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"Bioterror"

60-minute version
PBS Airdate: February 12, 2002
See also 90-minute version
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: On September 11th, 2001, the sun rose on one America but it set on another: a nation consumed by grief and terror.

In the weeks that followed, Americans struggled to come to grips with what horrors might be next: Another hijacking? Or something worse? something previously unimaginable?

JOHN ASHCROFT (Attorney General of the United States): The FBI assesses the use of crop dusting aircraft to distribute chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction.

NARRATOR: Is the powdered anthrax which has contaminated our postal system the greatest threat?

RICHARD DANZIG (Secretary of the Navy, 1998-2001): The aim of the aggressor may well be to demoralize the U.S. population, to undercut the credibility of the U.S. Government, to say, "they can't protect you against us."

NARRATOR: Or could the air we breathe become a weapon?

MARGARET HAMBURG (Nuclear Threat Initiative): If there was a release that involved exposure of a million people, we would have a catastrophic situation.

JUDITH MILLER (New York Times reporter): This country would not recover from a modest plague attack.

NARRATOR: Three New York Times reporters are uniquely qualified to address America's questions about biological terrorism. Their odyssey into the dark world of germ warfare began years ago, and has taken them around the world. They've explored how microscopic germs could be made as powerful as nuclear weapons, and they've found how easy they are to obtain if you know where to look.

Their research has resulted in a book. It reached stores on the day the Pentagon and World Trade Center were attacked, becoming an instant bestseller.

STEPHEN ENGELBERG (New York Times reporter): This is just another engineering problem: "How can you make the most lethal possible agent and the largest quantity in the shortest time?"

WILLIAM BROAD (New York Times reporter): They are decoding the genomes right and left for all these bugs. So you're putting all the building blocks on the table.

JUDITH MILLER: Why, when I go to Russia, do I find Iranian business cards everywhere? And what are they interested in? They want agents that attack plants and animals. "Let me just kill every cow in America. Let me wipe out their wheat. Let them starve. And they'll never be able to trace it to us." That's the way the modern terrorist state thinks.

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NARRATOR: In 1990 and '91, the United States fought a war against Iraq and won. But the period that followed the Gulf War brought shocking revelations about Iraq's germ weapons capacity.

ROBERT KADLEC (National War College): It really wasn't until several years after the fact that the true scope and nature of that program was known. Anthrax, botulinum toxin, and a few others had actually been loaded into weapons and had been dispersed around the country prepared for use.

WILLIAM BROAD: Iraq was the beginning. That was the beginning of our investigation, and that was the first time that we started hearing these kinds of figures like, "Well, you know they made enough germs to kill everyone on earth several times over." And you start digging, and, well, what does that mean? How could it be? What's the science?

STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Well, what I do on a day-to-day basis is I run an investigative unit of...you know, six or seven people. And we do a variety of different kind of projects. Judy Miller, for example, works for me, and she spent a good part of last year doing work on Osama bin Laden and his global network.

JUDITH MILLER: (speaking in Arabic on telephone) translation.

NARRATOR: Judy Miller was in the Middle East during the Gulf War. She was worried when Saddam Hussein was allowed to remain in power.

JUDITH MILLER: I knew when the American forces did not go to Baghdad that if Saddam Hussein could hang on, he would—that he was going to try to protect his nuclear and chemical and biological capability. What surprised me, because I didn't know anything about biological weapons, was, of those three horrible weapons, the one he wanted to keep the most was biology. And I said to myself, "Why? What's with these weapons?"

NARRATOR: The reporters first set out to learn where Saddam Hussein's dangerous germ weapons had come from. The trail led them in some surprising directions, for example, back to America, to the town of Manassas, Virginia, where the American Type Culture Collection is now located.

WILLIAM BROAD: This is the place where Saddam Hussein, back in the '80s, got a lot of his germs, you know? For sure anthrax, for sure lots of other nasty stuff.

NARRATOR: The ATCC is a non-profit center providing samples of bacteria and viruses for scientific study. It's a valuable public service.

But as these receipts from the 1980s show, the Iraqi Technical and Scientific Import Division, a front for weapons procurement, was able to order dangerous pathogens through the mail from this repository. All these sales were legal at the time.

One sample purchased by the Iraqis was especially deadly: bacillus anthracis 11966, a military strain of anthrax originally developed here, Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Maryland, where the U.S. Army pioneered modern germ warfare.

The United States began preparing biological weapons in 1943, and maintained the program over the next 26 years. University biology departments like this one in Utah, worked under secret contracts finding germs to attack humans, plants and animals.

A military factory at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, brewed up bacteria in giant fermenters and grew viruses inside millions of fertilized eggs.

The heart of the biological weapons program was always here, the labs at Fort Detrick, where scientists during World War II were issued pistols to help guard germ weapons as highly classified as any in the nuclear program.

Much of what went on here is still classified. In order to enter the secret world of Detrick, the New York Times reporters needed to find a guide.

WILLIAM BROAD: We are going to see Bill Patrick who is one of the great, old, former, American bio-weaponeers. He is our main window into the past.

NARRATOR: Bill Patrick and his colleagues developed many of the biological weapons and techniques that now threaten America.

BILL PATRICK: Now, this is a simulant that represents anthrax. It is composed of bacillus globigii. Anthrax looks exactly like that.

NARRATOR: Bill Patrick was Fort Detrick's Chief of Product Development for 12 years. He was responsible for producing germs for biological weapons, as well as harmless simulant powders like this, for field tests.

Twenty eight agents, or germs, were turned into weapons and tested by the U.S. Army, including ones that cause diseases such as Tularemia, Brucelosis, and Venezuelan Equine Encephalomyelitis. One of the first agents studied has now become all too familiar to Americans: anthrax.

The military focused on respiratory anthrax, which is caused by inhaling Bacillus anthracis. This bacteria hibernates inside a tough shell, called a "spore," to survive in the soil or the open air. But in the moist environment of your body the seed-like spores break apart, germinate and multiply, releasing toxins.

If you breathe enough spores deep into your lungs, symptoms will usually appear within a week. If antibiotics are not taken, you'll start to cough, as if you had the flu. The disease, anthrax, has begun. Once respiratory anthrax gets underway, antibiotics are often useless.

There are other forms of anthrax: cutaneous, caused when spores enter the skin; or intestinal, caused when spores are eaten. Both are potentially deadly but highly treatable diseases.

Scientists at public health labs are now encountering anthrax firsthand.

CHERYL GAUTHIER: The egg-white, beaten look—how it stands up like that—that is very characteristic of anthrax.

NARRATOR: A nationwide scare began in the fall of 2001 when letters containing anthrax began arriving in the mail. Postal workers who delivered the tainted letters and people nearby when they were opened, have inhaled the spores.

But the U.S. Army would never have developed anthrax as a weapon just to send it through the mail.

BILL PATRICK: If we had a powder that contained the weaponized form of our anthrax, we would probably infect the city of Fredrick. That's about five miles away. Since we are using a "point source system" as opposed to a "line source," the aerosol would be limited in terms of its width.

NARRATOR: Anyone handling real anthrax in this manner would almost certainly kill himself.

But the same principles can be found in sophisticated sprayers developed by the U.S. Army in the '50s and '60s, including several types of germ bomblets. Airplanes, pilot-less drones and rockets were all rigged to deliver invisible clouds of disease to America's enemies.

In these films, never before seen by the public, the Army experimented with a number of clandestine delivery systems—delivery systems that would be perfect for a terrorist.

VOICE FROM OLD FILM: ...the cloud of biological organisms could not be distinguished from the exhaust smoke of the motor. The wind carried the cloud of simulant agent over most of the operations area...

RICHARD SPERTZEL (Former Head of Biology, Ft. Detrick): One of the beauties—if you are thinking from the terrorist standpoint—is the fact that there is a delay between the delivery and the effect. The terrorist can be long gone. Unless a terrorist wanted to claim credit for it, you may never know.

NARRATOR: Experts have assured NOVA that these particular film clips do not reveal information that might endanger national security.

HARVEY "JACK" MCGEORGE (Public Safety Group, Inc.): It was not a terrorist that made those devices. It was an army laboratory that made those devices, that was just chock-full of very talented and skilled people who had spent a great deal of time thinking about and developing those things. That's an element that I think would be missing in a terrorist scenario. I doubt that they have the level of understanding. Will they achieve it eventually? Yeah, I think they will. I see no reason why not. It's a mechanical problem.

NARRATOR: Bill Patrick makes it look deceptively easy. More powder would probably be needed, and many uncontrollable factors would need to fall into place. One example: the weather.

WILLIAM BROAD: And what is a good day? A calm...

BILL PATRICK: A calm day. And maybe a five- to ten-mile-an-hour wind.

NARRATOR: Germ weapons are inherently unpredictable. That's why the U.S. Army favored anthrax and other non-contagious diseases. They won't cause epidemics, which spread from person to person.

BILL PATRICK: We felt that we had enough problems of controlling an aerosol with the vagaries of wind and other meteorological conditions without introducing a contagious agent that knows no restrictions...

WILLIAM BROAD: A good point.

BILL PATRICK: ...that knows no bounds.

NARRATOR: The U.S. Army found biological weapons too imprecise for tactical use on the battlefield but found them perfect for indiscriminate targets.

ROBERT KADLEC: You can potentially disseminate them over large areas and affect large areas of populations. And that would be a strategic use...kind of like what a nuclear weapon would do...would be covering a wide area inflicting both blast and heat damage, but in the case of biological just disease.

