plague war
Interview: Dr.Matthew Meselson
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Dr. Matthew Meselson Ph.D. is a molecular biologist who has written extensively about biological agents and is the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences in Harvard University's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.


Before the unilateral stoppage of the United States' offensive biological warfare program in 1969, what was the state of the program? What were we doing and how far had the program developed?

The United States had a very extensive offensive biological weapons program. [It] started during World War II and took place at a number of facilities--Fort Detrick in Maryland, Dugway [Proving Ground] in Utah, Pine Bluff in Arkansas ... we developed and standardized, which means ready for use by the forces, a number of biological weapons and produced them ... we had developed tularemia as our standardized lethal weapon, Venezuelan equine encephalitis as our standardized non-lethal weapon. We had brucellosis weapons, we had anti-crop fungal weapons. We had a very impressive series of munitions, ready-to-go biological weapons.

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. 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 cheap?

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 thing either.

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 here.

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 with.

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 concerned about?

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 work?

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 stopped.

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 ahead.

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 had.

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 places.

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.


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