The Dark Side of CRISPR

By Kathryn Ziden

The Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, built their pressure cooker bombs using instructions found in al Qaeda’s English-language, online magazine Inspire. In the same 2010 issue of Inspire, it states, “For those mujahid brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry lays the greatest opportunity and responsibility. For such brothers, we encourage them to develop a weapon of mass destruction.” Although the bombs that were detonated and discovered in New York and New Jersey this past weekend were also pressure cooker bombs, what if it had been a bio-engineered, deadly pathogen? New, inexpensive and readily available gene-editing techniques could provide an easy way for terrorists to stage bioterrorist attacks.

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a novel gene-editing technique that has the potential to do everything from ending diseases like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy to curing cancer. CRISPR also has the power to both bring back extinct species and cause living species to go extinct. There is hot debate currently within the scientific and policy communities about the ethical ramifications of this powerful tool and how it should be regulated. However, there is almost no discussion within these communities of the security risks that CRISPR poses, or the scary scenarios that could result from unintended consequences or its misuse.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” listed gene-editing techniques like CRISPR on its list of weapons of mass destruction for the first time in 2016. Here, we list some actors that could use CRISPR to create a bioweapon.

Non-state actors: Terrorism specialists have warned that obtaining a biological weapon is much easier than obtaining a nuclear or chemical weapon, given the relative ease by which components can be purchased and developed. Terror groups intent on developing biological weapons could use existing members’ skills, or send recruits to receive adequate education in the biological sciences, similar to al Qaeda’s method of sending attackers to train in U.S. flight schools prior to 9/11.

Rogue scientists: Disgruntled or mentally ill scientists could easily use CRISPR to mount an attack, similar to the 2001 anthrax attacks. However, unlike other deadly pathogens, CRISPR is widely available and requires no security clearance or mental health screening for access.

Do-it-yourself biohackers: Do-it-yourself (DIY) scientist movements are growing across the country. DIY centers now offer CRISPR-specific classes and DIY CRISPR kits are inexpensive and widely available for sale online for amateur scientists working out of their basements. Some websites sell in vivo, injection-ready CRISPR kits for creating transgenic rats (rats included), and directly advertise to “full service” and “DIY” users.

Religious groups: The first and single largest bioterrorist attack in the U.S. was perpetrated by followers of an Indian mystical leader, infecting 751 people with salmonella bacteria in 1984. In 1993, the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted an anthrax attack in Tokyo, but mistakenly used a non-virulent strain.

Foreign governments: The development of bioweapons is banned under the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; however many countries, including China, Russia and Pakistan are widely believed to have bioweapons programs. Each of these countries are also actively using CRISPR in scientific research.

The large, potential impacts of gene-editing techniques combined with the low barriers to obtaining the technology make it ripe for unintended and intended misuse. In order to address the security challenges of this emerging technology, all stakeholders need to act.

The scientific community can add value by:

  • Shifting their focus from ethical concerns to security concerns, or at least give security concerns equal footing in their discussions.
  • Engaging with the intelligence and policy communities to identify real-world scenarios that could be actualized by the actors discussed above.

Regulatory bodies can counter the risks poses by the unintended use or potential misuse of gene-editing techniques by:

  • Designating all precision gene-editing enzyme systems as controlled substances, similar to radioactive isotopes or illicit drug precursors used in research laboratories, and putting use-verification and accounting procedures into place.
  • Registering, licensing and certifying all laboratory-based and DIY users of CRISPR. Gene-editing technology users could also be required to undergo National Agency Check with Inquiries background investigations.

The intelligence community can lead the efforts of countering more serious, bioterrorism threats by:

  • Tracking all gene-editing kits or other system-specific plasmids or components, including materials already purchased during the current pre-regulation timeframe.
  • Tracking all users of gene-editing technologies, specifically looking for rogue or DIY users who fail to register, individuals actively seeking to buy kits through the black market, or individuals searching for CRISPR instructions or other relevant information online.

These recommendations are just some of the actions that could be taken to minimize risks of gene-editing technologies. CRISPR is a powerful technology that is capable of creating a gene drive that can result in mass sterilization and extinction. If it can be used to kill off a species of mosquito, then it can be used to kill off the human race. It is time to think of these gene-editing techniques in terms of an existential threat.

The Power of Imagination

By Charles Mueller

Sunday was an emotional day.  It was the 15th anniversary of one of the most traumatic days in US history, the anniversary of 9/11.  That day is burned into the memories of the American people because its events defied what we believed was possible.  We will never forget because we will always remember the day the unthinkable became reality.

The official story that came out of the investigations of 9/11 to explain how it was able to occur highlighted a failure to imagine the kinds of horrors terrorists could unleash upon our nation.  In some ways this finding was ironic because it was our imagination that helped us land on the moon, invent the Internet, and harness the atom, all accomplishments in our climb to become the world’s only remaining superpower at the time.  On 9/11 though it somehow became our weakness.  By failing to take serious what might seem impossible, by failing to imagine the extremes people might go to hurt us, we created an opportunity that could be exploited.  The sad reality of that day is that many people saw the signs of what was coming, but we still chose to ignore it; we chose to refrain from imagining it could ever take place.

That day showed the real the power of imagination.  If you can imagine it, you can often make it real.  The terrorists imagined all that took place on 9/11 and because they believed, were able to inflict a wound on this country that may never fully heal.  As we move forward, continuing to recover from that day, we must never forget this lesson; we must never forget the power of imagination.

Today we live at a time where what was once the imagination of science fiction writers is now becoming reality.  We are on the cusp of being able to engineer all types of life, including ourselves, to have the traits and properties we desire.  We are on the verge of potentially creating sentient life fundamentally different than our own.  We have tools today that are enabling our imagination to translate into reality.  As amazing as the future can be, days like 9/11 remind us that there exist those that will ultimately try to use these new technologies and their imaginations to make the future worse.  We have to remember this as we start thinking about how to manage this brave new world.

In order to ensure the future is better than tomorrow, we have to use our imagination to consider all the different ways it can go right and wrong.  We have to imagine the future we want and then work together to figure out the right path to get there.  We cannot afford another failure of imagination moving forward because S&T has simply made the stakes too high.  Let’s use the power of imagination to create a better world and ensure 9/11 is a day we remember, not relive.

Winning Hearts and Minds

By Charles Mueller

Winning hearts and minds is how you lead a country, it is key to winning wars, and it is what good governance depends on in a rational society.  If you do not have the hearts and minds of the people, then you cannot lead them or protect them.  People’s hearts and minds are won by giving them something to believe in, giving them something to trust.  When people believe that you will help create the reality they hope to see, they give their hearts and minds to you.  This is something all people who want power understand because power is controlling the hearts and minds of the people.  Today, the hearts and minds of the rational people around the world are being controlled by an irrational idea, that trepidation  is normal, that terrorism is acceptable, that we are not free to live without fear.  That fear was perpetuated earlier this week when Daesh carried out a series of cowardly attacks on the innocent people in the capital of Belgium.

The hearts of people are won by gaining their trust, by capturing their loyalty.  Terrorists groups like Daesh are winning the hearts of rational people, people like the teenager Maysa from Belgium who drank the Daesh kool-aid.  The heart is not always a rational thing, it is fueled by emotion and responds most greatly to fear.  We are losing the hearts of the rational people of the world somehow.  The heart is most susceptible to change when it is living in fear.  Ironically, by creating an unstable world the terrorists gain the hearts of the rational people.

The minds of people are sometimes much harder to win.  The more educated, the more skeptical, the more logical a mind, the harder it is to win it over with cheap tricks.  Maysa’s rational mind is the only reason she is not a terrorist fighting with the Daesh today.  They might have tricked her heart, but they could not trick her mind.  This is the power of rational thought, the power of science.  When we understand our world better, in a more scientific way, we can control our hearts and put our loyalty and trust in places that are truly safe.  This is why democracy works; because rational people invest their hearts and their minds in leaders who are rational and logical too.

Our rational leaders are not capturing the hearts and minds of the people anymore.  The terrorists have put fear in our hearts and minds and they are beginning to turn us into irrational, illogical people.  If we become that, we’ve lost the world we have spilt so much blood, sweat and tears over trying to create; a world of free thought, of opportunity, of freedom and justice for all.  Trust and loyalty are inspired by action.  Rational people also require that action be logical.  Every war, be it WWII or the most recent War on Terror, is fought over the hearts and minds of people.  I hate to think that right now we are losing the war for the hearts and minds of the world.

Leadership

by Paul Syers

Two nights ago, the President gave his third televised address from the Oval office.  Given the important location and format, the country took notice, expecting a bold plan of action, hoping for stirring words from a strong leader to stir a change of national or global scale. 

The President’s address wasn’t that — it certainly wasn’t anything memorable — which made me feel the pang of the absence of great leadership in this country right now. 

Can the role of a good leader really be appreciated enough? Some famous leaders happened to fall into leadership roles, riding the crest of a wave of change that was going to happen with or without their presence.  Some leaders create great change through their own will.  It is most evident in their absence.  The movement they built begins to falter and die off soon after their death.  Their mark on the world is mainly from the momentum they build while they are on this earth.  The empire that Alexander the Great built fell apart quickly after he passed. Apple changed a number of different industries (computers, phones, music, etc.) with Steve Jobs at the helm, and since his death it has slid to merely following the pack. Amazon is another singular giant in its industry, expanding from online commerce to microelectronics, and now they have overtaken SpaceX in the race to re-use launch rockets. 

Complex problems may end up being solved, but true leaders often act like catalysts to produce a solution far faster.  Everyone agrees that a solution to the fight against ISIS exists – for the survival of free thought, it must – but everyone also agrees that finding and implementing the solution is complex.  The solution will almost certainly involve a coordinated effort amongst the world’s major powers, but current circumstances make that unlikely. We need the catalyst of a true leader: someone with the will, gravitas, and mind to hold the coalition together and steer it with a singular purpose.

I hoped that Obama’s address would be an announcement to do just that.  With those hopes dashed, I’m looking for another way to do SOMETHING; I’m looking for a plan B.  In the absence of a truly great leader, here’s a radical idea, harness the talents of someone with a forceful will: Putin.  No one can deny that he has exerted his singular will in his own country and increasingly abroad as of late. 

Many may see him as just another tyrant, but France, Great Britain, and the U.S. allied with Stalin during WWII, so there is precedent.  Granted, the aftermath of that took us into the Cold War, so making such a similar choice today would have significant risks.  It’s not an ideal solution.  I’d much prefer a different leader, but in the absence of one, maybe we need to go with plan B.

The Choice of the Governed

by Rebecca McCauley Rench

Government by Science propels us into the future. In a system driven by imagination and innovation, you create a society that is enlightened, educated, and full of potential. We can take in the knowledge of our current situation, think about how this can be used to create a better world, and see what happens when we try. This is the fundamental idea of the United States of America.

Government by Religion traps us in the past. Religion holds the thoughts and ideas of the past as truths to never be questioned. In the 7th century, after the Prophet Mohammed passed, a caliphate was established to rule. This is what Daesh is trying to re-create in the Middle East. A society dictated by the past without the ability to evolve and adapt.

Lessons From History

Paul Syers

The events unfolding in the Middle East in recent months have gotten many people questioning if we’ve reached the precipice of World War III. This immediately conjures memories of the last World War. Is Daesh like the Nazis? They both fit the description of an organization with an extreme ideology based on external control instead of reason and thought, taking territory and bent on the total destruction of an entire way life. We make comparisons to history in hopes of recognizing the faults of the past and avoiding them. In the most recent rise in tensions between Russia and Turkey I see a lesson that comes not from WWII, but from WWI.

These parallels between WWI and today’s conflict have been noticed by others and are few and broad, but the common thread is that larger powers got distracted by smaller interests and lost the larger perspective. They used alliances to escalate a small event and get pulled into a much larger conflict with each other.

The tangled set of alliances that evolved in the fight against Daesh as well as the fight over control of Syria and Iraq has begun to shake the modern balance of powers. Things were strained when Russia began bombing U.S. aided rebels in Syria. Most recently, tensions have escalated between Turkey, backed by NATO, and Russia. We cannot make the same mistakes of a century ago and let the differing national interests of Russia, Syria, Turkey, the US, and the European powers create and escalate more conflicts. It poses a needless danger and it distracts us from the real enemy, which is Daesh and the extreme ideology that terrorist organization spreads.

Syria, the U.S., Russia, France, Turkey and other nations involved need not suddenly become close allies, but they should start focusing on the bigger picture and the end-game, which is stamping an ideology that does not allow freedom of thought.

A twisted strength of Daesh is that it has a unified message and set of goals. Sadly, I can’t say the same thing about the combined actions of the international community in recent months. Putting individual national interests aside, focusing on the end game and coordinating efforts to reach it should be our top priority in the war against terrorism. A coordinated effort will make it easier to provide an overwhelming force without forcing a single nation to provide all those resources. The world needs a global, united strategy if we are to defeat not only the fighters of Daesh, but also their mindset.

Too Many Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Paul Syers

The event in Roseburg, Oregon yesterday has once again shocked this nation. While the actions of the gunman have terrorized an entire community and, arguably, the nation, calling him a terrorist misses an important point: he was mentally ill.

Terrorism is different from mental illness. A terrorist is often someone who has been corrupted by an organization that preys upon his or her grief and frustration to brainwash that person into believing their twisted viewpoint. Examples include the RAF in Germany, the IRA in the 1990’s, Eric Rudolph, Al Quaeda, ISIL, Boko Haram, etc. Terrorists, and the mentally ill, can both commit mass murder atrocities. Preventing both types of people from getting to that point, however, requires two different types of action. Our government has taken action to identify and protect us from one of these types, but it has clearly not done enough with respect to the other type.

I find it a huge and telling problem that there are more people with mental illness in prison than in mental institutions. Our default policy is to react to the actions of untreated mentally ill people, send them to prison, and then give them treatment, which may or may not help. A reactive policy is too late.

In moving forward after this tragedy, we ask the question, what can we do to change things? Enacting common sense gun control laws would address a symptom, but does not get at a major cause of these tragedies. The Roseberg case, as well as other related tragedies, can only be prevented by both providing more resources to identify people with serious mental illness, and ensuring that those people and their families receive the help that they need.