When Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov fled to the U.S. in 1992, he carried with him
intimate knowledge of the Soviet Union's biological weapons program. Alibekov,
who later changed his name to Ken Alibek, had served as deputy chief of
Biopreparat, the agency at the heart of the Soviet program.
To learn Soviet secrets, the U.S. government turned to longtime bioweaponeer
Bill Patrick to debrief the defector in a series of clandestine
Here, prompted by NOVA producer Kirk Wolfinger, the two reminisce about their
first meetings together. They also offer two insiders' views of the threat of
NOVA: Does the pervasiveness of biological weapons concern you? Are you
worried about a threat either from a rogue state or from a terrorist
Alibek: My answer is yes. People don't realize biological weapons could be the
most sophisticated weapons. Biological weapons could be used covertly. There
are a lot of different deployment scenarios. There are a lot of different
techniques to manufacture biological weapons. And a lot of different agents
could be used in biological weapons.
One of the problems is biotechnology is moving fast. We see a lot of changes in
biotechnology in general—in microbiology, genetic engineering. And all the
developments will give more and more information about how to develop and
manufacture sophisticated types of biological weapons. That worries me very,
"My biggest concern now is a rogue country that supports state
terrorism," notes Patrick.
Patrick: My take is very similar to Ken's. I don't think that Tom, Dick, and
Harry terrorists, without significant training and experience in this arena,
could develop an agent that would cause serious harm to this country. My
biggest concern now is a rogue country that supports state terrorism and has
the facilities to prepare, for example, a good dry powder of anthrax.
They could use that powder not in a large overt sense—large targets in
outside environments—but they could certainly place that powder
strategically in buildings, in subway systems. And they could cause serious
harm. That's my biggest concern today.
My second biggest concern is what is happening to the scientists of the former
Soviet Union who have the techniques and the knowledge base to manufacture a
weapons agent. Where are they? Are they going to Iran? Are they going to
Iraq, North Korea, perhaps? They could significantly improve the ability of
the Iraqi program overnight with just a few changes in strains, just a few
changes in production procedures, and transform Iraq into a very capable BW
[biological weapons] country. These are where my concerns lie.
NOVA: What do you think, Ken? These are your colleagues.
Alibek: You know, yesterday night I had a talk with [Sergei Popov], my
friend and my coworker now. He was a department chief back in Russia working in
the area of biological weapons. We discussed changes we can see now in Russia.
And he was telling me about how it was easy to steal something from the BW
"You can get this information just for the cost of a translator
from Russian into English," says Alibek.
He was talking about groups of scientists with a desire to sell some products.
And they were able to do this—not actual agents but some plasmids that could
be used for genetic engineering research work.
I know about a person who established a company to sell some techniques to
develop genetically engineered strains. I know about many publications in
Russian scientific journals explaining how to manufacture very sophisticated,
highly pathogenic agents.
Patrick: Ken, that is scary. That is real scary.
Alibek: That is what I'm saying all the time. Ten years ago it would require
several million dollars to get one or another technique. Now you can get this
information just for the cost of a translator from Russian into English.
Alibek: Or from Russian into Iranian—any other language.
NOVA: What does the U.S. need to do about this dangerous situation?
Alibek adds, "It is very difficult to control the
Alibek: We need to continue our efforts to pressure Russia to open a discussion
about what exists in Russian BW facilities. They are still top secret. The
United States must be very, let me say, strong with this issue with Russia.
And at the same time the United States, in my opinion, must do much to control
the situation with Russian scientists—maybe to help these scientists start
doing some other work with no involvement in any BW-related business.
There are thousands of scientists with this knowledge scattered all over the
world and a huge number of them in Russia. And it is very difficult to control
Alibek's debriefingPatrick: I never will forget the first day you and I met. You were at a safe
house—a well-known agency had gotten it for you. [Driving there], we circled
the [Washington, D.C.] beltway several times in case somebody was following us.
I saw you standing at the top of the stairs, and I gave you my business card,
and although you weren't speaking English particularly well in those days, you
saw my business card and started laughing.
NOVA: Tell us about your first meeting together.
"You saw my business card and started laughing," Patrick reminds
Alibek: Yeah, because to me it was a very, very strange looking card.
Patrick: Well, it was a very dramatic card. It had the skull and crossbones on
Alibek: It was very strange to see somebody saying "I'm a BW expert...A
bio-weapons expert." In our place if you said something like this, you were in
trouble. In Russia, all the BW issues were top secret issues.
