FRONTLINE 1706 "Plague War"
Air date: October 13, 1998
Produced by Peter Molloy, Jim Gilmore
Reported by Tom Mangold
Clive Syddal, Executive Producer
Written by Tom Mangold and Jim Gilmore
NARRATOR: March, 1998. In a Texas border town near El Paso, a deadly scenario is being played out. A terrorist group has released a lethal virus into the air. The wind spreads the fine dust through open windows and into the lungs of innocent men, women and children. The virus, an incredibly lethal, genetically engineered agent, includes an ancient enemy: smallpox.
Once the cause of epidemics that killed millions, now it's back in a form far more deadly than ever. Within three days, hundreds flock to emergency rooms. Up to 90 percent will die. Hospitals are overwhelmed. There are not enough antibiotics and no vaccine. Each victim has contaminated a thousand more, and now the doctors and nurses are dying, too.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, Ph.D., State Epidemiologist, Minnesota: We believe we'd just see a total chaos occur. Make no mistake about it, it would be the closest thing to a living hell we've probably ever known.
NARRATOR: This time it was only an exercise, a fictional scenario dreamt up in Washington to test the government's ability to respond to what it sees as America's greatest threat, a terrorist attack using biological weapons.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: In the last four months, I've been involved with three different exercises. And in each one of them, when it came down to the really difficult aspects of control - the vaccines, the antibiotics, who would do what - every one of them failed miserably because we either didn't have the resources, or no one really knew what to do or how to do it, or how to even begin to prepare for it.
WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense: It's a horrible prospect, something that I think it's hard for most people to imagine that people are actually planning and trying to develop a plague that would wipe out millions of people.
NARRATOR: During the Persian Gulf war, the U.S. military came face to face with the real threat of biological warfare. Since then, the military has made a concerted effort to build new defenses against it. Units like this one at Fort McClellan, Alabama, are training with battlefield bio-detection labs. Their role: to monitor the air for signs of any biological hazard.
Samples are analyzed and compared to the chemical composition of known bio-weapons. But analyzing a single sample takes at least half an hour.
INTERVIEWER: If it takes 30 to 45 minutes, presumably, in that time a lot of people will have been infected and will die?
Maj. BRAD PERKINS, Commander, 310 Chemical Company: They'll be exposed, not necessarily die. What we have then is the ability to warn the force commander that an event is going on, and he can take steps at that point to protect the remainder of his force and begin treatment of his other soldiers who may have been exposed.
NARRATOR: There are dozens of biological agents that could be used on a battlefield today. This lab is capable of detecting only a handful of them- some of the more deadly, like plague and anthrax.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Anthrax is a bacterial infection that's transmitted in the air. It starts out with flu-like symptoms, and within three to four days, virtually 100 percent of people who are not treated already will die. Plague is another bacterial-caused infectious disease. It causes a type of pneumonia in a number of patients. It is fatal in a large number of them, if not caught not early. And it's very easily transmitted through the air.
Smallpox is probably the ultimate weapon because not only will it kill lots of people, we have no treatment for it. And people will continue to be infectious themselves and transmit it potentially months to years after the initial hit occurs.
Dr. D. A. HENDERSON, Dean of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University: Anthrax requires, as does smallpox, a very small volume of material. It's been estimated that with as little as two pounds of powdered anthrax, it would be enough to saturate the whole of Manhattan Island, for example, all of New York.
Beginning perhaps two, three days later, people would develop pulmonary disease and die very quickly, but cases continue out for as much as six weeks. In Manhattan, we would count hundreds of thousands of deaths.
NARRATOR: This threat is taken very seriously. The bombings - of New York's World Trade Center in 1993, and in Oklahoma City two years later - proved that domestic terrorism is a reality. The fear is terrorists will turn next to weapons of mass destruction, and there's evidence they've already tried.
WILLIAM COHEN: We saw the situation in New York City, where the terrorists tried to destroy one of the Trade towers, and they had contemplated setting off cyanide in the process. It failed to ignite, and therefore the great catastrophe did not take place.
NARRATOR: But in 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo successfully carried out a Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and injuring thousands. But chemical weapons had only been their second choice.
DONALD A. MAHLEY, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency: In the Aum Shinrikyo clan in Tokyo, they had graduate microbiologists as members of their clan, who were looking at ways in which they might have been able to create a biological weapons capability, as well as a chemical weapons capability. Their chemical weapons work was much advanced, and so that- when they decided to strike, that was what they used.
NARRATOR: Two years earlier, the cult's leader, Shoko Asahara, had ordered the release of anthrax from the roof of a Tokyo building. Fortunately, the test failed.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: If Aum Shinrikyo had even been just minimally successful with their anthrax release, it would have actually made the sarin gas attack seem as if it was just a minor incident.
JAMES WOOLSEY, CIA Director 1993-95: The highly ideological and fanatically religious basis for some of the terrorist groups these days, I think, adds to the risk that something as terrible as biological weapons could be used.
INTERVIEWER: And how easy is it for them to acquire the knowledge of, A, the biological agents and, B, basic, perhaps primitive weaponization?
JAMES WOOLSEY: It's not as hard as any of us would wish. A good deal of the information about how to do this sort of thing is out there on the Internet, for example.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: The Internet today is the vehicle that brings terrorists together in ways that make intelligence very difficult to intercept. It brings infectious agents to people who otherwise would not have access to them. And also, it furthers the information out there for people who wouldn't quite know how to prepare something, and now they can go to a cookbook on the Internet.
NARRATOR: One of the most popular cooks on the Internet is a man who goes by the alias "Uncle Fester." Though he wants to remain anonymous, he demonstrated for us the ease of mixing up the deadly toxin ricin.
"UNCLE FESTER": It's a very easy procedure that a high school graduate should be able to handle. And you'd be able to do it using hardware-store chemicals.
NARRATOR: So far, there's no law to prevent anyone from making or helping individuals prepare toxins or even biological agents in their own kitchens.
"UNCLE FESTER": There we go. Now the centrifuge. And the poisonous ricin protein product will be centrifuged down to the bottom of these tubes.
INTERVIEWER: There's enough there to kill how many people?
"UNCLE FESTER": Oh, a thousand maybe.
LARRY WAYNE HARRIS: My view of the future is that we are facing now a biological apocalypse. It is coming. The Bible says that it is coming.
NARRATOR: Larry Wayne Harris, a member of the white supremacist group Aryan Nation, has been in constant trouble with the law for his attempts to obtain plague bacteria and anthrax through the mail. Harris has written a manual for do-it-yourself biological warfare, and he claims it is easy to acquire these deadly agents.
INTERVIEWER: How would you obtain samples of anthrax?
LARRY WAYNE HARRIS: Anthrax? Go out where cows have died of anthrax. Dig down to where the bodies are. Get a sample of the culture. Grow it up.
INTERVIEWER: How would you obtain a sample of plague?
LARRY WAYNE HARRIS: The rats the plague usually inhabits- rats would like to be above 5,000-foot altitude. Go out in California, get above the 5,000-foot mark. Catch you some rats, get some blood samples. Bingo, you got your plague.
INTERVIEWER: Could you personally use biological organisms offensively, if you had to?
LARRY WAYNE HARRIS: Most definitely. I- I hope I never have- we never have to, but most definitely.
INTERVIEWER: Do you believe, looking into the future, that you may have to?
LARRY WAYNE HARRIS: I hope and pray that I never have to.
INTERVIEWER: That's not the question, Mr. Harris.
LARRY WAYNE HARRIS: Yes.
NARRATOR: Last year in Washington, just a half a mile away from the White House, a petri dish labeled "Anthrax" was delivered to the mail room of the Bnai Brith building. This time it was only a hoax, but experts worry that next time it could be real.
INTERVIEWER: Dr. Henderson, do you believe that a bio-terrorist attack is inevitable?
Dr. D. A. HENDERSON, Dean of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University: I believe that we will experience a bio-terrorist attack at some time in the future. It's not a matter of if, it's only a matter of when.
NARRATOR: The same biological weapons we worry terrorists might use today were first developed by the Allies during World War II.
NARRATOR: [British government film] It was in here 1942 that the very first B.W. field trials were carried out. Sheep were used for the trials because they are particularly sensitive to inhaled anthrax.
NARRATOR: This recently declassified footage documents British tests with anthrax, valued because of its high kill rate. The U.S. used this research to produce and stockpile anthrax cluster bombs, but never used them during the war.
NARRATOR: [British government film] On the third day after exposure, the casualties begin. Dead sheep can be seen further down the line. It is, of course, necessary to confirm that they've died of anthrax. Results were very satisfactory and confirmed lab figures. Sheep which did not die were destroyed by a humane killer after seven days.
NARRATOR: The British ended their program in the 1950s, but the U.S. continued to grow its arsenal into the largest in the world.
INTERVIEWER: When you were working on America's offensive program, what was the most chilling thing you learned?
