Building the Bio-Bombs

Review of "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War"

Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War

(See also sidebar “Germs and Journalists” at the end of this article.)

The ink had barely dried on review copies of Germs when the Twin Towers came tumbling down. Since September 11, concern over the threat posed by anthrax and other biological weapons has reached the point of hysteria, making Germs remarkably timely. Written by three New York Times reporters, it chronicles the development of biological weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and, more recently, by Iraq. It also details the dicey dilemma of disassembling the Soviet biological weapons program and the policy debates that have stimulated new U.S. biological defense research. Along the way the authors shed light on the secretive world of biological warfare, specifically the charmingly named “Clear Vision” and “Bacchus” projects developed by the CIA and the Pentagon respectively.

Even arms control experts privy to closely held government secrets are likely to be shocked by these projects, which were launched during the second half of the Clinton administration. According to the authors, the former president’s interest in biodefense was sparked less by military prodding than by his reading of Hot Zone author Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event, a fictional and not terribly plausible tale of bioterrorism that reads like a failed movie script. Also influencing Clinton were the biotechnology gurus, notably Craig Ventner, a wealthy genome-sequencing pioneer intensely disliked by activists because of his early lobbying for the patenting of human genes.

Fearing the United States had been left behind by research in other countries, Clear Vision scientists built and tested biological bombs modeled on those made by the Soviet Union in its final years. Following the footsteps of another Soviet project, they also planned to create extra-deadly genetically engineered anthrax (in order, they said, to find out how to defend against it). In “Project Bacchus,” the Pentagon provocatively built a real biological weapons production facility at an unused military base in Nevada. The stated purpose was to test intelligence-gathering methods. While one CIA group imitated an enemy by secretively making a biological weapons plant, a separate team of espionage experts used satellite imagery and other methods to try to detect and monitor the activities of the first team. The CIA and Pentagon say the efforts were defensive; but in biological warfare, “defense” and “offense” depends on your perspective. For example, an enemy might interpret Bacchus not as an experiment in how to detect biological weapons; but as a sinister experiment in how to hide them. While there is no evidence to suggest that the CIA is planning more secret biological weapons plants, it surely did learn how to build them without being detected, knowledge that will set our enemies–and even allies–on edge.

The authors also reveal that the Pentagon flirted with the idea of using biological weapons several times in the 1950s and 1960s, most notably against Cuba as part of a backup U.S. invasion plan during the Missile Crisis. Several military strategists were of the view that non-lethal bugs might be a useful pre-invasion weapon, believing that if the Cubans suddenly became ill en masse, they wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight when U.S. forces landed. Therefore, the bioweapons proponents reasoned, U.S. casualties would be lower and damage to Cuban resources and infrastructure (much of which had recently been expropriated from U.S. owners) would be lessened. The plan involved spraying a hideous cocktail of “non-lethal” germs across the island; it was estimated that such a cocktail would kill “only”70,000 Cubans. Had it not been for cooler heads, this actually might have happened.

While their revelations about Clear Vision, Bacchus and the biowarfare plans that were floated during the Cuban Missile crisis are invaluable to both arms control experts and the general reader, the authors frequently miss the larger picture. Germs is curiously silent about the fact that since the U.S. military’s disastrous mission in Somalia in 1993, non-lethal chemical and biological weapons have come back into vogue, leading to research on a huge variety of agents, ranging from synthetic heroin-like drugs and hallucinogens (to be used on rioters) and overhead-exploding chemical mortar rounds, to genetically engineered microbes that eat truck tires, jet fuel, plastics, and other critical military (and civilian) material.

Moreover, while the authors’ account of the efforts of U.S. diplomats to outpace Iran and Iraq in finding jobs for former Soviet bioweapons experts is fascinating, it fails to mention that the United States has also found nefarious uses for foreign scientists with expertise in biological warfare, not unlike it did after World War II, when the United States rushed to employ Nazi scientists. Currently the U.S. government supports a program in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to develop new biological weapons to use against the Taliban’s opium poppy. The same folks who formerly tried to wipe out American corn, wheat and soybeans have been enlisted in the Drug War and now the hot war in Afghanistan–despite the fact that the prohibition on bioweapons is absolute. United States and international law clearly state that all of them are illegal.

The authors miss this larger point, even in their accounts of the Bacchus and Clear Vision programs. They fail to mention, for example, that the United States was supposed to have “declared” these programs in annual reports to the United Nations. (See sidebar.) These reporting requirements exist for good reason: to promote transparency and, hence, confidence between countries, and to avoid misunderstanding about the nature of research being conducted.

Most disturbing, however, are the conclusions that readers are likely to draw from the authors’ narrative. Anyone reading Germs might be tempted to conclude that the way for the United States to get out of its current predicament is by pouring money into biodefense. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Biological warfare is the use of disease to achieve political or military ends. The number of biological weapons that can cause harm–massive harm–are not a handful of super-lethals like anthrax, botulinum and smallpox, but are as numerous as the number of diseases themselves. Factor in natural variability–genetic diversity–and, more sinisterly, genetic engineering, and the number of potential diseases increases exponentially.

Even in the unlikely event that huge sums spent on anthrax research resulted in a complete cure, there are thousands more possibilities–from other naturally deadly agents to genetically engineered monsters–to elicit concern. The authors know this. At one point they cite a 1997 government report which states that the bioweapons threat is “potentially infinite.” Unfortunately they quickly shy away from the logical conclusion to be drawn from that report and digress into a discussion of bureaucratic quarrels over budget allocations. In the end, they throw up their hands and advocate greater government investment in preventive, technical biodefense solutions, such as vaccines, even while they concede that such measures might not work.

In recent weeks, Americans have been fed article after article about local professors or biotech companies that purportedly have a “solution” to bioterrorism. A recent article in the Austin American-Statesman, for example, referred to College Station’s Lynntech, Inc. and its Texas A&M affiliates. The newspaper reported that they might discover “a single enzyme that will neutralize all toxic agents.” According to a local television news program, UT researchers are “weeks away from solving” the anthrax problem. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Corixa Corporation publicly complained that it isn’t getting enough government money for its anthrax solution. Immediately afterward its stock went up 50 percent.

But such “solutions” are pipe dreams. Even if they are somewhat successful, they only open the door to the next killer germ. It is a disservice to the public to suggest that biotechnology will keep them safe. The professor or Chief Technology Officer around the corner is no more likely to save you from a biological attack than from a tidal wave. The sooner this is broadly understood, the better.

Yet, despite this gloomy scenario, there is room for progress. And this is where Germs most clearly fails. The authors discuss the very real difficulties of using inspectors and the U.N. to stop biological weapons, evidenced by the problems of the U.N.’s biological weapons inspection missions in Iraq. Yet most countries in the world, even Iran and China, are ready to submit to a system that would require inspections of biotechnology facilities by the U.N. While no verification system will ever be perfect, U.N. inspectors can get inside places that the United States cannot–for example Libya, or “terrorist training camps.” (Under rules of the proposed verification agreement, any facility can be physically searched in a procedure called a “challenge inspection.”)

Over time and by building on experience, vigilance, other international agreements and national legislation, a political apparatus could be established to substantially reduce the threat of biological weapons. The United States should be the leader rather than a stumbling block in this process. It’s important to remember that there was a time when we could muster credibility to lead a campaign against chemical and biological weapons. In 1969, President Nixon renounced biological weapons and to a great extent dismembered the U.S. bioweapons apparatus. It wasn’t an altruistic move so much as a way to discourage poorer countries from developing offensive biological warfare capabilities that could rival nuclear weapons. (And the unpredictability of bioweapons made them an impractical choice for the United States, which already had more than enough nuclear and chemical killing power.)

With the end of the Cold War, the incineration of old U.S. stocks of chemical weapons began–a process that continues today. We ratified the new Chemical Weapons Convention, a 1992 treaty updating and greatly strengthening the Geneva Gas Protocol, that was adopted in response to the horrible chemical weapons used in the First World War. And we were–until very recently–in talks with other nations to develop a U.N. system to verify global compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. With strong political leadership and renewed commitment to arms control, we could take back our tarnished halo and fold our technical and scientific prowess into inspection and cooperation rather than declaring a Cold War on nature itself.

One final note: Despite its many flaws, Germs is still an important book, and one that I recommend for its chronicle of Clear Vision, Bacchus, the inner workings of Clinton biodefense policy, and the frightening ideas our policymakers once contemplated for Fidel Castro and others. It is also worthwhile for its realistic, if incomplete, assessment of the technical difficulties that need to be overcome in arms control verification. For the history of the U.S. offensive biological weapons program, a better read might be Ed Regis’s Biology of Doom (Henry Holt, 1999). And you can also visit the heart of the bioweapons control debate on the Internet. This previously obscure field can seem overwhelmingly technical, but don’t be intimidated. The bioweapons threat poses an infinite number of policy questions that require a more active and informed public. We can’t afford to leave the debate to government agencies and biotech companies.

Edward Hammond is Director of the Austin office of the Sunshine Project, a small international non-profit organization dedicated to biological weapons control.

Germs and Journalists

On October 14, New York Times reporter Judith Miller published an account of her own frightening brush with an envelope postmarked St. Petersburg, Florida. The envelope contained a mysterious white powder; three tests suggested that the powder was benign and did not contain anthrax. “Now I was no longer covering a story,” Miller wrote. “I was the story.”

But Miller was already part of another story, one that may have changed the course of arms control history. Many arms control experts are skeptical about the timing of the September 4 New York Times report that first revealed Projects Bacchus and Clear Vision. When did the authors obtain this important information? Almost certainly before July. The timeframe is important because Bacchus and Clear Vision raise serious questions about U.S. observance of biological weapons controls at a time when the U.N. is trying to finalize a new agreement, called the Verification Protocol, to provide much stronger enforcement of the bioweapons ban.

The Verification Protocol would require U.N. inspections of government biotechnology facilities. The United States was hesitant to accept this, suggesting that U.N. inspectors would be a bothersome distraction and that spies planted on U.N. teams would steal biotechnology secrets. Still, arms control experts thought the United States would knuckle under and agree because Bush was under fire for his policy of “a la carte multilateralism.” Bush had sacrificed too much international political capital by abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming, and other agreements. Walking away from biological weapons verification, it was thought, would be going too far. To arms control experts’ great disappointment, Bush’s minions showed up at the July talks and withdrew their support. The U.S. then went further, and used a filibuster-like procedural trick to stop other nations from going ahead without it. Most of the world was angered and wanted to adopt a U.N. report laying the blame directly on the United States. The report was a diplomatic torpedo aimed at Bush’s National Security team and designed to explode in a very embarrassing debate (for the United States) at the U.N. General Assembly. Our European allies, however, blocked the move. An impasse resulted and the talks ended without the United States being singled out as the agreement’s saboteur.

While angered, Europe’s reaction was moderate because it perceived U.S. motives as arrogant and uncooperative, but not sinister. Europe thought it was defending a short-sighted and selfish United States, not a country that was conducting experiments that may have violated the Bioweapons Convention. The Times covered the collapse of the talks, but the inside story of Bacchus and Clear Vision remained a secret shared only by top levels of the U.S. government and The New York Times.

Had Clear Vision and Bacchus been revealed, the United States might have supported the agreement, just to prove that its intent really was defensive. Instead, diplomats didn’t find out until too late, in the September 4 New York Times story, which was published right around the time that review copies of Germs were released. Did the Times sit on the story in order to promote its journalists’ new book? We’ll never know. Meanwhile, here are other suggestions for perspectives on biological weapons.

The Sunshine Project

Harvard-Sussex Program (US-UK)


Genewatch (UK)

The Federation of American Scientists


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Published at 12:00 am CST