U.S. officials fear lax security at Indian laboratories could make the facilities targets for terrorists seeking biological weapons, according to comments in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable made public Friday.
The cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in June 2006 said Indian government officials regarded the chances of a bioterror attack here as extremely small. Regardless, India’s surveillance system and its public health system were ill-prepared for the possibility, the cable said.
But a greater concern appeared to be the danger that terror groups could take advantage of weak security at Indian laboratories to steal “bacteria, parasites, viruses or toxins” for use in attacks elsewhere, according to the 2006 cable.
“Terrorists planning attacks anywhere in the world could use India’s advanced biotechnology industry and large bio-medical research community as potential sources of biological agents,” the cable read. “Given the strong air connections Delhi shares with the rest of the world and the vulnerabilities that might be exploited at airports, a witting or unwitting person could easily take hazardous materials into or out of the country.”
The cable, marked confidential, was obtained by WikiLeaks and posted Friday on the Website of the British newspaper The Guardian.
“Getting into a facility to obtain lethal bio-agents is not very difficult here,” one expert, whose name was redacted from the cable, told U.S. diplomats.
A second expert said that academic research facilities maintain only very loose security procedures. “The harsh reality is that you can bribe a guard with a pack of cigarettes to get inside,” the expert was quoted as saying.
One source told the diplomats that India’s thousands of biological scientists also could pose a problem.
“Recruitment of Indian scientists by anti-U.S. extremists, either for ideological brotherhood or for commercial gain, could pose a significant threat,” the cable read.
Indian officials were not immediately available for comment.
While India has not been the target of a biological attack, it has suffered devastating conventional terror strikes, including a 2001 attack on its parliament and the 2008 attack by 10 Pakistan-based militants who laid siege to the city of Mumbai for 60 hours.
Indian officials made it clear that they were focusing more on a possible nuclear or chemical attack — presumably from longtime rival Pakistan — than a biological one, the cable read.
While many countries are also poorly prepared for a bioterror attack, the cable said, “few live in the kind of dangerous neighborhood that India does, where terrorism, lax security, petty corruption, high population density, weak public health and agricultural infrastructures, and a booming and sophisticated biotech industry coexist.”
India might not even know such an attack was happening, the cable said.