WILLIAM PATRICK, U.S. Bio-Weapons Adviser, 1964-69: Probably in a series of aerosol tests that took place in the Pacific. And I can't tell you the details of that, except that we showed the feasibility of biological warfare for not one agent, but for several agents.
NARRATOR: In 1969 extensive tests were conducted 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. Phantom jets sprayed biological weapons in powdered form over hundreds of barges holding caged monkeys. Half the animals died, demonstrating that biological agents were more effective at killing than nuclear weapons.
INTERVIEWER: And it worked?
WILLIAM PATRICK: And it worked. We demonstrated the feasibility of biological warfare beyond any shadow of a doubt.
Pres. RICHARD M. NIXON: [November 24, 1969] Biological warfare- it may produce global epidemics and profoundly affect the health of future generations. Therefore I have decided that the United States of America will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate.
NARRATOR: President Nixon's sudden renunciation of biological weapons surprised the world.
MATTHEW MESELSON, Ph.D., Molecular Biologist, Harvard University, Adviser, Nixon Administration: Now, why did he do that?
One of the principal national security arguments was that here we were, never having carefully reviewed this program for more that 15 years, pioneering the development of weapons that would make it possible for a multitude of other states, and even non-state entities, to destroy the United States, when we had no need for such weapons because we had the nuclear deterrent. So it was judged absolutely foolish for us to persist in this activity.
NARRATOR: In 1972 the U.S., the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom jointly pushed for an international treaty which would put an end to all production of biological weapons and ban any research leading to their development. In time, 140 other countries would sign on.
Decades later, the world would learn that the Soviet Union had violated the treaty and continued to operate an aggressive biological weapons program. Today we know this because of Soviet defectors like Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, who fled to the West, changing his name to Ken Alibek. For 20 years Dr. Alibek was a top official in the Soviet program, but now is telling everything he knows.
Dr. KEN ALIBEK, First Deputy Director, Biopreparat 1988-92: The United States and Great Britain, after signing the treaty, obeyed the treaty. The Soviet Union not just continued its research and development, all work was conducted with a very high intensity. New facilities were established. New weapons were developed.
NARRATOR: Novosibirsk, Western Siberia. Tucked inside a clearing in the silver birch forests lies one of Russia's most secret biological research laboratories. Dr. Alibek was the number-two man in a program called Biopreparat.
Administered by the military but staffed with civilian scientists, Biopreparat employed thousands at over 40 research and production facilities. Here they worked with some of the most dangerous viruses and bacteria known to man.
KEN ALIBEK: I'd like to say that completely finished and accomplished biological weapons were as follows: smallpox biological weapon, then plague biological weapon, anthrax biological weapon, Venezuelan equine encephalitis biological weapon, tularemia biological weapon, brucellosis biological weapon, and some others.
NARRATOR: According to Alibek, the Soviets did not develop these weapons for the battlefield, but as strategic weapons of mass destruction for use against civilians.
KEN ALIBEK: What kind of targets? We can assume that New York, Los Angeles and Chicago- this type of cities.
INTERVIEWER: How would these agents have been delivered?
KEN ALIBEK: Using strategic bombers with cluster bombs and multi-warhead strategic missiles. There was no problem to apply biological weapons in warheads at all.
NARRATOR: In the mid-'70s, U.S. intelligence agencies began to develop deep suspicions about the Soviets' biological program.
GARY CROCKER, State Department Bureau of Intelligence: There were accusations about them having an illegal program in Geneva and in New York and in other places, so it was a subject that was being talked about. They were being accused, but they were just totally denying it. And it's really- when you get to 1979, that changes with the accident at Sverdlovsk. That changes everything.
NARRATOR: In March of 1979, up to 100 people had died suddenly in an anthrax outbreak next door to a suspected Soviet biological weapons facility in the city of Sverdlovsk.
GARY CROCKER: We had been looking at this facility, Sverdlovsk. It had been listed as a suspect facility for a very long time. And when we get information that there has been,- that people have been killed downwind from this facility, and other information is put together, as we monitor what is going on, how they're reacting in the city of Sverdlovsk, it becomes clear this is not some kind of medical problem. And our conclusion was very firm. This was a biological weapons facility. They had a release of anthrax spores, and people were killed.
NARRATOR: The Soviet Government, including the region's party leader, Boris Yeltsin, claimed the deaths were caused by tainted meat, a story some influential American scientists found believable.
