plague war
Interview: James Woolsey
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James Woolsey was Director of the CIA from 1993-95

How seriously do you take the risk of a bio-terrorist attack?

Quite seriously. The problem is that it is comparatively easy to do compared with other acts of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction and although there is a great deal we could do to prepare for it, we really haven't. I think most Western societies, including the one that probably takes it the most seriously, Israel, are really rather badly unprepared. Biological terror weapons ... can be manufactured in a country relatively easily. You don't have to smuggle anything, anthrax grows in cow pastures.

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. Which biological attack agent scares you most of all?

Probably anthrax because a lot of the information about it is out there and public. As I said, you don't have to smuggle a thing, you don't have to get anything from a laboratory. It's extremely lethal. It's been around a long time and a lot of people know a good deal about it.

When you were Director of the Central Intelligence, did you war game any of these scenarios?

DCIs normally don't participate in war games. We manage collection and analysis, but I think it's fair to say the Pentagon was already starting, back three or four years ago, to run some war games. For example, I know there was one, two or three years ago, that hypothesized a biological terrorist attack against the marshaling areas in the United States, ports and airfields and so forth, in the event of a crisis in the Middle East. It turns out that it makes it very difficult, to put it mildly, to reinforce the Middle Eastern crisis.

Were the conclusions that it would be successful?

Conceivably could be. This one that I remember reading about used non-lethal biological agents, but even then, one could be terribly disrupting to our ability to reinforce.

When we talk about bio-terrorism and domestic bio-terrorism in the United States, are we looking at the profile of a new kind of terrorist?

That's a big part of the problem. It wasn't too long ago that terrorists wanted to principally have a place at the table. Take ETA, the Basque terrorists in Spain, for example. Yes, they blow things up, they kill people and they're a terrible terrorist organization, but they are after something specific. Whereas, some of the religiously motivated terrorists from the Middle East or a group like Aum Shinrikyo from Japan and some of our home grown people here, such as the Identity Movement ... they rather want to kill everyone who's sitting at the table and maybe blow the table up and that's a different kind of thing. [This] highly ideological and fanatically religious basis for some of the terrorist groups these days adds to the risk that something as terrible as biological weapons could be used.

How easy is it for them to acquire the knowledge of a) the biological agents and b) basic primitive weaponization?

It's not as hard as any of us would wish. A good deal of the information about how to do this sort of thing is out there on the Internet. Anthrax can be cultured from what you can get from a lot of cow pastures in the world. Making it is a little bit harder than running a micro brewery attached to a restaurant and making beer, but it's not radically harder. There are ways of killing yourself while you're doing it and that helps deter people to some extent. But it is nothing like the difficulty, for example, of obtaining fissionable material and building even a primitive nuclear weapon and it's not nearly as bulky as trying to do something with chemicals.

Recently there was a table top exercise, which simulated a biological attack on the Mexican-Californian border using a genetically engineered weapon. This exercise showed that the United States appeared quite unprepared to meet such a threat. What is your sense of the degree of preparedness in the country?

If there is a specific threat at a specific time and place that one is dealing with, for example, protecting Atlanta during the summer of '96 Olympics, the U.S. government is reasonably well organized to do that. Now there is a presidential decision directive that allocates responsibilities to the Justice Department and to the Emergency Management Agency, they are set up to work with state and local officials. That sort of crisis response, in that limited way, is reasonably well structured for the U.S. government. What is not well structured is long-range planning; allocation of resources; forming a partnership with the life sciences industry to get the right types of research done on the right kinds of vaccines and antibiotics; and designing programs to train state and local officials to stock pile medicines.

For example, a biological attack with anthrax is different in one very important way that gives the defender something of an advantage from an attack using chemicals or nuclear weapons. Once there's a detonation with nuclear weapon or chemical weapon, the damage is done. With anthrax, there is a period of one to two days before people become symptomatic, when almost all of the people who had been exposed could be treated and treated successfully. If one had the right types of antibiotics distributed around the country and people trained to administer them quickly and the right types of sensors so that you knew that a biological attack had occurred even before people became symptomatic, you could save a vast share of lives. But that takes a good deal of social discipline and commitment in peacetime before you're ready to get something like that to happen.

That's a lot of "ifs," isn't it?

