Poking my head down, looking into the abyss of a four-story-tall, 20,000-liter fermenter, which was one of 10 there to produce anthrax for weapons, made me shudder. It made me wonder, what were they thinking? This was a big facility, [with] just an awesome capability to destroy life. In a mobilization period, it was going to produce and weaponize 300 metric tons of anthrax. What were they thinking?"
The speaker is Andrew Weber, the Department of Defense's special adviser for threat reduction policy. He is a clear-eyed, mild-mannered man who has looked into the abyss in more ways than one, but who still has the heart of an idealist. Weber is one of the foremost advocates of Russian and American scientific collaboration. And he was the first to see for himself the gigantic biowarfare plant in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, after the fermenters and the bomblet fill machines were turned off forever. "They ought to turn Stepnogorsk into a bioweapons museum, before they tear it down completely," he says now.
At Stepnogorsk, the shining emblem of cooperation between former Soviet biowarfare researchers and American scientists, they are "beating swords into ploughshares," in the words of Alan P. Zelicoff, senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Zelicoff has received Department of Energy funding for his Aral Sea project, in which American scientists and several former Soviet bioweapons laboratories will jointly monitor the area by using small animals as sentinels, to make certain that the staggeringly huge bioweapons dump at Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea is not starting to produce dangerous diseases such as plague, anthrax, or tularemia. "This is a win-win situation," says Zelicoff.
The U.S. Congress is currently debating line items on the year 2000 budget for various programs whose joint purpose is essentially the same: to divert biological weapons experts from the former Soviet Union into self-supporting commercial and public health enterprises and, perhaps most importantly, to prevent these scientists from "going South"--selling their expertise to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria.
How well are these programs working? No one really knows. "Americans play checkers; Russians play chess," an experienced observer said to me once. "They're always thinking several moves ahead of us."
Despite President Boris Yeltsin's 1992 decree shutting down the Russian biowarfare program, no one knows how committed the Russian military remains to biological weaponry. In its proposed new military doctrine, published in Krasnaya Zvezda on October 9, 1999, Russia would reserve the right to use nuclear or "other mass destruction weapons" against its enemies. Furthermore, according to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report on the proposed military doctrine, "Russia would NOT consider itself bound by ... any disarmament treaty in the case of a critical situation or war." This is worrisome. There are at least three biological laboratories run by the Russian Ministry of Defense that are still closed to the West; while Russian authorities deny that bioweapons research goes on there, we have no way to be certain.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government is contributing money and biogenetic expertise to former Russian bioweapons scientists. Is the technology we are funding furthering research that could be used to make new generations of even more deadly biological weapons? The giant fermenters at various former bioweapons labs may be dismantled--but, in truth, they are no longer needed. Technology developed by American pharmaceutical firms to produce massive quantities of bacteria much more efficiently is now available to Russia. With teams of American scientists now crawling all over Stepnogorsk and Vektor, the lab that once developed an industrial process to produce weaponized smallpox, it is difficult to believe that scientists there are growing weapons strains in secret. But we simply don't know what is going on at the military laboratories.
Certainly the Russian record of deceit is chilling. In 1969 President Nixon shut down the entire U.S. bioweapons program; three years later, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention banning research, development, and storage of biowarfare agents was signed by 103 countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union. To the Soviet military, however, the shadow cast by the signing of the bioweapons convention allowed them to proceed swiftly and in secret: They built their program--which had once lagged behind America's--to an unimaginable level. Some 30,000 workers at dozens of laboratories and research institutes worked for Biopreparat, an empire of death that stretched across the Soviet Union.
