Military history

—————  15  —————

THE GREATEST BREAKTHROUGH

Vladimir Pasechnik was reserved, diffident and modest, but his face brightened when talk turned to science. In a photograph taken in the 1980s, when he was an institute director in Leningrad, he was wearing a corduroy jacket, glancing up from his desk, creases across his forehead, his hair receding, eyes inquiring, one hand holding down a notebook or journal. Born in 1937, Pasechnik lost both his parents in the siege of Stalingrad. He had overcome many obstacles to study as a physicist, and graduated at the top of his class at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. But the sacrifices of the war left a deep scar on Pasechnik, and he was determined to use his science for peaceful purposes. After graduation, he became a researcher at the Institute of Higher Molecular Compounds in Leningrad, attracted by the chance to create new antibiotics and treat diseases like cancer.1 In 1974, one of Pasechnik’s professors was asked to recommend a young researcher for a special assignment. Pasechnik was selected to set up a new scientific research facility, the Institute of Ultra Pure Biological Preparations in Leningrad.2 It seemed a promising opportunity—the new institute would have resources for the best equipment and could attract the finest talent. He took the job, and in the years that followed he demonstrated ability as a talented and strong-willed manager. By 1981, the institute had become one of the most advanced microbiology facilities in the Soviet Union. It was also part of Biopreparat, the secret Soviet biological weapons machine. Pasechnik later told people that it was about this time that he realized the research could not be just for defensive purposes, as he originally believed, but was for offensive weapons.

While Domaradsky and Popov attempted to modify the genetic makeup of pathogens, Pasechnik’s mission was more practical: to optimize the pathogens for use in combat, and to build superefficient industrial methods to produce them. If anthrax or other agents were to be deployed in wartime, they needed to be manufactured in large batches, remain stable, survive dissemination into the air and be effectively dispersed. Pasechnik’s job was to find ways to prepare and manufacture the pathogens so they could be weaponized without losing effectiveness and virulence. Working with models of the deadly agents, he sought to master the complex process of how to concentrate the pathogens and turn them into aerosols.3

Soviet biological weapons builders were bedeviled with complications. Before being deployed as an aerosol, a pathogen must be mixed in a proper “formulation,” with the addition of chemicals and other substances, specific for each germ. If done correctly, it will maintain the pathogen’s virulence or toxicity while in storage or in the weapon. But if done incorrectly, the agents may die or lose their power. They can also clog nozzles or clump up inside a weapon, which would make it ineffective, or they can be neutralized by the environment once disseminated. Also, they can face other complications that render them ineffective, such as the anthrax spores killed by phage lysis bacteria in Stepnogorsk. Moreover, it was essential to keep the particles small, to penetrate deep into the lungs of the victims. According to U.S. estimates, the ideal size is one to five microns; a micron is one-millionth of a meter. If larger, they would be filtered out by the upper respiratory tract before reaching the lungs; larger particles also settle out of the air more quickly. However, Biopreparat and the Soviet military produced agents up to twelve microns, knowing that, even if they did not reach the lungs, they would still infect the victim once trapped inside the body in the upper respiratory tract.4

One of Pasechnik’s most important inventions was a “milling” machine that used a powerful blast of air to turn batches of dried agent into a fine powder. He also developed new methods of microencapsulation—covering the tiny particles containing the infectious agents in polymer capsules to preserve and protect them from ultraviolet light. Pasechnik frequently accompanied the officers from the 15th Main Directorate of the Defense Ministry when they visited the research institutes. Popov recalled that Pasechnik sat in the front row, writing everything down in his notebooks.

Alibek, then first deputy director of Biopreparat, recalled in his memoir how he had once spent a long, tiring day in Leningrad with Pasechnik, going over projects at the institute. “Pasechnik seemed sad and a bit depressed as he drove me to the railway station, where I planned to catch the overnight train back to Moscow. I asked him if anything was wrong. Posing such a personal question to a man like Pasechnik was risky. He was one of our senior scientists, twelve years older than me, and he had always been somewhat aloof. I worried that he might take offense.”

“Can I be honest with you,” Pasechnik replied. “It’s like this. I am fifty-one years old, and I am going through a strange time in my life. I don’t know if I have accomplished what I want to. And they’re going to make me retire soon.” Alibek knew that fifty-five was the mandatory retirement age in Biopreparat, but recalled that he clapped Pasechnik on the shoulder and told him not to worry. “Four years is a long time, and they could be your best years!”

Pasechnik smiled thinly, Alibek said.5

But this conversation did not even begin to reveal the depth of Pasechnik’s despair. According to those who knew him and later spoke with him, Pasechnik had found it increasingly difficult to justify his work devoted to weapons. Each year, the tasks assigned to him by the military were more demanding, as they sought still more virulent and effective agents and ever-larger industrial capacity for producing them.

Foremost among his tasks, Pasechnik worked on creating models of a plague agent that would be resistant to antibiotics. If the models worked, they could easily be adapted for the real Yersinia pestis. His dream of working on a cure for cancer was fading. His promise to himself to use science for peaceful goals was unfulfilled. His personal crisis was profound. Pasechnik felt trapped, and began to plan an escape.

In October 1989, Pasechnik went to France on a business trip to purchase laboratory equipment. Alibek had approved the trip and forgotten about it. While in France, Pasechnik received a message to return for an urgent meeting of all Biopreparat institute directors in a few days’ time. Pasechnik told a colleague traveling with him to go on ahead, he would follow the next day. When the colleague arrived back in Moscow, alone, he found Pasechnik’s wife waiting at the airport—and she was surprised Pasechnik was not on the plane. In Paris, Pasechnik walked to the Canadian Embassy, knocked on the door and announced that he was a scientist at a secret biological weapons laboratory in the Soviet Union and wanted to defect. The Canadians shut the door in his face. Pasechnik felt desperate. He feared going to the United States or Britain, thinking either country might force him to go back to work on biological weapons. But with few options left, he reluctantly called the British Embassy from a phone booth and repeated that he was a Soviet germ weapon specialist and wanted to defect.

The British Secret Intelligence Service responded with alacrity. He was picked up in a car, flown to Heathrow on a British Airways shuttle flight and taken to a remote safe house on the English coast.6

It was a rather miserable, cold and wet Friday afternoon in London, October 27, 1989. The workday was nearly over and dark had fallen. Christopher Davis, a surgeon commander in the Royal Navy, educated at Oxford and London universities, and the senior biological warfare specialist on the Defense Intelligence Staff, recalled that he was looking forward to the weekend. He had cleared his desk. There was not a piece of paper on it, everything locked away, as required. Then his phone rang around 5 P.M., and his boss, Brian Jones, was on the line.

“Chris, you better come to my office,” Jones said. Davis went to the small office, not much larger than his own. Jones handed Davis a one-page document, a message from the British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, describing the arrival of a Soviet defector, and a brief summary of what the defector was telling them.

“Oh, shit,” Davis said. His eyes were riveted on one word on the page, “plague.” He immediately realized the significance. He told Jones, “The Soviet Union is developing strategic biological weapons. Plague is not a battlefield weapon!”7

In Moscow, Alibek’s secretary rushed into his office on Monday morning. Pasechnik’s deputy, Nikolai Frolov, was on the line from Leningrad and needed to talk to Alibek immediately. Alibek recalled he was so overworked, he felt like putting his head on his desk and going to sleep.

