.  Additional information:http://sts.cornell.edu/people/kmv8.cfm

Write up by Angeli Patel:

On Tuesday, October 22, 2013, Dr. Kathleen Vogel of Cornell University discussed her recent book, “Phantom Menace or Looming Danger? A New Framework for Assessing Bioweapons Threats” which examines the shortcomings of how knowledge about biological weapons threats is produced by U.S. government and non-government analysts. Vogel argues that analysts assess information through a highly technical perspective limiting their scope of analysis. Regarding biological weapons, analysts focus on codified knowledge but forget the tacit knowledge required. There is more emphasis on the features and end products of the technology but less emphasis on the accessibility of materials and relevant experts. The social context within which groups try to create biological weapons is often left out of analysis. Consequently, this information is even more skewed in policy discussion where the technical complexities of building such capabilities are often underplayed.

In her book, Vogel present several case studies in which analysts misinterpreted information leading to huge intelligence failures. For example, she cites the analysis of biological weapons threat in Iraq under WINPAC and how technical analysts and non-technical analysts worked separately when assessing the intelligence. The technical information relayed by Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, otherwise known as “Curveball”, claiming to be a chemical engineer was so compelling to technical analysts that they failed to seek further confirmation. Had they consulted the non-technical analysts, they would have learned that Curveball was a taxi driver in reality. She states that the role of technical experts became more important after the Cold-War and has remained that way since.

Vogel suggests alternatives that emphasize analyzing social dimension of technology. She highlights the need for understanding how people develop lab skills, what it takes to make biological weapons, and that mundane technologies can still be used for terrorism. She mentions that along with reassessing the framework through which analysis occurs, it is necessary to evaluate how analysts use information, how their work is supported, and how they are organized on cases.

During the questions and answer portion, Dr. Margaret E. Kosal raised a question about how there is a contradiction in trying to increase the importance of technical detail in policy discussion while also integrating technical analysts with non-technical. Dr. Jenna Jordan posed that the political framework within which analysts function must also play a large role in how information is analyzed. Vogel acknowledged that the political context has an influence of analysis but it is also true that new data is not being collected. Rather, the same data is being repacked and presented in different ways.


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Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

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Biological weapons, bioterrorism, bioweapons, Cornell University, Kathleen Vogel, nonproliferation, Policy@Tech
  • Created By: Ava Roth
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Oct 24, 2013 - 2:13am
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:15pm