There is national security justification for southern border wall — an “inevitable” pandemic or other disaster that leads to a collapse in law and order

Dr. Drew Miller, Col USAFR (Ret)

President Trump does have a well-documented national security threat that could be used to justify declaring an emergency to fund his coveted southern border wall. Experts have been warning for decades that a natural pandemic is overdue, and that biotechnology increases the risk of a bio attack. When a pandemic occurs, or other major disaster like loss of the electric system, a “collapse” is likely to occur: economic activity will shut down and widespread, long-lasting loss of law and order should be expected. Conditions will be horrible everywhere, but millions of south and central American citizens may decide that they are better off trying to survive in the United States. Maintaining border security will be much harder during a collapse. A much more formidable border wall would be very valuable.

In 2016, an article I wrote on bioengineered viral pandemics (BVP), published in The American Interest, warned that will soon, perhaps tomorrow, enter the “Age of Bioengineered Viral Pandemics and Collapse.”[1] As a retired military intelligence officer, I’ve never seen a worse or more inevitable threat. New technologies like bioengineering enable a small terrorist group or even one dedicated individual to modify and release a new virus that could cause a pandemic and collapse in economic activity and law and order that yields marauding and mass starvation that might kill off most of us. A host of experts say bioengineered viral pandemics (BVP) are inevitable. They are not a future threat, but a present risk that is growing since it is increasingly easier to modify an existing pathogen to make it more lethal or transmissible.

In December 2011 national media reported that scientists had created a deadly virus with 60% lethality. The government asked the scientists not to publish their results, citing risks of terrorists using this information. Biotechnology that promises great new treatments and advances in medicine is also going to be used to design deadly new viruses that could wipe out most of mankind. It’s too late to stop the spread of this technology and its inevitable misuse, and just a question of when and how bad bioengineered viral pandemics will be.

Genetic engineering or bioengineering is manipulation of an organism’s genetic material. We’ve been creating genetically modified organisms (GMO) since the 1970s, and in 2010 the first synthetic (not made by combining existing organism’s DNA) new life form was created. Genetic modifications, though rare, do occur in nature — that’s why we get new strains of flu all the time and have had viral pandemics. Geneticists can greatly speed up genetic change, creating viruses and bacteria that never existed before. With newer techniques, a simple, cheap lab (perhaps in your neighbor’s garage) can generate millions of recombinants in minutes.[2] We were assured that modified genes from modified plants would not pass into other, natural plants; but this has not been the case. A much greater risk than modified genes spreading among native plants is bioengineering that accidentally or intentionally creates a human to human transmissible version of avian flu or modifies a lethal virus to have a longer latency period for it to spread undetected.

A Brookings Institution report explained the bioengineered virus threat:

“Using gene-splicing equipment available online and other common laboratory equipment and materials, a molecular biology graduate student undertakes a secret project to recreate the Smallpox virus. Not content merely to bring back an extinct virus to which the general population is now largely naïve, he uses public source material to enhance the virus’s lethality, enabling it to infect even those whom the government rushes to immunize. . . . While time-consuming, the task is not especially difficult. And when he finishes, he infects himself and, just as symptoms begin to emerge, he proceeds to have close contact with as many people from as many possible walks of life as he can in a short time.”[3]

Dr. Tara O‘Toole, former director of Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies offered similar warnings: “all you have to do is click in the new gene, you get a new pathogen, you get a new weapon. . . .”[4] If it’s a lone terrorist or lunatic launching the virus, it may not spread far before we detect it and limit the devastation. If it’s a nation like Iran or North Korea, spreading a bioengineered virus with high lethality and transmissibility, with a long period where carriers are contagious but not suffering from the illness or symptoms, the virus might kill millions leaving survivors in a disastrous state of collapse that could last for years, with even higher fatalities.

“Collapse” is defined as a cessation of most economic activity and widespread lack of law and order, for a prolonged period of time, with very high fatalities (millions, over 10% of the population). Indeed, GMOs pose an “existential threat,” meaning a risk not just of killing millions of people, but potentially billions, wiping out the human race or civilization as we know it. An existential threat is defined here as one that could kill most of the population (over 90%), causing a collapse that lasts beyond a few years, with the level of pre-collapse civilization and normal life not returning for generations. Oxford Professor Dr. Nick Bostrom, part of the unheard chorus warning of the bioengineering threat, defines an existential risk as “one where humankind as a whole is imperiled. . . [with] major adverse consequences for the course of human civilization for all time to come.”[5] Compared to nuclear weapons, DNA manipulation and bio engineering is likely a much worse threat; probably the worst in the history of mankind, because it puts tremendous, potentially existential, killing power in the hands of individuals.

