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IP: Bioterrorism: America's Newest War Game

From: [email protected]
Subject: IP: Bioterrorism: America's Newest War Game
Date: Mon, 26 Oct 1998 06:07:57 -0600
To: [email protected]

Source:  The Nation



 "Catastrophic Terrorism" roars the headline over an article in the current
 Affairs. The three distinguished authors--John Deutch, a former director
of Central
 Intelligence; Ashton Carter, an ex-Pentagon assistant secretary; and
Philip Zelikow, a
 former member of the National Security Council--declare with unswerving
 that "the danger of weapons of mass destruction being used against America
and its
 allies is greater now than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of
1962." Any act
 of "catastrophic terrorism," they say, could have the effect of Pearl
Harbor; it could
 divide America into a "before and after." 

 This is no shot across the bow of a sleeping ship. America is now spending
$7 billion a
 year defending itself against backpack nuclear bombs, canisters of nerve
gas and petri
 dishes of germ weapons planted in crowded cities by an as-yet-unknown
 So many different agencies are shoring up the nation's defenses against
 mega-terrorism, says the government auditor, that it's hard to keep track
of where all
 the money is going, let alone whether it is being spent wisely. 

 Any new government project tagged with the word "terrorism" goes to the
top of the
 pile in Congress. The Pentagon is ordering devices to sniff out nerve
gases and deadly
 germs. National Guard units that normally deal with floods and hurricanes
are being
 trained as chemical and biological SWAT teams. Under the threat of another
war with
 Iraq, all 2.4 million American troops are being vaccinated against
anthrax, and
 companies are scrambling to provide the vaccines--including, notably, a
 founded by Adm. William Crowe Jr., a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff.
 The FBI wants to send more agents into embassies abroad and is demanding
its own
 planes to shuttle investigative teams around the world. Local and state
 used to dealing with flu epidemics are preparing for the nightmare gas or
 attack. And one can only imagine what antiterrorist projects the CIA has been
 dreaming up with its "black" budget of covert ops. Now the players in this
new war
 game have got a new title for their grim pursuit. 

 The thrust of "Catastrophic Terrorism" is a grand reorganization of the
Pentagon, CIA
 and FBI bureaucracies to eliminate the perennial agency overlaps and gaps
 "foreign" and "domestic" terrorism. The authors want to pool intelligence
at the FBI,
 create new Catastrophic Terrorism Response Offices, already dubbed CTROs, and
 cut the two dozen agencies with shopping lists for vaccines, gas sniffers
and protective
 clothing down to one--the Defense Department--because, they say, the
Pentagon has
 the expertise when it comes to rapid acquisition. The operation sounds
like it's a few
 steps short of war mobilization. 

 All but the new title, perhaps, could have been predicted (the original
choice, "Grand
 Terrorism," was rejected on the grounds that there is nothing grand about
this method
 of warfare). Beached by the fall of Communism and the end of the cold war,
 in the Pentagon and military think tanks have been circling a number of
new threats:
 First it was drug wars and then "rogue" states; but international
terrorism has an
 enduring quality in the annals of "threat politics." By dividing the
phenomenon into two
 distinct parts--conventional and catastrophic--Deutch, the quintessential
 academic/consultant to the Pentagon and the defense industry, and his
co-authors have
 mirrored the old cold war categories of conventional and nuclear weapons. 

 Conventional terrorist weapons are truck bombs filled with fertilizer
 Catastrophic terrorist weapons are nuclear, chemical and especially
 very weapons President Nixon renounced three decades ago in an effort to
 their spread to other countries. The sixties US arsenal of biological
weapons--then the
 world's largest and most sophisticated--has come back to haunt those now
 with the defense of the nation. 

 Chemical weapons of mass destruction have been used in state-sponsored
 warfare--by Iraq against Iran and its own Kurdish population--and
fragments of
 Saddam Hussein's dismantled Scud missiles were alleged by US investigators
to have
 traces of VX, the deadliest of all nerve gases. The worry is that such
weapons could
 also be used by Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the one that
President Clinton
 said he was concerned about when he recently authorized the firing of
cruise missiles at
 a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan--or by groups such as the Japanese cult Aum
 Shinrikyo, or by homegrown US adherents to survivalism. 