MATTHEW MESELSON: There were certain things we didn't understand. For example, there were cases who showed up as late as six weeks after the first cases, and we had thought that the incubation period for anthrax was only a few days. Well, it would be easy to see how if it was bad meat, contaminated meat - and that was the way in which gastrointestinal anthrax had occurred, and still does occur, and particularly in Russia and Ukraine and Kazakhstan even today - to could take six weeks because you put the meat in the refrigerator, and some of it you don't eat for a few weeks. So we didn't understand everything.
Dr. CHRISTOPHER DAVIS, U.K. Defense Intelligence 1987-96: Knowledgeable and sophisticated scientists, expert microbiologists, were prepared to say, "Well, the benefit of the doubt is it could have been what the Soviets said it was," which was infected meat or infected bonemeal, that sort of thing. And it was very hard at that stage for people in the community- the intelligence community on both sides of the Atlantic just to carry on and say, "No, I'm"- you know, "I'm sorry. We stick to our guns."
MATTHEW MESELSON: I did argue, and I think justifiably, that at that time, the evidence was had as to what caused the accident at Sverdlovsk was not yet clear. And there were people in our own government who thought the same.
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: Debate raged back and forth in the intelligence community. We were convinced by the evidence we had available that that accident represented a leak from a plant that made anthrax for filling into weapons. And indeed, much later on we were privy to the information which said that there were a number of extremely large fermenters there producing tons of anthrax. [www.pbs.org: Find out more about Sverdlovsk]
NARRATOR: It would take 13 years before President Boris Yeltsin would finally admit that the deaths had been caused by an anthrax release from a military lab. But in 1979, Washington clearly missed an important opportunity to pressure the Soviets about their growing biological weapons program.
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: In the end, we were proved right, but it- one only wishes that it was sooner rather than later.
NARRATOR: With little resistance from the outside world, the Soviets continued to expand their research and production facilities. Dr. Alibek was promoted to manager of a bio-weapons production plant, and in the mid-'80s graduated to the Moscow headquarters of Biopreparat. He was now privy to many of the program's deepest secrets.
KEN ALIBEK: Somewhere in the beginning of '80s, the Soviet Union started developing new biological weapons- Marburg infection biological weapon, Ebola infection biological weapon, Machupa infection or Bolivian hemorrhagic biological weapon and some others. [www.pbs.org: Read more of this interview]
NARRATOR: Much of the Soviets' most dangerous research on biological agents was conducted here at the Vector facility in Western Siberia. But technical success sometimes came at a high human price.
Ten years ago, inside Vector, two Russian scientists were working on the Marburg virus, cousin of the dreaded Ebola. One of the scientists held a guinea pig ready for injection with the virus. His colleague somehow missed the animal and plunged the needle straight into his partner's finger. For Dr. Nikolai Ustinov, it was a death sentence.
KEN ALIBEK: I can say it was a terrible death. He was dying for about two weeks. It was blood from everywhere, from nose, from eyes, mouth, ears.
NARRATOR: Dr. Ustinov died keeping a scientific diary, knowing how horribly he would perish. His wife was spared the grisly details by colleagues, who wrapped him in sheets to his chin during her visits.
Dr. YEVGENIA USTINOV: [through translator] During the first few days, we communicated through the window. Naturally, nobody was allowed to visit him or have contact with him. We were only allowed to talk on the telephone. I said good-bye to him through the window. He was already unconscious.
NARRATOR: During the autopsy, Ustinov's liver and spleen were removed and his blood siphoned out by syringe. They needed the body fluids and organs so that the Marburg virus that had destroyed him could be replicated in the laboratories. It was refined and christened "Variant U" for Ustinov.
INTERVIEWER: Now, Ustinov's body was used for further scientific research on offensive biological warfare?
KEN ALIBEK: Unfortunately, yes.
INTERVIEWER: What did you do with it?
KEN ALIBEK: A virus that was isolated from his organs was used for manufacturing new variants for biological weapons.
INTERVIEWER: So it would be more virulent?
KEN ALIBEK: Yes, it was more virulent.
NARRATOR: Stepnogorsk, in Kazakhstan. This was once the largest bio-warfare production facility in the world, and where Dr. Alibek led the team that developed the world's most powerful weapons-grade anthrax. Anthrax and plague were grown here by the ton in gigantic fermenters. On four separate occasions, Western spy satellites photographed practice loadings of plague-filled warheads onto intercontinental missiles. This unique plant devoted to sending the enemy back to the Middle Ages was geared for war.
GARY CROCKER, State Department Bureau of Intelligence: This was a huge program, thousands of scientists and engineers, a lot more facilities than we knew. We underestimated how big this program was. It was so massive, such capacity that it's unimaginable. They had worked on so many agents. We'd known about plague, anthrax, botulinum toxin, various fevers, different things, but not that many.
They had really thought about using these weapons and how to use them and their effects and how to beat defenses, how to beat immunization. I mean, it was a very serious effort here, and a part of their planning. That's very scary, it seems to me.
NARRATOR: 1985. The death of the old guard and the rise of Gorbachev seems to signal new hope and openness in the Soviet Union, but not, it seems, for the nation's top-secret biological warfare program.
KEN ALIBEK: After Gorbachev came to power, he signed a decree to intensify research and development in the area of biological weapons.
KEN ALIBEK: Intensify. It was a plan for the period of 1986 to 1990. Of course, it was a top-secret, or even a "special importance" document. And a lot of new work in the area of creating new variants of biological weapons, and a lot of money was put to intensify this work.
NARRATOR: These were tense times for the Soviet Union and America. All eyes were on the issue of weapons proliferation, but little notice was given to biological weapons because the Soviets said they had no offensive program. So all the talk was about nuclear weapons.
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: [through translator] As I said to the president, we have already said we will not use our weapons against the United States. We will not attack them. So why are they filling not just the earth and sea with armaments, but now outer space, as well? Don't you trust us?
NARRATOR: But the issue of trust was turned on its head when new evidence of the Soviet biological program emerged in London.
BRITISH TELEVISION ANNOUNCER: A former Soviet scientist who helped develop bacteria that can wipe out half a city's population breaks his silence for the first time tonight.
NARRATOR: The defection of Soviet microbiologist Vladimir Pasechnik to Great Britain in 1989 was a breakthrough. He was the top official of Biopreparat and the first defector from the Soviet program. He divulged many of its secrets to British Intelligence.
INTERVIEWER: You debriefed him, didn't you?
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: Yes, indeed.
INTERVIEWER: And what were the headlines of his revelations?
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: The Soviet Union had a huge, sophisticated, expensive and extensive and highly secret biological weapons program throughout the entire Soviet Union, which had been going on uninterrupted since the early 1970s.
NARRATOR: The British immediately shared Pasechnik's revelations with their counterparts in the United States.
JAMES BAKER, Secretary of State 1989-92: Our people were of the view that the Soviets were indeed cheating on the Biological Weapons Convention, that they had facilities in which they were making offensive biological weapons or developing an offensive biological weapons capability. And they wanted us to raise this in high-level political meetings with Soviets, and we began to do so.
It was important that we get in to see the Biopreparat facilities so that we could, once and for all and conclusively, satisfy ourselves and indeed the rest of the world that there had indeed been these violations, and that our suspicions were not just wild, shoot-from-the-hip-type suspicions.
I raised the issue of biological weapons with Eduard Shevardnadze, who was the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, in an automobile as we were driving out of Moscow. I recall him saying. "We've checked into this, and we are distressed to learn" or "embarrassed to learn that there has indeed been some activity going on. It's going to cease, and you are- and you may inspect the facilities".
NARRATOR: And so the first Western inspections were launched. This satellite picture appears to show an ordinary apartment block in St. Petersburg, but it was hiding something far more elaborate. This amateur video was shot during the actual inspection by an American and British team. The team discovered that this was actually a biological warfare facility used for testing the dissemination of plague bacteria.
British inspector Dave Kelly often found himself challenging the Russian explanations.
Dr. DAVID KELLY, U.K. Ministry of Defense: [British video] I am not accusing you. I am stating there is capability here that can be used for that purpose.
INTERVIEWER: How elaborate was the Russian deception that you ran into?
DAVID KELLY: I think it was quite elaborate. First and foremost, they had in place a system whereby they had an apparently civilian program embedded in civilian industry which was contributing directly to the military program of Russia. Having done that, they provided false accounts of their work within the civilian program and were deliberately misleading about that program. It was obviously a deception that had been well considered and well planned in advance. It was not something that was undertaken on the spur of the moment.
NARRATOR: The Soviet host for this visit was none other than Dr. Ken Alibek.
KEN ALIBEK: I prepared all Soviet Union's facility for that inspection. The main purpose during all preparatory period was to hide all information that could be considered the offensive information because all of these facilities were strictly offensive facilities.
We had to make a decision regarding each of- each piece of this type of equipment. If there was no explanation, we had to remove this equipment from labs, from buildings, and put something else. If-
INTERVIEWER: You hid equipment from the Americans and the British.
KEN ALIBEK: Yeah.
Dr. FRANK MALINOSKI, Former U.S. Army Bio-Weapons Inspector: They were defensive, in terms of hiding their program. And at the same time, there was an arrogance about what they did, and I think an eagerness to actually tell us how far behind we were, to actually say, "We know an awful lot more about these pathogens than you do, or may ever know."
