plague war
Interview: Frank Malinoski
navigation, see below for text

Frank Malinoski was a Clinical Investigator in the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases from 1987 to 1992. He was a member of the Western team that in 1991 inspected Vector, a huge Soviet complex of biological research laboratories in western Siberia.


Why were the inspections in '91 important? What were the goals?

My understanding of the goals was primarily that there had been a suspicion in the intelligence community for a long time of a program in the Soviet Union, and that this defector [Dr. Pasechnick] added substance to the arguments that both the U.S. and the UK had of the existence of the program. And the goals were to get us into facilities to see what was actually in them, and for us to make an on-site determination of what the intent of those facilities and the programs were.

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. How did it operate? Who was involved, as far as the United States and where did you go?

I was a representative from USAMRIID [US Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases]. We had CIA people, NSA people, other DOD intelligence people, and State Department representatives. We were the U.S. portion compared to the UK portion, which included their ministry people and their scientific, primarily, intelligence community people. And we sort of had equal representation as a group to go. ...We went to London in mid-December, expecting that a day or two later we would go to Moscow. We met in London with a group from the Soviet government, and they essentially stonewalled us for two weeks, to the point where it was closing in on the holiday. So we all came back here, the UK people stayed there, and again another level of diplomatic exchanges occurred, and we were invited to come back in January.

How many people made up the investigative team and what were the goals?

There were 12 of us and our goal was to visit these facilities, get a thorough tour, understand how Biopreparat was involved, understand what was going on at the scientific level, and to actually see the facilities and give our own estimate of what these facilities were capable of and committed to.

Finally when you got over, after being stonewalled, how did it go?

It was a struggle at every turn. There was resistance to anything and everything we wanted to do. Things like the scheduling of the visits, we essentially had two days at every facility. We traveled from Moscow to Siberia and then back to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). It was just a very tense and intense whirlwind tour of four facilities in which we were trying to determine what was going on at these facilities and what their true use of the facilities were.

That's not easy to do.

No. It is not at all.

So, how does one do that?

First, the medical preparation. We had no idea what to expect. We had expected and planned for the worst. We had every immunization that we could think of for the team. We brought every medication we thought we might or might not need. We brought containment suits. We had a large trunk of materials and supplies and medicines, in case anyone were to get sick. We prophylaxed people with, not only vaccines, but antibiotics, because we weren't sure our vaccines were going to be effective if we encountered something. And we just got everybody geared up for going in and doing this. It was not easy. We had to make sure people were getting the rest, that when people were getting tense, that we got things resolved quickly. And we stayed together very well as a team, in spite of the fact that it was a US-UK team. It was truly one team.

It sounds like you were expecting to find something. Why was that the case?

Well, there was Sverdlovsk. We knew of that facility, and we had good evidence that ... the Soviets had a program. And the information we had from Dr. Pasechnik about the program and what we might find was sufficient that we had to prepare ourselves for the worst case.

Why did we think that the Russians had an offensive biological weaponry program?

Primarily, we had the defector, Dr. Pasechnik, come out and tell us about the involvement of Biopreparat in the offensive ... biological weapons program. He detailed sufficiently the extent of that involvement, that it was clear they had been doing a number of things in violation of the treaty. His information was confirmed by what our intelligence community had gathered from a number of different areas over time.

Within the community, there seemed to have been a difference of opinion amongst intelligence, scholars, scientific, and political circles about the possibility of a program like this. Explain why this would have prevented us acting sooner.

Well, I would in one simple term and that's "marketing." I don't think the intelligence community marketed the information that it had--about the existence of the program, the extent of the program, who was involved, what their objectives were--to the scientific community or to the American public. It was compartmentalized, and it had to compete with other programs. It had to compete with concerns about nuclear and chemical, other threats in the international community.

What are the long-term effects of the existence of the Soviets' program?

I would say, the long-term effects of the existence of the program are that they were able to amass a great deal of information. They were able to, most likely, produce large quantities of a number of pathogens. They were able to improve the pathogenicity, improve the illness-inducing capacity of organisms across that time, and potentially to create new threats that don't exist in nature today.

