New from the Biodefense Faculty

On this #FacultyFriday, we’ve got recent publications and appearances from two George Mason Biodefense faculty members.

Dr. Gregory Koblentz appeared on CBC Radio’s The Current to disucuss the recent Canada-India uranium deal. Listen to the whole segment here.

Charles Blair reflects on the Oklahoma City bombing as the 20th anniversary of the event nears.

Often erroneously explained away as psychopathic, Timothy McVeigh actually comported with psychologist and terrorism expert Clark R. McCauley’s finding that, “the best documented generalization is negative; terrorists do not show any striking psychopathology.” Though abhorrent, McVeigh’s actions are certainly intelligible. Examined extensively by psychiatrist John Smith in the months after the attack, McVeigh was judged as sane—“not delusional.” When asked why McVeigh “would commit such a terrible crime,” Smith concluded that “it was a conscious choice on his part, not because he was deranged … or misinterpreting reality … but because he was serious.”

His entire piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists can be found here.

New from the Biodefense Faculty

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in their Agree to Disagree roundtable, is hosting a Winter-Safe Deterrence Debate. The premise of the debate follows:

In a recent opinion column for the Bulletin, “Deterrence, without nuclear winter,” Seth Baum argued that the biggest danger posed by world nuclear arsenals is a nuclear winter that could be sparked by even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons. Baum’s piece went on to suggest that “the world’s biggest nuclear powers [might] meet their deterrence needs without keeping the large nuclear arsenals they maintain today. They could practice a winter-safe deterrence, which would rely on weapons that pose no significant risk of nuclear winter.”

Baum’s column and the study from which it draws, “Winter-safe Deterrence: The Risk of Nuclear Winter and Its Challenge to Deterrence,” published in the journal Contemporary Security Policy, have been vigorously disputed in social media. In this roundtable, security experts Gregory Koblentz, Martin Furmanski, Brett Edwards, Gigi Kwik Gronvall, and Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and Baum debate his column and winter-safe deterrence ideas in more depth.

GMU Biodefense Faculty members Gregory Koblentz and Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley have each offered two replies in the debate which are available here and here for Koblentz and here and here for Ouagrham-Gormley.

All replies in the debate are available here.

GMU Biodefense Published

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Associate Professor in the George Mason Graduate Program in Biodefense, has published a new book, Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development.

The New Scientist has reviewed it, and this is just one of the wonderful things they had to say:

Her fascinating book, Barriers to Bioweapons, also shows that anyone wanting to develop biological weapons faces a raft of other difficulties. Of the five main bioweapons programmes to date, their key feature has been their failures, not their successes. In a forensic and compelling analysis, she describes how the Soviet Union, the US, South Africa and the Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo, all fell well short, despite spending billions of dollars over decades

Click here to read the whole review or click here to purchase the book online.

Biodefense Graduates: Brian Mazanec

GMU Biodefense Graduate Brian Mazanec’s Deterring Cyber Warfare: Bolstering Strategic Stability in Cyberspace (written with Bradley Thayer) was released on December 5. The book looks at cyber warfare, which is especially relevant after the latest North Korean cyber attack on Sony. The description of the book follows:

Deterrence theory was well developed during the Cold War for the deterrence of kinetic attacks. While the deterrence of cyber attacks is one of the most important issues facing the United States and other nations, the application of deterrence theory to the cyber realm is problematic.
This study offers an introduction to cyber warfare and a review of the challenges associated with deterring cyber attacks. Mazanec and Thayer recommend efforts in three specific areas to aid the deterrence of major cyber attacks: by cultivating beneficial norms for strategic stability; by continuing efforts in the area of improving cyber forensics and defences; and, finally, by developing and communicating a clear declaratory policy and credible options for deterrence-in-kind so as to make escalation unavoidable and costly. This timely study reflects increased international interest in cyber warfare, and is based on the recognition that information networks in cyberspace are becoming operational centres of gravity in armed conflict.
Deterring Cyber Warfare is Prime eligible which means, if you’re a member, you can get it just in time for Christmas! You can order online here.

New from the Biodefense Faculty

While the GMU Biodefense students have been finishing their semester work, the GMU Biodefense faculty have been busy too! Below is an update of the latest published work from members of the faculty.

