plague war
Interview: Gary Crocker
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Gary Crocker is the Senior Advisor for Politico-Military Warning Issues in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. State Department.

When did you first discover that the Russians were cheating on the Biological Warfare Convention?

Well, it might surprise you that most people think it's in the last few years with all the new information that's come available, but, in fact, I started writing about the biological program in 1975 and others had written before me that they had an offensive program. So, I would say that we had said in both classified and unclassified writing that they had an offensive program. We didn't have the kind of detail we have today ...

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. Was it based on intelligence that was acquired through the State Department? What was it that gave it away to you?

It came from many sources, it's what we would call, "all source analysis," where you have bits and pieces, you're looking at lots of facilities, you have people coming out and talking a little bit about the program, but it was highly classified, very compartmented. There were very few people talking about it or coming out of the program, no-one that you could describe as a defector or anything like that in those days ... the 60s, 70s and 80s, up until the end of the 1980s.

Presumably you fired memoranda off, but nothing very serious happened from the diplomatic point of view.

Actually, it was quite serious in 1975 because there were people who were unhappy with this treaty, because it didn't have verification.... So there is a lot of writing about the facilities and the program in that time frame and there were accusations about them having an illegal program ... it was a subject that was being talked about, they were being accused, but they were just totally denying it. It's when you get to 1979 [when] that changes with the accident at Sverdlovsk. That changes everything really, in terms of high-level focus, because there is an accident, people have been killed, and the U.S. government is saying that it is from a release of anthrax spores.

The accident at Sverdlovsk proved what?

We had been looking at this facility in Sverdlovsk, it had been listed as a suspect facility for a very long time and when we get information that people have been killed downwind from this facility, and other information is put together, as we monitor what is going on, how they are reacting in the city of Sverdlovsk, it becomes clear this is not some kind of medical problem, it's not contaminated meat, because we're watching the way they're reacting to it. It takes place over quite a few months and our conclusion is very firm, and as we don't really state it until April 1980 publicly, but we're very firm this could be a biological weapons facility, they had a release of anthrax spores and people were killed.

After Sverdlovsk, how did more confirmation arrive that you had been right all along?

Well, there's several things that happened. One of them was the use in Afghanistan, which again caught people's attention that chemical weapons were being used, but also toxins and the whole subject of them having a toxin program, particularly micro-toxins ... both Secretary Haig, Secretary Schultz are writing documents to the UN and Congress saying they are in violation of the BWC, and said so to the Congress when asked, "Yes, they are in violation of convention because they have used agents that you're not even supposed to make." In contrast to chemicals--you could have them, but you couldn't use them. In the biological field, you couldn't even make them according to the treaty.

What you're saying is that there was a pattern of Soviet deception all the way through from the signing of the treaty to the end of Soviet communism.


Did everything changed with Gorbachev?

Well, we would hope so, but this was still a very highly classified, compartmented program within the Soviet Union. We couldn't get access. We weren't really in an arms control agreement with them in the biological field, like we were in nuclear. We were over there inspecting missiles, inspecting conventional forces, but biological and chemical weapons weren't handled that way ... they don't admit until '87 that they had chemical weapons. They still don't admit that they produced biological weapons to this day. They said everything was defensive.

Were you surprised at Gorbachev's lack of transparency about this program? Why did he choose to lie about it, do you think? You can only guess at that.

I can only guess ... but it could well be that he himself didn't have the ability to bring this program down. He was tiptoeing through this democracy business and into this new world and somewhat cautiously. He could have angered a lot of people on the defense side and people who believe that they have to defend the homeland. That's the best way I'd put it--is that he couldn't be that dramatic or take that drastic step.

Then Boris Yeltsin achieves power and the démarches continue.

Yes. Yeltsin, I think, in the beginning, was caught here, himself, by his own words, by not understanding the ramifications of the program and what he inherited from the Soviet Union ... but the action he takes is to be cooperative. I would say that he made a decision that he needed to co-operate with the UK and with the U.S., with the tri-lateral program. I think under very difficult political circumstances, Yeltsin did the best he could in trying to arrange some way to allay everybody's concerns, even to the point by '92 he says, "Yes, Sverdlovsk was an offensive biological weapons facility and anthrax was released and that's what killed the people." He made that public announcement. He made a couple of other statements, both to President Bush and President Clinton, that he wanted to get this thing stopped and get on with it. And I would even go so far as to say ... he is very interested in medicine and was somewhat, I'm putting a little into his thinking here, appalled that you have this huge investment, talking thousands of people, facilities and yet they didn't have medicine in Russia and they needed medicine desperately. All of this effort over the years could have produced enough medicine to supply the world, with that kind of investment.

Did Boris Yeltsin admit that he had been told less than the full truth by Gorbachev?

I don't remember anything where he said something about Gorbachev, but certainly he made some public statements, particularly in '92 ... that he had been fooled, but he was now getting a handle on it, something along those lines, that he was finding out about the program and he wanted to do everything possible to have a process where he could assure us that it was gone.

What was the tri-lateral process, what was it meant to achieve?

It's somewhat different because biological weapons are different ... London and Washington made the right decision to quietly deal with the new government, the new democracy and see if we could very quietly go and visit their facilities. I say visit, not inspect. It was visits ... there were no hard and fast rules here ... they came to visit our facilities and ... certainly we learnt a lot by going to facilities and they learned a lot coming here. This process went on for several years. Finally, a formal agreement was reached in September of '92 to have a formal process on how we were going to solve this problem.

What did the British and the Americans learn from their visits to the old Soviet and Russian facilities?

We underestimated how big this program is. That's, to me, the most important thing I got out of all this, is that we thought we had a pretty good handle on it, and we were certainly more right than others who said they didn't have a program, but it was so massive, such capacity that it's unimaginable. Industry people who have visited these facilities can't believe you would build that much fermentation capacity, for example. That they had worked on so many agents ... we'd known about plague, anthrax, botulism toxin, various fevers, different things, but not that many and that they had genetically engineered them, that they had gone to extensive lengths to study them ... I think that's the main thing that came out to me, was this was a huge program, thousands of scientists and engineers and a lot more facilities than we knew.

Did you realize that they had weaponized bacteriological and viral agents so that they could be sent successfully and efficiently by inter-continental ballistic missiles?

I can say back, in over 20 some years, only a few people ever talked about that and they were considered weird or out of their mind.

And you found ...

The reality is that they had weaponized and actually carefully thought out how they would use these and worked on them, and how to use them, and looking at agents and cocktails (as they describe them) that'll be effective even if there were inoculations, for example, but particularly targeting against populations that are not inoculated. That's very serious. I've worked on this back since '74, '75, I'm still appalled, even programs by other countries including our own, that man would think about spreading the plague ... this plague that wiped out so many people in Europe, or spreading smallpox or dropping of poisons. That whole thing always appalled me and it's something that has driven me over the years that, whether it's chemical or biological weapons, this is something awful that man should not make in the first place and certainly not use on other human beings.

When the West inspected their facilities, did the Russians try to maintain a deception, did they try to hide things from us?

I would say the visits which were all to civilian facilities were pretty open and intrusive. I think they saw everything that was at the facility, pretty much, talked to some people. In some cases, learned about even what agents were developed there, but always the official response has been this was for defense. In '92, '93, a lot of their generals made comments, "Yes, we did this, we made cocktails, we made weapons but we had to make them in order to test them [for] our own protective means."

Well, maybe, that was true.

In a way, it is true. That's the problem. A missile is an offensive system, you're going to shoot it. There's no doubt that's what that is. But you go into a biological facility or chemical facility, but mostly biological, and there is a fermenter sitting there. That's the same one you use to make the vaccine and it's the same one you use to make the agent, botulism toxin could put it in a horse, make vaccine or you could put it in a warhead. So ... it's a very difficult problem that the U.S. has pointed out many times in trying to come up with verification, how difficult it is, that a facility for defensive or for making vaccines is the same as the one that makes the agent for weapons. So that makes it extremely difficult.

You showed your facilities to them. They went to Pine Bluff in Arkansas. What judgment did they reach about your program?

Well, I can't be positive ... there is not one answer ... but some walked away, it seems to me, the ones that I've talked to, absolutely convinced that we had eliminated our program in 1969 when President Nixon ordered it. But, I think there were those that either never were going to believe it anyway or who were so interested in saying, "Yes, the Americans still have a program, and yes, the British still have a program," that they were able to derive that probably more likely from either visits or knowledge of our bio-technical capability. We have a lot of companies, we can do marvelous things with bio-technology ...

Then are you saying that they lied in their reports to the Kremlin?

I've never seen a report, I'm making a judgment here that some of the more hard-line people who came along, and we have known these people over time, I mean there's been a lot of contact, we're not talking about the old days, this is lots of discussions, the meetings ... that they remain convinced ... or they said, "There's not program here but we need to go back and tell them there is so that we can continue ours." That's sort of your other scenario, that they go back and create a story in order to justify the Russian program.

What's your best guess based on everything that you have learned. Do you think they're still at it to this day in one form or another?

I think it's possible. It was big investment, I think there's a lot of people left over from the Soviet days and some of them still in the program ... who very seriously believe there's a threat and if you turn that right around and talk to people in the UK and people in the U.S., if there is a threat you have to, by direction of your parliament, do something about it. You can't just sit there. So I think there are those that believe there is still a threat and you have to be prepared. Now, it could only be defense ... that's legal to still do defensive work. That's perfectly all right to do that.

