NEW DELHI – U.S. officials fear lax security at Indian laboratories could make the facilities targets for terrorists seeking biological weapons to launch attacks across the globe, according to comments in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable made public Friday.
The cable was part of a trove of documents sent from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi that was obtained by the website WikiLeaks and published Friday by the British newspaper The Guardian.
The cables also dealt with accusations of Indian torture in Kashmir, India's complaints about Pakistan's handling of the Mumbai terror attacks, and the concerns of Rahul Gandhi — seen as India's prime-minister-in-waiting — that Hindu extremists posed a greater danger to India than Islamist militants.
One of the cables from June 2006 raised concerns that terrorist groups could take advantage of weak security at Indian laboratories to steal "bacteria, parasites, viruses or toxins."
"Terrorists planning attacks anywhere in the world could use India's advanced biotechnology industry and large biomedical research community as potential sources of biological agents," read the cable, marked "confidential." ''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."
"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 might be recruited, either out of ideological sympathies or for money.
An Indian government official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly address the issue, dismissed the concerns as "far-fetched and fanciful."
However, Suman Sahai, a biotechnology expert, told The Associated Press that security remains very poor at biotech firms four years after the cable was written.
The regulatory system is porous, employees are easily influenced and those leaving public laboratories to work for private companies often steal seeds, genetic material and other sensitive property before they head out the door, she said.
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, which they considered unlikely to happen, the cable read.
India's surveillance system and its public health system were ill-prepared for the possibility of such an attack, the cable said.
While many countries are 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."
Another cable released Friday revealed the extent of India's frustration with rival Pakistan, where it says the Mumbai plot was hatched and received army support.
Earlier this year, India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told visiting FBI Director Robert Mueller that Pakistan had "done damn near nothing" to prosecute the Mumbai suspects, according a cable. While Pakistan has arrested seven people in connection with the attacks, those trials have not yet properly begun.
Instead of pursuing militants, Pakistan's military is "hypnotically obsessed" with India's military, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao was quoted as saying. She added that peace talks would remain on hold until Pakistan did more to dismantle terrorist networks that target India.
The cables also discussed a confidential 2005 briefing by the International Committee of the Red Cross that accused India of the widespread use of torture in Kashmir, where the Indian government confronts a raging separatist insurgency.
The Red Cross said it had interviewed 1,491 detainees in Kashmir between 2002 and 2004 and found that many had been beaten, hung from the ceiling, put in stress positions, sexually abused or tortured with electricity, water or a round metal object called "the roller" used to crush a person's thighs, the cable said
The agency had raised the issues with India for a decade and the continuation of the practice led the agency to believe the government condoned the torture, it said.
On Friday, ICRC spokesman Christian Cardon said in Geneva that the briefing referred to in the cable did take place, but declined comment on what was said during it.
In response to the accusation, Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said Friday: "India is an open and democratic nation which adheres to the rule of law. If and when an aberration occurs, it is promptly and firmly dealt with."
The cables also revealed that Rahul Gandhi, a top official in the ruling Congress Party, warned in 2009 that homegrown Hindu extremist groups could pose a greater threat than established Islamist militant groups, such as Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been blamed for the Mumbai attacks.
Gandhi appeared to be referring to the danger of a flare up in Hindu-Muslim communal violence caused by some of the more extreme leaders of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, according to the cable, which was written by Ambassador Timothy Roemer.
Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma contributed to this report.