Well, let me use an example. If we were organized in peacetime with the same degree of discipline with say block managers and the like that Britain had during the Blitz, we could probably deal with an anthrax attack, assuming we'd done the research and development, had the medicine stockpiled and the like. But that's a very high degree of social discipline in the face of a clear threat. We, in this country, are quite good at mobilizing once the enemy has a face and a name. We've done that several times in different ways in this century. We're not quite so good, indeed, in some ways we're rather bad, at doing peacetime planning when the threat to most people is hypothetical and that's the situation you're in with biological weapons now.

When you were Director of Central Intelligence, between '93 and '95, did anything cross your desk which indicated that there might be a hemorrhage of biological warfare talent and expertise from Russia to rogue states?

A hemorrhage, no, but we have been suspicious for some time that the old Soviet biological weapons program was never really dismantled. That it continued on under other guises, disguised perhaps as defensive work. Some of the recent material that's now been published about Biopreparat and the like, confirms some suspicions and notions that we've had about the Soviet and the Russian program for some years.

Is there any evidence that there could have been a leakage of men, material or knowledge to countries like Iran?

Well, I'm out of date for the last three plus years, but the thing that makes one quite concerned about this is two things. First, of all the degree of sophistication inside the old Soviet Union and still inside Russia and it's military industrial complex about these matters is very great. Probably greater than it is in the United States, because we stopped our biological weapons work back in the Nixon administration and the Soviets did not. The second thing is the somewhat chaotic structure of Russian society these days. The degree to which parts of the old military industrial complex have gone off as freelancers, setting up industrial and consulting operations, providing material for sale to the highest bidder. It's not entirely clear, in a number of these cases, what is the government, what is not the government, what is organized crime, what is an independent group of consultants. We gave the Russians, for example, a great deal of information about this steel that was going to Iran and they couldn't figure out how to stop it or wouldn't stop it. It finally was stopped in Azerbaijan a short time ago. So, unfortunately, much of this Russian expertise is for sale to the highest bidder, sometimes on the black market and a lot of it is very difficult to track. It's especially difficult to track in the case of something like biological weapons, because you don't have to have large truck loads of specialty steel or vast logistical enterprises. Biologicals are small and relatively easily transported, manufactured and made into weapons.

In that sense then, we were talking earlier about the problems of domestic grown terrorism, could there potentially be a threat from a third party through Russia?

Yes, there's a whole spectrum of ways a threat could arise. If you take some of the terrorist incidents we've had here in the United States, you could either have something that's entirely home grown like Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, but something that also involved a biological weapon. You could have something that was domestic, but inspired by individuals from abroad, perhaps Americans who are committed to an ideology, such as the blind sheikh in New York espoused. Or you can have foreign individuals, perhaps agents of a foreign government, or a terrorist group, or perhaps simply freelance operators getting together and doing something. For example, Mr. bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate, who is fanatically anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israel, has a great deal of money and has been sponsoring work in a number of terrorist areas for some years throughout the Middle East ... you could have Hezbollah or some other terrorist group that's funded by Iran undertake an operation and you might not know whether it were supported by the Iranian government or not. There's a whole spectrum, from individual action to action by a foreign government, and lots of gradations in between gray areas.

Do you think a biological attack within the United States is inevitable?

No, I don't think it's inevitable, but I think the chance that it could occur is far higher than I or almost anyone would wish.

Do you fear the prospect of genetically engineered weapons being used in a terrorist attack?

Well, the reason to do genetic engineering on a biological agent would be to make it more difficult for a vaccine or an antibiotic to deal with it, but one doesn't need to get into that. Anthrax, ricin, plague, or any of a whole range of possible biological agents, can be used without there being available vaccines and antibiotics today. If the United States developed a major program, perhaps together with our allies, to work on vaccines and antibiotics that would deal not with just a strain of an anthrax, but with all strains of anthrax--that takes some work, we don't have that yet. And if we had dispersed, deployed and trained people to give people inoculations in the case of an attack, then a terrorist group might at that point say, "Ah-ha, we have to get some really sophisticated genetic biologist in here to do some genetic engineering so we can get a strain that the defenses don't deal with." But we're not nearly at that point yet. There's no reason to do much of any genetic engineering to have some unique, plague bacillus or anthrax strain. We're unprepared to deal with the naturally occurring ones.

When you were running the CIA and trying to work out what the Russians were up to with their biological warfare program, did you sense there was a certain lack of transparency?

Well, there's always a lack of transparency in any country surrounding it's highly protected and secure military programs. I would not say that the Russian biological program was transparent at all. No.

Do you think that there's a danger that critics might argue that biological warfare is the new stick with which to beat Russia, it's the new Cold War stick, or do you believe the threat is very real?

Well, I don't think that Russia should be the sole or, necessarily, the prime focus here. The fact that the Russians have had a biological program for a long time and may have some expertise that would be available to the highest bidder, either criminal groups, terrorist groups or Middle Eastern countries, is important and interesting but it's not the main point. The main point is that biological weapons are easy to do if you didn't know a single Russian. You simply sit down on the Internet and figure out how to do something that's a little more difficult than making beer, using domestically grown agents. So there are lots of places in the world where people are able to put together what would be needed for a biological terrorist attack. One doesn't need the Russians.

How vulnerable is the United States to biological attack?

Well, I think not only the United States, but all Western countries are extremely vulnerable to terrorist biological attacks. They don't need to be nearly as vulnerable as they are. Because of the delay in after most biological attacks before people become symptomatic and therefore, it's lethal one can do a great deal if sensors are deployed, designed and deployed to pick up first indications of a biological attack. If antibiotics are widely distributed, people trained to inoculate others, large numbers of people and the like. So in the sense that none of that exists now we're quite vulnerable. Do we have to be as vulnerable as we are? No. In some ways biological weapons are far more susceptible to effective defense than something like say a primitive nuclear device.

What about the problems that would be presented by panic in the streets, the breakdown of the infrastructure--that's quite specific to a biological attack, isn't it?

It certainly could happen and the way to avoid that is training and information. And also, I think, the development of the right types of vaccines and antibiotics, the distribution of them would give people, if it were handled properly by the government, a sense of confidence. It's like anything else, people are afraid of things they don't understand and that they believe are going to be overwhelming. If they are given something to do and the social organization takes over, again I refer to London during the Blitz. It was probably pretty frightening to have German bombs dropping on you all night, but people coped and did amazing things.

But there is a difference between an attack by explosives which has a set time line and a set amount of damage and an attack by biological weapons, which can continue unseen for a long time.

Yes, but [with] the right types of sensors and models of wind direction and the rest, one could do a rather good job of knowing where there were concentrations. A lot of this is subject to being dealt with by technology, cleverly managed, developed and deployed.

What is the nightmare scenario in your mind? What is the one thing that keeps you awake at night when you think about biological attack?

Well, I think the use of biological weapons by terrorists without it being detected initially and large numbers of deaths in a city starting to occur from something that looked like perhaps terrible cases of the flu and gradually comes to be seen as anthrax. And then people not knowing where it'd come from. Not knowing whether it was a domestic terrorist group or a foreign terrorist group, one government blaming another. The Iranians blaming the Iraqis, the Iraqis blaming the Iranians, the uncertainty together with the destruction would be a particularly terrible thing.

Do you believe that President Boris Yeltsin has always been in control of the people who were involved in his biological warfare program? Or, do you think there's a possibility that there has been and still exists a group of revanchist generals who maintain that program in what they perceive to be national interest?

It's a very good question. Did Henry II know that the men he spoke to about the Archbishop of Canterbury were going to kill him in the Cathedral? That's always been a fascinating bit of ambiguity in history of that period. I don't know what President Yeltsin knew. I do have a general opinion though that if we apply to Russia our Western model of what a prime minister or a president knows about what his military is doing we may be rather far off.

When I was an advisor on the Salt I Nuclear Talks Delegation in Helsinki in 1969 ... the U.S. government made a presentation to the Soviets that dealt with the possibility of beginning to discuss command and control arrangements in order to avoid an accidental use of nuclear weapons and to avoid a launch on warning. General Logarkof, later Chief of the General Staff, pulled our three-star general aside after that American presentation and through an interpreter expressed his great anger and concern that these issues were being discussed before civilians. Logarkof didn't mean before the American civilians, he meant before the Russian civilians. So there is a history in the Soviet and now the Russian General Staff of not letting the civilians in on everything. But you don't know what President Yeltsin or his civilian appointees ... what they knew, what they discussed with the Security Council, is just very difficult to say.

Your best bet would be he does know or maybe he doesn't know?

I don't know and I don't want to speculate.

Is the risk of biological attack real or theoretical?

I think the risk of a biological terrorist attack is quite real. I think a state-sponsored attack with a ballistic missile or something like that is most unlikely, at least against the United States ... the risk of a terrorist attack is real.

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