NARRATOR: This satellite picture shows an allegedly civilian biological research plant in Obolensk. In fact, it was a cover for offensive research on plague, anthrax and Legionnaire's disease.
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: I went into this building. This was a labyrinthine place, and we eventually we got into this large room in which was a six-sided steel chamber. I said to our Soviet hosts, "Could we have the light on, please? You know, it's rather difficult to see anything in here." "Oh, no, no," they said. "Lost the bulb," or- I don't know. "The"- you know, "The switch is broken."
NARRATOR: Davis produced a flashlight, which was immediately grabbed from him.
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: What they didn't want us to see was the very solid structure of the chamber, the fact that it had clearly been tidied up to a great extent. And there was an exchange I had. It had a sort of submarine door, if you like, to it, if I can describe it as that. And this door was a double-thickness door, and the inner part of this door, which was steel, was a lighter sort of steel, and was very heavily dented. And I said, "Well," you know, "if you haven't been doing these explosive tests in here, then what are these dents all over the door?" I mean, "How did they come here?" "Oh," they said. "Ah, yes. It was- when we put the door on, it didn't fit very well, and we- the workmen used a hammer."
INTERVIEWER: He says that he could see the pitted walls which indicated that the chamber had been used for exploding bomblets.
KEN ALIBEK: Yeah, it was a chamber for testing tularemia and plague biological weapons.
INTERVIEWER: Tularemia and plague.
KEN ALIBEK: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: And what did you say that it was when you were asked by Dr. Davis and the rest of them? What did you say?
KEN ALIBEK: You know, but when you don't have a serious explanation, you tried to find something that could-
INTERVIEWER: Sounds persuasive.
KEN ALIBEK: Yes. Yes, sounds true.
INTERVIEWER: Truthful. But you lied to the inspectors?
KEN ALIBEK: Yes.
NARRATOR: And the lies continued at the huge complex of laboratories called Vector in western Siberia. Here the inspectors would make the most frightening discovery of all.
INTERVIEWER: What lies behind the mystery of the buildings 6 and 6A?
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: Well, to this day I believe- I think, even though other people have been to these establishments and seen things, the group, our little group is the only one from the outside ever to go into those buildings.
INTERVIEWER: What did you see when you went there?
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS: On the day when you go there, of course, you're not going to- you're not to find anything because they know you're going. They've had plenty of advance warning, and everything is squeaky clean. And you see test chambers, you see laboratories, you see sophisticated telemetric control of these chambers, the proper kind of health and safety in place for dealing with things as dangerous as this.
Dr. DAVID KELLY, U.K. Ministry of Defense: The explanations that they provided were not particularly forthcoming. The visit to the explosive dissemination chamber was a very tense situation indeed.
DAVID KELLY: Basically, they did not wish to provide a true account of their activities within that chamber, and they could not really justify the work that they were doing. They stated that it was, in fact, to investigate the spread of monkey pox. Monkey pox, of course, is quite closely related to smallpox, and our assessment was that, indeed, they were working with smallpox.
NARRATOR: Smallpox, the deadliest of all plagues. It is a dreadful way to die. Once the virus takes hold, it produces a high fever, and then the distinctive and very painful pustules. Next the body tissue breaks down. The victim's immune system is overwhelmed, and the patient dies. There is now no immunity against this disease.
During the 1970s, the United Nations conducted a decade-long program to eradicate smallpox, chasing the virus around the globe, vaccinating millions. Eventually, they succeeded in containing this incredibly infectious killer.
KEN ALIBEK: Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. And you know, just immediately after, this government, the Soviet Union government, realized that nobody would have defense in the future against this agent just because it was declared that there was no necessity to vaccinate people anymore.
In 1990, Vector developed industrial technique to manufacture this virus for manufacturing biological weapons. It's a completely new technique to obtain huge amounts of this virus.
INTERVIEWER: And that is for use as a biological weapon.
KEN ALIBEK: Of course.
NARRATOR: The Russians running Vector deny these accusations and say that none of the viral work that they are doing breaches the Biological Warfare Convention and that their work on smallpox is benign. But inspectors have a different view.
FRANK MALINOSKI: That research was being conducted with that virus in this other laboratory, and it was being conducted in a laboratory that was also working on things like Ebola and Marburg and other hemorrhagic fevers, was just unbelievable. It broke down every idea in my mind that we could achieve an eradication of smallpox in this world.
NARRATOR: In December, 1991, Russia asked for a reciprocal inspection tour of U.S. biological facilities. Washington agreed. They came to Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas, once America's key biological manufacturing base. But its rusting architecture and abandoned buildings sent a clear message. It was evident the program had been shut down long ago.
We've obtained amateur video of that visit, too. Ken Alibek was a member of the Russian team.
KEN ALIBEK: Before I came, I strongly believed that this country had such a program. But when I came and I saw abandoned facilities, I found out that there was no offensive program in the United States.
It didn't matter, we were told, whether or not they've got this program. But you have to- you must find any evidence to prove an existence of such a program in the United States.
INTERVIEWER: So you were- to sum that up, you were ordered to lie in your reports to the Russian leadership?
KEN ALIBEK: That's correct.
INTERVIEWER: And to say, "The Americans are still conducting an offensive program."
KEN ALIBEK: That's correct.
NARRATOR: But when he returned home, a disillusioned Alibek refused to write the false report, deciding instead to resign from the program.
KEN ALIBEK: Within two weeks, in January of 1992, I resigned from the Russian Army. And in February, I left all my scientific and administrative positions and quit.
NARRATOR: Soon after, he defected to the United States, where he was debriefed by U.S. intelligence.
KEN ALIBEK: I did a lot of very bad things. I consider myself a person who was responsible for the development of such serious weapons. I'm not a believer, but in my opinion there is God, and God will forgive me for what I did in the past.
INTERVIEWER: What was the significance of Ken Alibek's defection to Washington?
GORDON OEHLER, Director, CIA Non-Proliferation Center 1992-97: It really was that the Soviet biological warfare program was continuing into the 1990s. We, of course, had been following it through the years, but we had been given assurances that it had been stopped. And when he said it had not, and detailed the extent of the program, I think it was a real shock.
NARRATOR: By this time, the Soviet Union had crumbled, and Russia had a new president, who made his way to the United States seeking favors. Boris Yeltsin had inherited a few programs he was now willing to renounce.
JAMES BAKER, U.S. Secretary of State 1989-92: During the course of that meeting with him, I think he was sort of letting us know it was going to be a new day of complete cooperation, that he wanted the relationship between the United States and Russia to be extremely close. And he was, in effect, 'fessing up and saying, "Look, I have found out since I came into this job that we've been breaking the Biological Weapons Convention, and you need to know it. And it's going to cease. We're going to stop it."
NARRATOR: Yeltsin signed a decree banning all offensive biological weapons activity. Stockpiles were destroyed. Some plants were stood down, others converted to commercial work. But today, serious doubts remain that the program is completely out of business.
JAMES WOOLSEY, CIA Director 1993-95: We have been suspicious for some time that the old Soviet biological weapons program was never really dismantled, that it continued on under other guises, disguised perhaps as defensive work. And some of the recent material that now been published about Biopreparat and the like confirms some suspicions and notions that we've had about the Soviet and the Russian program for some years.
NARRATOR: Russia will still not allow inspections of labs controlled by its military, and spy satellites that can detect nuclear treaty violations cannot pry into the test tubes of the microbiologists. Despite Yeltsin's best intentions, it is suspected his generals might still be working on their offensive capabilities.
KEN ALIBEK: The people who were in charge of this program now continue working in this area. All generals- all colonels who were in charge of these facilities became generals. All documentation is stored at some places to manufacture biological weapons. All these facilities still are- are still top-secret facilities. And in my opinion, until Russia opens these facilities and reveals everything regarding this program, we cannot believe this country.
NARRATOR: When President Yeltsin made a state visit to Britain in 1992, one British intelligence officer detected something unusual in what Yeltsin had said at a meeting.
Dr. CHRISTOPHER DAVIS, U.K. Defense Intelligence 1987-96: He used a rather curious phrase. He said that- if I remember rightly, that they had undertaken research onto the influence of various substances on human genes within the system that he was talking about, the biological weapons research. And I have to say that I found that a very chilling statement, and we are talking about genetic weapons, I feel, here. There have been rumors of such a program going back many years, and we're talking the leading edge of the possibilities of biological weapons.
NARRATOR: Ken Alibek is also worried about genetic weapons. He says he found evidence in the latest Russian scientific literature that his former colleagues are attempting to genetically combine deadly viruses.
KEN ALIBEK: If there was a combined virus, chimera virus, for example - smallpox and Ebola virus - the mortality rate would be 90 to 100 percent. It means that this weapon could be considered an absolute weapon.
INTERVIEWER: The perfect weapon, the "Doomsday weapon."