A bioengineered virus, launched in our crowded, interconnected world by an enemy working to spread it widely before it is detected, could yield a more devastating pandemic than anything experienced in the past. Smallpox killed as many as 90% of Aztec, Maya, and Inca citizens, and killed 500 million people in the 20th century. It could do worse now since immunity is gone and our populations are far more vulnerable to catching a virus, and far less able to survive during collapse situations.[6] Stanford Professor Dr. Nathan Wolfe warned that “if terrorists ever got their hands on one of the few remaining vials of smallpox, the results would be devastating. . . . Interestingly, in 2004 scabs from suspected smallpox were found in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in an envelope.”[7] Many fear that laboratories beyond the U.S. and Russia still have smallpox virus, and its genetic code was posted on the Internet.[8]

Dozens of biologists and scientists have warned that developing lethal viruses is increasingly cheap and easy. There is no need for a national program, big lab, expensive equipment, or specialized expertise. Only a few days are needed for a virus released in multiple airports to reach every city and probably most small towns in the U.S. If the smallpox virus has been genetically modified, the limited supply of vaccines we have for it may not work.

In 2011, Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center, in Rotterdam, turned H5N1 virus into a possible human-to-human flu by infecting ferrets (mammals used to test human effects) repeatedly until a form of H5N1 that could spread through the air from one mammal to another resulted. This was not high-tech bioengineering, but swabbing the noses of the infected ferrets and using the gathered viruses to infect another round. A team of scientists at China’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory combined H5N1 with genetic attributes found in dozens of other types of flu. Some of their “man-made super flu strains” could spread through the air between guinea pigs, killing them.[9] This was condemned by scientists around the world as “appalling irresponsibility” since the new viral strains created by mixing bird-flu virus with human influenza could escape from the laboratory to cause a global pandemic killing millions of people.[10] If researchers we know of are tampering with H5N1 to make it human to human transmissible, we should expect that terrorists and nation-states are doing this as well.

BVP will also come from accidents in professional labs and do-it-yourself (DIY) biologists in their garages. In 2001 Australian researchers attempting to make a contraceptive vaccine for pest control inserted a “good” gene into mousepox virus and accidentally created a lethal new virus that resisted vaccination. Other legitimate lab accidents have likely occurred but were not publicized. We don’t want to imagine what do-it-yourself biologists and biohackers are doing. There are thousands of DIY Bio members (website below). Some work alone at home, others in small rent-a-lab spaces around the world.[11]

Do-It-Yourself Bio organization, web site

Advances in DNA manipulation technology, cheap lab equipment, and information posted on the Internet enable a single person with the right resources to make artificial smallpox or worse.[1] With “professional” scientists in controlled labs irresponsibly making human transmissible forms of highly lethal Avian flu and publishing the instructions, there should be no question that DIY bio folks in their garage, biohackers, lunatics, terrorists, or countries like Iran and North Korea will either intentionally or accidentally unleash a BVP.

If we’re lucky, an accidental or one-man bio attack may fail to spread to pandemic status. The worst threat is Iran or Al Qaeda bioengineering a virus they release against us in multiple locations, perhaps after they’ve developed a vaccine to protect themselves. For new, bioengineered viruses, there will very likely be no immunity or treatment. So if a nation-state were to put even a small lab to work to develop a GMO with the cubed power of high lethality, high transmissibility, and long latency period, as well as create a vaccine only they have, this state would have the capability to destroy any enemy. Delivered correctly, the devastated population would not even know who to blame for the attack.

It may seem irrational for a nation state to unleash a contagious agent, but it’s quite likely given the ability to launch the attack secretly, without any identification of what country is responsible. A country with too many people to feed and a ruthless government that could protect parts of the population it values, might inoculate party members and key people they want to survive. Or a country could stockpile vaccines to administer to all their citizens after the virus was released overseas, close their borders as soon as it’s detection is announced, and wipe out the United States to leave them at the top of a new world order with no one around to challenge them. A Revolutionary Guards group in Iran upset with their government’s failure to destroy “the Great Satan” might decide to do this on their own. If nation A, finds out that nation B is developing a bioengineered virus (and antidote) and plans to release it against them, they may decide to launch a preemptive bioattack. There are thousands of cases one could foresee, none as irrational as the world going to war after a terrorist assassinates the Arch Duke of a declining state.