NARRATOR: In 1957, an airplane flying hundreds of miles released an invisible trail of a harmless chemical marker. When sampling devices were analyzed, the dust particles had spread over a half million square miles. If this had been a biological agent it might have infected millions upon millions of people. This and other tests indicated that germs could be as powerful as nuclear missiles at a small fraction of the cost.

The United States faced a dilemma: should we really be perfecting the art of inexpensive mass destruction?

MATTHEW MESELSON (Harvard University): It would be best if war was so difficult and so expensive that nobody could afford it. Then there would be no war. Next best, from the point of the President of the U.S., would be if it was so difficult and so expensive that only the United States could afford it. Why would we want to pioneer a weapon for which we have no need, since we do have nuclear weapons that everybody could have? It would be undermining our very future.

NARRATOR: In 1969, President Richard Nixon tried to put the biological genie back in the bottle. He renounced germ weapons and invited the rest of the world to follow.

Over 100 countries, including the Soviet Union, joined the U.S. in signing a treaty intended to ban germ weapons.

Welcome to Kazakhstan, now an independent country, but once part of the U.S.S.R.

And this is Stepnogorsk, one of the largest biological weapon production plants in the history of the world. It was built in 1982, ten years after the Biological Weapons Convention, making this a clear treaty violation by the Soviets.

New York Times reporter Judy Miller is accompanying delegates from the U.S. Department of Defense, who are now trying to keep a close watch on all bio-weapons facilities because a terrorist interested in acquiring germ weapons might start here.

ANDY WEBER (Special Advisor, Threat Reduction): This is it, Judy. Now, inside this room was the three-hundred-cubic-meter explosive aerosol test chamber that was used to test both viral and bacterial agents on animals.

LUDMILLA: One, two, three, four...

NARRATOR: There were once scores of fermentation tanks here, some of them up to four stories tall. Each tank was filled with a nutrient broth for anthrax bacteria to feed and grow on.

LUDMILLA: Ten. Oh, 11.

ANDY WEBER: The wartime mobilization plan was to produce 300 metric tons of anthrax agent and load it onto weapons in a 220-day mobilization period in preparation for all out war. That would be enough, just at this plant, to wipe out billions and billions of people.

NARRATOR: The Soviets tested their germs to achieve maximum killing power, as the director of the Stepnogorsk plant explained to Judy late one evening.

GENNADY LEPYOSHKIN (Stepnogorsk Director, 1987-2001): We made enough weapons to be able to kill everybody in the world nine or 10 times over, but we would have killed ourselves nine or 10 times over as well.

NARRATOR: Soviet strategy was to make war as horrible as possible, and that led them to intentionally to seek out the worst diseases imaginable.

AMY SMITHSON (Stimson Center): They were attempting to weaponize Ebola. They successfully weaponized Marburg. These latter two diseases are devastating hemorrhagic fevers and among some of the most frightening diseases we know of.

NARRATOR: These incurable viruses cause your vascular system to dissolve, creating uncontrollable bleeding.

AMY SMITHSON: But the fact that they messed with smallpox still continues to astound a lot of people in the national security and in the scientific community because smallpox is so highly contagious and has throughout the history of mankind occasionally erupted and just wiped out millions and millions of people at a time.

NARRATOR: Smallpox is the disease caused by the Variola virus. A virus is a tiny ball of nucleic acid and protein. An incomplete life-form on its own, Variola needs your body's cells to reproduce, but it destroys your cells in the process. Within two weeks of exposure, you'll have flu-like symptoms. Red dots spread, becoming excruciating pustules. Thirty percent of those infected die.

ROBERT KADLEC: That's a disease, if I had to consider one, that keeps me up at night. And the great story is that that disease was eliminated from the face of the earth through a very aggressive immunization campaign that began in the '60s and then was completed in the '70s, that wiped out the disease. Now that's the great story. The bad story is...is that once that event happened...that there were those out there, and the Soviet Union was one of them, that recognized that this was a great vulnerability that could be exploited in the future, and that they actually pursued smallpox as a biological weapon.

NARRATOR: The Soviets devised ways to load their smallpox onto missile warheads.

JACK MCGEORGE: If we fill that warhead with high explosive, like TNT, you would expect militarily significant damage over an area about ten thousand square meters. If you fill the warhead with a nerve agent, a chemical, we'd expect militarily significant casualties over an area of about a million square meters. If we filled it with a biological agent, we would probably have an affect over an area anywhere from about five million up to a hundred and fifty or so million square meters. That's a very, very big area.

NARRATOR: When Iraq used Soviet SCUD missiles during the Gulf War, many feared that Saddam had loaded the warheads with a biological agent, perhaps even smallpox, because despite the fact that smallpox has been eradicated from nature, it still exists.

