This more or less came to a culmination in 1968 ... [when] the Army conducted a
series of tests in the Pacific Ocean with animals in cages on the decks of many
ships that had been waiting for several years in Pearl Harbor to get White
House permission to do these tests, which the White House was very reluctant to
give. These were tests of our stockpiled biological munitions and of a few
experimental models--quite a few different agents were tested. It was a very
large scale series of tests. Earlier tests had taken place, including in the
continental United States, of anthrax and several other agents, and we had
stockpiled large numbers of munitions.|
What did the tests show?
The tests showed that you could infect monkeys very effectively. It showed that
you could infect certain other experimental animals very effectively. It showed
the dispersal patterns were as planned. It showed that the munitions functioned
as expected. All of this is according to open literature.
From what has been published now, how surprised were we by the effects of
these tests? What did we learn from these tests?
According to what has been published, the tests were judged very successful,
effective. It was learned ... that the weapons were very, very powerful, that
you could cover large areas and kill, presumably, large numbers of people,
although the tests were done on animals, primates, subhuman primates, with what
would be considered modest weapons expenditures.
What do you mean modest? Why was this weapons system considered to be
One should consider biological weapons as cheap in comparison to something else
and the something else, of course, is nuclear weapons. It was not cheap in the
sense of dirt cheap. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars, thousands of
technical personnel were involved, vast facilities at many different places in
the United States worked on this project. Nobody has developed a biological
weapon successfully without massive effort. But still very small in comparison
with the effort and expertise required to make nuclear weapons, but no simple
Why did we decide unilaterally to drop the program?
The fascinating part of this story is that President Richard Nixon, after
reviewing all the options in 1969, decided not only to terminate the program,
but to renounce the very option for the United States to have any biological
weapons offensive program at all. Why did he do that? ... I never met the
president. But I think I did read most, if not all, of the documents that were
submitted to him in connection with that review. One of the principle national
security arguments was that here we were, never having carefully reviewed this
program for more than 15 years, pioneering the development of weapons that
would make it possible for a multitude of other states, and even non-state
entities, to destroy the United States when we had no need for such a weapon
because we had the nuclear deterrent. So, it was judged absolutely foolish for
us to persist in this activity. Now, I don't know what the president's motives
were, never having met him, but that was one of the major arguments that
emerged in the papers presented to him.
Was one of the reasons we pulled out of biological offensive research
because we thought that they were ineffective weapons?
This idea that we thought that biological weapons were ineffective is a myth.
It's a good myth because the more people believe it, the less likely they are
motivated to make some biologic weapons. In the sense of killing people, nobody
who was knowledgeable about the program, who I know, ever thought that they
were ineffective at killing people. You could argue that for our style of
fighting war, we had no need for such weapons ... there was no place in our
military for them, and as far as strategic retaliation ... we had nuclear
weapons and still do. So, it's a myth that we thought of them as ineffective.
What we did say to the president was that these are weapons that we'd put in
the hands of others, a capability which today only we have, which is to destroy
whole countries, whole nations. We could do it with nuclear weapons. Why
pioneer it for other people?
Now that we can look back on it, were we wrong? The Defense Department says
that there are multiple countries out there that have biological agents.
No, I think President Nixon's decision was the only proper decision that could
be made, and must be stuck to because the hard fact is that the proliferation
of these weapons could only harm us and we do not need them. There are many
countries, I believe, that would have had vigorous programs had we not stopped.
Now it is true that some did go ahead, but we would be in no position to
attempt to get them to stop if we, ourselves, had such a program. The only way
to outlaw something is to not do it yourself and since we don't need it I think
his decision was eminently wise.
Give us an idea of what might have been going through the minds of the
Soviets at that point.
It's a fascinating thing to speculate on what was going through the minds of
the Soviets. What we do know from their 1992 declaration, under the Biological
Weapons Convention recounting the history of their program, is that they were
aware that we were way ahead of them in 1969 when we stopped. They decided at
that point, apparently, to position themselves to produce biological weapons
upon demand from Moscow. They constructed major facilities for making
biological warfare agents, such as anthrax. According to the Soviets, those
were standby facilities. Now, there is a loophole in the Biological Weapons
Convention. It prohibits the development in production of and stockpiling of
biological weapons, but it doesn't prohibit the construction of facilities to
make them. That was left out and, so, that's what they did. They were in a
position to catch up and probably in terms of research and development did
catch up with us. Did they know about those big tests? I don't know. But those
tests in the Pacific weren't the only evidence of our program. We have a fairly
open country and there were books and articles galore about our program and
when we ended it, we announced what the agents were and what the munitions were
and so on. All of this became public knowledge. I assume the Soviet spies had a
high probability of knowing about the tests as well.
Is there any evidence of what their thoughts were on Nixon's decision to
unilaterally stop the program?
One theory was that the United States had developed, produced, tested and
verified its biological offensive capacity and then stopped. That the point was
to freeze the Soviets in an inferior position and that they felt the whole
thing was a trick. I don't know if there is any truth in that at all. It's just
one thing that you can speculate.
The other speculation is that they realized that we had genuinely renounced
this, but decided that they would go ahead anyway as a hedge against the
possible shortcomings of the other parts of their military establishment.
There's a third possible explanation that appeals to me somewhat and that is
that sometimes governments don't do things for reasons that seem totally
rational. After all, even ourselves as individuals, do things that if someone
asks you to explain ... you'd say, "Well, gosh, I really don't why I did that."
It's possible that they had a kind of runaway development there and that it was
known to a certain small part of their government and not to others and that it
went ahead the way our program did for 15 years without any high-level review.
The plain fact is, so far as I know, we don't know what the Soviet thinking
was, but we know they had a major offensive program.
You are now involved with a group calling for an international treaty that
would use international criminal law on individuals involved with researching
or stockpiling biological weaponry. Can you explain what it is you are calling
for and why you consider this important?
Let's step back from this immediate problem a little bit and ask what is the
future of biotechnology in the military realm. Every technology that has ever
been developed by human beings, starting when we work[ed] with stones, has been
exploited not only for our benefit, but also for hostile purposes. A number of
biologists are beginning to think that biological technology is different, that
if we start using this for hostile purposes that this could be a great threat
to our whole species, not to any one particular country--to the species.
Therefore, we've begun to wonder what can we do to add to the constraints.
When you follow this logic down, you realize it is not states who do things,
it's individual leaders or individual officials and in non-state entities,
again we're talking about individual people. Now there are some things which
are called international crimes--piracy, genocide, airline hijacking, harming
diplomats on active duty. There are treaties that make those particular crimes,
so-called "international crimes," and create universal jurisdiction so that a
person who does any of those things, or a legal entity such as a corporation,
can be tried in any country of the world regardless of their citizenship and
regardless of where they did the prohibited act.
We have written a new treaty with the help of a number of legal experts, that
would make it a crime under international law to develop, produce, stockpile,
or use biological weapons or to knowingly render substantial assistance to
anybody doing that. This won't be the complete answer, but it will strengthen
the norm against biological weapons, against hostile biotechnology and it will
be a deterrent to those individuals and corporate entities who might otherwise
be tempted to get into this activity. It won't stop them all, but it will have
a big deterrent effect. We believe such a treaty would be a help.
Why so much concern over biological weaponry?
We are concerned about biological weaponry, not only today's biological
weaponry, but possible future developments, because essentially this technology
is available to large numbers of states and even non-state entities and it
could take us down paths that we're totally unable to deal with. We can protect
our civilians to some degree, but I think it's not possible to provide anything
like major protection for civilians against a determined perpetrator. Also, in
the farther future there are potentials for subjugation. We will be able to
manipulate all of the biological processes, including cognition, development,
reproduction. It's not just a question of weapons that might kill. It's a
question, also, of ways in which humans might enslave humans. This is a
technology which threatens our species and we should respond appropriately by
thinking of new ways to deal with it. One way is to criminalize it, just as we
criminalized deeds within our country. There are certain things that you can be
punished for if you do them as an individual and that should be the case
Do we need to educate people to think about this type of weaponry in a
different way then we already think about it?
I do think we do need to educate people starting with the president of the
United States and with senior biologists. The president has become very
concerned about this problem. More credit to him. But he should add one more
concept to his concern and that is, it's not just the protection of anyone
country, particularly our own, it's the protection of our whole human species
that we're talking about here. We're all ultimately in the same boat when we
come to the possible hostile exploitation of biotechnology.
From what you know, can you tell us about the March Table Top exercise and
why exercises like this are used?
Well, we've been doing exercises like that in the United States for decades.
There were something like two hundred mock BW attacks conducted with simulated
biological agents all over the country ... they were meant not only to
determine the vulnerability of ourselves, but also in those days to determine
how use these weapons ourselves against others.
The mock exercises that are done now have a different character, namely how to
protect people, how to treat people, how to minimize the casualties. There have
been many of them, and there will be many more in future. But that sad point
is, in principle, that there is no 100%, or even approaching 100%, of
protection against a biological attack launched by a determined terrorist or
adversary. However, we can draw some solace from the fact that if it were done
by a known entity, a known country, they would certainly be deterred because
their retaliation would be, what can I say, I don't have a strong enough word.
That's generally known. But as time goes on, if non-state entities acquire such
capabilities, it would not be feasible to provide highly reliable protection,
though we should do what we can. But beyond that we must take a much wider
perspective here and attempt to build restraints that work worldwide. When we
say that the United States is vulnerable, in a way that's advertising to others
who might wish us harm that here's a way to do it. Whereas, if we, instead, put
the emphasis on the fact that over time it's everybody who's at risk here, that
will at least position us to achieve a worldwide constraint better than the one
we have today.
Knowing how difficult they are to use and what the potential risks involved,
why are biological agents attractive to terrorists?
Well, it's often said that biological agents would be attractive to terrorists.
Let's start though with the fact that up until now there has been no major
occurrence, even in those countries where terrorism is common such as in
Northern Ireland or in Israel. We don't have biological weapons being used; we
have explosives being used. What we're talking about here is the fears on the
part of those who try to think ahead based on the technical characteristics of
biological weapons. We don't really know how big the threat might be. But we
know that it could be a major threat. I think we get into sheer speculation
beyond that. What we can say is that it would make sense to think out the
problem very carefully. For example, when it comes to states, we should make it
clear that any state that uses biological weapons against us or one of our
allies would, of course, suffer immense retaliation. But that brings you to the
possibility that maybe two states, neither of which is allied with us, would
use such weapons against one another. We should care almost as much about that
as an attack on ourselves, but that's much more difficult to deal with because
retaliation might seem totally inappropriate. So long as biological weapons are
very uncommon, which they are today, it's possible to build a wall against
them. But if it ever becomes commonplace in any part of the world, then it's
going to be very difficult to stop it from advancing farther. We have to have a
policy to deal with those cases if they arise.
Next there is the possible use by terrorists. Now there are several kinds of
terrorists. Some terrorists want to create a viable nation. After all, American
Revolutionaries were in some sense terrorists a long time ago. But what did
they want? They wanted a separate nation. You could make clear to those groups
that you go ahead and do whatever you think you need to do to become a separate
nation, but if you use biological weapons, we will make sure that you never,
never become a nation. We know how to do that. So, that, too, could be dealt
Then you come to those, who for apocalyptic reasons or some other similar
reason, don't want to be accepted into the community of nations--they want to
wreck it. That's a tough one. That's much harder and I don't have a recipe for
that except the application of international criminal law, which has, not only
the aspect of good guy and bad guy, but also the aspect of the norm. The law is
something which comes out of the common beliefs of people and if the common
belief of people is that it is wrong for the species to use biology against
ourselves, that should be emphasized in international criminal law. Just like
with airline hijackers. If an airline hijacker wanders onto U.S. soil, or
French soil, or British soil, or Dutch soil, even if he is not a citizen of any
of those countries, and hijacked an airplane that has nothing to do with any of
those countries, he can be taken into custody and tried. It would be a simple
thing to create such a treaty. It wouldn't be the be all and end all, but it
would help us deal with this third category.
How serious do you think the brain drain from Russia is now? Scientists who
worked on this program are now unemployed. Is it something we need to be
We wonder how many Russians who really know how to make a biological weapon
might have gone elsewhere. I know of not a single case, but I may not know.
What I do know is of the community in Russia who worked in military
establishments on anthrax, of the names I know they're all still in Russia and
they're all still doing biology at the [same] laboratory.
Is your opinion that it is something to worry about, but at this point it is
not as much of a problem as people are making out?
As to Russians who know how to make biological weapons and may have gone
elsewhere, I am not the person to ask because I have no systematic knowledge.
What I know is based only on my limited acquaintances with Russians who have
been in that field. None of those names who are well-known that I know of have
left. I've asked some Russian émigrés about this, who are not in
that field, but have kept track of it.
... There are some who come to the West, like Ken Alibek who was deeply
involved in their offensive program and also Vladimir Pasechnik in England ...
I don't know of any who have gone to any of the countries that we worry about
most. That doesn't mean there aren't any. Also, it's not clear to me that any
one person would know how to make a biological weapon all the way from
selecting the strains to developing the munition for dispersal. There are a lot
of very separate technologies involved. Finally, much of this technology was
known in pieces worldwide before the Soviets ever stepped up their program in
the 1960s. So we need very good intelligence.
Last December, Russian scientists altered the virulent strain of anthrax
with two other substances creating a resistance to the current Russian anthrax
vaccine. What is the worry of something like that?
I think it an important thing that deserves attention ... the tendency that we
see in many areas, but [especially] of the media is to sensationalize events in
the area of chemical and biological weapons. It's to be expected. It's a spooky
subject. It requires considerable technical knowledge to get it right. One
example of this sensationalism is the treatment of the work done ... to
introduce genes into anthrax that made it resistant to the Russian vaccine. The
press made it sound as though this was a brand new development. First of all,
it was announced at a meeting which I attended by the Russian fellow who did it
in 1995 and published all of the data. It was discussed by the international
scientists who were present. It was a meeting sponsored by the British and
American biological defense laboratories. Now, you could say that in Russia
they shouldn't do any research on the pathogenicity of anthrax, which is what
this was. I don't think you can stop that, or you could say if they do any, it
should be done perfectly openly discussed with international colleagues,
published in English. That's exactly what this gentleman did. Then when he went
home, after a visit to our country not long ago, and he was attacked in a
Russian newspaper for making horrible biological weapons and he fled his
country for awhile. I know him fairly well. He's done collaborative work to
develop vaccines at the Harvard Medical School. The press made this sound as
something really ominous, when, in fact, it was only in guinea pigs. It was
discussed among Western scientists exhaustively, published in English, he
circulated the manuscript before he published it. And the thing that it did was
advance our knowledge of the pathogenicity of anthrax. You could argue with him
that maybe he should have done it differently. I, myself, might have argued
with him that. But the point is transparency. I feel that so long as we know
what's going on and discuss it openly, that's not what I'm worried about. I'm
worried about anything that isn't being discussed openly.
With the ability to genetically alter dangerous agents into viruses, do we
have anything to worry about and how does one control that?
Anthrax is already bad enough. If we were attacked with anthrax today, it
would be a disaster. If you made it resistant to an antibiotic it would be,
maybe, a slightly worse disaster, but about the same. If you made it resistant
to the Russian vaccine, it wouldn't make the slightest difference. Genetic
modification of organisms has been going on for a long time, it's not new. In
fact, the particular thing that he did with anthrax had been done previously
with another organism with similar results in the United States. So, one has to
see these things in perspective. There's no way to stop research. The best
that you can do is keep it open and transparent. The offense here is likely to
stay well ahead of the defense. The best defense is excellent intelligence.
Nine tenths, to use a crude way of looking at it, of the answer to this problem
is to know what is going on. Openness is valuable, not only because it might
prevent something ominous from happening because when you get to know people,
they'll tell you what other people are doing, then you'll know even more ... we
need not to turn our backs on these people, but to take part in active
scientific open collaboration with them.
Is there a worry that the Russians are not allowing enough transparency,
that we do not know enough about what is going on behind closed doors?
We are very worried that the Russian military labs, of which there are at least
three--Sverdlovsk, Sergiyev Posad and one other location ... do not accept
visitors from the West. We have visited many of the laboratories that used to
be part of the military activities ... Westerners are there nearly round the
clock. But there are, yes, three places which we need to find some way to
create openness there. The negotiator had been agreeing in principle for mutual
visits, but the negotiations have broken down. We need a more imaginative
energetic renewal of those negotiations. Whether or not they would ultimately
be successful, I don't know, but we should try harder.
Is it something to be really concerned about or is it something that is just
being blown out of proportion?
There's been a great deal of publicity about biological weapons recently. A
better way to approach the problem would be to take it easier and think it out
carefully ... but our system doesn't work that way ... to get something done,
it has to be big deal in this country. It also runs the risk of a big effort at
the beginning that peters out very quickly with very little to show for it a
few years later. I would say that over time we'll get it right. Right now
there's a great deal of sensationalism about the problem, but it is a serious
problem and is not going to be solved tomorrow. It's a very long-term problem
because biotechnology is the big technology of the future. What we have to do
is to look at the whole problem, namely, how do we avoid the hostile use
worldwide of biotechnology? We need international laws. We need clear-cut
understanding of what nations will do to other nations if that happens. We need
strengthening of the norm against it. We need to enter this with very clean
hands ourselves. After all, the thing that we consider now to be so immoral, we
were doing it and believing that it was the right thing to do. I know several
of the men who had been developing biological weapons and they're all decent
guys who believed they were doing the right thing for their country because it
wasn't their job to figure out grand strategy. Up until 1969 they were doing
their best to make a very large arsenal of very nasty biological weapons.
But the billions spent, the thousands of people working on the programs had
to have progressed the science significantly. Is there a danger in that?
I don't know any evidence that the Soviet program ever developed anything
fundamentally more advanced than our program did or more advanced than a
competent person couldn't think of for himself. It's the technical tricks that
you need to know of, how to grow an organism, how to disperse it, that
themselves are not very sophisticated knowledge, but all put together, unless
you get them all right, the thing doesn't work in the end. I've never seen any
evidence that the Soviets achieved some kind of major advance over all the
things we've done.
Why did it take so long to realize just how large a program was in
existence, and that indeed the treaty had been broken because of this
If you go back to 1968 or 1969, in The Boston Globe, an article by
William B. Church named with perfect accuracy all the places where the Soviets
were developing and producing biological weapons. So we did know. Up until 1969
we could hardly raise a fuss about it because we were doing the same things ...
exactly how much we knew in detail with what degree of confidence, I don't
know. Looking back, one can say from what was in the open press ... we did
know, but the question is, what you do with this kind of knowledge and how
certain is it.
Looking back at it now, were there any things that seemed apparent that we
should have picked up on, did we miss any opportunities?
I know that by the time of Jim Baker under President Reagan and later President
Bush, we weren't sure. [Eduard] Shevardnadze, I believe or so the story goes,
was very surprised when James Baker told him about the Soviet program, the
former Soviet program, and at that point we had pretty good evidence that at
least Shevardnadze put the screws on that program and got a lot of it shut
down. Ken Alibek has said that they destroyed their biological weapons in 1989.
If that's true, then it would also be interesting to know why they finally
decided to stop and destroy their weapons, and that was, of course, before the
fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
Is the world in a more dangerous situation today because we were not able to
pick up on it quicker?
The world is certainly in a more dangerous situation potentially because of the
vast effort of the Soviet Union. The world is also in a more dangerous position
because Great Britain and the U.S., a couple decades earlier, developed,
produced and also argued for the justification of these weapons. We argued
silly ... for example, if you look at the book called Tomorrow's Weapons
by General Rothschild of the United States, arguing that these weapons were in
fact better than [other] weapons because they wouldn't destroy buildings. They
would leave facilities standing for the occupation forces. They would only kill
people. We were not doing the world much good by seeing the virtues of
biological weapons either, but at least we recognized how stupid it was and we
What did we not understand? What did the Soviets not understand?