The BVP need not be that effective in killing infected victims to generate a collapse which kills millions and destroys the nation’s strength. A few letters of anthrax powder caused a lot of trouble. A deadly new virus spreading will wreak orders of magnitude more disruption and cascading casualties.

With a largely rural population and relatively little, slow international travel, the plague wiped out about one third of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages. Today, over half of the world’s 7 billion people live in cities, visited daily by international travelers. Unlike the Middle Ages, people today have better sanitation and health care, but are much more urbanized and densely packed together, sustained by food and water that arrives from distant locations, relying on delivery systems and economic operations that will shut down if there is a lethal contagious virus spreading and people understandably not reporting to work. Even people with the courage to face the risk may change their mind when they realize they could bring a fatal virus home to infect their families. Those that do keep working, medics and police in particular, are likely to catch the virus. We should expect that very quickly almost all economic activity, public services, production, and transportation will cease. To minimize inventory costs, businesses, even hospitals, have “just in time” delivery of supplies, sourcing from lowest cost providers on the other side of the world. Even if your local trucker decides to continue working, with multiple long-distance suppliers and shippers involved in moving foodstuffs, a contagious pandemic will stop the flow of goods. Panic buyers will strip supermarkets of goods within the first hour of the news. Public water supplies that depend on maintenance personnel reporting to work may also fail. Our highly interdependent, just in time delivery economy is very vulnerable to disruptions. Nassim Taleb points this out: “Our connected world appears to be more efficient. But when there is a disturbance, the setback is much harder to handle. Not only are we building riskier systems, but also the risks involved in failure are a lot larger.”[2]

More critical than the probability of a disastrous event occurring is whether the effects spread, how people react, and whether or not it leads to collapse. In a pandemic with lack of food and water, widespread marauding is likely to occur, yielding a collapse situation even if the virus has a low lethality like the Spanish flu. Katrina was an eye opener for many: a very predictable, relatively small disaster quickly led to violence and breakdown in law and order. Looting rapidly spread throughout the city, often in broad daylight and in the presence of police officers. One third of New Orleans police officers deserted the city in the days before the storm, many of them escaping in their department-owned patrol cars. In 1977 New York City suffered a lightning strike, which led to a power failure for one night. Over 3,000 arrests were made for looting, 400 policemen were injured, 500 fires were started.

Some of the major changes in our society’s vulnerability to disruptions and resilience to recover are summarized in the chart below. In addition to these factors, there are many additional reasons why we are far more likely to suffer when a widespread disaster hits. For example, despite rising population, we have fewer hospital beds and emergency rooms in the U.S. Between 1990 and 2009, emergency rooms in non-rural U.S. hospitals declined 27%, from 2,446 to 1,779.[3]

Many won’t wait to exploit the disaster, they will loot and maraud immediately. UK riots in 2011 showed that law enforcement can break down and violence spread without an underlying trigger disaster. The British Prime Minister called it “pure criminality”; others said it was inevitable violence from youth fed up with unemployment or family breakdown. Attacks on police and looting started in London, but spread quickly to cities across the UK. Looting and violence grew as more people took advantage of the opportunity and “marauding gangs” formed. Police “lost control” of many areas. Innocent people were shot dead in cars and robbed on streets. Thugs in Birmingham killed three men trying to protect their businesses. And the riots and marauding continued the following night — and the next. Violence repeated in London for four nights until an extra 16,000 police officers were moved in to restore order.

Gangs will accelerate the breakdown in law and order and magnify marauder threats. The number of gang members in the world is estimated at several million. In the U.S. an estimated 30,000 gangs and 800,000 gang members were active in 2007. The MS-13 Latino gang, known for brutal murders, has tens of thousands of members dispersed among most U.S. states.[1]

The prepper community (millions of Americans prepare for a collapse level of disaster) used to believe that for a few days everyone would survive on food and water in their home, but then many without would start going out to steal. Some used the phrase “72 hours to animal,” a guesstimate of how long it would take before law-abiding neighbors got desperate and went out to rob and, if necessary, murder to survive.[1] Now many believe that looting, marauding, and killing will start within the first hour of public knowledge that a lethal virus is spreading since there are so many gang members and ruthless people who will see the disaster and distraction to police as an opportunity to pillage.

A major disaster like a BVP or something much less severe could lead to economic and societal shutdown that escalates out of control in ways we cannot forecast, but can foresee as potentially worse than the losses from the trigger event. A Defense Science Board study warned that even a relatively benign cyber-attack could trigger collapse: “food and medicine distribution systems would be ineffective, transportation would fail or become so chaotic as to be useless. Law enforcement, medical staff, and emergency personnel capabilities could be expected to be barely functional in the short term and dysfunctional over sustained periods.”[2]

While you cannot calculate or forecast the odds of a BVP, a host of experts believe it is inevitable, and could certainly happen now.

Nassim Taleb, an expert in risk and thinking about rare events, warns that “humans are great at self-delusion.” By our nature and education, we consistently underestimate the “Black Swan” disasters that surprise and smash us. We are physically and psychologically programmed to make common misjudgments. The central idea of Taleb’s book is that despite plenty of indications, humans are horribly bad about preparing to deal with looming Black Swan disasters, even when experts do warn us.[3] People project from good times forward to confidently estimate more of the same.

Taleb goes through 27 common, widespread errors in our natural, human thinking process and misapplication of statistics to explain why we are “suckers” for Black Swan disasters like the coming BVP. We think we know what is going on in a world that is more complicated and random than we realize. We overvalue current truths and past experiences that new technologies and a changing condition may soon render wrong and take solace in the views of “authoritative” and learned people who explain things with a false, comforting clarity. We fool ourselves with stories and anecdotes, invent memories, and what we don’t see regularly, we tend to ignore. We learn by repetition, react and decide by gut feel, thinking that we’ve thought it through and made a rational choice when in fact we have not. “We are made to be superficial, to heed what we see and not heed what does not vividly come to mind. . . . Out of sight, out of mind: we harbor a natural, even physical, scorn of the abstract.”[4] In sum, “we are naturally shallow and superficial — and we do not know it.”[5] We overestimate what we know and underestimate uncertainty. “Our human race is affected by a chronic underestimation of the possibility of the future straying from the course initially envisioned, . . . an ingrained tendency in humans to underestimate outliers — or Black Swans.”[6]

This BVP disaster blindness is stronger in the U.S. because we have the mightiest military and feel immune from attack, which is precisely why a BVP is a likely weapon of choice for destroying the U.S. It can kill far more people than even a large nuclear attack, cause more lasting devastation and economic collapse, and best of all for the attacker — they may get away with no retaliation since we may never be able to determine or prove who released the virus.

A National Research Council committee on chemical and biological defense scolded in 2012 that “The US probably has not yet adequately embraced the opacity of the threat. It will be much, much more difficult to prepare for and defend against than prior threats.”[7]

The federal government is aware of the bioterrorism risk, but it is not a top priority. The lead agencies dealing with biotechnology fund and promote the research, and strong action to prepare for the coming BVP collapse is unlikely to be taken or succeed in preventing disaster.

Nothing major happens in DC without laws directing action, budgeting, and top elected official commitment. All are lacking now. There are no special interests and lobbyists pushing for bioterrorism preparedness. Biotechnology firms and university researchers will fight limits on research. Public research universities in particular wield tremendous political power in many states. Attempts to limit or control access to biotechnology will have negative economic impact with the research and businesses shifting elsewhere. Enemies will have no trouble getting the technology overseas.

DHS has the lead on homeland defense against a BVP, not the DoD. This is unfortunate since DoD has far greater resources vital to handling the scope of devastation a BVP and collapse might yield. Even when DoD agencies like DTRA do get involved with biotechnology, the bureaucratic “swim lane” they must stay in is focused on protecting our troops, not American citizens. Less than 1% of DoD spending could be construed as dedicated for homeland defense recovery operations.

If we’re lucky, the first deadly bioengineered virus will be unleashed by a madman and not a widespread or effective launch, giving us the motivation to adapt and prepare for more capable bioattacks. But if a capable group like Iranian Revolutionary Guards or North Korean agents launch it, the result could be many millions of dead Americans and a long-lasting, devastating collapse.

