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U.S.: Authors Say Bio-Terror Threat Needs Greater Attention

  • Robert McMahon

Three U.S. journalists who have authored a new book on biological weapons say the current anthrax scare in the United States is curious and troubling. But they say it is minor compared to the potential havoc that a real bio-terror event could cause. They are urging greater U.S. preparedness against such weapons.

New York, 31 October 2001 RFE/RL) -- The investigation into the spread of anthrax continues to broaden in the United States, raising concerns that a bio-terrorism campaign has been unleashed.

But three journalists with "The New York Times" who have studied biological weapons closely say the anthrax scare, though troubling, is a very small event.

The journalists -- Judith Miller, William Broad, and Stephen Engelberg -- are the authors of a new book on biological weapons, titled "Germs." The book tells of covert efforts by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Iraq to develop biological weapons even after a 1972 treaty outlawing such research.

Miller, Broad, and Engelberg -- who worked on the project for three years -- spoke to a gathering of health and political experts on 29 October at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York think tank. They discussed the prospects for today's terrorists to benefit from clandestine biological-weapons research.

Speaking about the anthrax outbreak in the United States -- which has now killed four people and infected 15 -- Engelberg said it does not bear the fingerprints of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

Engelberg said the use of letters to spread anthrax would minimize the impact, while Al-Qaeda has always sought the greatest possible toll in its attacks: "Your average international terrorist looks for the biggest possible extravaganza. The exposures here -- the maximum deaths, actually -- have been caused by something the perpetrators may well not have known about, which is the 'billows effect' of a letter being pumped by the processing machine in a mail place and then mail handlers getting the disease. That was probably unexpected."

Miller, a Middle East correspondent for "The New York Times," says the anthrax incident is minor compared to the kind of biological attacks U.S. officials fear are possible, in which thousands would be affected.

She says her investigative work shows there are clearly groups and individuals willing to use such weapons against the United States. As the U.S. anthrax investigation is showing, it is difficult to trace the source of biological weapons. This, she says, makes them particularly attractive for hostile parties seeking to avoid any U.S. retaliation.

"If [the terrorists] have some degree of assurance that we will never know who did this to us, it might embolden them. And that was always one reason that we became very concerned about this category of weapon."

Aside from Russia and the United States, Iraq is the other state known to have an accomplished technique for making anthrax powder that floats in the air and lodges in the lungs. This was revealed by extensive investigations conducted by United Nations biological-weapons experts in Iraq in the 1990s. But the traces so far examined in the U.S. anthrax outbreaks have not been definitively tied to Iraq.

Broad, a prize-winning science writer at "The New York Times," says one of the difficulties in tracking bio-terrorists is the broad proliferation in knowledge about how to create substances such as anthrax.

The global dissemination of technical information has served benign uses, such as in the pharmaceutical industry. But Broad says this has also enabled those who wish to weaponize substances such as anthrax to assemble the materials they need with relative ease: "People who know how to make germ weapons, who used to work for the former Soviet Union, to a certain extent, have a very high card they can use on the open market -- selling their knowledge, their [abilities]. Pharmaceutical companies have a huge need for sophisticated devices that can be used in all these processes. There's an enormous burgeoning technology base that allows you to use this stuff."

Engelberg, who is the investigations editor for "The New York Times," says there is a need for the United States to develop a public health infrastructure capable of detecting when a biological attack has taken place. At the moment, he says, there is no reliable alarm for such an event, and doctors and emergency rooms in hospitals do not appear to be equipped to handle this.

On the prevention side, Miller gives great credit to a U.S. initiative known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Begun in the early 1990s, this program provided funds to help countries of the former Soviet Union destroy weapons of mass destruction and provide contacts between Russian and American scientists.

These contacts, Miller says, helped prevent Russian scientists from being recruited en masse by other states and also provided U.S. officials with crucial knowledge of Soviet biological-weapons programs. The program is slated for continuation by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Miller, who has visited a number of Russian biological-weapons laboratories, says she discovered a major campaign in the 1990s by Iran to recruit Russian biological weapons scientists. She says she was able to track down four scientists who are currently working in Iran for what they described as peaceful programs: "Iran had systematically been hunting in Russia, not just in Russia but in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan, in any place where there was part of the old Soviet germ empire. They know where [the scientists] are. They know where these places are, who they are looking for."

The journalists said they discovered in their research that it can be a difficult process to change the minds of government policymakers about the threat of biological weapons. A government decision at the end of 1997 to vaccinate U.S. soldiers against anthrax, came, they said, nearly five years after U.S. intelligence officials were first aware of Iraq's success in weaponizing the substance.

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