I think it's hard for me, as an American, to say what the Soviets did or didn't
understand. I would say to them as an American, what you didn't understand was
that these are weapons that threaten any organized society. You're out of your
mind if you pioneer these things. They will do you no good. In the end they
will come back upon you. But that's not the advice they took. They went
Can you give us a little insight into what the scholarly, intelligence and
political debate was during those years about what was or was not going on
behind closed doors in the Soviet Union?
You ask what was the nature of the internal United States discussion about the
possibility that the Soviets were violating the [Biological Weapons]
Convention. My view of it is like the blind man and the elephant. I touched
only one part. The part I touched looked like this. There was lots of
suggestive evidence and no rigorous proof so that you had a spectrum of
opinions all the way from those who said, "This is enough to convince me" to
those who said, "This can all be explained in another way." And that certainly
was true right up until 1970. After that ... the [anthrax] accident became
center stage, but even that, right up until perhaps 1992, wasn't absolutely
proven, so far as I know, within our own intelligence community that Sverdlovsk
was an airborne release, although there was a lot of evidence suggesting that
it was. There were still unanswered questions. A lot of the so-called evidence
was really non-evidentiary. On the other hand, there was more evidentiary
evidence, and some of that I can't talk about. But you had no absolutely
clear-cut, convincing proof right up until, so far as I know anyway, 1992,
1993, when we saw that it was clearly airborne.
What convinced you that the program was indeed offensive and that they, in
fact, had broken the treaty?
For me the most convincing evidence of the existence of an offensive program
was the information about Stepnagorsk, the facility in Kazakhstan. After
Kazakhstan became an independent country, at the breakup of the Soviet Union,
it was possible for Americans just go there, and look at it, and there it
was--a vast facility for the production of anthrax and for weaponizing it.
There was just no doubt what it was for. Whether they had actually produced
anthrax--Ken Alibek says they did, the present manager of Kazakhstan says they
didn't, but that it was built to respond to sort of an order from Moscow on a
standby basis to make anthrax, and that they had made ... other things there
... you could argue that because of the loophole in the Biological Weapons
Convention, that ... they would have said, if challenged and this is truly
hypothetical, the treaty doesn't prohibit making facilities to make biological
weapons, it only prohibits making them.
But if they had the missiles to send it?
I never knew that they had the missiles to send it. All I knew for sure, by my
own knowledge having seen briefings and photographs, and having talked to
people who were in Kazakhstan, is that they had a major facility for making
anthrax. And for me, that's enough. Because I don't think that hairsplitting is
a valid activity in the case of Biological Weapons Convention. I don't need to
know whether they have missiles. I only need to know that they had a vast
facility for making anthrax. For me, that's enough. You have clearly not
abandoned the option to have offensive biological weapons as the United States
The Soviets are supposed to be our allies, we are helping them in many
different ways. Why does there still seem to be a lack of transparency?
It's a very good question as to why we have not been able to have more
transparency, and, in particular, to visit Sverdlovsk, Zagorsk, and certain
other military facilities there. Why? It is possible that because these
activities are illegal by law passed in 1992, these gentlemen are afraid for
their necks. Another possibility is that some of the things they were doing
were really so awful that they just are afraid to let them become known.
Another possibility is that here they still have jobs, places to live,
apartments. They build their apartments, schools, shops, everything within a
facility. If these places are totally torn apart, dismantled, they're out of
business. I think it would be a stretch to say that there's an important
element left in Russia today which sees these weapons as something useful for
them, but you can't even eliminate that there's some foolish people who think
that. I would find it a ridiculous thought. But you can't eliminate the
possibility. After all, they had this program at one time, didn't they? So, the
plain answer is, we don't know. But we must keep trying to gain access to those
In the end, did this program go on for the decade that it went on because we
were basically out manipulated?
Well, in the sense that they did have an offensive program and we did not have
convincing intelligence evidence, or if we did, we certainly didn't make that
known, in that sense, yes. They were able to deceive us. There's no question
about that. They had a secret program and we did not penetrate that program
sufficiently well to reveal it to the world. We had deep suspicions. We were
worried, and the worries got worse as time went on. But in that sense, yes. Of
course, this happens. Countries do have secret programs and they do try and
deceive each other. And it happened in this case.