Taleb’s key point is “Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them).”[8] Estimating, assuming, hoping that accidents, lunatics, terrorists, or enemy states won’t release a GMO to kill Americans or block our ability to stop their action overseas, is the worst and perhaps last mistake our government could make. As a nation, we must adapt to the existence of the BVP threat now and make huge changes in our strategy, military forces, economy, and preparedness to survive collapse conditions. We need to be prepared to deal with a viral pandemic that kills 90% of its victims and cannot be stopped with a simple quarantine or low levels of casualties. That’s our present and our future. It deserves far more attention and resources than China invading Taiwan, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or other threats the Pentagon or DHS now focus on. Individuals also need to have a plan and resources, be trained and ready, to survive a viral pandemic and other threats that lead to a collapse of the economy and law and order.

There are a lot of preparations that need to be made, and a southern border wall might not rank in the top ten, but it would be useful. The Army National Guard should be training and equipping more troops to deal with food distribution and security. The Army Guard should also sponsor a “Civil Ground Patrol” modeled on the Air Force’s search and rescue, disaster response “Civil Air Patrol” to assist in pandemic and disaster recovery. Stronger border security measures will also be helpful, especially since we won’t have the ability to surge manpower given the need for police and troops to help maintain law and order across the U.S. during a pandemic or other collapse. If President Trump wants a national security emergency threat to justify the southern border wall he should cite pandemics, loss of our vulnerable electric system, and other threats that lead to a collapse.

Dr. Drew Miller, a former intelligence officer, Pentagon Senior Executive Service official, and retired Air Force Reserve Colonel, is CEO of Fortitude Ranch, a recreational and survival community. An Air Force Academy honor graduate, Drew earned his Masters Degree and PhD from Harvard University.

Apologies for the footnote numbering and order: medium doesn’t reorder as you paste in, or provide good clues on how to edit footnotes. So the number are correct, but duplicated and scattered about.

[1] For example, Brad Meltzer on the History Channel, http://zombiesinmyblog.com/?tag=72-hours-to-animal

[2] Defense Science Board, “Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat,” Jan 2013, p. 5.

[3] Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2nd edition, 2010, p. xxiii

[4] Taleb, p. 121

[5] Taleb, p. 132

[6] Taleb, p. 141

[7] Committee on Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Research and Development; Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council; “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology,” Pre-Publication — Uncorrected Proofs, 2012

[8] Taleb, p. xxiv

[1] The List: The World’s Most Dangerous Gangs, Foreign Policy, May 2008

[1] Roger Brent, a geneticist who runs a California biotech firm cited by Paul Boutin, “Biowar for Dummies: How hard is it to build your own weapon of mass destruction? We take a crash course in supervirus engineering to find out,” reprinted with permission on KurzweilAI.net, July 11, 2006

[2] Nassim Taleb, quoted in Fortune Magazine, April 11, 2011

[3] RAND Fact Sheet, “Why are Many Emergency Departments in the United States Closing?” 2011

[1] Dr. Drew Miller, “The Age of Designer Plagues: The growing ease of genetically modifying bacteria and viruses presages real trouble ahead,” The American Interest, Nov-Dec 2016, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/09/20/the-age-of-designer-plagues/

[2] “The SARS episode,” Originally published by Institute of Science in Society April 16, 2003. Published on KurzweilAI.net April 17, 2003

[3] Benjamin Wittes, “Innovation’s Darker Future: Biosecurity, Technologies of Mass Empowerment, and the Constitution,” Brookings Institution study, Dec 2010

[4] Dr. Tara O’Toole, quoted in Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections, Madeline Drexler, Joseph Henry Press (National Academy of Sciences), Wash DC, 2002, p. 242

[5] Professor Nick Bostrom, Oxford University, “Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” Journal of Evolution and Technology, 2002

[6] Dr. Nathan Wolfe, “The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age,” New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2011, pp.124–125; and Donald Henderson, MD, Et Al, “Smallpox as a Biological Weapon”, Journal of the American Medical Association, June 9, 1999

[7] Dr. Wolfe, p. 156

[8] Laurie Garrett, “Biology’s Brave New World: The Promise and Perils of the Synbio Revolution,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2013; Kathleen Sebelius, “Why We Still Need Smallpox,” New York Times Op-Ed, April 25, 2011

[9] Laurie Garrett

[10] Steve Connor, “’Appalling irresponsibility’: Senior scientists attack Chinese researchers for creating new strains of influence virus in veterinary laboratory,” The Independent, 2 May 2013

[11] Ritchie King, “When Breakthroughs Begin at Home,” New York Times, Jan 16, 2012