“We’ve got a problem,” Frolov said, sounding strained. “Pasechnik hasn’t come.”

Alibek replied reassuringly, saying it was no problem if Pasechnik was a little late to the meeting of institute directors. “No! No!” Frolov nearly yelled into the phone. “I mean, he hasn’t come back from France!”

Frolov’s account of what happened spilled out in a torrent of excited words, Alibek recalled. In France, Pasechnik had been up all night, lying in bed, fully dressed, before telling his colleague to go on ahead without him. When the colleague got ready to leave for the airport, Pasechnik hugged him and said proshchai, or farewell, rather than the usual do svidaniya, or until we meet again.

“I listened to the entire story with a knot tightening in my stomach,” Alibek said. He went down the hall to see Kalinin, the director of Biopreparat. When told of Pasechnik’s disappearance, Alibek said, it was as if Kalinin had just heard about the death of a close relative. Kalinin went pale. He told Alibek he would call Gorbachev immediately.8

In the days after he defected, Pasechnik was constantly nervous. He had left his family behind. He was frightened that he would be tried as a war criminal, or pilloried in public, or forced to go back to work on the pathogens, or returned to the Soviet Union. He knew volumes about the research at Biopreparat and was terrified of the British reaction. “It must have been like walking the plank and not knowing if the waters are going to be shark infested or you are going to make it to shore and be okay,” recalled Davis. “That’s what made it all the more brave, I think, in making the decision he could no longer do what he was doing. It was an exceptional move.”

The case was given a code name, Truncate. Davis became one of the two main debriefers, along with a man from MI6, and periodically they were joined by David Kelly, who was head of microbiology at Porton Down, the British chemical and biological defense research facility. Davis was among the small band of allied biological weapons experts who had puzzled for years over Soviet activities. When Pasechnik was interviewed, an invented name was always used, such as “Michael,” but Davis knew Pasechnik’s real identity. They spoke English, although sometimes Davis had to ask for a translation, as when Pasechnik tried to describe a hamadryas baboon. When he wasn’t speaking about the Soviet system, Pasechnik was curious about Britain, asking questions about family life and communities, and marveling, for example, that Kelly had a personal computer at home.

What Davis and his colleague learned from Pasechnik was more revealing than all the fragments of information they had accumulated over the years. “It was an extraordinary moment,” Davis said. “If you’re an intelligence officer, this doesn’t happen but once in a lifetime. Maybe never in a lifetime. It was just one of those exceptional moments. Prior to the time when he came, there were no defections of any note. Neither were there any good, high-level human intelligence sources in place.” He added, “The fact that Vladimir defected was one of the key acts of the entire ending of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It was the greatest breakthrough we ever had.”

What Pasechnik told them was remarkable. The Soviet Union had not only weaponized classic pathogens, but was seeking to create new agents designed to be resistant to antibiotics and to break down the defenses of the victim. The Soviets were also working on vaccines that would shield their germ warfare operators from harm, and they were developing detectors to sense a possible attack. Not only was there a large program devoted to battlefield weapons, which were for short-range attacks, but the emphasis on plague and smallpox suggested a focus on long-range, strategic weapons. Pasechnik noted that the Soviets had not yet achieved one of their prime goals, the creation of a new biological warfare agent completely resistant to treatment, but the work was still underway.

Pasechnik also revealed how the Soviet program might ultimately be concealed, perhaps with small, mobile laboratories that could never be found. Pasechnik told them about the sprawling network of laboratories and production facilities hidden in Biopreparat that had cost in excess of 1.5 billion rubles over fifteen years and employed tens of thousands of scientists and support workers. He told them how the Interbranch Scientific and Technical Council, where Domaradsky had once worked, was responsible for coordinating and administering the germ warfare effort with money from the military. He revealed that the Soviets had created a system of false financial plans for the institutes, purporting to show they were working on innocent civilian biotechnology projects, in order to cover up the actual military biological weapons work.

While hesitant at first, Pasechnik gained confidence over time, and his knowledge was relayed in a way that was calm and precise. “He was a very frank source,” said Jones. According to Davis, Pasechnik was clear about “what he knew personally, or as a result of data that he was aware of, and what he had been told, and what he had just found out chatting with other people. He never, ever stretched things.”

Only three months after the Politburo commission met in Zaikov’s office to discuss the cover-up, Pasechnik was sitting in Britain, laying the Kremlin’s darkest secrets on the table. His information helped the British draw up a list of twenty excuses the Soviets might use to hide their illegal work. As Pasechnik talked, British policy-makers began to realize that some of their core assumptions in recent decades had been wrong.

Jones, who earned his doctorate in metallurgy, had just two years earlier become head of unit DI-53, which analyzed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons intelligence data, from all sources, for the U.K. Defense Ministry. The focus was overwhelmingly on nuclear weapons materials and chemistry; Jones recalled that his unit had just two people who specialized in chemical and biological warfare. One of them was Davis.

When the British gave up their biological weapons program in the late 1950s, the central assumption then, and since, had been that nuclear weapons were the most effective deterrent. “The same year our nuclear capability became active, we dropped our biological weapons program and chemical weapons program,” Jones said. “Nuclear would do for us.” Then, in the early 1970s, the Biological Weapons Convention was signed; British diplomats played a major role. The popular assumption, he added, was that biological weapons had no utility in modern warfare. “They are not a deterrent, they are difficult to use defensively, they didn’t fit, as it were, into Western perceptions of useful military material,” Jones recalled. An added factor was Nixon’s 1969 decision to close the U.S. program. Jones added, “The Russians had nuclear weapons—why on earth would they need biological weapons?” The British postulated that, if the Soviets were doing anything, it might be trying to create an improved battlefield chemical or biological weapon that would emit toxins, perhaps a sort of hybrid chemical-biological weapon. They assumed such a new weapon would be used for close-in battlefield combat against troops. “There was this idea that this is what the Russians were really after,” Jones said.9

But Pasechnik’s debriefing opened up the British thinking to a much broader spectrum of weapons, ranging from tactical to strategic. The Soviet program was far more ambitious than the West had ever imagined. This was evident from the moment Pasechnik began talking about the pathogens he knew the most about, such as Yersinia pestis, the agent that causes plague. Pasechnik said that great emphasis had been placed on the perfection of pneumonic plague as a weapons agent by optimizing its production, storage, aerosol dissemination and resistance to antibiotics. Pasechnik said his institute had worked on models of the plague agent to create a kind of super-plague.

One of the most chilling disclosures Pasechnik made was that the Soviet military had already weaponized plague and was pouring it into some kind of warheads, which had to be refilled every few months. In order to produce enough agent, the industrial capacity had been scaled up, reaching two metric tons a year. He revealed the Soviets had tested the plague agent on baboons on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea as recently as 1989.

As the secrets spilled out, the mention of plague carried special weight. “You do not choose plague to put on a battlefield,” Davis said. “You choose plague because you’re going to take out the other person’s country. Full stop. That’s what it is about.”10

“Plague is highly transmissible. Remember, one third of the population of Europe disappeared in the 13th Century with plague. And it’s quick. If you don’t get treatment within 12–24 hours at best, after symptoms appear in pneumonic plague, you will die, whether we give you antibiotics or not. It’s over.”

