Magazine article Insight on the News

The Danger of Biological War

Magazine article Insight on the News

The Danger of Biological War

Article excerpt

Russia has enough anthrax to kill the world's population four times over. Iraq stockpiles weaponized neurotoxins. Can homeland defense hold up against these weapons?

It was a low-tech attack with box-cutters and plastic knives. But suppose it had been a low-tech attack with even more murdered across a broader territory? In the weeks before the airline disasters, Washington officials were thinking a lot about that. But they were not thinking nuclear -- they've been thinking biological.

Since Sept. 11, they've been thinking about it even more intensely. Among the workers immediately sorting through the rubble were biohazard specialists, alerted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quietly taking samples to see if biological agents had been secreted in the baggage of the terrorists.

More disturbing still was a report by Bill Gertz of the Washington Times that Mohammed Atta, one of the dead terrorists, had been seen a year ago in talks with a high-level Iraqi intelligence official. Specialists long have known that Iraq possesses chemical and biological weapons, although U.N. inspectors in postwar Iraq, buffaloed by Saddam Hussein's game of three-card monte, did not find any. Intelligence sources tell Insight that Saddam simply hired scientists from the Russian biological-weapons complex called Biopreparat.

Ken Alibek was deputy chief of Biopreparat when he defected in 1992. The program had the highest security classification, and the Russians routinely denied that it existed. Alibek was told that it was necessary because the United States was preparing such weapons. Then he was sent on an official arms-control inspection team to examine U.S. biological facilities. Russian intelligence experts had primed him to look for hidden facilities for making biological weapons, but what he found instead was rusted machinery that had been decommissioned for years.

Alibek was disillusioned when he realized that the rationale for the Soviet/Russian programs was a lie. He personally had seen the signature of Mikhail Gorbachev on orders to develop various biological weapons.

Alibek revealed that Russia had produced 80 tons of weaponized smallpox -- a virus everyone believed had been eliminated from Earth. He reported that the Russians had several bacterial weapons ready for use: brucellosis, tularemia, anthrax, glanders and plague. Rickettsial weapons included epidemic typus and Q fever. Viral weapons besides smallpox included encephalitis and Marburg, a hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola. When Alibek left, Biopreparat was working to weaponize Ebola, too, as well as Japanese encephalitis.

In February the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, with William Schneider Jr. as chairman, warned that "the remaining superpower, the United States, has become a target for both countries and transnational actors. Potential adversaries are more likely to use asymmetric warfare in the future. The threat of an asymmetric attack poses danger not only in the physical effects of such an attack but in the psychological fear and damage it could beget as well." Was anyone listening?

The board warns that Iraq has stockpiled 19,000 pounds of botulinum toxin, with more than one-half of it weaponized. And it reports the Russian program has enough anthrax stockpiled to kill the world's population four times over. It states that four people can produce anthrax simulant in three weeks with an investment of $250,000. Moreover, it finds that the U.S. civilian health-care and pharmaceutical system operates at 95 percent capacity -- meaning that it has virtually no ability to absorb a mass-casualty event.

"The BW [biological warfare] task force found that this nation does not have an effective, early capability to assess the BW threat and, as a consequence, cannot prevent such a crisis," the board says. "The infrastructure does not exist to execute the desired consequence-management measures. …

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