At the same time, friendly contacts between Western and Russian scientists were beginning to develop. But the Americans didn't quite realize who they were dealing with. The famous Russian virologist Viktor M. Zhdanov, who died in 1987, is still revered as a hero by the people involved with smallpox eradication: He was the first to propose global eradication of the smallpox virus in 1958 at the 11th World Health Assembly in Minneapolis. He also thoroughly charmed his American counterparts. Alexis Shelokov, former head of the Salk Institute at Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, where he worked on developing antibiological weapons vaccines, still remembers Zhdanov fondly:
He was a charming, brilliant scientist, an excellent virologist. To give an example of his human touch, he had come to the States in the '60s to keep up with the newer virological methods here. In the Soviet Union, the chemists wore black smocks, while physicians wore white. When he returned to the U.S.S.R., he worked in the laboratories in a black smock such as all the bench people, the lab workers, wore... .
In 1961 I was a member of the first American virological delegation to visit the U.S.S.R. It was organized by the NIH [National Institutes of Health]. We spent a delightfully informal evening at his house. He appeared to be very liberal, quite critical of some positions of his government. He was not a blind lackey and functionary in the Soviet system, but a liberal, thinking man, a loyal patriot of his country.
No one had any idea that this liberal, thinking man was perhaps the principal initiator of bioweapons research in the Soviet Union. In 1973 Zhdanov was appointed by Alexei Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev as chair of the ultra-secret Interagency Science and Technology Council on Molecular Biology and Genetics. Igor V. Domaradskij, the brilliant, prickly researcher who served as Zhdanov's deputy chair and has since detailed this work in a ruthlessly honest memoir, describes the Interagency Council as the "brains" of the Soviet biowarfare system. By 1975 Zhdanov was forced to resign from the council. Domaradskij insists that the resignation was involuntary and had nothing to do with Zhdanov's lack of enthusiasm for his work. For the rest of his life, Zhdanov worked at Moscow's prestigious Ivanovsky Institute of Virology on research devoted to the study of hepatitis, influenza, and AIDS. According to his wife, virologist Alissa Boukrinskaia, he spoke out passionately against biological weapons.
Boukrinskaia claims not to know that Zhdanov was ever involved in the secret work of the Interagency Council: "Maybe he did not tell me," she said in a telephone interview.
Domaradskij seems amused by that. "We discussed our work at the table, in front of our women... . She had to know," he told me.
"Domaradskij is a complicated man; you cannot believe everything he says," insists Boukrinskaia.
When you enter this hall of mirrors, in truth, you cannot make out quite what you are seeing or know how to recognize the guide who can lead you through it. This is a twisted universe, where the man who dreamed of smallpox eradication could design a program that, ultimately, produced weaponized smallpox by the ton. The well-known defector Kenneth Alibek, once second in command of Biopreparat, whose testimony is responsible for most of what we know of the Soviet biowarfare system, once described Russia as "a huge country of liars." The cynic who is philosophically inclined will think at once, rather rudely, of the liar's paradox.
What could Zhdanov have been thinking in 1958, when he proposed eradication? I ask the soft-spoken Alibek. Was his plan to eradicate smallpox deliberate? Did he want to hand the KGB a new weapon, a nonimmune world?
Alibek doesn't think so. "What we need to remember is that Russia is a different country with a different mentality. The same person was quite capable of doing humanitarian and immoral work," he says. "It is strange but true."
Domaradskij agrees. "Each of us," he says, "had to have 'a legend' for the concealment of the true purpose of the work... . The legends are used everywhere."
Domaradskij, who became estranged from Zhdanov after the latter was forced off the Interagency Council--"He lost interest in me," Domaradskij says candidly--insists that in the two years they worked together he never heard Zhdanov mention using smallpox as a biological weapon. But Alibek, who did not know Zhdanov, points out, "I don't think that handing the KGB another weapon was Zhdanov's main idea for eradication. But he was a good scientist. Of course he knew that the eradication of smallpox would play a role in future wars... . "
What is truth and what is "legend" today even Domaradskij may not know. Stung by a bitter quarrel with General Nikolai N. Urakov, then as now the head of the bioweapons laboratory at Obolensk, Domaradskij quit Biopreparat in disgust in 1987 and retired. He now describes the entire Soviet biowarfare effort as at once a "big adventure" and a "serious mistake." In 1995 he published his memoir, Troublemaker, an account of his life in Biopreparat, at his own expense. It has circulated samizdat-style, and he has suffered for it: For years he was denied a passport by the Russian authorities, ostensibly because he had read a doctoral thesis written by one of his own students that contained classified information.
