Cold War in the Hot Zone: U.S. Experts Are Reviewing the Germ-Warfare Capabilities of Other Countries, Including Russia, Which Once Had the Biggest Biological-Weapons Program in the World. (History)

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It was late May 1992 and Boris Yeltsin was about to fly to Washington for the first official U.S.-Russian summit since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Grateful to the United States for its support during his power struggle with a die-hard Communist clique, Yeltsin arrived in a spirit of cooperation and openness about Moscow's secretive past. In fact, one of the president's senior aides primed a Russian newspaper reporter with an unusual question involving a 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk, Yeltsin's hometown, now called Yekaterinburg. In answering the question, Yeltsin made a startling revelation: The epidemic, which killed nearly 70 people, was caused by a leak at a secret biological-weapons facility maintained by the military.

The incident had aroused suspicions in the West, but Moscow never before had acknowledged the research site, whose existence was a clear violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Now the U.S. scientific community began to grasp the scope and potential threat of the Soviet germ-warfare program. The future of more than two dozen research centers, production plants and storage facilities, as well as that of more than 25,000 people working for the program, greatly alarmed the United States. It pledged to finance research for health and other peaceful purposes to prevent the proliferation of weapons expertise.

"At the time, the term everybody used was `brain drain'" says a State Department official who asked to remain anonymous. "We wanted to keep those scientists and engineers at home and reasonably comfortable, so they wouldn't want to move to Iran and North Korea or contract with countries that have proliferation programs."

Despite such concerns, the United States didn't provide funds for antiproliferation until 1994, a year into Bill Clinton's presidency. Since then, however, Washington has spent $41 million on the program, which gradually involved half-a-dozen government agencies administered by the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in Moscow. The ISTC "spends its money on a project-by-project basis; it's not a U.N. fund where we offer the money into a pot and some committee decides where it goes," explains the official. Most of the money is "paid directly to individual bank accounts that are set up for participating scientists, so there are tens of thousands of bank accounts under the program."

Although recipients of U.S. funds are banned from working with countries that have proliferation programs or sponsor terrorists, administration officials admit that there is no way to know what a scientist does in his or her office after hours. There is no reason to believe, however, that any beneficiary of U.S. assistance in Russia has helped foreign germ-warfare programs.

Between 13 and 17 countries are believed to have active biological-warfare programs, according to differing data from several government agencies, including the State and Defense departments and the Office of Technology Assessment. Iraq is No. 1 on the list of potential state sponsors of bioterrorism. North Korea is another, though much less likely, possibility.

"If a state was involved [in the anthrax-letter campaign], Iraq is clearly on top of the list," says Michael L. Moodie, president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute. "North Korea is thought to have worked on anthrax, and one can argue that it's using the situation, but it's a much less likely option than Iraq."

U.S. and other Western companies exported pathogens and production equipment to Iraq in the 1980s for "legitimate, peaceful, scientific research," explains Elisa Harris, who was director of nonproliferation on Clinton's National Security Council. …