plague war
Interview: James Baker
navigation, see below for text

James Baker was U.S. Secretary of State from 1989-1992.


Before the Iraq conflict, what was our knowledge of the Iraqis' biological or chemical weaponry - and how did that adjust the way we fought that war?

We knew before the Gulf War that Iraq had capabilities, particularly in chemical weapons, some in biological weapons, that could be very destructive to our forces. So when I had the meeting on January 9, 1991 with Tariq Aziz in Geneva, the so-called "last best chance for peace" meeting, I told him that if it did come to war and the Iraqis used weapons of mass destruction on our forces, that the American people would demand revenge, and that we had the means to extract it. The obvious suggestion was that we would give consideration to using even perhaps nuclear weapons. That's what we wanted them to believe. In retrospect, we think that's what they did believe, and we think that's why they didn't use chemical or biological weapons on our forces.

The DoD concluded recently that the biological warfare threat was  one area in which the US has found itself to be the most vulnerable. This was said repeatedly at a symposium on the subject  held in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 1998. More than 2,000 delegates from 70 countries were present, many of them military officers. Would we have used nuclear weapons if we had to?

I'm not sure we would have, but it was an implied threat. It was not a direct threat. I didn't use the term "nuclear weapons." It was an implied threat that we wanted to lay out there, just so they would have to think about it. Whether President Bush ever would have used tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a chemical attack on our forces, I just don't know. Our forces were pretty well protected against chemical weapons, perhaps less well protected against biological weapons.

When fighting a war against another nation, there is an ability to control the use of biological weaponry. That's not the case if one's dealing with terrorists.

No. The terrorist threat from biological weapons, of course, is one that is far more difficult to counter [than] let's say, weapons of mass destruction of your own. If it's a state-to-state conflict, it's much easier in that regard. But if it's a terrorist group, it's pretty hard to talk in terms of using weapons of mass destruction against a small group, even though they may have used weapons of mass destruction for terrorism purposes. And you have the added problem of where are they, and how do you get to them, and who are they, and that sort of thing.

The question of that fear, of the use of biological weapons in a domestic situation, did that ever come up in cabinet meetings or think tank discussions?

Well, terrorism was one of the serious foreign policy challenges facing the country, back even when I was secretary of state and before. In fact, my predecessor, George Schultz, made terrorism quite an important policy goal and issue in his tenure for the six years of the Reagan presidency. We had terrorism right at the top of our agenda. I don't remember that we spent a lot of time talking about antidotes, for instance, to biological weapons terrorism. At that time, the risk of the proliferation of biological weapons to terrorist groups was not as great perhaps as it is today. There was a proliferation risk to countries, but not so much to terrorist groups as there is today.

Are we in a different world today with different fears and a different threat when it comes to the potential use of massive destructive weapons by terrorist groups?

...The proliferation risk today is far greater. With the end of the Cold War, you had the collapse of Communism; the implosion of the Soviet Union; and you had the brain drain problem, particular with respect to nuclear, but also with respect to chemical and biological. So [it's] probably easier today than it was in the past for terrorist groups to access, particularly, biological weapons of mass destruction or the technology.

So looking back at it with the perspective that you have of many years in high office, is our country ready to deal with that new threat?

We're as ready to deal with that new threat as any country in the world. But whether or not we have the vaccines, the protective programs, the antidotes and things like that, readily available to all Americans wherever they are in the world, we probably don't. It would be extraordinarily difficult to do that for each and every potential biological weapon. We are now inoculating our military against anthrax, because we know anthrax is a biological weapon capability that many countries have.

Bio-terrorism, in the end, turns out to be a local problem. It's the cops, the firemen, the emergency rooms in a local city that eventually would have to deal with the beginnings of an outbreak. But what role should Washington take in a scenario like that?

I think the proper role for Washington, in terms of fighting bio-terrorism, for instance, is to first of all try and control the proliferation of the product, the proliferation of the weapons. Then to pursue a policy at the highest levels of the United States government that makes a few rules and principles clear. One, we don't negotiate with terrorists. Two, that any terrorist act against Americans or the United States will be met with a retaliation, that it will be prompt, swift and sure, and there won't be any messing around with it. These are the kinds of things that I think Washington can do.

Now, should we have a civil defense program against bio-terrorism, the way we did [with] the nuclear air raid drills that school kids went through when I was growing up? I don't know whether the risk is that great now, or whether any such program would be effective. [I] probably would have real questions about whether it would be effective.

What were the first signs that you remember, that there was possibility that the Soviet Union was cheating on the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention?

The first signs that I recall hearing about or seeing that the Soviets might be cheating on the Biological Weapons Convention came to me shortly after I became secretary of state in 1989. And they came from our intelligence agencies, or perhaps from some of our military intelligence agencies ... 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. They wanted us to raise this in high-level political meetings with Soviets. And we began to do so. I can't give you the exact date when that happened, but probably some time in late 1990, in early 1991. I have a vague recollection that I raised the issue of biological weapons with Eduard Shevardnadze, who was then the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, in an automobile as we were driving out of Moscow ... and I raised the issue with him because we were alone ... it was a private forum, and I had been asked to raise it, a very sensitive issue, by our intelligence agencies.

My further recollection is that he said [that] he didn't think that could be so, but that he would be glad to check it out. I have a further recollection that at some point after that, he came to me and he said that they were distressed and embarrassed to learn that indeed there were some biological weapons facilities or capabilities that were being developed. I remember specifically the name Biopreparat as being the facility that I was asked to discuss with him.

Did he make excuses? Did he acknowledge the fact that they had broken the treaty with us?

I don't recall Shevardnadze saying, "We've broken the treaty." I think 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 may inspect the facilities." At some later date, I think we were given access to these Biopreparat facilities.