KEN ALIBEK: Yeah. You are correct
NARRATOR: The Russians deny these allegations and claim Alibek is misreading their work. They say all offensive research has ended. And there is evidence that much of the Soviet program is in shambles, but that leads to yet one more fear. Will unemployed Russian biological war experts now sell their expertise to the highest bidder, to rogue states or terrorists?
Dr. GENNADY LEPESHKIN, General Director, Stepnogorsk: [through translator] Unfortunately, there is a shortage of financing for scientists in this republic because of economic difficulties. Some of them are leaving the country to look for more income, better standards of living. If we are not financed properly, scientists will leave for increased salaries, and they won't be concerned about the consequences of their work. This means that they can participate in the development of new kinds of weapons, and there will be a potential threat to the whole world.
NARRATOR: But tracking these rogue scientists is next to impossible without the help of the Russian government, who so far has refused to cooperate.
FRANK MALINOSKI, Former U.S. Army Bio-Weapons Inspector: I think there's a very real concern that the people who were involved in the biological weapons program in Russia have moved to other countries is very possible. And without a full accounting of what happened to the people who worked in these institutes- and there were thousands of people in just the civilian institutes. Without a full accounting of what happened to them, we're not going to know.
NARRATOR: Russian biological weapons were on the agenda at the September, 1998, Moscow summit, but the real purpose of the meetings was to shore up a shaky Russia and its even shakier President.
JAMES BAKER: We want to see reform succeed in Russia. We have a big stake in seeing that happen. But we also have a big stake in making sure that they follow through, carry through and perform the agreements that they've made with us.
NARRATOR: Privately, the U.S. remains frustrated that there is no access to Russian military labs, but publicly Clinton and Yeltsin say they are cooperating.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: [summit press conference] We pledged to accelerate international negotiations to establish a tough inspection regime for the Biological Weapons Convention. I don't believe it's possible to overstate the importance of this initiative for the next 20 years.
NARRATOR: But as the U.S. and Russia continue to negotiate, American intelligence agencies are worried. In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, they warned, "Key components of the former Soviet biological warfare program remain largely intact" and that this activity, if offensive, would "contradict statements by top Russian political leaders that offensive activity has ceased".
JAMES BAKER: For them to be cheating on biological weapons, that's no different than cheating on nuclear weapons, on the agreements we have with them on nuclear weapons. And we need- you know, there's no reason- if we have suspicions of that, and they're well-grounded suspicions- if they are well-grounded suspicions, we should be pushing very hard.
JAMES WOOLSEY, CIA Director 1993-95: I don't think that Russia should be the sole or necessarily even the prime focus here. The fact that the Russians have had a biological program for a long time, and may have some expertise that would be available to the highest bidder - either criminal groups or terrorist groups or Mid-Eastern countries - is important and interesting, but it's not the main point. The main point is that biological weapons are easy to do if you didn't know a single Russian.
NARRATOR: They call biological weapons the "poor man's nukes." At least 11 nations and several terrorist groups already possess the knowledge. Many more seek it. And it is a grim truth that, historically, no weapon has ever been invented that was too awful to use.
KEN ALIBEK: I'm not a psychic. I cannot predict what will happen in a year, in two years. But you know, it's- the problem is it will happen, unfortunately. But maybe for the first time, let's try just to do something before it happens.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: We must be ready to fight the next war, not the last one.
NARRATOR: In the past year, the Clinton administration has accelerated a wide-ranging program to prepare America for a biological attack. Hundreds of millions are earmarked for troop inoculations, vaccine stockpiles, early-warning equipment and emergency team training.
But some experts who have studied the devastating results of the government's biological war games are asking, given the severity of the threat, are we working hard enough, fast enough and smart enough?
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, Ph.D., State Epidemiologist, Minnesota: The million-dollar question today in Washington is, what is it going to take to get policy makers to see that all the money that we're throwing into bio-terrorism has really had very limited impact on our ability to prepare out there? And what's happened is, people have confused activity with action.
And, hopefully, we're about to turn the corner where people finally see that without talking to the state and local health departments, without talking to the local emergency management people, without developing the national programs for vaccines and antibiotics, we will remain unprepared for bio-terrorism.
Make no mistake about it. It would be the closest thing to a living hell we've probably ever known.
ANNOUNCER: Explore this report further at FRONTLINE on-line. For more about the Soviets' anthrax leak at Sverdlovsk, a look at South Africa's reported use of biological weapons, a rundown on the state of U.S. preparedness against the threat, read the extended interviews with experts and more at pbs.org/frontline.
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