 No one denies the threat of catastrophic terrorism, but the pace at which
it has taken
 center stage as the prime threat to US security is almost as unnerving as
the threat
 itself. In the media, Russian defectors talk alarmingly of new strains of
 anthrax and deadly cocktails of smallpox and Ebola; teenage hackers invade
 super-secret Pentagon computers; Aum Shinrikyo is said to be back in
force, if not in
 action, after the Tokyo subway nerve gas incident; and three Texans are
charged with
 plotting to assassinate President Clinton with a cactus needle coated with
 flicked from a cigarette lighter. 

 Outside the calm of the international affairs departments of MIT and
Harvard (where
 Deutch and Carter work), or the offices of the Washington Beltway
"bandits" bulging
 with profits from new contracts related to terrorism, or indeed in the
Pentagon itself,
 where new acronyms bloom, a sense of panic is in the air. Expert after
expert says it's
 not a question of if but when this doomsday will occur. The media cast
around for
 bogymen and find Russia with its rusting biological weapons labs and
 scientists who could aid and abet the new bioterrorists. 

 Actually, in most years since 1980 the number of Americans killed by
terrorists has
 been fewer than ten, but the toll can suddenly jump. In 1983, 271
Americans were
 killed by terrorist attacks, most of them in the bombing of the Marine
barracks in
 Lebanon. Then came bombs at the World Trade Center in 1993 (six dead, 1,000
 injured), the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 (168 dead, 500
injured) and the
 Khobar Towers Air Force housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996 (nineteen
 500 injured). The World Trade Center in New York is often taken as a
starting point
 for the new concern. What if the World Trade Center bomb had been nuclear,
or had
 dispersed a deadly pathogen? 

 In the rush to play a new war game there is always a tendency to hype the
threat. Last
 November Defense Secretary William Cohen appeared on TV holding a bag of
 claiming the equivalent amount of anthrax spores would be enough to kill
half the
 population of Washington, DC, an illustration that would only be valid if
the dispersal
 were perfect and the wind were always blowing in the right direction.
 Senator Fred Thompson, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee,
 asked meekly of the terrorist threat, "Is it being overblown?" (The pun
was apparently

 There is, after all, no 100 percent protection against chemical or biological
 weapons--as there was no 100 percent protection against nuclear weapons. That
 doesn't prevent the rise of a new threat industry, of course, but one must
ask whether
 there is a way of averting catastrophe other than building Fortress America. 

 One of the true believers in the need for elaborate defenses against germ
weapons is
 none other than President Clinton. He became a convert, and started
pushing for
 stockpiles of vaccines, after reading--among all the intelligence reports
on terrorism
 and the Iraq crisis--a novel titled The Cobra Event, about a fictitious
germ attack on
 Manhattan using a mixture of smallpox and cold viruses. Chemical and
 warfare is great fiction material, of course, but are we in danger of
being unable to
 separate fact from fiction? 

 The author of the novel, Richard Preston, also wrote a non-fiction account
of the rise
 of "bioterrorism" in a March issue of The New Yorker. The article quoted a
 who was involved in the Soviet biological weapons program named Kanatjan
 Alibekov, who had been the Number Two in charge of the weapons section of the
 archipelago of Soviet biological plants known as Biopreparat. He
"defected" in 1992,
 a year after the fall of Communism, and changed his name to Ken Alibek. In
The New
 Yorker he said the Soviets had built huge plants for the production of

 In the 1972 Nixon-negotiated Biological Weapons Convention, which
prohibited the
 development, production and stockpiling of these weapons, there was a
loophole; the
 treaty did not prevent countries from building a production line for such
weapons and
 keeping it in reserve. This is what the Soviets did--something US
intelligence had
 known about for some time. 

 But Alibek claims that the Russians had actually used these facilities to
produce tons of
 deadly anthrax, some of which had been genetically engineered so that
 vaccines were useless, and some of which may have been put into the
warheads of
 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Alibek also asserted that the
Russians had
 experimented with deadly cocktails of smallpox spiked with the Ebola
virus, which
 causes internal hemorrhaging, and with Venezuelan equine encephalitis, a
brain virus. 

 For almost a dozen breathless pages, The New Yorker treated its readers to
 gruesome details of the power of these pathogens, pausing only when the
 himself out of puff, asked the key question: Does anyone believe Alibek?
Or is he, as a
 defector who has apparently outlived his usefulness to the CIA's covert
 world, trying to make a buck in civvy street by exaggerating the
importance of his
 information? Preston consulted an old cold warrior, Bill Patrick, the
retired US
 biological warfare expert who was chief of product development for the US
 biological warfare laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Patrick, quite
reasonably for
 an old campaigner, takes the defector on trust; if Alibek doesn't know
what the
 Soviets were doing, then who does? But other scientific experts, not given
a hearing
 until page twelve of the thirteen-page New Yorker article, ranged from
skeptical to

 One was Dr. Peter Jahrling, the chief scientist at the US Army medical
 Institute of Infectious Diseases. He was one of Alibek's original
debriefers. Jahrling
 told The New Yorker, "His [Alibek's] talk about chimeras [mixtures] of
Ebola is sheer
 fantasy, in my opinion." Preston also consulted Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel
 Prize­winning molecular biologist and a member of a working group at the
 Academy of Sciences who advises the government on biological weapons and the
 potential for terrorism. Lederberg told Preston, "It's not even clear to
me that adding
 Ebola genes to smallpox would make it more deadly." Putting these comments
 up in the article would have been more responsible journalism, clearly,
but it would
 also have spoiled the story. 

 The week before the New Yorker article ran, Alibek was given his first
 exposure, on Diane Sawyer's PrimeTime Live show. "Biological weapons. They're
 real, they're here...smallpox, Ebola, anthrax," was how the hourlong show
 Alibek told Sawyer that the Russians had created a deadly genetic merger
of smallpox
 and Ebola. "In this case, [the] mortality rate [is] about 90 percent, up
to 100 percent.
 No treatment techniques," warned Alibek. "How many people could they have
 Sawyer asked him. "The entire population of Earth several times," he
replied. ABC
 generously shared Alibek with the New York Times, which, in return, promoted
 Sawyer's show on its front page with an interview with the former Soviet
 scientist--including a warning (not mentioned by Sawyer) that Alibek was
 by US intelligence to be credible about the "subjects he knows
firsthand...[but] less
 reliable on political and military issues." 

 Sawyer's search for Soviet malfeasance took her to Ekaterinburg (formerly
the Soviet
 city of Sverdlovsk), where, in 1979, an accidental release of anthrax
spores from a
 Soviet military compound killed more than sixty people. After reports of
the accident
 reached the West through Soviet émigrés, Moscow claimed the deaths were
 of anthrax-tainted meat (anthrax is endemic in the region). Matthew
Meselson, the
 Harvard molecular biologist and the scientist who was instrumental in
 Nixon to outlaw biological weapons in 1969, led a team of investigators to
 Sverdlovsk. In 1994 Meselson proved in an article in Science, the journal
of the
 American Association for the Advancement of Science, that in fact there
had been a
 release of anthrax spores from the military compound, and he confirmed
nearly seventy

 But Sawyer, who spent four months researching the show, never interviewed
 Meselson or anyone from his team, including Jeanne Guillemin, a
sociologist at Boston
 College who had cross-checked a Russian casualty list with hospital
records, local
 interviews and grave sites. Instead, Sawyer referred to an unnamed
director of a
 Sverdlovsk military hospital as saying there had been 259 victims--but not
how many
 of the victims had died. Sawyer's staff called Professor Meselson the
night before the
 program aired, but merely to ask his help with the pronunciation of a
number of drugs
 used to treat the victims: penicillin, cephalosporin, chloramphenicol and

 In a further effort to suggest that more spookiness was afoot, Sawyer
recorded that at
 the end of 1997 Russian scientists had published a paper in the British
medical journal
 Vaccine describing the creation of a genetically engineered anthrax strain
that was
 resistant to standard Russian anthrax vaccine. "Might the Russians be
creating germs
 that can resist vaccines?" asked Sawyer. But was there really anything
sinister about
 the Russian work? Were the Russian experiments threatening a new kind of
 catastrophic terrorism, or were Russian scientists simply studying the
lethality of
 anthrax, which is endemic in Russia? 

 Sawyer didn't mention that Western intelligence had known about the new
 strains for almost two years--from an unclassified International Workshop
on Anthrax
 held at Winchester, England, in September 1995. The Russian scientists had
 described their experiments at the meeting sponsored by a number of
 charitable and professional organizations independent of the US and British

 Bioterrorism, biocriminals, bioweaponeers--all good buzzwords for
novelists and
 movie makers who will continue to sound alarms and attract influential
followers, no
 doubt; but the fact is, there have been only two serious uses of
biological weapons in
 this century: one by the Japanese Imperial Army against China, and the
other a failed
 attempt by Aum Shinrikyo to disperse anthrax spores. 

 So if there are terrorists out there wanting to use biological or chemical
or nuclear
 weapons, how good is our intelligence about them? In hearings before
Congress in
 1995 the CIA admitted that its terrorism intelligence desk somehow missed
the 1994
 sarin gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo in Matsumoto, which killed seven
 the event had been reported in the Japanese and European press and even in
 US-owned International Herald Tribune. Such revelations suggest that a new,
 multi-agency National Intelligence Center, as proposed by Deutch et al. in
 Affairs, might not only be a good idea but a necessity. But why a whole new
 bureaucracy? Why the Manhattan Project syndrome? The Aum Shinrikyo story
 suggests that a small band of well-trained researchers who tap into
publicly available
 information could be as useful as national information centers, wiretaps
and grand jury

 The risk in rushing to meet the new threat--any new threat--with new
departments of
 counter-espionage and counter-weapons is that the old art of deterrence
 international treaties will take a back seat. The United States already
has a policy that
 criminalizes terrorist activity at home, including the post­Oklahoma City
 Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996. It also supports sanctions against countries
 terrorism and corporations exporting material that could be used to
produce weapons
 of mass destruction. 

 In the article on catastrophic terrorism, Deutch et al. mention the
proposal of Harvard
 professor Meselson and his law professor colleague, Philip Heymann, for an
 international convention making it a crime for individuals to engage in
the production of
 biological or chemical weapons. The existing chemical and biological
 apply only to states. The idea is to deter national leaders, such as
Saddam Hussein,
 and groups such as Aum Shinrikyo, from seeking to develop chemical or
 weapons, and to discourage corporations from assisting them because the
scientist or
 the CEO could be arrested. If such a treaty had existed and been supported
by the
 United States in the eighties when Iraq was using poison gas and
developing biological
 weapons, the suppliers and advisers on whom Saddam depended could have been
 brought to trial. 

 The proposal is being co-promoted by Meselson's longtime ally in the fight
to eliminate
 chemical and biological weapons, Julian Perry Robinson of the University
of Sussex in
 England. The crimes are carefully defined in the precise language of the
chemical and
 biological conventions, now ratified by 120 and 141 countries
respectively. Under the
 proposed law any nation that is party to the existing conventions would be
 either to prosecute or to extradite a violator. Such treaties already in
effect are aimed
 at piracy, genocide, airline hijacking and harming diplomats on active
duty. If the
 proposal becomes law, terrorists would have their support group cut from
under them;
 there is even the suggestion of a reward for anyone who provides
information leading
 to a perpetrator's arrest. Maybe the fiction writers will pick up the idea
too. Then, who
 knows whether the FBI or some adventurer from the plaintiff's
bar--bringing, say, a
 class action on behalf of aggrieved shareholders of a company caught
trading in
 anthrax--will be the first to be responsible for the arrest of the
culprits? The next
 generation of terror novels should be filled with "biocriminals" and

 For an alternative view, and relief from the drumbeat of the New Threat
 one can turn to this quarter's Foreign Policy, a rival of Foreign Affairs.
In an article
 titled "The Great Superterrorism Scare," Ehud Sprinzak, a professor of
 science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, suggests that the voices of doom
 mistaken. Their concept of post­cold war chaos breeding terrorist fanatics
is simply
 not supported by the evidence of three decades. "Despite the lurid
rhetoric, a massive
 terrorist attack with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons is hardly
inevitable. It is
 not even likely," he writes. "Terrorists wish to convince us that they are
capable of
 striking from anywhere at any time, but there is really no chaos. In fact,
 involves predictable behavior, and the vast majority of terrorist
organizations can be
 identified well in advance." Such views tend to go unheard by doomsayers. The
 Republicans added $9 billion to the military budget, including several
additional millions
 for antiterrorism projects, by emphasizing unpreparedness--sure to be a
big issue in
 Election 2000. 

 Peter Pringle, a British journalist, reported on the end of the cold war from
 Washington and Moscow for The Independent of London. 

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