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About the Program
Watch NOVA's Bioterror: Tuesday, November 13 at 8:00 p.m.
Go to letter from the producer

On September 11, 2001, the world was shocked by the unprecedented attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. As we came to grips with the tremendous scale of the tragedy, a new fear loomed that terrorists would strike again with biological weapons. The first anthrax attacks on American soil have now led to a media firestorm of speculation and confusion. NOVA, in collaboration with the New York Times and Granada Media, presents a special program on the science of germ warfare that distinguishes fact from rumor and delivers an authoritative, up-to-the-minute analysis of the current threat. In addition, the show reveals astonishing, previously unknown details of the secret biological warfare programs conducted by the Soviets and the U.S. during the Cold War.

NOVA's "Bioterror" is the product of more than two years of intensive investigation and production efforts. The show follows New York Times reporters and authors of the best-selling book Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, as they delve into the murky past and alarming present of biological weapons. NOVA viewers will accompany Miller as she visits abandoned Soviet germ factories in central Asia that produced enough biological poisons during the Cold War to kill everyone in the world many times over. In Kazakhstan, 800 Soviet scientists toiled in perhaps the world's largest bioweapons facility, built expressly for creating a new, more lethal variant of anthrax.

With the implosion of the former Soviet economy, many of its bioweapons experts have taken their skills elsewhere. We'll meet two Soviet germ warriors who defected to the U.S. in the early '90s. They'll detail how far the Soviet program progressed and what we have to fear from their discoveries. We'll also meet their American counterpart, the chief of product development at the U.S. Army's Fort Detrick facility, who will disclose the extraordinary clandestine history of the U.S. program. Among the secrets revealed on the show is a U.S. plan to spray so-called "incapacitating" agents on the population of Cuba in order to make them too sick to resist invading American forces. The New York Times reporters also explore the evidence of Saddam Hussein's undercover bioweapons program and investigate its disturbing possible links to today's terrorist groups.

Defending ourselves from a biological attack is a daunting problem. To combat that threat, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has set up a futuristic research program encouraging "extreme innovation." If it succeeds, the research may not only neutralize a BW attack, it could revolutionize medicine, too. But until such advances are realized, the United States is far from prepared. As recent events reveal, there is no single magic bullet that will defend us against a biological assault on American soil. NOVA and the New York Times present a disturbing and groundbreaking search for answers.

Letter from Rocky Collins, producer of "Bioterror"
Back in January, long before biological weapons were a topic of dinner conversations and the nightly news, Director Kirk Wolfinger asked me to join him as producer and writer for NOVA's "Bioterror." At that time, many experts told us that germ warfare was a "low probability" event that would nevertheless have huge consequences if it were to ever occur. And they also reassured us that, while germ WARFARE was a serious threat to humanity, biological TERRORISM was a much more remote possibility. Terrorists aren't sophisticated or organized enough to pull it off, they said, and they wouldn't be willing to run the risk of killing themselves in the process.

On September 11th, of course, everything changed. No one wanted to underestimate terrorists after that.

Our film needed to change as well, and fast. Suddenly the world needed to know what we knew about germ weapons. There were several days of hair-pulling, of contacting our experts to find out how much their minds had been changed by the suicide highjackings that had destroyed the Twin Towers and damaged the Pentagon.

The experts (and our collaborators at the New York Times) told us that what America really needed was something like the documentary we had set out to make in the first place: an authoritative, scientifically accurate overview of germ weapons. We needed to make a film that would provide a global and historic perspective for the fast-breaking news. But we needed to incorporate new realizations about the goals and capabilities of terrorists.

Since September 11th we have been working seven days a week, up to 18 hours a day. We have shot 13 new scenes and interviews to take current events into account. I, personally, have been spending half of every day on the phone and reading newspapers to make sure that breaking news of anthrax-filled letters doesn't overtake or invalidate anything in our show.

NOVA always prides itself on absolute accuracy, but this time we had an even greater responsibility to make sure we had the facts right. We called on a team of advisers to view the program, to look for facts, and to make sure that we weren't inadvertently telling terrorists anything that they didn't obviously know already.

The result is a unique, 90-minute documentary about what I am now convinced is one of the most important issues facing America today. It is a problem with no simple solutions. It is a problem that we will have to face not as individuals, but as a nation. My hope is that those who watch our show will be better informed, and thus better able to participate in the hard work that lies ahead to make us more prepared against bioterror in the future.

Rocky Collins
November 8, 2001

Photo: Corbis Images

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