But we're not worried about the Russians attacking us. What are other long-term effects?

Well, I would debate about whether we worry about the Russians attacking us, because the same people that ran the program during the Soviet era are still in power in the current program. The other effects are the fact that the scientists who existed in these facilities, today, with the problems in Russia, are available as a commodity, and their information in their minds is available to potentially the highest bidder outside of Russia. So other governments, other organizations, who are interested in very cheap and effective weapons certainly have the opportunity to siphon off this knowledge, and potentially, if somebody's got access to the stockpiles, siphon off the actual organisms.

The effects of the program are the proliferation of the information to other organizations, the fact that we could not trust the Russians and the Soviets to adhere to a treaty, that the actual organisms could be disseminated to other countries. On a positive side, we've realized that verification is a critical issue in any treatment. The fact that a treaty existed from '72 and there was no verification element to it meant that their program could go on while after they had signed a treaty, and we had no firm evidence until '89 that they were actually violating it.

Why is there still a concern about what is going on in Russia? Why is there even a belief that there's a possibility that there's an offensive program that still exists?

There's still a concern about the existence or the persistence of a biological weapons program in Russia, because you have to understand, we visited four facilities that were the civilian component of a much larger military program, and access to those military facilities has not been forthcoming, and there has not been full disclosure of everything that the Russians did and were capable of doing in other segments of their weapons program.

I thought they were our allies. Why is it that we're still having problems in ascertaining what the program was, or more importantly, what the program is now?

I believe one of the reasons we haven't had full disclosure is, one, that the people who were in the program before ... are still in place. Secondly, there are many other allies that have had programs that we haven't known about. Biological weapons can be a superior type of weapon, and it's not something you're going to share with someone unless you believe they need the information as much as you do.

Wouldn't you expect the United States government, at this point, to be pushing to ascertain more information about this program? This is scary stuff.

It is. And I agree, we should be in a position to be able to push them. They need money. They need food. They need stabilization of their markets. And we haven't done so. And that was one of the frustrations after the visits in 1991, that things became stalled. One of the reasons they became stalled was [that] the Russians were very good at the diplomatic side of this, and they turned everything around at that point and said, "Okay, we want reciprocity. It's time for the U.S. to show us their program, because we believe you have a program." So we got pushed back on our heels, and we never went forward again. And we haven't had the people in place with the commitment to force this issue. It's a tragedy.

How surprising is that?

It's not surprising, with all the other things that are going on in the world. We were inspecting in Russia when our troops were going into Iraq. We were not the highest priority in the U.S. government. Coming out of that inspection and preparing our reports, there were other things that were more important to George Bush and his administration at the time, relative to Kuwait and Iraq. We suffered competing events, if you will, or competing priorities.

What worry do we have that former scientists from the Soviet program will end up working for rogue countries, or will disseminate their information outside of Russia?

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. They were faced, after the changes in the Soviet Union in Russia, with earning about $100 a month, and the information in their head was worth thousands and tens of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to someone who wanted to develop weapons. So it 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), we're not going to know.

The United States is donating loans and helping the former Soviet Union out quite a bit. Why haven't we gone to them and said, "Please, give us a list of these former scientists. We would like to track them."

I don't know that we haven't asked that question. It should have been asked if it wasn't. But another piece of that is [that] it took an awful long time for that money to get there. And these people needed to feed themselves and to be secure in that period of time. And there was a lot less bureaucracy than someone from another country asking one of these scientists to come and work on their program, than there was in getting U.S. aid to Russia. So I think that part of the problem is the time, and how the money was going to filter to the individual, as well. I don't know where all the money the U.S. put together has gone ... did it get to those scientists?

In your opinion, could the proliferation problem have been lessened by trying in some way to find those scientists?

Absolutely. I believe if the U.S. and UK governments had taken advantage of our position in 1991, to demand further action by the Soviet and then Russian governments to stop the work at these facilities, to give a full listing of the scientists and what they were doing, we could have prevented the potential for proliferation outside of the Russian borders.

So we blew it, to some extent.