This was Pasechnik’s message. The target of the plague weapon was unprotected populations. “That was the gift, to realign the thinking, to move it back to the traditional use of biological weapons as a weapon of mass destruction,” Jones said.

Later, Pasechnik told the British his institute was tackling an assignment to develop a method of aerosol distribution that would work from a vehicle flying two hundred feet above the ground. Pasechnik did not work on the vehicle itself, only the dissemination system, but the British had no difficulty guessing what kind of weapon flew at two hundred feet: a cruise missile. The fast-flying, low-altitude cruise was a modern weapon, feared for its ability to fly under radar. A cruise missile carrying deadly biological agents could be launched from a submarine, release the pathogens somewhat away from the target, and then disappear. The thought of it startled Pasechnik’s debriefers.

Over months of conversations, a picture emerged not only of the traditional pathogens, but also of the more advanced genetic engineering underway at Koltsovo and Obolensk. Although Pasechnik’s institute had only a specialized role, he was aware of the broader effort to boost resistance to antibiotics. Pasechnik also told the British of the work being done to fool the body’s immune system. Pasechnik was careful to delineate where the research had not borne fruit; he noted that improved plague had not been the result of genetic engineering, but rather of conventional genetic selection techniques. Pasechnik also told the British that genetic engineering of tularemia—Domaradsky’s dream—had been a goal, but was unsuccessful in the field tests.11

Pasechnik knew the people in the system, including the bosses, Alibek and Kalinin, at the Biopreparat headquarters on Samokatnaya Street. He knew the names and missions of the separate military biowarfare facilities in Kirov, Sverdlovsk and Zagorsk. He knew of the massive anthrax factory at Stepnogorsk. Pasechnik’s information showed conclusively the Soviet Union had violated the Biological Weapons Convention and deceived the outside world. The Soviets concealed their misdeeds under layers and layers of disguise, and Pasechnik peeled it away.

The disclosures soon led to a quiet debate in British intelligence and policy circles: did Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, the Soviet reformers, know about the dangerous agents in the test tubes? Pasechnik was perplexed by the frequent questions he got from his debriefers about Gorbachev. He said Gorbachev must have known if Shevardnadze knew. That was how the system worked. And Pasechnik was certain that Shevardnadze had attended some of the high-level meetings in 1988. Davis’s assessment strongly supported this view as well.

If Gorbachev knew, then the British had to question their assumptions about him, too. Thatcher was the first Western leader to declare that Gorbachev was a man with whom she could do business. In Washington, after nearly a year of dithering, Bush was also planning his first summit with Gorbachev. Was this a man they could do business with, or was he the leader of a country and a system that created—and was still creating—the most destructive biological weapons mankind had ever known, in violation of all treaty promises?

In London, the revelations from Pasechnik were summarized into a quick note for the Joint Intelligence Committee. The first recipient of such reports is always Her Majesty, The Queen. The second is the prime minister, who at the time was Thatcher.

In early November 1989, while Pasechnik was still being debriefed, the Berlin Wall crumbled. Over the previous summer, Hungary had opened its border with Austria. Thousands of East Germans had flooded West German embassies in Budapest and Prague. In October, Gorbachev had visited Berlin and signaled that the Soviet Union would not intervene, a lesson drawn from his searing visit to Prague after the Soviet invasion in 1968 and his soul-searching talks with his best friend MlynááY. In an evening torchlight ceremony on that Berlin visit, handpicked party youth activists had stunned Gorbachev by ignoring the hard-line party boss Erich Honecker on the reviewing stand and instead shouting to Gorbachev, “Perestroika! Gorbachev! Help us!”12 Gorbachev had become a beacon of change that was now shaking the very pillars of the empire he ruled. In early November, roiled by public protests, a new government in East Germany permitted travel to the West through Czechoslovakia, prompting tens of thousands of people to crowd the roads. Hastily, new rules for travel were drafted by the government, and the plan was to announce them November 10, but inadvertently the decision was read aloud at a government press conference at the end of the day November 9.13 News reports vaguely suggested that East Germans could get visas to leave the country immediately through border crossings, touching off a frenzy of excitement. Rumors spread that all travel restrictions were being lifted. Thousands of people gathered at the Berlin Wall in the evening. The guards, who had no instructions, just opened the gates, and the Berlin Wall was breached twenty-eight years after it was first erected. The long division of Europe was over.

In Washington, reporters were summoned to the Oval Office at 3:34 P.M. Bush was nervously twisting a pen in his hands. He later recalled feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Ever cautious, he was worried that any comments he made could trigger a Soviet crackdown. The memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre was still fresh. Lesley Stahl of CBS News remarked that “this is a sort of great victory for our side in the big East-West battle, but you don’t seem elated. I’m wondering if you’re thinking of the problems.”

“I am not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush said.14

In Moscow, Chernyaev wrote in his diary the next day, November 10, “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over.”

After the fall of the wall, even more threatening storms were on the horizon for Gorbachev. The Soviet economy plummeted in 1989; there were acute shortages of goods, along with a grain crisis and declining oil production. Perestroika had not produced better living standards. At a Politburo meeting on the day the Berlin Wall fell, Gorbachev was preoccupied not with Eastern Europe, but the possibility that the Soviet Union would disintegrate, as internal republics began to consider breaking away. The leaders of Estonia and Latvia, two tiny Baltic republics, had told Gorbachev in recent days “they have a feeling that there is no other way than to leave the USSR,” Gorbachev told the Politburo.15

After Bush had waited almost a year to engage Gorbachev, he was now confronted by a confluence of serious troubles: the future of Germany, and indeed Europe, was up for grabs; Gorbachev was in deeper and deeper trouble at home; and arms control negotiations were going nowhere. When Bush and Gorbachev finally met in a summit December 2–3 on the Mediterranean island of Malta, severe winds and high waves lashed the harbor as they talked aboard the Soviet cruise liner Maxim Gorky. Bush reassured Gorbachev that he supported perestroika, but he also defended his words of caution when the Berlin Wall came down. “I do not intend to jump up on the Wall,” Bush said, mangling one of his favorite aphorisms, that he would not “dance on the wall” to embarrass the Soviet leader. “Well,” Gorbachev replied, “jumping on the Wall is not a good activity for a president.” They laughed. For eight hours, they talked about a ban on chemical weapons; how to accelerate negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons and reduce troop levels in Europe; the revolution in Central Europe; Nicaragua; Afghanistan; and Soviet economic and trade woes. Not once did they mention biological weapons.16

In Moscow in late 1989, Pasechnik’s defection sent shock waves through the small group of Soviet officials who knew. On December 6, the Kremlin made an urgent decision. According to a spravka in Katayev’s files, the Ministry of the Medical Industry, which had jurisdiction over Biopreparat, was ordered by a Central Committee resolution—effectively a decision by the Politburo—to accelerate the preparation of facilities for possible foreign inspection. The order said the facilities must be ready by July 1, 1990, “to prevent undesirable consequences” from the defection of Pasechnik.17

Alibek recalled in his memoir that “we took comfort in the fact that there were many things Pasechnik didn’t know. He had not been personally involved in weapons production, and much of what he could tell Western intelligence agencies was likely to be hearsay at best, thanks to our internal security regime. Nevertheless, Pasechnik’s interrogators would have learned the secret that had been kept hidden for so long: the real function of Biopreparat.”18

Alibek was right that Pasechnik did not bring the British information about weapons production. But Pasechnik had spent many hours visiting the microbiology institutes and taking notes about their activities. His memory was sharp.

In early 1990, a very modest effort inside the Soviet system at more openness about the Sverdlovsk anthrax epidemic was immediately crushed.

By this time, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had deeply antagonized the military. They negotiated the destruction of hundreds of the most modern Soviet nuclear warheads and missiles and slashed military spending. The Warsaw Pact was disintegrating as Soviet troops made an unceremonious and precipitous retreat. All of these actions were in keeping with Gorbachev’s intention to end the hypermilitarized state and ease the burden of defense on the economy and society, but the military took it hard, very hard. They were furious, especially at Shevardnadze.

On January 5, Shevardnadze’s ministry tried to force a little openness about biological weapons. The ministry distributed a draft Central Committee resolution stating that the best way to deflect outside demands about biological weapons, in the wake of the defection of Pasechnik, would be to propose an exchange of data with the Americans in two areas: weapons work before the Biological Weapons Convention went into effect in 1975, and information on how any biological weapons development since then was being converted to civilian purposes. The Foreign Ministry also suggested that if specific questions came up about the Sverdlovsk anthrax incident, the Americans should be told that “indeed, an accident took place,” an investigation was underway and the results might be shared with them. Shevardnadze’s deputy for arms control, Viktor Karpov, circulated this document. He sent the draft to officials at Biopreparat (Alibek was on the list), the military (including the 15th Main Directorate, which handled bioweapons), the KGB, the Health Ministry, the Academy of Sciences and others.

Five days later, the military exploded. Dmitri Yazov, the defense minister, wrote a letter to all who had received the draft proposal. He complained the military had been left totally out of the loop. The military realized, correctly, that the offer of a data exchange would “radically contradict” previous statements that “the Soviet Union has never worked on nor produced nor possessed stockpiles of biological weapons,” Yazov said. In other words, the Foreign Ministry had proposed to open the window on the lie, and the military wanted to slam it shut before it got out.

On Sverdlovsk, Yazov insisted “there were no explosions and accidents” at the facility. The epidemic was caused by tainted meat, a government commission had determined at the time, and “at the present time there exists no new information or circumstances that would force a doubt about the correctness of the conclusions.”

The military was so alarmed that it demanded Karpov recall all fifteen copies of the draft resolution. The documents show the military prevailed. The language in the Foreign Ministry draft was immediately changed. Karpov sent out the amended instructions the next day, January 11.19

From October 1989 through January and February 1990, the British worked long hours to sift through the mountain of new information they received from Pasechnik. Details began to be shared with the United States. At the CIA headquarters, Doug MacEachin, the arms control director, received a file of reports coming in from London, not yet formally circulated in the CIA, summarizing the debriefings with Pasechnik, concluding that the Soviets were building strategic biological weapons. Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Prize–winning microbiologist, went to Britain to interview Pasechnik, and came away shocked by the revelation of the smallpox program and convinced that Pasechnik was genuine. MacEachin asked the CIA’s technical teams to help him corroborate what the defector was saying, using satellite data to locate facilities and other details.

Like the British policy staff, MacEachin had long assumed the Soviets would not build germ weapons if they had nuclear ones. “We also had authoritative information that the common view amongst the professional Soviet military, the line officers, was that biological weapons and chemical weapons are not weapons, they’re terrorism devices,” MacEachin said. “You know, they’re no good in the battlefield. How are you going to deploy a BW weapon on the battlefield?” He said that while biological weapons would cause mass casualties in a city, “bugs and gas are not the weapons that professional soldiers use. And we had plenty of evidence the Soviet military was very professional. One of the major arguments against putting a BW weapon on a SS-18 was: what a waste of time. It didn’t track.”

MacEachin took the new information to a meeting of the key arms control policy-makers at the White House, known as the “ungroup.” Out of a fear of leaks and bureaucratic infighting over arms control, the Bush White House had decided to handle the most sensitive matters in a very small circle. The members came from the departments of State and Defense, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Energy Department as well as the National Security Council. No assistants were allowed to sit on the back benches, no leaks were tolerated and the very existence of the group was known to only a few people. It was called the “ungroup” because formally it did not exist.20

After the Malta summit, the group had plenty to deal with: troop reductions in Europe, chemical weapons negotiations and pressure to reach a new strategic arms treaty by early June, when Bush and Gorbachev had scheduled a full summit in Washington. When all the regular business was finished at the ungroup one day in February, MacEachin asked everyone to wait. They had a frightening new problem which he described as “a turd in the punchbowl.”

What he told them next was astounding: a high-level human source had provided the outlines of a vast, secret Soviet biological weapons program, concealed in a civilian organization, Biopreparat. For the members of the ungroup, this was a potential time bomb. Every day, Gorbachev was sinking deeper. Bush had already put U.S. diplomacy on pause for a year. MacEachin told the ungroup, referring to the defector, “If what he says turns out to be even partially corroborated, it is of sufficient significance that, if we don’t resolve this problem, we ain’t going to get a single arms control agreement.” MacEachin believed that hawks in Congress, including the conservative senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who was the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was already attacking Gorbachev for violations of other treaties, would seize on the news to block any more agreements with Moscow. “Can you imagine Jesse Helms sitting up there with that in his hand?” MacEachin recalled. The senator would say, he predicted, “You can’t deal with the Soviets, they’re liars, cheaters, bums, rats, scums—and I’ve got the list right here in my hand.” MacEachin told the ungroup that the British defector was credible and “we’re going to try and make sure we corroborate. He’s given us so many details that we’ve got to be able to do some corroboration.”21

Bush decided to keep the story of Biopreparat under wraps, just as the Soviets had themselves done for so many years. The United States and Great Britain at last possessed tangible evidence that had so long eluded the experts on Soviet biological weapons, but because of all the pressures building up on Gorbachev, because of the dramatic rush of events in Europe, the president decided not to go public. To do so would not only trigger outrage in Congress, it might also severely damage Gorbachev and Shevardnadze at a time when the Soviet leaders could ill afford it. Dennis Ross, who was director of the Policy Planning office at the State Department and a top assistant to Baker, recalled, “Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were under enormous pressure. We wondered, what can their traffic bear? And we were trying to get [a unified] Germany into NATO. Germany in NATO is a strategic architecture for the next generation. Germany is bigger than anything else. And you’re going to introduce this? There were competing objectives and we had to make a choice.”22When Baker met Gorbachev on February 9, not a word was said about biological weapons. MacEachin said that in the spring the CIA briefed only a small circle of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and swore them to maximum secrecy. The story did not leak.

Alibek recalled in his memoir that disclosure might have forced Gorbachev to abandon the whole biological weapons enterprise on the spot. But that is not what happened. Bush’s decision “gave us unexpected breathing space,” Alibek said. “We continued to research and develop new weapons for two more years.”