Domaradskij claims that his old enemy General Urakov is "a fanatic." A former U.S. intelligence officer who knew Urakov several years ago also trusts him not at all. "The current U.S. administration," he told me, "does not want to hear anything bad about the Russians. But they're taking our money and laughing all the way to the secret laboratories."
Public statements by Lieutenant General Valentin I. Yevstigneyev, head of the Fifteenth Directorate, the branch of the Russian military that controls biological "defense," hardly allay these suspicions. In a July 1999 interview in Yaderny Kontrol, Yevstigneyev admits that military labs are doing research on the most dangerous pathogens, including the Ebola and Marburg viruses, in order to protect against disease outbreaks. (He does not specify why these tropical diseases would be a threat in Russia.) Marburg was already weaponized at Vektor under the Soviet regime, and no one knows what the military lab at Sergiyev Posad is doing with it now. According to Yevstigneyev, the military work is all defensive. But who, and what, are they defending against?
Domaradskij speculates that the cover stories may have changed, but the secret work has not.
How free from military control are the laboratories we support? We know that half the funding at Obolensk State Research Center of Applied Microbiology, where Domaradskij once worked and Urakov is still in charge, comes half from American programs and half from the Russian government. "Obolensk is still pretty close to the mother ship," says an expert on weapons proliferation.
In 1997 the publication of an article in the international journal Vaccine by two Obolensk scientists, Andrei Pomerantsev and Nikolai Staritsin, produced a violent reaction both within and outside Russia. The article describes the successful transfer of genes from Bacillus cereus, an organism that does not normally cause human infection, into anthrax. These genes cause hemolysis, or the breaking of red blood cells. Introduced into anthrax, they cause a modified disease for which the present U.S. vaccine probably will not produce immunity. Domaradskij, who was Pomerantsev's mentor, insists that no good interpretation can be put on this experiment.
"He's not their golden boy. I believe they punished him, not for doing the research, but for publishing it," says a knowledgeable American scientist.
The matter of Pomerantsev--whose story, like Zhdanov's, is a multifaceted prism--does not end there. One administration official speculates that Pomerantsev might have wanted to publish to "be helpful, to draw our attention to our vulnerabilities. He has his quirks," the official continues, "but I think favorably of him. This was evil work that was done for the military, but now he's collaborating with us on our anthrax project."
But another American scientist who met Pomerantsev and Staritsin at a conference last August in Taos, New Mexico, mentions that their latest research abstract takes their earlier genetic engineering research a step further. They can now integrate genetic changes right into anthrax DNA. Why do they publish this research? The scientist asked Staritsin this straight out and could not get an answer.
Domaradskij, who notes that "Pomerantsev was the best of my associates at Obolensk," states that these are the same techniques he and Pomerantsev once used to engineer antibiotic-resistant tularemia, or "rabbit fever," a frequently fatal infection. "Pomerantsev is between hammer and anvil--the hammer is Urakov and his secret service, and the anvil is the necessity to show that at Obolensk the disarmament is being carried out. One way or another, I believe that Pomerantsev and Staritsin do not have the right to speak the truth."
Still, American scientists plan to work with Pomerantsev and Staritsin on the DNA fingerprinting of anthrax strains. "This work has value for understanding an outbreak and also for studying the evolutionary aspects of anthrax and where it came from," says an American collaborating on the project. "If I thought that this research had a dual use, I wouldn't work with them."
Other Russian scientists connected with Obolensk are more suspect than the ambiguous Pomerantsev. One N. Kislichkin, who has his own firm, called Bioeffect, in Obolensk with offices in Vienna and Moscow, has tried to market genetically modified bacteria, including Domaradskij's own strain of antibiotic-resistant tularemia. His commercial flyer states that his company is ready to "create novel microorganisms of a vaccine group for infections ... on the basis of your order. We are ready to cooperate in research activities within investigations of virulence factor of different infections."