How surprising was it that the leaders of the Soviet Union were unaware of an amazingly large and destructive program, that not only dealt in mass destructive types of weaponry that were targeted on the United States, but was also breaking a major treaty that they had arranged and signed with you?

Well, I think it's a matter of serious concern whenever the top political leadership of a country is kept in the dark about something that the military or intelligence agencies are doing. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes. To say that Shevardnadze was not in the loop, so to speak, on that [issue] doesn't necessarily mean that the top levels of the Soviet system were not [in the loop]. I mean, he may very well have been kept in the dark by the military and by the intelligence agencies. I remember on a number of occasions discussing very sensitive arms control issues with him, where it became apparent that ... [he] had not been brought into the loop. So it's not, I suppose, too surprising. But I happened to believe Shevardnadze. I found him always to be someone I could trust and someone whose word, in every instance that I dealt with him, was good. So I have to believe that he was indeed kept in the dark. It is indeed scary when that happens, but it does happen from time to time.

What about Gorbachev? Can you imagine that he was also kept in the dark on this?

I really don't have the answer to that, because I tend to believe that it is possible and that is scary. But I really just don't know ... there have been instances where the political leadership in the United States, at some levels, and in particularly the foreign ministry, has been kept in the dark on some actions that the White House might or might not decide they want to do. And generally speaking, that always is a mistake.

Does this match up with the impressions that you had of how the Soviet government was being run, that a military program would keep the political side of the government in the dark, because it was none of their business?

This does not match up to my idea of the way the Soviet Union was run or was being run, certainly should be run, because the army and the military, generally speaking, never take part in politics, haven't taken part in politics in Russia. They generally defer to the civilian political leadership. But for them to protect a specific and particular program that is of great value, they think, to them--that, I suppose, is understandable. Scary, but understandable.

The Cold War ending was actually an amazing piece of history, but it has in some ways a strange and unexpected byproduct, which is the fact that the Cold War did to some extent keep the weapons of mass destruction bottled up. Do you believe that?

I do believe that the Cold War kept weapons of mass destruction to some extent bottled up. As I indicated earlier, the proliferation risk today is greater than it was when the Cold War was at its height, because ... you had the Soviet Union sitting there, and they were going to determine they could make the decisions with respect to proliferation, and they didn't want to see the proliferation to other nations within their orbit. The United States, Britain, France didn't want to see (we're talking now about nuclear) proliferation within the other orbit. And so you didn't have it.

Today you have the risk of brain drain with the Soviet Union splitting up into 13 different independent nations, and a lot of unemployed biological weapons people and a lot of unemployed nuclear weapons people who can't make a living, and so they're going to be receptive to the first offer.

Can you tell us about your meeting with Yeltsin in 1992? What came out of it and why it came about?

I really don't remember why I happened to be in Moscow at that time. It was a critical time. The Soviet Union had just imploded. The Russian government was being led by Boris Yeltsin, who had been the prior president. They had taken the Soviet Union's seat at the United Nations, formed the Commonwealth of Independent States. Clearly, they were the most powerful surviving country of the former Soviet Union, and it was important that we deal with them and that we meet with them. We had seen Yeltsin (properly so, in my opinion) as a reformer, one who wanted to move Russia toward democracy and free markets. [He's] having a lot of trouble doing so, even as we speak, but nevertheless committed to that course. And it was to some extent therefore a new day. We negotiated ,in a very short period of time, a brand new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START-2, which took the nuclear weapons of both the Soviet Union and the United States down to 3,500 warheads on each side, a rather dramatic reduction in nuclear weapons. This is something that Yeltsin, (he was at that time a strong leader of the Russian Federation) was able to negotiate with us. It was a very good treaty.

But during the course of that January 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. 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 know it. It's going to cease. We're going to stop it. We've been dealing in offensive biological weapons."

Did they stop it?

I don't know whether they stopped it or not. I think that he issued some orders, but I have no way, sitting here today, to tell you whether they stopped it or not. You may have concluded from other sources that either they did or didn't. I just don't know. I was in office only for another six months [or] so.

In the world today, we are a very important ally of the Russians. Can you explain why we cannot push them to at least allow us to define whether anything else is going on as far as biological weaponry and their military facilities, or that we can possibly take a look at their lists of scientists, so that some of these people can be tracked if they are not tracking themselves?

There's no excuse for that. If we are ponying up the kind of money we're ponying up through the IMF [International Monetary Fund], and we're doing all the things we're doing to support that government in Russia, there is absolutely no excuse if they are, in fact, and I don't know this, denying us access to military sites that we suspect are being used for the development of offensive biological weapons. There's no excuse for that.

No excuse in what way?

Well, there's no excuse if they are in fact breaching a treaty that they've signed with the United States and a lot of other nations ... but if they are saying, "You can't come in here," then we should maybe be pursuing these other issues in a different way. Not ponying up the kind of economic support and so forth that we're putting together.

What rights do we have in this situation, with our relationship that we have with Russia now, to make sure that we feel secure about the allegations being made by their own scientists and others that something might still be going on? How much should Washington push them?

I don't know the facts here. But I think Washington could be very, very strong. They [Russia] need us. 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 and perform the agreements that they've made with us. For them to be cheating on biological weapons, if they are (and I don't know they are; you've suggested they are), that's no different than cheating on nuclear weapons, on the agreements we have with them on nuclear weapons. If we have suspicions of that, and if they are well grounded suspicions, we should be pushing very hard.


home . interviews . 1979 anthrax leak . what happened in south africa . faqs
discussion . readings . timeline . synopsis . press reaction . tapes & transcripts . frontline online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation




SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS