plague war
Interview: Dr. Christopher Davis
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Dr. Christopher Davis served on the UK's Defense Intelligence Staff from 1987 to 1996. He was a member of the Western team that inspected covert Soviet biological warfare facilities in 1991.


In the 1980s, when you were in Whitehall, what was the prevailing view about the Soviet compliance with the Biological Warfare Convention?

There were worries, already, about Soviet compliance because of the Sverdlovsk incident in 1979, and about things that were going on in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. Considerable worries. A lot of cold water was poured on this by the academic community, and the intelligence staffs of various western nations took a lot of criticism at that time. We were firmly of the opinion, by the time we reached the mid-to-late 80s, that the Soviet Union had a substantial clandestine offensive biological weapons program.

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. In defiance of the convention.

Yes, in defiance of their position as co-depositories of the convention.

When was that view finally substantiated and by whom?

Throughout the 80s, we had to give our opinions on a background of skepticism. Naturally people don't want to think the worst of people and nations. f you are talking about something of this magnitude as a political issue, you have to be very sure of your ground before you go into open criticism. So, it was not until the arrival of Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik, in the autumn of 1989, that the we were able to substantiate our claims.

What were the headlines of his revelations when you debriefed him?

Well, I think the first thing that sticks in my mind is that ... shortly after he came to the UK, my boss and I received a message and as soon as he handed it to me and I read it, my heart sank because ... the debate over whether any sort of program would be tactical or strategic ... the piece of paper said straight to me, that this is a strategic program or there is a large element of it which is strategic. Thereafter, when we got to go into it in much more detail over a number of months, with a number of other colleagues from other areas ... [we learned there] was a huge, sophisticated, expensive, extensive and highly secret network program throughout the entire Soviet Union, which had been going on uninterrupted since the early 1970's as a continuation of their previous legitimate program.

And we had no idea?

That's not true to say that we had no idea ... we knew quite a lot of the bones, if you like, a little bit of flesh here and there, but we really didn't have the kind of detail, the kind of bottom line about weapons.

What does strategic warfare means?

Well, in the broadest terms, a strategic capability is one that can alter the outcome of an entire conflict. And in short term, that's often used to mean something that can hit the homeland, hit the continental U.S. for them, hit the UK homeland and reduce that to ineffectiveness in terms of war fighting capability and make it liable for take-over. In these terms, we're talking about the production of microbial agents, bacterial agents and viral agents, particularly, plague and smallpox, which are transmissible from man to man, and could be launched against large civil populations.

This is astonishing. Only ten years early President Nixon had decided that biological warfare wasn't viable, that it was a bit too far ahead in the future and that is why the Biological Warfare Convention was created. Ten years later the Soviets are in a position to send biological agents in inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Well, it's a little more than ten because the decision of President Nixon to unilaterally disarm biologically came in November 1969. The greatest problem ... is the problem of going to sleep after you think you've written a piece of paper which makes the problem go away. Worse still, the myth that grew up in a new generation was that these weapons didn't work anyway. I mean the popular thing was the Russians wouldn't develop them [because], after all, the Americans got rid of them because they didn't work. Completely untrue. The American program was highly successful. It was dismantled at its peak. It was dismantled for broader political reasons and to take a lead in hoping that it would stem the rising tide of biological capability elsewhere. So, yes, in those next 20 years they [Soviets] managed to move right the way up to having considerable capability.

Pasechnik revealed that the Soviets were working on a kind of super plague. What did that mean?

Yes, well, every topic is subject to its shorthand, of course, and plague is a bacterium, it's been with us as an illness for many years ... it can be transmitted by the bite of a flea, also by droplets spread in the air. When we talk about super plague, we're really talking about the general effort that was made for a number of organisms to make them better as weapons. So, you might select certain strains which were much more virulent than others. You might try to genetically engineer into them antibiotic resistance, so that if your enemy decides to give everybody antibiotics ... they're not going to work. You might also go even further and engineer into them the capability to express certain chemicals, that is, release certain chemicals in the body when they infect to downgrade the immunological system of that person, so that they become sicker more quickly and die more quickly. This is really the kind of thing that's being referred to when we talk about super plague.

Did the Soviets develop a super plague, does it exist?

Well, as they've never been kind enough to reciprocate and tell us all about what they actually did, it is very difficult to tell. But they certainly went a long way along the road of research into these areas. And we must only assume from what we do know about their capability that they either did or were close to having those sorts of variants of plague.

What was the Soviet strategic weapon of choice?

Probably that falls into two categories: The smallpox virus and the plague bacterium.

Why those?

They are highly lethal. In the case of smallpox, it is also transmissible from man to man and as a virus, difficult if not impossible to treat. We don't have many anti-viral compounds. In the case of plague, [it's] also transmissible from man to man, so that if you are going to attack a large country, what you can do is infect a large number of individuals to start with and they will be their own carriers of the disease to everybody they come into contact with. Even to the extent, in some cases of smallpox, infecting people even before the disease becomes apparent in the individual who's primarily infected. And once that starts to roll up you have an enormous expansion from a relatively small attack that envelops large numbers of people.

Could you explain the technological significance, the degree of achievement that the Soviets had in their ability to put living organisms onto a warhead of an intercontinental ballistic missile?

It is certainly an incredible achievement. If you look back to the program of the U.S. before it was completely closed down in 1969, people were thinking then about having a cruise missile biological warfare capability ... people were thinking in that direction, but the technology really wasn't up to it at that time ... biological weapons ... can either be fairly simple and dirty, and produced in very small quantities in the back room, so to speak, but still be highly effective as in the terrorist sense, or you can move up the scale ... to do that on a huge scale requires enormous amounts of strength in depth and you have to be able to make sure that this tiny micro-organism, when it finally lands on the unfortunate individual, is alive and kicking, will get into the body, multiply, injure and kill them. That's your aim. Now if they have to go through the process of being grown up, harvested, stored, put in various machines, then put on warheads, and then passed through the atmosphere and brought back and then released you have an enormous trip this little organism has taken which it doesn't normally do in a hostile environment. All the aspects to bring together, to make it right, is an enormous achievement.

Once Whitehall learned of the extent of Soviet cheating and subsequent Russian cheating, what action was taken and what was the result?

Well, after Dr. Pasechnik came to the UK in autumn of 1989, there was a period of debriefing, talking, discussing and papers were written. They went through the chain in Whitehall, right the way up to the very top and of course, our American colleagues and allies were brought in extremely early on, as is the normal case. By April of the following year the president and the prime minister at the time authorized a démarche and the ambassadors of the United Kingdom, the United States, went to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to lay before them our claims about them carrying on an offensive biological weapons program in defiance of the treaty.

There were eventually a series of mutually agreed inspections of each other's BW facilities by the Russians and the West. What happened when you visited Russia?

...it was decided that a small joint US-UK team would go into the Soviet Union to look at four particular facilities about which we had concern. These were ostensibly civil facilities as far as the outside world was concerned and had been presented as part of a large bio-technology thrust, a large program to bring Soviet biology, which had been in doldrums in the 50s and 60s right up to date. So it was under the cover of that a large research and development production systems was built.

It turned out that we flew to the Soviet Union in January 1991 and undertook inspections over a period of two weeks. Visits to the four facilities were spread out across the Soviet Union. One in Leningrad, two just outside Moscow, south of Moscow and one out in Siberia, near Novosibirsk.

When you visited Russia with the joint American-British inspection team, were attempts made to deceive you?

Oh, yes. It goes all the way from providing silly answers to reasonable questions, to obfuscating speeches, to plain outright lies and putting up a story, a front which they had well prepared in advance. Indeed, we know that was pretty much authorized and put into place right from the very top of the Soviet government ... they'd been thinking about this for many years, because as far as the Biological Weapons Convention was concerned, they knew that people might want to develop inspection regimes and therefore they would have to be prepared for those sort of things. So they were looking to prepare cover stories that they could give to people about what was actually going on. They also made sure that, as far as possible, there was nothing there of an incriminating nature. Everything was clean and sparkling and if they couldn't explain away it for civil purposes, for pharmaceutical or bio-technology then what they were doing was purely defensive. ...

What did you discover?

When we finally got there, as we were on a strict schedule, we cut into the time that we could be there. I mean we weren't invited to say, "Come along, look round, take your time." This was, "Come along, you've got x amount of time, if you want photography, we'll take it for you, no video." [There were] lots of formal presentations where Russians make endless speeches about not very much and then we have to do as much as we can in the time available to look round and make our assessment. After all, everybody at home is going to be relying on us as, obviously very high level diplomatic exchanges have occurred to come back with some sort of reasonable answer. So, that's how it started.

The other thing I remember ... here you have, let's say, an immunological facility, but as you go in the front door somewhere on the left there's a little sort of guard room and everybody is in civilian clothes, but there are a number of weapons on the wall that could be used by civilian guards. I mean, it's not the sort of thing that you'll find at the average institute in London, at least I hope. So, that's how things started off and we then went on to a much bigger facility at a place called Obolensk and, there we spent a couple of days looking around a huge facility with enormous capability.

What did you find that worried you most?

There's a technical assessment of a place, but they also have a feel about them. You could walk in the door and you think, this feels very strange to me and we all felt that. It was ominous. There were buildings in which there were explosive test chambers, we know that they were building new ones, so that some of the ones we visited were, in a sense, obsolescent.

An incident occurred, which is also reasonably amusing, although at the time it was quite tense. Remember there has been a great deal of discussion by now on the whole topic. People know much more about it than they did, but at the time we are facing people who had never been challenged about this, who sometimes have never met people from the West, who probably didn't even know that the Biological Weapons Convention existed and things were tense. They felt in some sense, that we might take back information which would implicate them personally in international law. So things were tense ... it was a situation where the Soviets knew that we were looking for something, they knew where we were going, they knew we knew what was there, and nevertheless, they never made anything easy.

This was a labyrinthine place and eventually we got ... into this large room in which was a large six-sided steel chamber with an entrance way to it and I said to my colleagues, "OK, fine, we'll go in and have a look." And so we did. I said, to our Soviet hosts, "Well, could we have light on please, you know it's rather difficult to see anything in here." "Oh, no, no," they said. "Lost the bulb, or the switch is broken." I mean this sort of thing happened all the time and a very close friend of mine, a colleague handed me a small Maglite torch which he was carrying with him. As he put it into my hand this huge fist grasped it, this vice-like grip and I thought, "Oh, dear, what's happening here?" and he wouldn't let go. We were in this terrible tug over this torch and we rapidly got our accompanying interpreter, I said, "Will you please ask this gentleman to remove his arm from mine, we're on a diplomatic official mission sanctioned by your president. This is not the way to behave." It took some minutes before he was persuaded to let go and they had some sort of thought that this was some sort of incredibly sophisticated, super secret sampling device that they didn't know about.

What was it they didn't want you to see?

Well, the chamber had been used for explosive dissemination tests on a biological agents and as a result of that there were a number of pits, dents and various things inside the chamber. There might very well also have been contamination, of course, which would have been long cleared up before we arrived, but clearly evidence of explosive dissemination tests. Off the chamber was a long tube where you could put in animals heads to expose them to the aerosol produced in these tests. 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. It had a sort of submarine door, 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, 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 there?" "Oh, oh," they said, "Yes, it was when we put the door on, it didn't fit very well and the workmen used a hammer."

Well, some of the stories that we faced and have faced since, they would be laughable if the whole thing were not so serious. They knew that we knew that this was rubbish, but it's like when you're in conversation with someone who is not dealing with you on the same level. What do you do when someone replies to you ridiculously? You can only say, "Well that's complete rubbish" but of course you don't do that in diplomatic terms. You say, "That's difficult to believe, isn't it."

Were you beginning to get a sense of the scale of Biopreparat, how big it was and how sophisticated it was?

Oh yes. I mean this establishment alone, I'm only talking about a tiny, tiny fraction, there was a huge, much more modern facility building within this where a whole series of more modern test chambers and production equipment was under the highest category of safety for micro-organisms. If we, in fact, expand our view to an overview of the entire organization you have a vast network of some 50 establishments, some of which are front establishments, in other words, they do legitimate things. Others of which are there to produce [and] research micro-organisms, but there are aspects of the program which was built to be self contained, in other words there were factories that built the equipment to do the work. So you're not just talking about factories that produced germs and weapons and whatever. You're talking about other types of industry that produce equipment of all kinds and biochemicals to be used right the way across so that you can support a program yourself and we're talking tens of thousands of people working over a period of 25 years and that's only the civilian side. It is paid for out of military money, the military budget. But on the other side you have the Ministry of Defense establishments, themselves all separately manned.

Which no one has ever seen.

I suppose you might say that, Yes.

You then went on to Koltsovo and the Vector establishment there. What did you see there?

... I should say that each of the parts of Biopreparat were divided up into groups, combines of things, they're not single establishments and Koltsovo, which is the site we visited, is part of the Vector group ... and they specialize in virology and viral agents. It is another huge compound--many buildings, huge numbers of laboratories.

What lies behind the mystery of buildings 6 and 6A?

Well, to this day I believe, even though other people have been to these establishments and seen things, I think our little group is the only one from the outside ever to go into those buildings. The bottom line is smallpox--they had production and testing there of smallpox.

That was in complete defiance of the Biological Weapons Convention.

Yes.

And in defiance of the World Health Organization's trust in allowing the Russians and the Americans to hold on to smallpox.

Yes, indeed. They appear to have transferred from Moscow where their samples of live smallpox were legitimately held, to Koltsovo and indeed other places.

They argued that the reason for the transfer was that Moscow wasn't safe. What do you think was the real reason?

Well, the real reason is that a production requirement was put on Koltsovo to upgrade and make more sophisticated smallpox.

They were working on smallpox as an offensive biological warfare agent to be used against enemies.

Yes.

What did you see when you went?

On the day when you go there, of course, you're not to find anything because they know you're going and they've had plenty of advance warning and everything is squeaky clean. 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 ... when we discuss it with them we get bogged down because they start to talk about things which are very difficult to understand. They talked about ... cloning the DNA of one of the smallpox variants or some such at the time. And, we said, "Well, what's going on here, what are you doing that for and do you have any smallpox here." "Oh, no, no, no, no." But in fact this was an incident that once again became very sensitive because the whole tour of my little group around those two buildings stopped and we were kept in this room for, it must have been an hour or so, maybe more whilst telephone calls were made all over the establishment presumably back to the senior people there to say, "How do we handle this, they're asking us extremely difficult questions." Of course, they are capable of saying anything to get out of a tight corner.

What was the one thing that told you that they were lying and that they were working on offensive biological smallpox agent?

Well, they had the kind of sophisticated test chambers that you would need to do the kind of work when testing material like this for offensive purposes.

...They will regale you with endless tales of being worried about smallpox stuck in the permafrost in bodies, but really when it comes down to it any sensible level of suspicion would be aroused by what you saw there and what was implied was going on. And, subsequently, others have actually confirmed that material. ...

Apart from the work on smallpox at Vector, what else did you see there?

They work on a number of viruses, smallpox is not the only one, the Marburg virus, Tick born encephalitis, but they do have a problem with that in public health terms. They obviously don't have a problem with Marburg and a number of other types of bio-technology programs. They do have a wide variety of them. They would for instance have a very model and system for showing what happens to aerosols as they pass over terrain and towns and that sort of thing which is all very important for weaponeers in terms of BW but they would sell it to you as an ecological problem, it's to do with the environment and "We're worried about these nasty things from chimneys going into the environment, we want to track them." and all this sort of stuff. Well, it may very well be and it could be diverted to that use, and indeed they've tried to sell it that way, but we know what it's actually for originally. It's for being able to collect that data so you know what will happen when you release an aerosol.

How effective are these biological agents as weapons?

Well, I guess we would have to say that if you step back and look at the potential, you have weapons which are capable of being used in a variety of circumstances from killing individuals, killing large populations, to disabling individuals, disabling large populations. And they leave the infrastructure of society intact. Nuclear weapons--large hole in the ground, nothing left to move into afterwards and contamination. Of course there would be a little bit of contamination with biological weapons, anthrax being a case in point, but it's not impossible to deal with. We're also looking at systems which are much cheaper than nuclear systems in strategic terms--much cheaper. We're looking at systems that you can bring down to a very small size in terms of production. You'd never be able to do that on the nuclear side. ...

Can you think of any legitimate, scientific reason for work to be undertaken at Koltsovo involving smallpox, but also involving the Marburg virus and the Ebola virus?

There is always the excuse, that anybody, including those in the West, can work on any topic they wish to. We're free here if you want to try to work on these areas you might out of sheer interest. It's scientific curiosity, pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Some of these organisms are not so well understood and there are many aspects that you could study. You have to look back on our knowledge that we built up for years and years that we weren't going in to investigate research projects at a completely open facility. We were going to investigate, what we knew to be very firm indications that these agents were being worked on as biological warfare agents for that purpose. You can always use the excuse that you are interested in this bit of research and it's out there to be done, but if you look at the context in which the work was being done and the extent and breadth - why devote those resources.

Dr. Alibek has since spoken about the so-called chimera virus, the splicing together of smallpox with other viruses. What evidence is there of that? What is your feeling?

Well, I think we're moving right to the edge now ... you're not dealing with a fantasy here, this is the same approach to any weapons program, you have weapons that are in use. You have weapons under development and you have people thinking about the future and you can apply this thinking to aircraft, guns, ships, whatever you like. And you will find the analogy stands up ... exactly the same in this case, you will find people will have a weapons capability, they will have weapons under development and they will be working on things which are right at the edge and I feel that this is probably at the edge.

But the Russians answer to this is that it is all nonsense, because smallpox itself offers such a terrifying virus, why would they need to genetically splice it other viruses. What would be the answer to that?

To change it's characteristics, to better fit the purpose for which you want this agent. That's why we've got a number of categories for them. Some of them are used for tactical, some of them are used for strategic and other purposes. When we talk about BW we're not talking about a single weapon, no more than when we're talking about conventional weapons, or nuclear weapons. There are a variety of types and kinds to do different jobs.

You've been describing the Biopreparat organization. The man behind that is General Kalinin. What kind of man is he and how transparent is Biopreparat's work today?

Well, we never managed to meet General Kalinin. He exists, I know that, and he has been at meetings, but in my time we never got to meet him. We did make a number of requests. You would have thought that in this sort of exchange, which continued for a number of years at this sort of level, we might have got to meet the man who was in charge ... but he was always a little too busy. So it's a bit difficult to say what kind of man he was. ...

Why is a general running a civilian organization?

Ultimately, I guess, because he pays the bills. It's doing the work that the government wished to have done under a civil guise, because if you move it out of easily identified military facilities you make it much more difficult to pick up. When it comes to inspections, you have a host of excuses and reasons for saying that you're doing commercial work. And when you go on to the commercial work, you turn the tables on the West by saying well, we can't show you that because it's commercially secret.

Are you then saying that today, there is still a shadow military control of Biopreparat and a civilian front.

Well, two parts to that really. Obviously, because of the economic situation in the former Soviet Union and now in Russia, there has been a drying up of funds for all sorts of projects. It would be absurd of us in pretending that this whole thing has sailed on as it did. It was already undergoing stresses and strains in terms of money before Dr. Pasechnik came out. It was also moving into a situation where they had done so much that they could afford to put some of it onto a mobilization footing. In other words, if you are going to be an aggressor you can decide when you want to switch everything on and run it through and start producing. You don't have to be doing it all the time. Once you've worked out the techniques, got everything sorted, you can fall back. We know that some people still working within the Biopreparat places that we visited haven't been paid for six months. And that's common in Russia--many government servants, many of the scientists have had to leave or get other jobs so there's been huge retrenchment.

But do you see familiar military faces involved in the flowchart of control in Biopreparat?

Oh, yes, I think that there are a couple of very sad things and that is that key individuals, like Kalinin and a number of others, are still in the same sort of position within the hierarchy that they always were. They may have different titles, they may come under a different ministry, but it kind of makes you feel uncomfortable when it looks much the same. I'm not saying that it's operating anything like at the level it was before. It also tried to go properly commercial and found it very difficult indeed, because in the West, standards of good clinical practice, good standards of practice for production of antibiotics, anti-virals all those sorts of things, [are] highly developed and sometimes it's been quite difficult for the Russian groups to come towards those standards.

Talk about the depth of secrecy which is inherent in the system.

I think we have to admit that, although a vast number of changes have occurred since the break up of the old Soviet Union and it is in a state of flux, many old habits die hard. Their livelihoods, their lives are at stake and many Russians will tell you lying and secrets were a way of life. Finding the truth was like grabbing a bar of soap in the shower. They're used to it, it's not a problem and it's always been a problem for us, in dealing with them. If you're on the side of saying they're lying again, then it looks as if you're always being pessimistic and negative. And it isn't necessarily so, you're just being straight forward. On the other hand if you're simply saying everything's changed and it's all right now ... you fall into the other trap, the other side. All the time you have to walk down this very fine line of judgment when you're dealing with them.

But there are now joint commercial efforts with the Americans and the British, there is evidence of the dismantling of facilities, there is Yeltsin's own word that he has put a stop to the program, there's evidence that the budget funding has decreased substantially, there is no overt strategic or tactical reason to continue with the biological program. Surely the evidence suggests they have given it up?

Well, I take your last point first. It is in the nature of Russia not to think short, but to think long. We are so used to thinking in short term in the West that we don't understand that there will be people on both sides, both for and against biological weapons in Russia, who still think about the long term future. What if and what about the other side? Do we really believe the Americans have no program? Can we really trust them? Now, ... we take for granted our position that when we dismantled our program in the UK, you know in the mid-50s, that was the decision that we would never wish to go that way again, but that's because we have grown up in a certain type of culture.

But when the Russians visited Pine Bluff in Arkansas weren't they convinced by what they saw was just a hulk of rusting machinery?

Well, it's difficult to know. They should have been convinced. Indeed they visited a number of facilities--old facilities turned over to other uses and equipment, ripped out or rusting and clearly not functioning. Not only that, the U.S. made a policy decision to be very open and positive. After all, I'm presented as a skeptic and a Cold War warrior, but on the balance side we did go ahead with a very positive open program and I was a party to that, in trying to draw them out and saying, "Look this is over, there is no problem, we are not going to attack you publicly, we're not going to pillory you in a political sense, let's deal with it, let's get it out of the way." That kind of policy came from the very top of both the United Kingdom and the United States. That's why the visit occurred to the U.S,. they said, "Fine come along see what our old program was. Go around." And we went round. The Americans gave incredibly detailed explanations ... about their old program, details that even people in the U.S. or the UK had never [heard] ... answered all the questions they could and the Russians went away. At that time it was the transition between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. It was coming up to the Christmas of 1991 and we really had high hopes that a change in power and position ... we were expecting them to be open. What we expected in reciprocity for us at that point was of course for them to come back and say, "Fine, at last we will deal with you, it might be kept secret, but we will deal with you in a straightforward fashion, we will tell you what went on ..." It didn't happen.

They weren't convinced by the Pine Bluff tour.

Oh, I think it's clear that a portion of the people who came were and they were a mixed group from Biopreparat, the Ministry of Defense and presumably KGB and others in there and diplomats-- some were prepared to take the leap of faith for them. But, I am sure that there were other people you might regard as hawks on the Russian side and it's quite clear that they ended up having their say in Moscow and one assumes persuading the new President Yeltsin that it would be prudent to keep something back and, because it could very well be that the US could refurbish and put their program back in action in a matter of months. This is nonsense of course. They simply couldn't do it. But, when you've got someone whispering that in your ear, and you're unstable in power and you have to rely on the army perhaps to a great deal, which is what Yeltsin had done ... it would be a brave man perhaps to go against that.

President Yeltsin arrives and Whitehall makes another démarche. What happened?

Well, I think we wait to see what he has to say. It is after all a major issue, but it's not an issue that our leaders and our policy and diplomatic people want to use to destabilize President Yeltsin in the early days of a completely new type of system in the from the old Soviet Union.

There was eventually a challenge to President Boris Yeltsin, by then Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. What do you think was said at that meeting, what actually happened and what was revealed?

Well, the context is important. It was just at the time that Mr. Yeltsin had taken over, the change of regime, which lead to a very different set up in the former Soviet Union. Mr. Yeltsin came through the UK on his way to the U.S. and spoke to a number of officials, high level political leaders. We were always at pains at the most senior level not to put undue pressure on a situation which we could make [it] worse in the wider scene, but nevertheless the issue of BW was important and was raised by Mr. Yeltsin. I think he felt that he had been deceived by the outgoing regime by President Gorbachev and that, in fact, he had discovered that the biological weapons program was continuing inside the former Soviet Union. We're now talking early 1992. This was quite an admission and he went on to say that he would do his best to get rid of it, that he wished the chiefs to be sacked, he would try to close down these establishments and he would like to divert the scientists into more useful and productive biotechnology. I think he referred to livestock work and he used a rather curious phrase. He said, 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.

Why?

Because, it implies that you are moving on right at the edge of technology, that you are talking about being able to influence the gene expression of the human being in some way ...

So genetic weapons and research into genetic weapons, broken down means what?

In this case it means investigating how you can affect the genes of a person by exposing them to a material which may work, over a very long period of time, on its own by attaching itself to the DNA in the cell or it may simply sit there until you expose them to another material at a time that you choose, which locks together with the first material and affects the genome ... we also have the possibility of targeting specific ethnic groups of specific genetic subtypes, if you like, of the population, that you can indiscriminately, in a way, spray something, but it only kills the certain people that this material is designed to find and attack.

Science fiction, surely?

Well, what's often science fiction today is science fact tomorrow and I think that's not saying anything new. It may be right now, and in a way, I'm glad if it is. What worries me is tomorrow, and intelligence is, I hope, about trying to predict what's happening next. I've often said, anybody can read the paper and tell the Prime Minister what happened yesterday. What we're in the business of is worrying about what might be going on next. It's in that context that I am concerned really.

Odd that President Yeltsin should mention it, isn't it?

Yes, and there are those who would say, "Well he was obviously confused, after all he's not a molecular biologist and you're not a geneticist ... surely, he just mixed it up." In fact, he was challenged and one of his top generals later said, "Well, you know, it was nothing, it was a bit of a mix up."

But you checked the language, and there's no doubt in your mind as to what he said.

No. There's only doubt about the interpretation of that. One must bear that in mind. ...

Do you think, now, with all your knowledge of this subject, that a form of warfare involving biological weapons is inevitable in the future?

We've always wondered about this. It's curious in some ways that it hasn't occurred on a more broad scale in modern times but there are all sorts of reasons for that. It certainly has occurred over the period of history, but it is surprising that it hasn't broken out. People have a very healthy respect for what they see as potentially some of the most powerful weapons they would ever be able to possess and that's notwithstanding nuclear capability. After all nuclear capability destroys everything in its path.

Let me just press you for yes or no on that. Do you think it's inevitable?

I'm going to be an optimist and say no. I don't think it's inevitable.

How would you describe the scale and sophistication of the Soviet and Russian programs?

The like of which the world has never seen, I imagine. The United States program at its height was very large, very sophisticated. To give you one example, (I'm doing this to broad background here) you could take all the ships that were devoted to trials in the U.S. system before 1969 and would make if you put it on its own, the 5th largest Navy in existence at that time. Just, one little idea. But if you come all the way forward to where we are with the Russian and Soviet systems as they were, you have numbers of people involved, tens of thousands. We have two systems run side by side ... a military system and the civilian system. The civilian system may be 50 or so different places grouped into combines, not all of them producing weapons and agents of course, they are able to produce all the things that they require ... the machines they need, the equipment, the biochemicals ... in-house within that system. It's self replicating. What you have is spread over a number of years, the building up of a complex inter-relationship between that system and also the academic and university system outside to feed in useful information, talented people ... you have a numbers of institutions which are highly secret and buried away in the countryside. You have a front for all those by producing some civilian research development and production of biochemicals, bio-technological materials or pharmaceuticals, that sort of thing. You have something that is very sophisticated that at the outset when the big decision was made to upgrade and push ahead with advancing their system in the early 1970s probably they put, in those days, about 1.5 billion rubles and at its height, we would have seen tens of thousands of people involved. There are many fewer today, but by this time they've achieved a great deal.

You believe that the Russians are still involved in a program of some sorts of offensive biological warfare. Should we be concerned?

Yes, very much so. I believe that they continue to be involved. I believe we should be concerned.

Why?

Because they have thought beyond nuclear weapons as a simple answer to any strategic worries that they may have and that possession of advanced weapons like this may be able to do things that simple large bangs do not. It's also possible that they're able to maintain such a capability without us ever being able to detect it and there is a complete asymmetry between our countries. We have had no program for many years and yet, they maintain a program in waiting.

Do you think there's a danger that your critics would say this is just the old Empire of Evil argument brought back to life at the millennium?

Yes, and I understand their point of view. Many times, I've looked myself in the mirror, if you like, listened to what I've had to say as I am now. I feel that this is an expression of the what the case really is. I'm not making a value judgment about whether it's right or wrong, I'm not calling them evil, after all we have many unpleasant weapons. This is not an argument about the degree of evil of some weapons. It's about the plain fact of the matter and being prepared. I understand the critics point of view. I wish it were different and I hope that we might be able to move forward at some point. We are looking at a country in extreme flux, we are looking at things perhaps being persuaded by the old guard, but it worries me that a new young guard will be brought up on the coat tails of this, to understand that it's a good thing to have this in your back pocket, especially when everybody feels that it's gone away.


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