In my estimation, yes. At the time of our inspection, we came back from that very proud of what we had accomplished. We had taken the information from the defector and visited these facilities, and we had the Russians on their heels. We knew more about what was going on in their programs than had ever been known before, and I think we convinced them that we knew. We had seen enough evidence to say, "You have an active program, and these partially civilian institutes were participating in that." The direction at that time should have been to get them closed, to get those people out of there, and to move forward. It didn't happen. Why it didn't happen, I can't answer.

When you got there in '91, what did you find?

The major points we found were that this was a massive program involving the civilian company Biopreparat. They had secrecy of that program. They had security of these facilities that you wouldn't expect in a "civilian facility." They were doing aerosol testing. They were doing aerosol modeling. They had production capacity that was on a scale that no one in the U.S. or the UK would expect to be necessary if you were in a defensive posture. They provided us with obstacles to every question. Every turn that we took, there was something in our way. The fear was that they were hiding additional things.

Explain what it was like walking into some of these huge facilities, and just tell us what it looked like.

This was not a futuristic Hollywood type polished steel and glass set of facilities. They were immense in size. One of the buildings at Obolensk was an eight-story building, and each story was essentially two floors. They had three floors dedicated to work on plague. So it was an immense undertaking at all of these facilities. The facilities were a little rough on the edges. They did not look like they were built for producing commercial or medicinal products for the marketplace.

It was the middle of winter. They were short days. It was dark outside, and it was oppressive inside as well. [We] came away with a sense of smallness, a sense of: This is a massive program, and there are people committed to the development of very serious pathogens.

As you were going through, what did they tell you these facilities were for? Why did that not feel correct?

First, we'd go into facilities and see that there were voids. There were rooms with equipment removed. [We] walked into one walk-in cold room that was two-stories high and about 40 feet square. And there was nothing in there. When [we] ask[ed], "What did you keep in here, what did you do in here?" --we got very vague and unhelpful answers. So we saw a lot of emptiness where equipment had been removed. When we were in areas [where] there was equipment present, fairly trivial answers were provided in terms of the intent of that equipment.

But what they were saying was: This was all defensive. What did they tell you?

They would say, "We had an effort in biological weapons defense," that some of their aerosol testing was to work on detectors; that they had larger scale fermentation than we might expect, but that's just the way they did things. Everything was couched in terms of: "This is a defensive program, and you shouldn't be worried about it."

What was the proof that was not true?

Clearly, the major proof was the information we had gathered in the intelligence community previously, the information from the defector, the fact that our own program in defensive measures against biological weapons did not have to be on the scale that they had. We were doing a fairly good job with two buildings at Fort Detrick. And here was, again, one portion that covered four different cities, one portion of their program that covered four different cities, and buildings that were eight, nine-stories high, and multiple buildings on these sites.

What was it like to walk through some of these facilities?

Let me ask you to imagine that at the end of World War II you were given the opportunity to inspect one of the death camps, and your guides were telling you as you went through these facilities that they were designed for the well being of the people who were there. I don't think you could believe that, knowing what we know about the Holocaust. I'm not saying that the Soviets used these facilities to execute people, but I am saying that the facilities, the research, and the people that were in those facilities were dedicated to as much death and destruction as was seen in the Holocaust.

Visually, did you walk through halls that were mammoth and full of equipment that you knew could be used for production? Describe it for us.

These facilities were the typical Russian construction, which were sort of blocks within blocks, or rooms within rooms. And on the floors we were allowed to go into, there were a mixture of things we were exposed to. We were exposed to rooms that had all the equipment removed. So a massive room; [we] couldn't understand what it was used for; never got an explanation. In other areas, like areas where there were fermenters and rows of fermenters, the explanations were that "Yes, we can produce large quantities of materials, but they're all for defensive purposes." It was just hard to believe that you needed that amount of material, that amount of facility, that commitment to facility, to produce defensive measures. We could do things in the U.S. with much less.

How big were the fermenters?

... These fermenters were surprisingly big in just simple size. You'd walk up next to them ... these were a story and a half high fermenters that were controlled by panels and series of fermenters that were used in some of these facilities.

Were you surprised to learn how they were dealing with smallpox?