Has there ever been a single inspection of the Russian military biological warfare facilities?

Not by us. The only one I know of was in '93, a Moscow TV crew walked through Sverdlovsk. That's about all I know.

Do you believe that today there is real transparency on the Russian program?

No, ... there is still an issue that we need to allay these concerns. That's still an issue.

Why do you think the weaponization facilities and the huge fermenter at Stepnagorsk have not been publicly dismantled?

It's a good question. Probably the answer is because there's not treaty here. There's no legal arrangement that says they need to dismantle Stepnagorsk nor that we need to go to the old Pine Bluff facility and bulldoze it over.

But that's what you've done.

But we got out of the business a long time, in '69. There's still no arrangement ... well I should step back. They have done dismantling ... as a part of this tri-lateral process and the agreement signed in '92, they have dismantled in some cases. There were a number of people ... authorities that were saying they'd dismantled Sverdlovsk ... that by '86 they had dismantled the production lines and pulled everything out of there.

But what about Stepnagorsk? What about those huge fermenters?

It's a large facility. I don't have the rationale other than ... they've got a big investment and they want to try and save it and make something else there. That's possible, we have encouraged conversion. There's even been some statements that Nunn-Lugar money might be available for conversion and there've been companies looked at conversion and you can convert some of these facilities to make useful products

Could there be a benign reason for all the things that give the West suspicion?

Yes, oh sure.

Could Yeltsin be telling the truth?


How would you characterize the Soviet biological warfare program?

In the old days, we knew it was fairly large, but we were mainly looking at a military program. So we sort of sized it and based what we could see in terms of the military program and somewhat mirror imaging back even to our own past programs that were military. What surprised us is we find there's a huge civilian component called Biopreparat, so it's much bigger than we had estimated in that there are thousands of scientists working on a civilian side, a research and development side, which supports the military program ... there are many more institutes than we thought. Many more people involved. Then we find out they're working on a wide range of agents. So back in '86 we would have said plague, anthrax, botulism toxin, tularemia, several of the fevers, different kinds of agents ... we didn't have real evidence, but from what we could see, that's what they were working on and that was our best call. Then you come to find out as the evidence mounts that they're working on a lot of agents and cocktails of genetic engineered agents. So it's a big program that is beyond what we thought. Plus, they have a serious weapons program. They are making weapons to put these agents in. It's not that we were wrong, it's that we underestimated it.

What was the capacity in terms of offensive strategic use, what could it have done to us?

It could have been devastating. You're talking about plague, something we have no protection against. These are agents that could wipe out cities with a fairly small amount. It could have been devastating.

As you learned more about their program what was the one thing that concerned you most of all?

That they were making things like plague. That plague was the agent of choice, one they concentrated on. Here's a terrible disease that wiped out so much of Europe, that man would think, let's make plague to use, put it in missiles and use it in war. It's dreadful it seems to me ... the earnestness of this program. We had a program, the British had a program, others have been in it. We're out. But this, to me, is much more serious. They had really thought about using these weapons and how to use them and their effects and how to beat defenses and how to beat immunization. It was a very serious effort here and the part of the planning. That's very scary. ...

Do you think that from the very beginning of their program in the 70s until now, there has been a consistent lack of honesty and truthfulness by the Soviets and then the Russians about this biological warfare program, and if so, why?

It's very different than nuclear and conventional weapons ... they don't admit chemical [until] 1987 and they don't admit to this day that they produced offensive weapons. They say that they had production lines, but they never turned them on and that it's for wartime, in a crisis and all they made was for defensive and testing purposes and that's still their line today.


It is quite an admission and it seems to be difficult for them. We went through it and it was a bit painful actually. I remember, and I think this answers the question why this subject's so different, I've worked on it for 30 years, there's something different about chemical and biological weapons and a country's ability to face up because the Russians aren't the only ones that haven't been able to face up to their history on this. And that includes use and having it. It seems to be something that is so compartmented and secret that they don't even want their own population to know. I went to visits to chemical facilities and they didn't want the population to know. "You can come and see it but we don't want the people to know about it. It'll bother them, we don't want to talk about this."

Is there a element of moral repugnance in biological weapons which prevents them from telling the truth?

It's part of it, not only Russians, but others. It seems to me, [it is] very difficult to admit that you were in this business and making diseases that you were going to spread around the world if you went to war, or use if somebody else used them on you. I think it's tough ... in my discussions with Russians over the years, I found some who were able to come out of the closet. They had been doing these things for many years, and they'd say, "I'm so happy. I can talk about it now and I can tell my family and now I can help destroy them ... now I can finally do something good and we can get rid of this stuff that I have been making."

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