Gorbachev’s power ebbed in the spring of 1990. Mass protests were held against his rule, the Baltic republics declared independence and Yeltsin became the chairman of the Russian parliament. The Congress of People’s Deputies, the legislature that Gorbachev’s reforms had created, repealed the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s closest adviser, was riddled with doubt. “I was deeply worried about what was happening in the country,” he said. “Most of all because nothing was working out the way Gorbachev intended, much less how it really ought to have.”23 Gorbachev wanted to save his country with his reforms, but instead it was coming apart at the seams. When Shevardnadze came to Washington April 4–6, the Americans realized the Soviet military was in a state of near rebellion against its civilian leadership. At one point, Shevardnadze retracted a concession about cruise missiles he had made to Baker in February. “I had the image of a diplomat with a political gun to his head,” Baker recalled. “Any step forward could lead to suicide.”24

Alibek at this point was still a company man, deputy director of Biopreparat, working at the headquarters. But he also had a change of view, and wondered how much longer they could go on covering up the biological weapons program. “Like everyone else, I was furious with Pasechnik and believed he had put our security at risk,” he said. “But where others desperately wanted to preserve the status quo, I saw no choice but to change course.” He thought they should mothball the pathogen production lines, while preserving the sample strains and research facilities. The laboratories would be easier to hide—they could be portrayed as making vaccines—than the factories mass-producing anthrax and smallpox. “If circumstances required, we could always recover our strength. So long as we had the strains in our vaults, we were only three to four months away from full capacity.”25 Alibek said that the KGB chairman, Vladimir Kryuchkov, sent a memorandum to Gorbachev recommending the “liquidation of our biological weapons production lines” because of the Pasechnik defection. The memorandum argued that the germ warfare program was no longer a secret from the West, so the Soviet Union should “cut our losses” and close down the factories.26

But rather than shut down the biowarfare machine, the system applied more camouflage. A detailed plan to deflect American questions about biological weapons was approved at a Politburo meeting April 25, 1990. The plan was to offer what would seem to be more openness, an exchange of visits. These would not be intrusive, formal inspections, but rather choreographed visits to select Soviet laboratories that had already been well scrubbed, as well as demands to see American sites and an exchange of information about defensive work, such as vaccines. The written plan, contained in five pages of “additional directives” and three appendixes approved by the Politburo, included an assertion that the Soviet side sincerely wanted to establish more “openness” and “trust” about biological weapons. One appendix was a draft agreement for both sides to sign, titled, in part, “measures to strengthen trust and broaden openness.” But it was all doublespeak. The true intent was to take the heat off Biopreparat. To deflect questions about the 1979 anthrax accident, another appendix offered “informational material about the Sverdlovsk facility.” This three-page document claimed Sverdlovsk had worked on vaccines against anthrax. It said nothing about the 1979 accident, nor about work on offensive biological weapons.27

At one point, Alibek recalled, he was given the job of getting a signature on the document about an exchange of visits from Karpov, the Foreign Ministry official for arms control. “I headed through the midday Moscow traffic to Smolenskaya,” the square where the ministry, in one of the distinctive Stalin-era wedding-cake towers, looms over the city.

“I didn’t need an armed guard, since there were no state secrets in my briefcase,” Alibek said. “Just a portfolio of lies.”

Karpov read the papers, then looked up at Alibek, he recalled. “You know, young man, I see a troubled future ahead of you.”

“I was taken aback,” Alibek recalled in his memoir. He protested that others had signed the documents. “I am just the courier.”

Karpov shook his head wearily, Alibek recalled.

“I know who you are and I know what you do,” Karpov said. “And I know that none of what is written here is true.” He signed.

Alibek persuaded his boss, Kalinin, that they should mothball some of the pathogen-making industrial plants and preserve the research laboratories. Alibek recalled he drafted a decree for Gorbachev to sign. There were just four paragraphs. The decree said Biopreparat would cease to function as an offensive biological weapons agency and would be made into an independent organization. A few weeks later, on May 5, Alibek said the decree came back from the Kremlin. “We’ve got it,” Kalinin told him. When Alibek looked at the document Gorbachev had sent back, however, “I went numb.” He explained, “Every paragraph I had drafted was there, but an additional one had been tacked on at the end. It instructed Biopreparat ‘to organize the necessary work to keep all of its facilities prepared for further manufacture and development.’”

The first part ended Biopreparat’s functioning as an offensive biological warfare organization, Alibek recalled in his memoir. The last part resurrected it.

Alibek protested, but Kalinin dismissed his worries with a flutter of his hand. “With this paper,” Kalinin said, “everyone gets to do what he wants to do.”

Using the Gorbachev order, Alibek said he sent a message to Stepnogorsk, the anthrax factory, and ordered the destruction of an explosive test chamber he had spent much time and effort to create. He also talked to Sandakhchiev at Vector about converting some facilities to civilian use. Alibek said he went to Siberia several times to oversee the conversion, which was completed by the end of 1990. But at the very same time, Sandakhchiev built a new facility for cultivating viruses for weapons, he said. “Similar double games were being played around The System,” he said. “While I closed production lines down,” Alibek said, another Biopreparat official “was authorizing new railcars for the mobile deployment of biological production plants.”28

The United States and Great Britain, now in possession of Pasechnik’s detailed and frightening overview, quietly confronted the Soviets. On May 14, 1990, the British and American ambassadors in Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite and Jack F. Matlock Jr., delivered a joint démarche, or formal protest. In separate meetings that afternoon, they took the protest to the heart of the leadership, meeting with Chernyaev, who was Gorbachev’s assistant, and Alexander Bessmertnykh, a deputy to Shevardnadze.

Matlock said Chernyaev “was not at all polemical” when the ambassadors delivered the protest. “He said immediately that there were three possibilities,” Matlock recalled. One was that the information was incorrect. “We of course interjected that we were certain it was correct,” Matlock said. Second, Chernyaev said, perhaps there was such a program and Gorbachev knew about it but had not told Chernyaev. Third, he said, it was possible such a program existed but neither he nor Gorbachev knew about it. “Chernyaev’s reply, allowing the possibility of a program with or without Gorbachev’s knowledge, was the first time I heard such a comment” from a Soviet official, Matlock recalled.29

At the Foreign Ministry, Bessmertnykh took detailed notes. He recorded that Matlock and Braithwaite said the West had “new information” on specific Soviet biological weapons facilities, personnel and programs. They added, according to his notes, “We have a basis to suggest that in the USSR a large-scale secret program in the field of biological weapons is being carried out and there exists significant stockpiles of such weapons far in excess of the reasonable requirements for research purposes.”

The ambassadors insisted they did not want “public agitation” over the issue. Braithwaite appealed to Bessmertnykh to resolve it “without additional fuss.” Matlock said it was being handled only in top-secret channels, and the United States was “absolutely not interested in burdening our relations with a new problem on the eve of the most important negotiations at the highest levels.” The planned summit between Bush and Gorbachev in Washington was just weeks away. Bessmertnykh promised to inform Shevardnadze.30

The démarche got the Kremlin’s attention. The next day, May 15, 1990, Zaikov sent a typewritten letter to Gorbachev. The letter, found in the Katayev archive, is a milestone in the story of the Biopreparat deception. It shows that Gorbachev personally instructed another Politburo member to report to him on biological weapons work.