Dr. Trevor Thrall, Director of the Graduate Program in Biodefense, wrote a piece on ISIS’ strategies for U.S. News and World Report.

President Barack Obama declared the latest beheading by the Islamic State group – this one of American aid worker and former Army Ranger Peter Kassig – an act of “pure evil.” But as ugly as the act was, it was also an action taken with a strategic end in mind. The question we should be asking is: To what end? Why has the Islamic State group pursued a strategy of beheading Westerners, and specifically Americans?

The entire article is available here.

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Deputy Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, has been writing on nuclear issues including Op-Eds for the LA Times–“How to Keep Future Cold Wars Cold: Mind the Missiles“–and The National Interest–“The Silver Lining of an Extension of the P5+1 Nuclear Talks with Iran

Since the end of the Cold War, three challenges to strategic stability have emerged. The first is the increasing complexity of deterrence relations among the nuclear weapon states. Whereas the first nuclear age was shaped by the bipolar global ideological and military competition between the United States and Soviet Union, the second nuclear age has been marked by the emergence of a multipolar nuclear order composed of states linked by varying levels of cooperation and conflict. Rising nuclear powers such as China, India and Pakistan are not party to the web of treaties, regimes and relationships that girded strategic stability between the United States and Soviet Union (and now Russia).

Dr. Koblent’z full articles are linked above.

GMU Biodefense Faculty at the CFR

Since the end of the Cold War, a new nuclear order has emerged, shaped by rising nuclear states and military technologies that threaten stability, writes George Mason University’s Gregory Koblentz in a new Council on Foreign Relations report: Strategic Stability in the Second Nuclear Age.


During the Cold War, the potential for nuclear weapons to be used was determined largely by the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, with 16,300 weapons possessed by the seven established nuclear-armed states—China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—deterrence is increasingly complex. Since most of these countries face threats from a number of potential adversaries, “changes in one state’s nuclear policy can have a cascading effect on the other states.”


Though many states are downsizing their stockpiles, Asia is witnessing a buildup; Pakistan has the fastest-growing nuclear program in the world. By 2020, Pakistan could have a stockpile of fissile material that, if weaponized, could produce as many as two hundred nuclear devices. The author identifies South Asia as the region “most at risk of a breakdown in strategic stability due to an explosive mixture of unresolved territorial disputes, cross-border terrorism, and growing nuclear arsenals.”


Emerging technologies such as missile defenses, cyber and anti-satellite weapons, and conventional-precision strike weapons pose additional risks, Koblentz warns, and could potentially spur arms races and trigger crises.


“The United States has more to lose from a breakdown in strategic stability than any other country due to its position as a global leader, the interdependence of its economy, and the network of security commitments it has around the world,” he asserts. The United States and Russia still possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Despite the increasing chill in U.S.-Russia relations, Washington’s highest priority should be to maintain strategic efforts with Russia and China, the two states with the capability and potential intent to launch a nuclear attack on the American homeland.


The United States should work with other nuclear states to address sources of instability in the near term and establish processes for multilateral arms control efforts over the longer term, writes Koblentz. He urges the Obama administration to:
  • enhance initiatives that foster transparency, confidence-building, and restraint to mitigate the risk that emerging technologies will trigger arms races, threaten the survivability of nuclear forces, or undermine early warning and nuclear command and control systems;
  • deepen bilateral and multilateral dialogues with the other nuclear-armed states; and
  • create a forum for the seven established nuclear-armed states to discuss further steps to reduce the risk of deliberate, accidental, or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

Congrats to GMU Biodefense student Craig Wiener!

Craig-WienerGeorge Mason Biodefense PhD candidate Craig J. Wiener, Principal Consultant for Strategic Planning and Analysis at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), was recently honored as the recipient of the Sidney D. Drell Academic Award by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA).

Washington Exec caught up with Craig and interviewed him about his work, his award, and his favorite books.

An excerpt follows and you can read the entire interview here.

WashingtonExec: What more do you think organizations in the intelligence community should be doing to engage the millennial workforce?

Craig Wiener: This is an important question – I am going to speak about this from my perspective as a TA over the last three years in the most sought after national security courses at GMU SPGIA. I have worked closely with approximately 150 masters and PhD students, many of whom are younger than I am, and many of whom you could describe as “millennials.”  They have specifically enrolled in the courses because of their desire to enter the intelligence community. These students are clearly talented, ambitious and are ready, willing, and able to work in areas of national security and intelligence activities, although for many, there are structural hiring impediments. Many of the students routinely discuss the difficulty of entering direct government service and ask for advice. The predominant issues I run across when speaking with them fall into basic two categories- the lack of an existing security clearance or lack of military service- both impediments are predominantly present in younger students, many of whom went from high school to college to graduate school.

I believe it is absolutely essential to provide an enhanced, simplified hiring authority to bring these types of students, and quite honestly their talent, energy and perspective into the government directly from graduate school. It is my understanding that some previously available pathways were discontinued due to legal challenges to previous parent programs. Therefore, I would specifically recommend a legally sound, phased direct hire process that is merit based regardless of prior military experience for graduate students with national security applicable academic training. This pathway would include the authority for universities who support the government in national security research to sponsor qualifying students for security clearances while they are still in school. I believe this future state program should include accommodations for qualified, actively cleared contract support staff who are concurrently in graduate school at the masters, JD or PhD levels, many of whom also cannot overcome the currently well-intentioned yet predominant hiring authorities. Members of this hybrid hiring track should have their prior work experience taken into account for appropriate grade in service appointments.


Image Credit: Washington Exec

GMU Biodfense faculty in the Washington Post

This week, GMU Biodefense Deputy Director Gregory Koblentz contributed to and Director Trevor Thrall was quoted this week in the Washington Post article titled “If news media had covered Ebola sooner, could latest outbreak have been contained?” Read the whole article here.

“Some of the American media’s indifference to the story may have reflected entrenched attitudes toward Africa, said A. Trevor Thrall, the director of George Mason’s biodefense graduate program. “Thanks to low public interest in Africa and the fact that very few U.S. news organizations have any footprint in Africa, Africa is more or less invisible in the U.S. media most of the time,” he said. “With a few exceptions, Africa shows up only when something happens that directly affects Americans or when the U.S. government takes some kind of action.”’

Why Obama’s War on ISIL Won’t Hold Its Popularity

Biodefense Program Director and Associate Professor Dr. Trevor Thrall, of the George Mason School of Policy, Government and International Affairs, has published an article which appears in The National Interest. An excerpt of the article is available below with a link to the full article.

With the prime-time announcement of his campaign to destroy ISIL, President Obama is staking his presidency in a place he certainly never intended. Obama launches his campaign with what appears to be a reasonable level of public support. A September CNN/ORC poll found that roughly 75 percent of the public supports airstrikes against ISIL, a figure that may climb a bit higher in the wake of Obama’s address to the nation on September 10. This support compares relatively favorably with most U.S. military interventions of the past (see Gallup’s list of public support by major intervention here), closer to initial levels of support for Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, than to the invasion of Panama or the Kosovo air war.

Read the entire article here.

Restricted Science

Biodefense Associate Professor Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, of the George Mason School of Policy, Government and International Affairs, has published an article which appears in a special edition of Frontiers in Public Health. An excerpt of the article is available below with a link to the full article.

In 2004, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was created as an independent federal advisory body. Its role was to advise the U.S. government on strategies to prevent the misuse of dual-use research. Since its inception, the NSABB has ruled on two cases: the 1918 flu-virus synthesis conducted by government scientists in 2005 and the H5N1 experiment conducted in 2011 by two separate university teams in the Netherlands and the United States. While in the first case, without much public debate, the NSABB quickly decided to support publication of the experiment’s findings, in the second case, it initially requested a halt on publication and the removal of methodological details from the proposed articles for fear that they could be used by malevolent actors to create a pandemic among humans. The decision was reversed 6 months later, but it sparked a worldwide firestorm, engaging the scientific and security communities in a heated debate about whether the dissemination of scientific data should be regulated, and what types of research should be conducted. Yet, the key question that triggered the overall controversy remains largely ignored: under what conditions could the H5N1 experiment be reproduced, if at all, by malevolent actors using only published data?

Read the entire article here.