JONATHAN TUCKER (Monterey Institute of International Studies): The smallpox virus continues to exist in laboratory specimens, which are stored, deep frozen, in liquid nitrogen in two official repositories, at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at a laboratory called Vector near NOVAsabirsk in Russia. But it's feared that there may be undeclared stocks of the smallpox virus, either left inadvertently in freezers by virologists who took specimens many years ago and just forgot about them or people who deliberately have retained this virus as a potential biological weapon.

NARRATOR: The U.S. is now looking for hidden stockpiles of smallpox. There might even be some inside this building, about 850 miles southeast of Stepnogorsk.

JUDITH MILLER: Don't touch anything.

BRIAN HAYES: Yeah. And I'll hold the stuff up. You can lick it, smell it, do whatever you want to it. But the bottom line is you don't play with any of the material.

NARRATOR: Judy Miller is the first Western journalist to enter this facility, a storehouse of dangerous pathogens left over from the Soviet biological weapons program.

BRIAN HAYES: As the sign says, we're standing right in front of anthrax. This is Tularemia.

JUDITH MILLER: Tularemia?

BRIAN HAYES: Tuberculosis.

NARRATOR: Scientists here now develop tests and vaccines for many infectious diseases, so they hang onto their lethal collection for study.

BRIAN HAYES: This is one of the refrigeration units that contains plague. There's somewhere between three and four hundred ampules in here, containing various...various types of plague. They are catalogued as you can see, in...in a multitude of different ways. There's soup cans containing various strains. You've got peach cans. You've got pea cans. And then you've got various cardboard containers with material in here.

JUDITH MILLER: Plague in a pea can, I never thought I would see it.

NARRATOR: They find no smallpox here. But there are plenty of other potential biological weapons inside these vials. The U.S. and other governments are trying to keep an eye on collections of dangerous germs around the world. They are also trying to track the experts who know how to turn those germs into weapons.

CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: When the Cold War ended, the world became a more dangerous place, in part because people with extraordinary expertise in the Soviet Union, now Russia, developed chemical and biological agents as weapons. In some cases we know that terrorist-sponsored countries have been able to get some of these assets at phenomenally cheap prices, because there are a lot of destitute people—their pensions aren't worth anything.

NARRATOR: In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union splintered into 14 countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, nations where Muslim extremists are active, all right next to Afghanistan, for years the home of Osama bin Laden. These struggling countries came into existence with germ weapon facilities inside their new borders.

The U.S. has set up a program called Cooperative Threat Reduction intended to help former Soviet countries move their biologists into peaceful work.

The most recent director of the Stepnogorsk plant, Gennady Lepyoshkin, has been helping to dismantle his entire facility. But that task is nearing completion. Days before Judy Miller arrived in Stepnogorsk, Gennady Lepyoshkin was relieved of his position. This put a highly decorated bio-weapons expert on the open market.

No one knows the risks better than his former boss, Ken Alibek, who is now doing medical research in the U.S.

KEN ALIBEK (Former Deputy Director, Biopreparat): Genaddy Lepyoshkin is one of maybe 1000, 2000 highly qualified experts in the field of biological weapons. You know, for example, for Genaddy Lepyoshkin at least, to develop an anthrax biological weapon by himself wouldn't be a significant problem.

NARRATOR: Some twelve countries and several terrorist organizations are believed to be pursuing biological weapons. Iran, North Korea, Syria, Israel, China, Taiwan, even Al Qaeda might be willing to give Lepyoshkin a job—unless he accepts an offer from the U.S. first.

Not only is biological weapon expertise becoming available, so is the equipment. What used to be done in giant facilities like this one could potentially take place in small plants like these, thanks to the global spread of miniaturized and automated biotechnology.

ALAN ZELICOFF (Sandia National Laboratory): It is no longer necessary to conceive of large-scale production facilities as the basis for a biological weapons program because the tools of biotechnology for producing organisms in large quantity for legitimate purposes—like making human insulin in E.coli—that technology has advanced tremendously in the past 30 years.

NARRATOR: Would it be possible for a germ factory to exist right here in the United States without being detected? The New York Times reporters discovered just such a thing, some forty miles inside a highly guarded military installation once used to test atom bombs. It was built as an experiment by the U.S. Department of Defense, code name: Project Baccus.

JUDITH MILLER: For a year, a D.O.D. team just put together what, from the outside, looks like a really innocuous building, and from the inside is a kind of death plant, to see how easy it is to do.

NARRATOR: Knowing that the New York Times was about to break the story, the Pentagon invited Judy Miller inside to explain why they'd done it, and what they had learned.

JAY DAVIS (Former Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency): I think one unpleasant lesson is we've reassured ourselves how easy this was. We were pretty sure it was easy but this has turned out to be frighteningly easy to put together a production facility.

NARRATOR: Using equipment they ordered from catalogs, government scientists produced a simulant, a harmless bacteria with qualities very similar to anthrax.

Jay Davis, former director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, explained how a germ can become a deadly arsenal.

JAY DAVIS: Basically production of these things is a multiplication technique. So after a certain number of days in this environment, the cultures which had grown in the nutrient material would then be taken out and brought to this 10-liter fermenter.

JUDITH MILLER: Okay, but is this an off-the-shelf item?

JAY DAVIS: Yeah. It's an off-the-shelf item. Any good biological lab at a university, any small pharmaceutical house, would have a thing like this for growing perfectly acceptable cultures.

Then you would drain this out into flasks and if it were biologically active material you'd made, true terrorist material, you now would begin the process of converting it into a form that could be dispersed in a weapon.

JUDITH MILLER: Which you haven't done.

JAY DAVIS: Which we didn't do. We did none of that here.

NARRATOR: Experts say that growing germs in quantity is relatively easy. Processing those germs into an effective biological weapon is much more challenging.

BILL PATRICK: It is second nature to me, you know? We made agents. We made all sorts of agents: liquid agents, dry agents, agents for unique targets of opportunity.

WILLIAM BROAD: Right.

BILL PATRICK: And it is easy for me, but I believe it is a little bit more difficult for Tom, Dick and Harry type of terrorists in this country.

NARRATOR: To make germs into a weapon, you somehow have to get it into the air where people will inhale them. This aerosol spray pump was developed by Soviet doctors to deliver vaccines, which are biological agents. They've used it to vaccinate rooms full of animals and bio-weapons scientists without needles.

ANDY WEBER: My hand isn't even wet because it's such a fine particle.

NARRATOR: Between two and five microns is small enough to go deep inside the lungs, and big enough to lodge there.

ANDY WEBER: It's ideal for aerosol vaccinations or for offensive biological weapons.

NARRATOR: Many liquid weapons have been developed, but the U.S. Army preferred dried ones.

BILL PATRICK: Dry agents are much more difficult to prepare than liquid agents, but once you get them, they're very easily disseminated. You can see it doesn't take very much energy to make a very small particle aerosol.

WILLIAM BROAD: And, wow. And it sails.

BILL PATRICK: And it just sails away.

WILLIAM BROAD: It looks like smoke.

NARRATOR: Large particles fall to the ground. Small particles float in the air and travel invisibly on the wind.

One necessary step to a good germ weapon is to make the powder free-flowing, so that it won't clump up or stick to the bottle.

BILL PATRICK: This is a small particle size but it has an electrostatic charge and you couldn't disseminate this.

NARRATOR: Electrostatic charge is an inherent property of small, dry particles. How to get rid of it has been one of the more closely held secrets of germ warfare. Now it seems that a terrorist has figured it out, or has somehow obtained some high-quality powder.

In the fall of 2001 the letters containing powdered anthrax were delivered to broadcasters, newspapers and politicians. The powder that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle got was unusually dangerous.

JUDITH MILLER: The anthrax in that letter was aerosolized, wafted into the air and floated. And that suggests very pure, very fine particles that were handled by someone who knew what he was doing.

NARRATOR: Twenty people in Daschle's suite of offices breathed in the airborne particles. Two others were exposed when the powder somehow floated to neighboring offices down the hall. Capital police officers inhaled microscopic specks in the air 15 minutes after the letter was opened.

Samples from Daschle's office were analyzed at Fort Detrick, where Bill Patrick used to work. Detrick is now the home of the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Scientists here discovered that each particle in Daschle's sample had been processed to the most dangerous size, between one point five and three microns. All electrostatic charge had been removed.

Officials have stated that the anthrax in Daschle's letter and other letters all belong to the same strain, a particularly deadly strain, first isolated by veterinarians in Ames, Iowa.

Silica was added, a substance used by the U.S. Army in the 1960s to reduce electrostatic charge and to make it aerosolize more readily. Apparently, someone has used an American strain of anthrax and America's own biological research to kill Americans.

JUDITH MILLER: In the scale of things, it's nothing compared to Sept. 11th, but there's something about germs that just unhinges people. Watching the impact it's had on Capital Hill and throughout America, I realize that this really is a weapon of mass disruption as opposed to a weapon of mass destruction, and that the disruption can be just as debilitating to a society psychologically and logistically as actual deaths.

NARRATOR: If mass disruption is the primary goal, there is, unfortunately, no shortage of means. Once obtained, some germs require very little expertise to use as a weapon.

STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Contemplate the havoc that could be wreaked in this country or in any country by the introduction of a small number of highly contagious people with smallpox. I mean just think about that. I mean it is a very, very, very contagious disease.

JUDITH MILLER: Smallpox martyrs, instead of those people who want to go into a building and blow themselves up, somebody who wants to walk into our country infected with something that could kill us all.

JONATHAN TUCKER: These scenarios, while possible I think, have to be examined very closely. You have to remember that the early phase of smallpox infection, it produces high fever and prostration, extreme exhaustion.

RICHARD SPERTZEL: It would be unlikely that a smallpox patient would be able to get on a closed system, such as an airplane, at the time that they would be most infectious, because the infection would be obvious: with a rash and developing lesions on the hands...face first and then the trunk.

NARRATOR: It is often assumed that each smallpox victim can infect 10 or more people. But a new study by the CDC indicates that the real number is much lower, perhaps only one or two secondary cases. Smallpox may not be such a perfect biological weapon after all.

MATTHEW MESELSON: To make a dependable large-scale biological attack requires an enormous number of problems to be solved. I won't go into them, but they're very, very many. On the other hand, it's always possible that a much smaller effort might...in the hands of a terrorist...might work.

NARRATOR: In fact, small-scale biological attacks are the only ones that have worked so far.

RICHARD ENGELBERG: In our book research, we discovered exactly one terrorist group, uh, the Rajneeshis who carried out a successful terrorist attack using germs in Oregon.

JACK MCGEORGE: They were the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. There was quite a lot of them. It was over 10,000 of these folks had gathered together and settled on a ranch that they had purchased. Their goal was to take and incorporate the ranch as a city. They could count votes ahead of time, as well as any politician, and it didn't look good for them apparently.

NARRATOR: Afraid they would lose the election, some Rajneeshees tried to make townspeople too sick to vote against them.

MA ANAND SHEELA: If they want to show that bigotry, they're going to pay for it.

STEPHEN ENGELBERG: They used Salmonella to poison a salad bar and got seven hundred people sick, which is pretty good. I mean if they had used a worse germ, they would have gotten people dead.

NARRATOR: The Rajneeshis chose a disease that would incapacitate their enemies rather than kill.

In the 1950s and '60s the U.S. Army also stockpiled non-contagious germs carefully selected to avoid killing the enemy but making him too sick to fight.

Bill Broad has discovered that America came closer to using these so-called "incapacitating agents" than has ever been made public.

WILLIAM BROAD: We have also learned that there was interest in using these kind of things that were weapons that were under development at Detrick, possibly as a contingency for possible war against Cuba. What can you say about any or all of that?

BILL PATRICK: I have nothing to say about that.

WILLIAM BROAD: Not a damn thing?

BILL PATRICK: Not a thing. No.

NARRATOR: Bill Patrick wouldn't talk on camera about secret war plans against Cuba. But he's been very forthcoming in his lectures to military personnel, such as this 1999 lecture at Maxwell Air Force Base.

BILL PATRICK: ...use combinations of organisms. For example, when we were having trouble with the Soviet Union and Cuba, we produced about 3,000 gallons of Q-Fever and about 2,500 gallons of VEE virus, Laurie—both liquid. And by combining these two organisms we would incapacitate that Cuban population from three days to about a little over two weeks. And the concept is that we didn't destroy the infrastructure. We just made a lot of people sick. Very few of them were going to die. We can move our forces in and take over the country and that would be it. That was the concept.

NARRATOR: The reporters found no evidence that the U.S. ever used biological weapons in Cuba or anywhere else. There is no conclusive evidence that the Soviet Union ever used their biological weapons either. But the weapons they had ready to use were more advanced than anything the Americans developed.

ANDY WEBER: The Soviet Union, exploiting the revolution in genetic engineering and molecular...molecular biology that happened in the...in the 1970s, the 1980s, went 10, 20, 30 years beyond what we ever achieved in the sophistication and lethality and variety of biological weapons.

NARRATOR: In laboratories like this one, Vector in Siberia, Soviet scientists were able to use modern biotechnology to combine traits from several organisms into one, even to create entirely new diseases unknown to nature.

WILLIAM BROAD: There's a guy named Serguei Popov who did this research for a long time for the Soviets, and you know, what he did was scary. He scares himself and yet at the same time you see it when you talk to him, you see him still fascinated. You know he can't help himself, it's like Oppenheimer and the atom bomb. You know it's so technically sweet. Well you talk to Serguei and he is still infused with this sense of possibility, you know, "Gosh, if I just took one from Column A and one from Column B and one from Column C and put them together in a new way, eureka. You know what crazy things could we concoct?" And some of them are crazy. Some of them are terrifyingly crazy.

SERGUEI POPOV: I was in charge of a relatively large team, the biggest team probably in the history of the Soviet Union dealing with synthetic DNA.

NARRATOR: Serguei Popov is now working in Virginia, under a U.S. Defense Department contract to do biomedical research.

SERGUEI POPOV: Right now we protect people from biological agents, but in the former Soviet Union, we've developed for more than 15-17 years, we've tried to develop more dangerous biological agents. The process is quite similar. It could protect people and it could be used to create more dangerous biological agents.

NARRATOR: Popov is now studying how to help the human immune system fight disease. But as a bio-warrior he turned the immune system into a killer. He did it with genetic engineering.

SERGUEI POPOV: So these are bacterial cells. They're ready to take up new genetic information, which is encoded in plasmid DNA.

NARRATOR: A plasmid is a small ring of DNA found in many bacteria. This DNA provides instructions for certain traits, including production of toxins or resistance to antibiotics. Each trait is encoded in a segment of DNA called a gene. This clear liquid contains gene fragments.

SERGUEI POPOV: So we mix this small amount of DNA with cells.

NARRATOR: Using techniques developed since the '70s, scientists are able to take genes from one organism and transfer them to another. If done properly the inserted gene will take up residence within the DNA of its new home.

In this demonstration for NOVA, Dr. Popov transferred an animal gene, one that makes a sea anemone red, to a colony of bacteria, which turns red in the process.

SERGUEI POPOV: Essentially, we used the same technique in the former Soviet Union to create new biological weapons, new biological agents with essentially new properties and higher virulence.

NARRATOR: In the Soviet Union, Popov isolated a gene that produces the protein myelin, which helps conduct nerve signals. He extracted the myelin gene from a small mammal and inserted it into the bacteria that causes Legionnaire's disease.

WILLIAM BROAD: One of his projects at Obolensk was to take Legionella, this sort of mild flu bug in humans, and make it worse, right?

SERGUEI POPOV: It is better to say it is mild pneumonia.

WILLIAM BROAD: Mild pneumonia, yes, like flu pneumonia, yes.

SERGUEI POPOV: It is pneumonia-like symptoms, and the agent which incorporated new genes was capable to induce absolutely new symptoms which resembled in animals multiple sclerosis.

NARRATOR: Exposed to Popov's genetically engineered bacteria, rabbits became ill with Legionnaire's disease. Then something strange happened: their immune systems attacked the myelin around their own nerves, as if it were an invading pathogen.

SERGUEI POPOV: The majority of animals died of unusual symptoms because pneumonia went away. At the time symptoms developed, there was no bacterial agent inside the animals.

WILLIAM BROAD: So if you were a physician trying to figure out what happened...

SERGUEI POPOV: That would be impossible to find any kind of disease.

WILLIAM BROAD: No trace?

SERGUEI POPOV: So the animals were completely healthy, but several weeks later...it is better to say two weeks later, the first symptoms appeared. And those symptoms were severe paralysis and final death.

ALAN ZELICOFF: There was a massive program that was very up-to-date in modern tools of molecular biology and using those tools really at the edge of the science, right at the state-of-the-art for exploiting or exploring the possibility of designer bugs.

AMY SMITHSON: They were trying to cross the properties of diseases to create superbugs—to mix smallpox, which is very contagious, with other agents. We need to understand what they did because if something like that ever got out of the laboratory, if there were an accident, or if that seed culture were shared with another government or a terrorist group, then that is a doomsday type of a scenario.

NARRATOR: Sophisticated genetic engineering is difficult even with the resources of a large country like the former Soviet Union. Bioterrorists are unlikely to possess the means or the need to create such advanced weapons themselves. For the time being, they are much more likely to try the standard agents, the so-called "oldie moldies," such as anthrax, botulinum, or plague.

So is the U.S. government prepared for an aerosol attack using these?

AMY SMITHSON: In May of 2000, the U.S. government conducted a major drill to simulate these types of disasters, and in Denver the simulation was a plague outbreak.

NARRATOR: Participants in this drill, called Operation Topoff, acted out what might happen after a terrorist released an aerosol of contagious plague into a crowded theater.

When the plague bacteria yersinia pestis is inhaled, the result is rapid pneumonia and bleeding in the lungs. In just three years during the fourteenth century, one plague epidemic killed a third of the population of Europe. In the drill, plague spread to 4,000 people within four days. Two million citizens were under quarantine.

AMY SMITHSON: The Federal system kind of fell apart because there were so many federal agencies jostling for control of who was making the decisions and which agency would provide the requested assistance.

RICHARD DANZIG: The Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, the FBI, and then state and local governments, local fire departments. Local fire departments are the first responders for many emergencies. They don't normally work with the Pentagon.

AMY SMITHSON: They had a teleconference call, any time they needed to make a decision, that linked up 100 people. And if that's not a ridiculous set of circumstances for decision-making, I don't know what is.

SOLDIER: At the one minute mark they did one set per minute.

SOLDIER: Pagers don't work in bunkers.

POLITICIAN: You're going to actually take leadership in that?

NARRATOR: The confusion seen in practice drills is eerily similar to reality during the anthrax-letter crisis of 2001. Coordination and communication among government agencies have been in short supply. The need to test a growing number of suspicious substances has overwhelmed public health laboratories.

AMY SMITHSON: It is only with the rising concern about bioterrorism that finances and fiscal support has finally begun going back into the Public Health Service. There is a long way to go because it's been neglected since the 1950s.

NARRATOR: There is a growing realization that defending against bioterror means defending against all disease.

RICHARD DANZIG: If I build a bomb shelter against nuclear attack, it has no utility unless we happen to be attacked by a nuclear weapon. But if I create a good medical system, able to defend against bacteria or viruses, if I strengthen the ability of our laboratories to diagnose what is going on, if I increase our supplies of vaccines, if I strengthen the ability of doctors and others to recognize an epidemic when it occurs and work with one another to deal with it, I get big bonuses in terms of the actual operation of our health system. And in an everyday way, that's an extremely high reward.

NARRATOR: Under President Clinton, some defense dollars began to be diverted to biomedicine. And such funding is now expanding as part of the broader war on terrorism. Thousands of small and large projects are underway. They range from training programs for doctors working on highly infectious patients to high-tech equipment designed to travel anywhere and test the air for a dangerous, biological aerosol, and cutting-edge research into novel ways of understanding and combating deadly microbes.

Efforts are now also underway to enlarge the nation's stockpiles of antibiotics and vaccines. Hopefully, some of these new investments in bio-defense will start paying off soon.

JUDITH MILLER: We will get through this. The government will ultimately do what it needs to do to develop the vaccines and the drills and the procedures and the investment in public health, I hope. That really means civil defense for Americans and protection, but until that time there's going to be a gap and we all have to face that.

STEPHEN ENGELBERG: People shouldn't overreact, shouldn't be panicked. On the other hand, there has been a line crossed here, a large significant line. And that line says to me that nothing is unthinkable.

WILLIAM BROAD: People out there, whoever they are, are interested in producing as many deaths and as much terror as possible. They don't care about slaughtering innocents. They don't care about things that we care deeply, deeply, deeply about and that we consider right down in the fabric of our moral beliefs and our society. They don't care. They want to shred it. And to me that raises the notch a level.

MATTHEW MESELSON: It's everybody who's at threat. It's all traditions, all cultures, everybody. Not just the rich, not just the poor, everybody. This is a technology the human species should dread as a species.

Visit NOVA's Website for in-depth interviews with bio-weapons experts who were on opposite sides during the Cold War and learn more about the many lethal agents that could be used for bioterrorism today, on PBS.org or America Online, keyword PBS.

To order Bioterror on video for $19.95 plus shipping and handling or the Book Germs for $27.00 plus shipping and handling, please call 1-800-255-9424.

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PRODUCTION CREDITS

Bioterror

Directed by
Kirk Wolfinger

Produced & Written by
Matthew Collins

Based on the book
Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad.

Narrated by
Will Lyman

Edited by
Rebecca Nieto

Line & Research Producer
Brent Willey

Associate Producer
Lori Beane

Director of Photography
DJ Roller

Camera
Paul Atkins
Sam Henriques
Sean Glenn
Ed George
Jim Luscombe

Assistant Camera
Mark Carroll
Eric Martin

Sound Recordists
Brent Willey
Gracie Atkins
Tom Eichler
Jim Gallup
Steven Robinson
Caleb Snyder
Lew Steiger

Music
Ray Loring

Animation
Sputnik!

Production Managers
Lori Beane Amy Campbell

Post Production Manager
Jim Luscombe

Assistant Editors
Corey Norman
Tom Pierce

Online Editor
Mark Steele

Colorist
Greg Dildine

Audio Mix
John Jenkins

Research
Brian Breger
Jennifer Callahan

Chief Archivist
Joanna Allen

Archival Research
Amy Campbell
Sara Clarkin
Mika Holliday
Jennifer Lorenz
Bonnie Rowan

Production Assistants
Jennifer Black
Sara Clarkin
Kyle George
Michael Hofheimer
Matt Unger

Archival Material
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Cellsalive!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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Advisors
Steven Block
David Franz
Harvey "Jack" McGeorge
George O'Toole
Barbara Hatch Rosenberg
Jessica Stern

Special Thanks
Lester C. Caudle, III
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Eileen Choffnes
Jeanne Guillemin
Nilda Jensen
Jennifer Luscombe
Alexander Ogilvy Public Relations
John Ounan
Howard L. Rosenberg
Sheryl Gay Stolberg
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Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
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Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
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Publicity
Jonathan Renes
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Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Unit Managers
Sarah Goldman
Jessica Maher
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Paralegal
Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Business Manager
Laurie Cahalane

Assistant Editor, Post Production
Dan Van Roekel

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editors
David Eells
Rebecca Nieto

Supervising Producer
Lisa D'Angelo

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Director of Television Programming for the New York Times
Lawrie Mifflin

Executive in Charge of Television for the New York Times
Michael Oreskes

Executive Producer for Granada Factuals USA
Charles Tremayne

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by The New York Times/Granada Factuals USA and Lone Wolf Pictures, Inc., for WGBH/Boston in association with Channel 4.

© 2001 WGBH Educational Foundation

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