The Next Destroyer of Worlds ; an Investigation of Biological Weapons in the US and Abroad

Article excerpt

New York Times reporters Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad have written an excellent book on the broad issue of biological weapons. They combine crisp writing, engaging anecdotes, pathbreaking reporting, and thoughtful policy analysis into this volume - certainly one of the best overviews of the subject.

The book opens with a chilling report on a bioterrorism attack carried out by members of a religious cult in Oregon in 1984. Although no one died, almost a thousand people became sick. The frantic efforts of doctors and law enforcement officials to determine the nature of the attack - or even to determine if it was an attack - provide a warning in miniature of the daunting challenges that face the US.

The book's early chapters focus on the history of biological- weapons research during the cold war, revealing considerable detail about an ambitious American program through the 1960s as well as the better-known Soviet efforts. Even as the US developed a massive nuclear stockpile that should have sufficed as an ultimate deterrent, cold-war dynamics drove the pursuit of various types of germ warfare - including an elusive quest for agents that could incapacitate large segments of the population of a country such as Cuba or Vietnam without killing them. Richard Nixon ended such efforts in 1969.

The book also details Saddam Hussein's largely successful efforts to acquire biological weaponry. It explains the great worries his programs caused American policymakers during the Gulf War, when they knew that the US lacked the necessary stockpiles of vaccines and the types of biological agent detectors that would have been essential to protect American troops.

The book bogs down a bit in its middle sections, when it provides more detail than necessary on the 1990s US debates over vaccinating soldiers against anthrax and funding various types of biological- preparedness programs. But this is a minor flaw in the narrative. The story picks up again as the authors describe how President Clinton became interested in the subject of biological arms.

The final chapters of the book unveil the results of the journalists' best investigative reporting, detailed in a New York Times story earlier this month as well. …