Patrick: Well, our issues were top secret too, but you knew precisely what
agents we were working on [in the 1940s-1960s] and when we were going to test
them in large-scale field tests in the Pacific. So this information might have
been secret to the American people, but certainly you knew of our program in
some of the most intimate details.
Alibek: But when I was in Russia, I never knew whether or not I had, let me
say, complete information about the United States programs.
Alibek: We knew the program started sometime in the '40s or '50s. We knew that
the United States declared this program terminated [in 1969]. What was amazing
to me, when I came to the United States, I realized I knew practically
everything about the United States program.
"I just put my head down on the table ... and said, "Oh, my God.
Oh, my, God," recalls Patrick.
Patrick: Right. And we knew absolutely nothing about yours. I never will
forget when you started giving me the potential production figures for your
various weaponized agents. If you recall, I just put my head down on the table
where we were talking and said, "Oh, my God. Oh, my, God." It was a revelation
that was just unbelievable to me.
Alibek: Well, the Soviet Union had four major anthrax production
Alibek: One was located in the City of Kurgan. Another one was located in the
City of Penza. One more in Sverdlovsk, which belonged to the Ministry of
Defense, and one more relatively recently established in Stepnogorsk. And I
became commander of this facility, the Stepnogorsk facility, in 1983 with the
specific task to develop new anthrax biological weapons.
Patrick: How old were you, Ken, in 1983?
Alibek: Thirty-two years old.
Patrick: That is a lot of responsibility for someone that young. You were
doing the things that were necessary to weaponize agents, and you were very
effective in doing that job.
Alibek: But, you know, when I finished this work in 1986, I was a little
disappointed because the production facility I ran at that time was not able to
manufacture more than 300 tons of the anthrax during a 250-day period.
Patrick: [Laughter.] Oh, my goodness. Only 300 tons.
"You were out-producing us by a factor of 300-to-1," Patrick
Alibek: I was disappointed because I thought I would be able to reach something
like 1,000 tons. But when I came to the United States, I realized that it was a
little more than you were able to manufacture.
Patrick: Oh, my goodness. You were out-producing us by a factor of 300-to-1 in
NOVA: Ken, how did you feel about Bill Patrick when you met him? What made
you think, this is a guy that I can talk to?
Alibek: First, because I liked you. Of course, I didn't understand even a word
you were saying because I didn't speak English.
Alibek: I didn't understand English, but it was clear to me you were quite a
funny person in a good sense.
Patrick: Dallas humor, I think, is the expression.
Alibek: And even at that time I was not absolutely sure that the United States
had terminated the BW program.
Patrick: Yeah. Right.
Alibek: I was trying to figure out whether or not you were a real guy who
worked in this field. And when we started a discussion—it was not a very
long discussion—but it started getting clear that you knew this issue
Patrick: Well, you paid me a very high compliment in your book
Biohazard where [you write] that you couldn't convince anyone about the
procedures and capabilities [of the Soviet program], and you said that I was
the first person who truly realized what that program was all about.
Regrets of bioweapons workNOVA: When you look back on your career, do you have regrets about what you
did? Do you have second thoughts about what you did in the moral sense?
Alibek: Was it right for me to be involved in this business? I say no.
Probably, I didn't have the right because of one important reason: Because I'm
Somebody with no medical background—a chemist or biologist who didn't pledge
not to cause harm—I cannot accuse this person of wrongdoing. But with my
specific case, I was a physician. I tried to escape—I tried not to be
involved in this business—but I was not able to do this.
NOVA: Bill, what about your take on the question?
Patrick still stresses, "We all felt that we were
Patrick: Well, I've been posed this question many times, and I feel very
ambivalent about providing a very cut-and-dried answer. I vacillate on this
point. All I can say is, in retrospect, it probably was a good thing that
President Nixon disestablished the offensive program in 1969.
But at the time, those of us who worked at Detrick [the U.S. Army's base for
biological weapons research], we all felt that we were patriotic. We realized
that we were in the midst of a very severe Cold War—with the United States
on one side and the Soviet Union and, at that time, Red China on the other
side. And we felt that it was absolutely the patriotic thing to do to develop
biological warfare in case it was used against us. The policy of this country
was always to have biological warfare available in a response, not first usage,
but in response.
NOVA: So, in short, no regrets?
Patrick: The tempo of the times allowed me to work on offensive biological
warfare agents without qualms. Without any qualms, yeah.