Zaikov’s response was sent to Shevardnadze, too. “This is for your eyes only,” warned a small cover note to Shevardnadze, signed by Zaikov.31

“In accordance with your instructions,” Zaikov wrote to Gorbachev, “I report to you on the subject of biological weapons.” The word biological was neatly handwritten in blank spaces throughout the letter, apparently because the issue was so ultrasensitive he did not want a typist to know.

Zaikov put a very selective spin on the past and present history of the biological warfare program. It is evident from the letter that Soviet officials lied not only to the world, but to each other, including to the president of the country. “In our country,” Zaikov told Gorbachev, “the development of biological weapons began in the 1950s at three USSR Ministry of Defense organizations, located in Kirov, Zagorsk, and Sverdlovsk.” In fact, the Soviet work on biological weapons dated back to the late 1920s. Zaikov had identified three of the military’s chief facilities in the postwar period, including Sverdlovsk.

“In 1971,” Zaikov continued, “they were joined in this work by another 12 organizations of the USSR Ministry of the Medical Industry and the former USSR State Agroindustrial Committee. By 1985, they had developed 12 recipes and means for using them. These were produced in suitable quantities, stored, and destroyed after the expiration of useful life (an average of 6 months.)”32

Zaikov’s description hardly did justice to the ambitious quest for genetically engineered microbes, production and weaponization, and the string of laboratories and factories built by Biopreparat and the military. Zaikov then reviewed the history of the treaty, noting it “had no effective inspection mechanism for ensuring compliance, nor was there a precise definition of the difference between developing biological weapons and defensive means against them.”

Zaikov was correct that the boundary between offensive and defensive biological weapons work was sometimes unclear. But the Soviets had not just stepped over the line, they had taken giant and deliberate strides into activity clearly prohibited by international treaty. Zaikov did not inform Gorbachev of the Soviet violations. He instead claimed it was the West that may have violated the agreement.

Next, Zaikov described the high-level Soviet decision making on biological weapons in the last few years. He told Gorbachev that Soviet officials had concluded there was a possibility of inspections under a forthcoming global ban on chemical weapons, and even “possible” inspections to check on compliance with the 1972 biological weapons treaty. He reminded Gorbachev of the Central Committee decision of October 6, 1989, a few weeks before Pasechnik defected. That decision, Zaikov said, was that “all research capacity for biological weapons be redirected and used to develop defensive means against these weapons so as not to contradict our international obligations.” What Zaikov neglected to tell Gorbachev was that the October 6 decision also stated that the Soviet Union would try to “preserve” its “parity” in “military biology.”

Zaikov then told Gorbachev, “In 1988, the stocks of special recipes were destroyed, production of active materials at industrial facilities was halted, and special processing and munitions-assembly equipment was dismantled.”33 Zaikov went on to remind Gorbachev of the high-level decisions made earlier to accelerate the process of getting some facilities scrubbed for possible inspection.34 Three research laboratories “are currently being prepared for international inspection,” he said—Obolensk, where Popov and Domaradsky had worked on genetic engineering of bacteria and where Popov saw the guinea pigs die; Koltsovo, where Popov had first experimented with genetically modified viruses; and Pasechnik’s facility in Leningrad, where, among other things, he had explored how to produce agents more effectively and to make them even more potent. These three laboratories were at the heart of the Biopreparat program.

“It is possible that some Western circles have a heightened interest in our country’s compliance with the 1972 Convention after the defection of V. A. Pasechnik in France in October, 1989,” Zaikov wrote. Pasechnik, he added, “had knowledge of the content of special biological research work, as well as the locations of organizations involved in this work.”

“However,” he reassured Gorbachev, “any possible leak of information by Pasechnik, who is a narrow specialist, will not cause damage in revealing our scientific and technical achievements in this field, but might provide a basis for Western countries to question the Soviet Union’s compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention.” Zaikov told Gorbachev that the Soviet Union had given the United Nations

a complete list of the names and locations of 17 facilities that handle high-risk infectious materials, including facilities developing defensive means against biological weapons. At the same time, the USA disclosed only six such facilities, although some data indicate there are far more than that.

In fact, the Soviet declarations to the United Nations were woefully incomplete, failing to include some of the secret mass-production facilities or the offensive nature of the Soviet program.

Zaikov closed the letter by telling Gorbachev that “if the issue arises” of mutual visits to biological facilities “in order to lessen concerns about their activity,” the Americans could be invited to Koltsovo, Obolensk and the older military laboratory at Kirov. Zaikov said the Soviets should demand access to three American sites.35

Gorbachev’s reaction to the Zaikov letter is not known, but events moved quickly after he received it. Baker had just arrived in Moscow for meetings to plan the upcoming summit in Washington. He did not raise biological weapons at any of the regular negotiating sessions in the Soviet capital. But on May 17, Shevardnadze invited Baker on a sightseeing trip to Zagorsk, a town forty-three miles northeast of the Kremlin with a famous Russian Orthodox monastery. At Baker’s request, MacEachin, who was also in Moscow, assembled a short paper outlining what the United States knew, and he gave it to Baker. As they cruised to Zagorsk in Shevardnadze’s ZIL limousine, flying Soviet and American flags on the front, with no aides but two interpreters in the car, Baker raised the issue of biological weapons and handed the paper to Shevardnadze. Baker recalled that Shevardnadze said, in the present tense, “he didn’t think it could be so, but he would check it out.” Ross recalled the paper was a special effort to make sure Shevardnadze knew Baker took the issue seriously and wanted a response.36

The next day, May 18, the British defense secretary, Tom King, was in Moscow and held formal talks with Dmitri Yazov, the Soviet defense minister. King also pressed Yazov about biological weapons. Yazov said it was inconceivable that the Soviet Union would have a policy of developing biological weapons. Yazov’s manner was hopelessly clumsy, recalled Braithwaite, the British ambassador, who was present. “Yazov muttered to his aide that the British had presumably learned something from ‘that defector,’ went red in the face, but blandly denied all knowledge,” Braithwaite recalled.37

Before his departure for Washington, Baker saw that the Gorbachev revolution was running aground. Negotiations on nuclear arms control—the unfinished business of Reykjavik—were “going nowhere slowly.” Baker wrote to Bush from Moscow: “The economic problems, the public mistrust, the sense of losing control, the heat of the nationality issue, and concerns about Germany, are all weighing very heavily.” Baker said he left “with an overriding impression that Gorbachev was feeling squeezed.” Germany was “overloading his circuits,” and “the military now seemed in charge of arms control.”38

A troubled Gorbachev returned to Washington for a summit May 31, 1990. Two years had passed since his sunny walk in Red Square with Reagan. Bush had finally come around to the belief that Gorbachev was a genuine reformer. In the weeks before the summit Bush called Gorbachev a “tremendous statesman” and “bold Soviet leader” who tried to “initiate daring reforms.” But the hour was late. On Saturday, June 2, Bush and Gorbachev helicoptered together to Camp David, the 143-acre presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Bush recalled they were each accompanied by military aides carrying the briefcases that would link each of them to their command posts in the event of nuclear war.

Bush persuaded Gorbachev to change out of his suit and tie into a sweater for an informal discussion at Aspen Lodge, sitting at a glass table on the veranda, overlooking the pool, golf course and putting green. Gorbachev was joined by Akhromeyev and Shevardnadze; Bush by Baker and Scowcroft. The sky was clear and a breeze rustled through the trees. Much of the discussion was about regional conflicts around the world, including Afghanistan.39 Gorbachev recalled that at one point during the day, Bush called him aside for a very private chat. “It was just the two of us and my interpreter,” Gorbachev said.

Bush told Gorbachev that the CIA was reporting that the Soviet Union had not destroyed all its biological weapons and production facilities.

“I said,” Gorbachev recalled, “my intelligence people report that you have not destroyed all your biological weapons. I believe you, I said, but why don’t you believe me?”

Bush: “Those are the reports I get.”

Gorbachev: “Well, you are not an expert on biological weapons. And I am not an expert on biological weapons. Let us have mutual verification, mutual verification of whether biological weapons have been destroyed. Let your people come to our weapons facilities, we also know where your facilities are, and we will come to your country. Let’s have an exchange.”

Gorbachev was trying to deflect Bush, just as Zaikov had suggested.

According to Gorbachev’s account, Bush responded to the idea of an exchange by proposing that the Americans should check the Soviet Union first.40

Years later, when Gorbachev was asked directly whether he knew that Biopreparat existed, he seemed uneasy. His reply was vague. “No, I can’t say I remember dealing with that organization,” he said. “But there was medical research and they make vaccines against epidemics. Where is the line, the point where research becomes biological weapons and production? This is still controversial, even today, because you need cooperation, you need the kind of international relationship to make it possible to get rid of those weapons.” Gorbachev then quickly changed the subject.41

When Thatcher met with Gorbachev in Moscow on June 8, she also raised with him “the evidence which we had gleaned that the Soviet Union was doing research into biological weapons.” It was something “which he emphatically denied,” she recalled, “but nonetheless promised to investigate.”42

In July 1990, Baker gave Shevardnadze another paper outlining American concerns about biological weapons.43 Shevardnadze had invited Baker for a relaxing visit to a scenic area of Siberia in early August. Before they met, however, Shevardnadze needed to come up with an answer to the Western protests. On July 27 and again on July 30, a group of officials gathered at Zaikov’s office in Moscow to draft talking points that Shevardnadze would use to respond to Baker. According to the talking points, found in Katayev’s files, the group decided to preserve the facade.44

Baker and Shevardnadze spent most of August 1 boating and fishing on idyllic, mile-deep Lake Baikal. When they got around to discussing arms control, Shevardnadze was guided by the papers written in Zaikov’s office: six neatly typed, double-spaced pages. Shevardnadze opened with a solemn declaration that he took the American and British complaints with “utmost seriousness.” Then he said, “I can state that at the present time no activity is being carried out in the Soviet Union that would violate the articles of the convention on prohibition of biological weapons. We have no biological weapons.”

Shevardnadze claimed the issue of Soviet compliance had been taken up “by the political leadership of the country,” and “special decisions were taken” followed by instructions “to take all measures to provide rigorous compliance with this international agreement.” In fact, the decisions were taken to hide the incriminating evidence. Shevardnadze also said, in a bit of window dressing, the Soviet Union was thinking about enacting new legislation that would make it a crime for any actions that “will” violate the convention—in the future.

Shevardnadze, following the script, promised Baker that the Soviet side was ready “to arrange a visit to any of the biological facilities named by the American side in the U.S. memo.” And, he said, the Soviets would even go so far as to allow American scientists to “work at the Soviet biological facilities.” In a page that was not numbered, but apparently added at the end of his presentation, Shevardnadze suggested both sides work out a program of joint scientific work on defense against biological weapons. Shevardnadze also gave Baker a written paper containing the Soviet response to his questions.

Shevardnadze had been aware of, and participated in, discussions of the scrub-down and cover-up strategy to hide Biopreparat in 1989. In his memoir, Shevardnadze alluded to this moment. “If anything, Jim could have had some doubts about my honesty, in connection with an unpleasant story I do not intend to tell here.” He added, “Lying is always unproductive.”45

Back at the CIA in Washington, a decision was made not to punish the Soviets but to take up their offer of visits. “We said to ourselves, about Shevardnadze, he’s lying, but let’s not decide to ram it up their ass,” MacEachin recalled. “The number one objective for U.S. national security is to eliminate, and get onsite inspections. We knew if we accused, there would be 900 meetings of finger-pointing without anything happening.”46 In the months that followed, working in total secrecy, Baker and Shevardnadze negotiated the details of the first visits to suspected Soviet biological weapons sites.47 But they had many other pressing demands to cope with.

On August 2, while Baker and Shevardnadze were meeting privately, they were interrupted by Baker’s spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, who handed Baker a message saying that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Baker enlisted Shevardnadze and Gorbachev in what became a concerted, months-long effort to build a diplomatic coalition against Iraq. Gorbachev was reluctant to see the use of force and kept hoping that Saddam could be talked into pulling out of Kuwait. Nevertheless, when Baker came to Gorbachev’s official country residence at Novo-Ogaryovo on November 7, the Soviet leader said, “What’s really important is that we stick together.”48

In these hectic months, a treaty reducing troop levels in Europe was signed, an agreement was reached on the unification of Germany and Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize. At home, Gorbachev sank. He tried to fashion a new Union Treaty to hold the restive republics together, while Yeltsin urged them to grab all the independence they could. Chernyaev observed that “Gorbachev seemed truly at a loss, the first time I’d ever seen him in that state. He could see power slipping from his hands.”49 Shevardnadze brooded over the growing strength of reactionary forces, especially the “men in epaulets,” and felt Gorbachev was abandoning their shared cause of democratic reform. “The only thing I needed, wanted, and expected from the President was that he take a clear position: that he rebuff the right-wingers, and openly defend our common policy,” Shevardnadze recalled. “I waited in vain.”

On the morning of December 20, after a sleepless night, Shevardnadze wrote out a resignation. He called his daughter in Tbilisi and told her, then informed two of his closest aides. He left for the Kremlin.50 The Congress of People’s Deputies fell into a stunned silence as he spoke. Shevardnadze complained bitterly of a lack of support; the reformers had scattered. “Dictatorship is coming,” he warned. Gorbachev, sitting nearby, listened impassively. When the speech was over, he clutched his forehead and looked down at his papers.51

In the autumn of 1990, another Soviet defector, a medical biochemist, sought asylum at the British Embassy in Helsinki. He had once had top-secret clearances in the Soviet system and worked at Obolensk in the very early years when it was being carved out of the forest. He later worked in the antiplague system, and described to the British how pathogens were harvested from it for use in biological weapons. The defector’s information reinforced Pasechnik’s revelations.52

Very early in the morning on Monday, January 8, 1991, Davis and Kelly stood in Moscow in the bone-chilling cold. Seven American and five British representatives—experts on biotechnology, microbiology, virology, arms control verification and the structure of the Soviet program— were about to begin the very first visit to suspected biological weapons sites. Davis, usually sharp and no-nonsense, was a bit groggy. It was deep winter, absolutely frigid, and he had uncharacteristically overslept. The British-American team had arrived in total secrecy; Davis had not even told his wife where he was going or why. Standing in front of an aging yellow bus, Davis was introduced for the first time to Alibek, who was put in charge of the visit. Alibek, smoking a cigarette, wore a brown wool sweater while everyone else on the Soviet side was in suits and ties. Alibek spoke no English and had never met an American or Briton. He recalled his surprise that the Westerners “knew a lot about us,” and one asked why “Biopreparat chief Kalinin” wasn’t present. Alibek lied, “Unfortunately, Mr. Kalinin is extremely busy.” Kalinin had instructed him never to even mention his name.53

The bus set off for the Institute of Immunology at Lyubuchany, 35 miles south of the Kremlin, which did support work for Obolensk. The bus crawled in a snowstorm, and suddenly Davis heard a loud bang. The bus windshield shattered from the cold. “It was bloody awful,” Davis recalled. “This is the big game. This is day one. We haven’t even reached the place yet, and we have to slow down because we can’t keep going at speed, or we’d all die of exposure. We’re shivering now, probably doing 15 miles per hour, and we arrive late, frozen to death.” Alibek said the Soviet strategy for the visits, worked out over the previous weeks, was to hide as much as possible, and “waste as much time as possible” with meals, drinks and official speeches, to limit time for the visitors to carry out inspections. Vodka and cognac were ordered up at every stop. Popov said “there was a huge training program” before the visits so that every employee knew to repeat the “legend” that they were working only on defense against pathogens. “Every department and every lab had several meetings,” Popov recalled. The first stop was easy—the institute had no dangerous pathogens on hand.

Next came Obolensk, the compound in the woods that had played such a central role in the work of Domaradsky and Popov. When they arrived January 10, Davis noted that, although thousands of people worked there, the halls were eerily empty. Urakov, the stern director who had clashed with Domaradsky, welcomed them with a long speech, sandwiches and drinks. When the Westerners pressed to get to work, Urakov warned them that if they wanted access to the floor containing Yesenia pestis, they would have to be quarantined for nine days on site. The point was to discourage the visitors from asking for access. Alibek had actually given orders the previous weekend for Obolensk and Vector to be totally disinfected, so the risk of exposure to dangerous pathogens was very low. Still, Urakov’s threat worked, and they did not ask to go there.54

The Westerners had brought their own plan of action for the visit to the complex, which had more than thirty buildings, and they split up into small teams. Davis was the person on the delegation with the most complete knowledge, and he needed to be in several places at once. He went with one team to Korpus 1, the large cubelike modern building in which each floor was dedicated to a different pathogen. But when another team in the older part of the complex found something interesting, he was asked to come over, and was driven there by the Russian hosts.

Davis happened upon an unmarked door that, he recalled, looked like that of a restroom. This opened into a shower changing room, and eventually a high-ceiling room containing a large freestanding hexagonal steel chamber, which Pasechnik had told them about. Biological bombs would be exploded inside the chamber, and animals, pinned down at one end, were exposed to the pathogens. Pasechnik had said the facility was used to test whether pathogens remained effective after being released by an explosive device.

They climbed inside the chamber. It was dark.

“Can we turn the lights on, I can’t see,” Davis asked. The Soviets said the bulb was burned out.

Davis reached for a small flashlight held by his trusted friend and deputy, Major Hamish Killip. Before Davis could turn the flashlight on, a Soviet official accompanying them grabbed his wrist and stopped him, saying it was a prohibited electronic device. They struggled back and forth. Davis protested strongly that he was on an officially sanctioned mission by the president of the Soviet Union. “We are your guests,” he insisted. “This is not the way to behave!”

“I wasn’t letting go of the flashlight, and he has ahold of me, and we’re in a standoff here. It was tense. They didn’t know what to do, and I wasn’t going to back off.” Eventually, the laboratory officials relented and managed to turn on the overhead light.55 Davis noticed the steel walls appeared to have been recently burnished, to erase any marks that would indicate explosive fragments. But when Davis looked at the door, which seemed to be double-skinned and made of a softer metal, he saw the telltale dents. What’s this? he asked.

The laboratory officials said it was poor workmanship with a hammer when the door was installed. “They knew that we knew this was laughable rubbish,” Davis said. Alibek remembered that Davis spoke up directly, saying, “You have been using explosives here.” Davis said the visit to the chamber was “pay dirt” showing the Soviets had an offensive biological weapons program, as Pasechnik had so painstakingly described. “It was quite chilling,” he said. The size of the equipment at Obolensk was a tip-off to the American and British experts that offensive weapons work was underway, and not just vaccines or defensive research. “You’ve got this gigantic building. You’re brewing up large quantities. You’re beginning to smell a rat here.”

Next, on January 14, the team went to Vector, the facility at Koltsovo where Popov had first experimented with genetic engineering. Sandakhchiev, the driven, chain-smoking Armenian who had once dreamed of creating a new artificial virus every month, began to give the foreigners a dull lecture on the latest advances in Soviet immunology, but the visitors, now alert to the Soviet delay strategy, cut him off. Davis and Kelly wanted to see the laboratories. “I could see their eyes widen with astonishment as we took them past enormous steel fermenters, larger than what any Western pharmaceutical firm would ever use for the mass-production of vaccines,” said Alibek. They were not permitted, however, to enter the most sensitive floors where virus research was being done.

At one point, a midlevel researcher let slip to Kelly that the laboratory was working on smallpox. Kelly asked him, quietly, through the interpreter, to repeat what he had just said. The researcher repeated it three times: Variola major. Kelly was speechless. The World Health Organization had eradicated smallpox, and samples were supposed to exist in only two official repositories, at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at the Ivanovsky Institute of Virology, a Ministry of Health facility in Moscow. Vector was not supposed to be working with smallpox; it was not supposed to have any smallpox. When Kelly later confronted Sandakhchiev, the director denied that offensive work was being carried out, and then refused to answer any more questions.

Alibek knew that one of Vector’s prize possessions was the 630-liter smallpox reactor, standing five feet tall, which could manufacture great quantities of the virus. The visitors took note of the reactor and other equipment, including the most advanced aerosol-testing capability any of them had ever seen. There could be no justifiable explanation other than an offensive biological weapons program, they concluded.

At the last stop, Pasechnik’s institute in Leningrad, Alibek thought he could relax. “The worst was behind us,” he later wrote. “Nothing at Pasechnik’s old institute would pose a threat. Or, so I thought.” All the incriminating equipment had been moved, and the laboratories scrubbed down.

Then, during the tour, one of the visitors stopped by an imposing machine and asked, “What’s this?”

“I groaned inwardly,” Alibek said. “I had forgotten about Pasechnik’s jet-stream milling equipment. It had been too heavy to move.” This was the machine that used a powerful blast of air to turn agents into a fine powder. An institute official proffered an explanation. “For salt,” he said. “That’s where we mill salt.”

The visitors saw machinery for preparing biological aerosols that would be the perfect size for sticking in the human upper respiratory system. And they saw equipment Pasechnik had alerted them about for disseminating pathogens from a low-flying craft, such as a cruise missile.

After the visitors left, Alibek felt victorious. Although the Westerners had suspicions, he recalled, “they could prove nothing, and we had given nothing away.”

The delegation knew they did not get a full view of Biopreparat, but they had seen enough. They wrote in their report: the sheer size and scope of the program, the configuration of the facilities, the nature and extent of the work on pathogens, the guards and physical security and the large aerosol experiments—all of it pointed to an offensive germ warfare effort that was far beyond anything needed for civilian purposes.

Pasechnik had told them the truth.

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