Absolutely. These people were working with smallpox in Siberia when the virus was to be contained, not worked with, in only two laboratories: the CDC in Atlanta and a laboratory in Moscow. And during the visit to Koltsovo we were told that they were working with smallpox. And that is entirely in breach of what had been agreed upon through the World Health Organization for the containment of smallpox.

How surprising was that and why is that important to understand?

It was a complete surprise that they were working with smallpox in Novosibirsk, because the intention of the smallpox eradication program was first to eradicate every case of human disease, and then when we were sure that the world was free of smallpox, to eliminate any remaining stores of the virus so that we could have a world that was free forever from smallpox. So to find that this virus had been secretly moved to another laboratory, 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. What it means to me is that we'll never be able to be sure that we can eliminate smallpox. And best case is, smallpox will come again only as smallpox. Worst case, there may be some other more common and some other chimera virus that has been developed that could come out of this, that would be even worse than smallpox.

How big a scourge was smallpox?

Smallpox was a devastating disease in this world ... it had high mortality; it was spread rapidly through aerosol, through contact; and it was only a human disease. So if you could eliminate this disease from humans, it was eliminated from nature, and all of the morbidity and mortality associated with that disease would be eliminated. One of the reasons it's a major problem today is that we have a whole generation in this world, not just in the U.S., who have not been immunized. So they're totally susceptible.

Ken Alibek says they produced tons of smallpox. Why is that important?

The scale of their production again points to the fact that this was an offensive program, not a defensive effort. And the fact that there may be tons of this material available, smallpox is a very hardy organism. If they had developed ways to preserve the organism through time, through environmental insults like UV radiation or drying or moisture, humidity, it's just going to persist and wait until it has a host to infect. Nothing is going to happen to it. It will be sitting there waiting to infect someone who gets a sniff of it.

What was the demeanor of your hosts? How did they treat you and did they seem to be lying?

Well, first, the host group was limited in size. We went to facility with thousands of people, and we saw maybe ten to thirty people. So we didn't see all of the people. 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."

Any examples of that, specific stories?

Well, the fellow who was (and probably still is) in charge of Obolensk, Dr. Yurakov, made comments about how we didn't know how virulent plague really could be. There were comments like: "If you'd like to come back and work on aerosol testing, we could probably show you things." This type of boasting.

But if they were trying to hide the fact that they had an offensive operation, why would they be saying those things?

Well, .. these things were not said in the general meetings where the tape recorders are going, but they were done in the corridor discussions as we were going to and from different places. They weren't official statements of the government, if you will.

Dr. Ken Alibek, who was one of your hosts, what was his demeanor and what was his role?

Dr. Alibek was from the central offices of Biopreparat. He accompanied us to our visit to all four facilities. He answered most of the questions that related to central issues, but he also had a very good, in-depth knowledge of the programs that were ongoing at each institute, and showed himself to be probably superior to all of the people who were on the Russian side of the inspections. He was at times arrogant about his knowledge, in terms of, we should understand what they know, and [he] tried to answer our questions when he had a safe answer. When he didn't have a safe answer to our question, we got rhetoric or no answers.

Why do you think that was? Was it because they believed that we had a similar program? From further conversations with some of these people afterwards, what was the mentality?

There are several things to the mentality. One is that we had fallen for one of their stories before, with respect to Sverdlovsk, so they might as well try something fanciful and see if we bite that time. I think they also realized that we had time constraints, and so if we got muddled down in an issue, we wouldn't get to see the next facility. They could just slow things down and keeping from moving forward.

Do you believe that there was also a belief that we had the same type of system?

That's a good question. Certainly, I believe that they may have had their own workers in the institutes convinced that we had a system in the U.S. Otherwise, I can't imagine how someone would agree to violate a treaty in that way. I'm not convinced that people that took us on our tour believed we had a program. There are several reasons. One is that it's easy to see what the U.S. was doing. It's hard to hide something in the U.S. Secondly, they had access to people in our intelligence community who could have told them about that. Third, and this is subtle, but as far as I know, none of the people on our team were ever approached about coming over to the other side. If you thought someone on an inspection team might be involved in an offensive program, wouldn't you want to make an offer to say, "Why don't you come over?" to get them to tell you what was really going on? Nothing like that ever happened. So I believe they knew we didn't have a program, and that their efforts to direct us to reciprocity of visits were merely stalling tactics, and merely a way to put us on the defensive.