"I think that anybody could buy Kislichkin's service, even a terrorist," says Domaradskij.
A U.S. government official notes that there is no confirmation that anyone has ever procured anything from Bioeffect.
Far out in western Siberia, the Vektor scientists seem to enjoy greater autonomy from central control. Not that they don't have contact with the military. In the Yaderny Kontrol interview, Yevstigneyev states that the head of Vektor Laboratories is collaborating with him on a new vaccine for hepatitis B. But Vektor scientists are highly regarded by their counterparts in the West, and it seems that the walls of suspicion are beginning to crumble. Only two years ago, American scientists who visited Vektor reported treatment they felt was designed to harass them: They were not permitted to walk into many buildings and were threatened with a forced quarantine of several weeks if they did. But streams of recent visitors have received a very different welcome. One administration official who recently wandered into Building 6A, long proscribed to visitors and believed to be a site of active smallpox research, reports broken door seals, crumbling concrete walls, and thick layers of dust everywhere--a building that was decommissioned long ago and left to ruin.
An American scientist who has been to Vektor several times over the past five years reports an intimate conversation he had recently with a well-regarded, but sometimes wary, Russian scientist. The two sat drinking vodka late into the night. At some point, when the Russian was clearly somewhat inebriated, he burst into tears, confessing how happy he was to have the opportunity to work so closely with American scientists. The American sat stunned; later he told me that he believed in his host's sincerity.
Other people laugh. "These are crocodile tears," says Ken Alibek. "Sure he's happy. He's getting paid." Another American official confesses that he is deeply distrustful of late-night drinking sessions with the Russians. "I'm much more likely to believe them when they're stone-cold sober at 10:00 in the morning."
Domaradskij says only that the tears of the nameless Russian scientist were probably heartfelt and sincere: "In Russia it is generally believed that a drunken man tells the truth."
So we have here two groups of scientists, old enemies, who are trying to work together to overcome decades of distrust and the long habit of "legends" and deceit. The progress they are making is not a grand or splendid thing, unless you consider the destruction of giant fermenters to be splendid. It is quiet, slow, and deeply uncertain.
Can you ever trust people who once did such evil work? From our own past come plenty of reasons for uneasiness.
We also had a biological weapons program, which supposedly trafficked in only nonlethal agents, though what is nonlethal to a healthy young soldier supplied with antibiotics might have a very different outcome on the weak, the sick, the old. (According to chemical weapons expert Benjamin C. Garrett of Battelle Memorial Institute, there is no such thing as a truly nonlethal agent--even tear gas can kill.) Our program worked with tularemia among other agents. Biowarfare expert William C. Patrick notes that we developed a strain of tularemia that was resistant to one antibiotic. Domaradskij went the Americans two better; his strain was resistant to three.
The American program was shut down by that peculiar knight in armor Richard Nixon. The bioweaponeers at Fort Detrick faced the ruin of their careers. A former intelligence official tells the story: "Tom Dashiell, Bill Patrick, and a couple of other guys approached a foreign government--not the Soviets. According to Bill, they were really wondering, where do we go from here? This was our life work; this was all we were trained to do."
So our bioweapons experts formed a consortium and approached, in the words of the former officer, "a government which was not unfriendly--then.
"But soon they got a call from the State Department: 'What are you guys doing?'"
Patrick, the only member of the consortium still active in this field, laughs when he recalls his foray into international trade: "Several of us were in the development area, research, development, and production [of biological weapons]--there was a lot of knowledge among us." Did the State Department put a stop to it? "Oh my lord, yes," says Patrick.
But if we can't rely on the internal moral compass of our own people, how do we trust the other side? Through these dark corridors, it may be that Andrew Weber, with his belief in the ultimate triumph of Russian-American cooperation, has the only flashlight we can follow. It may also be that we are walking blindly, that we are deceived, as trusting American scientists were by Zhdanov. But where else can we go? ¤