Out of all the stockpiles, was everything destroyed?

I have no idea. Why would it be? These are ultimate weapons. The people who know that answer are in the Ministry of Defense.

What's the fear?

The fear is that these stockpiles exist, that they developed a way to preserve those stockpiles for long periods of time, that these stockpiles could be loosely controlled and available to other people.

What do you think is really going on in the Soviet Union today, as far as biological weaponry?

I'm not convinced that there's additional research to refining weapons. But I'm convinced that the people who were there producing the weapons previously are still there, and still have the same prejudices, the same information, and the same commitment to maintaining those weapons.

Why do you believe that?

I've been to meetings where these people are still present. They still have the positions they had. I believe you don't change your spots overnight just because there's somebody else who's running the government.

Why don't you believe them now?

I haven't seen any evidence of the disclosure of what the previous program was. They have admitted they had a program, but they haven't gone as far as to say, "Here's what we did, here are the weapons we made, and here's what the plans were. And now why don't you (the western civilization) come in and watch us destroy all of this? And you can look anyplace you want, at anything you'd like." We haven't seen that.

Is it concern that they lied to us once, and so why should they be telling us the truth now? And if so, what do you believe?

There is certainly a credibility gap. These people have lied to us before. Why should they be telling us the truth now about the program? Biological weapons are such that you have to see and verify that they are not there.

Where are we, as far as defending ourselves against this threat?

Unfortunately, we're behind. We're behind, because when we stopped our offensive program at the end of the 60's into '70, the Soviets carried on full speed ahead with developing, improving weapons, biological weapons of destruction. We have vaccines. They are not the best vaccines. But we know the Russians knew what our vaccines were. They could have developed and may have developed strains that would not be affected by our vaccines. So they may have gone to the next step.

What does this threat call for? What should we be doing?

I think we need a re-evaluation of the defensive program. We need to understand and acquire the weapons that they actually had, to understand what those organisms were, whether that's through some international body (because this is now a global issue), where we can understand the pathogens that were developed and so we could have counter-measures to those pathogens. We need an immense effort to improve our vaccines. We need to look at the effectiveness of new antibiotics and new anti virals for some of these problems. We need a treaty that's verifiable, and that people commit to, and that will remove this threat, if that's possible.

Can we now defend against the threat that exists because of this program?

I believe we can't, because this program was not only directed at your troops in the battlefield; this program was designed to be able to attack civilians, to be able to attack the U.S. We've never had an effective defense for that kind of an attack. The only defense we've had has been the deterrence of a nuclear retaliation.

What do we need to do to grow a defense?

We need a commitment to understanding how to detect an attack, how to mass produce the vaccines we need, and to have those available. We need a public health commitment to be able to quarantine areas when we have evidence of an outbreak. We need the money and support, the infrastructure that will allow those things to happen.

Does it look like that's going to happen?

There are rumblings of efforts to make this happen. Is it too little, too late? That's the question.

You've also been involved in one inspection in Iraq. Can you give us your thought on the fact that this is not one isolated program, and that proliferation has occurred, and why you think that has happened?

I've seen what the Russians were doing in terms of a biological weapons program, and saw on the first inspection to Iraq what the Iraqis claimed to be doing. I'd say that the Iraqis were in a much more primordial state, if you will, than the Russian program. The Russian program had gone on for years and had time to build a large infrastructure. The Iraqis must have realized, as many countries have realized, that these are inexpensive weapons, that it is difficult to detect that you're doing work in this area. A satellite flying overhead can't tell you what a biological weapons facility looks like. You have to see them up close and personal to know.

And what was disturbing about the Iraqi experience was the fact that they were only interested in these organisms as weapons. They weren't interested in defending their own population. And ... knowing the unpredictability of biological weapons, it's a very large concern to me that they would not even be interested in protecting their own people against these pathogens.


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

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS