Military history

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In the years after World War II, the United States built an offensive biological weapons program, but it was abandoned by President Nixon in 1969. Three years later, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was signed, prohibiting the development and production of germs for warfare. The Soviet Union joined, and became one of the three nations to serve as a depository, or custodian, of the agreement. Then, in an audacious turn, Soviet leaders secretly broke their obligations and expanded research on offensive biological weapons through a vast and concealed complex of laboratories and institutes disguised as civilian facilities. Codes were created to keep track of all the pathogens and branches of the program. Bacteria were identified by the prefix “L.” Plague was L1, tularemia L2, brucellosis L3 and anthrax L4. Viruses were “N.” Smallpox was N1, Ebola was N2, Marburg N3 and so on. One part of the effort was called “Project Factor,” which was shortened from “virulence factor,” or “pathogenic factor.” Virulence is the relative ability of a pathogen to cause death. Boosting the virulence of bacteria and viruses made them more lethal. In parallel to Factor, other projects included “Bonfire,” a quest to create a new generation of germs that would resist antibiotics, while “Flute” attempted to fashion mind-altering compounds—a weapon that might cause a whole army to go crazy.1 “Ferment” was the name given to a drive for genetic engineering. Chemical weapons were “Foliant.”Separately, Soviet scientists were also working on germs to wither crops and devastate livestock. This was called “Ecology.”2

In 1984, Sergei Popov was among the scientists at the forefront of Project Factor. He was thirty-four years old then, a bright young researcher, tall with a genial manner and a slightly reedy, pleasant voice. Popov worked in a scientific institute at Koltsovo, a small town amid the forests in western Siberia, twenty miles southeast of a much larger city, Novosibirsk. In the long Siberian winters, he rose when it was still dark and cold to get his young daughter ready for school. He described himself as a disciplined person, not strongly against authority, vaguely hopeful in the future of socialism, but aware of its deficiencies. He and his wife, Taissia, were both dedicated scientists, drawn to Koltsovo in 1976 by the promise of greater opportunity for research. Around him, the institute was growing quickly. Dozens of new buildings were being constructed, and modern equipment installed. The formal name was the Institute of Molecular Biology, and it later became known as Vector. In microbiology, “vector” refers to a vehicle for transferring fragments of DNA from one cell to another.3

Popov had grown up nearby, in Novosibirsk, and earned his university degrees there. Just south of the city was Akademgorodok, or Academic Town, which included the Novosibirsk State University and dozens of prestigious institutes for research into physics, mathematics, geology, chemistry and social sciences. With wide boulevards lined with pine, birch, spruce and cedar, and a large concentration of scientists, Akademgorodok was known for relatively free thinking in contrast to the stifling, ideological atmosphere of Moscow. The son of railway engineers, Popov was attracted to mathematics as a youth. His parents recognized his talent and sent him to a special school with an advanced program in mathematics. As a teenager, he was interested in chemistry. When he was sixteen years old, he decided to design his own rocket fuel. He succeeded, but it exploded in his face and eyes; a piece of glass got stuck in his eyelid, and acid burned him from head to toe. His scars eventually healed.

In 1984, at Vector, Popov was head of the chemistry department. He was facing a new challenge, the dawn of an ambitious quest to penetrate the secrets of the smallpox virus. Four years earlier, the World Health Organization had triumphantly announced that smallpox had been eradicated from the face of the Earth. Millions of lives had been spared. But what the outside world didn’t know was that smallpox was an object of experimentation for the scientists at Vector.

The virus, which had killed more people than all the wars of the twentieth century combined, was itself to be made into a weapon of war.

When he started at Koltsovo, Popov was dreaming only about science. He and his wife were lured by the promises of Lev Sandakhchiev, a compact, intense, chain-smoking scientist of Armenian descent who was assistant scientific director of Vector, and became director in 1979. Sandakhchiev was known to many as a restless hustler for his fledgling institution. He offered them salaries that were 50 percent higher than elsewhere. He had plentiful job vacancies, which meant they could expect career advancement; he persuaded the authorities to allocate foreign currency to him for purchasing reagents and equipment; and he could offer them a good apartment, which was scarce elsewhere. Popov knew the location well, and as he rode his bicycle around, he marveled at the construction, including a new nine-story apartment building. Something big was happening here. Sandakhchiev told them they would be engaged in applied science, taking academic discoveries and creating useful products. Sergei and Taissia arrived with high hopes. “It was very attractive, and we knew nothing about biological weapons at that time,” Popov said. “Nobody even said a single word about it. It’s not like we were invited to do some kind of biological weapons research. No, no. Not at all. So we were completely naïve and we did not understand what was going on. And we were invited to join a new institution, and that was it.”

Sandakhchiev was in a hurry. He wanted to push the frontiers of genetic engineering in biological weapons. The sprawling facility included special departments for every step: to develop and produce culture media; to grow cells for the production of viruses; to grow the viruses; to isolate and manipulate DNA; to isolate the necessary enzymes; to test the results on animals, and more. His institute did achieve some gains in civilian research, but at the core, it was a laboratory to discover new methods of using viruses to kill people on a massive scale.

After earning his doctorate at Novosibirsk State University in 1976, Popov became a junior scientist in the chemistry department at Vector. Chemistry was vital to unwrapping the secrets of genes. In the first year or two, he recalled, the scientists were given basic training in microbiology. They practiced growing viruses using harmless species variants, known as bacterial phages. In 1978, Popov was promoted to head of the chemistry department, and he began to learn the true goals Sandakhchiev had in mind. He got his clearance for access to top-secret information. “And at that point I became irreversibly involved in the biological weapons program.”

“So it was quite innocent,” he recalled. “They said, you are in the position of a department head, and you need to understand that in addition to academic research, we need to develop some military projects to defend our country.” Popov was prohibited from travel abroad without special permission. They asked him to sign a statement promising to keep the deepest secrets. “That was the beginning,” he said, “a very critical step. I committed myself. I signed the papers because there was no choice. Everybody was polite and nobody insisted, but I know very few people in my position who refused to cooperate. The refusal would be a kind of suicide, meaning the KGB would be after you for the rest of your life, and you would never get a decent job. I admire those people who had the courage to say ‘no.’ They were more mature than I was.”

Popov said he also had doubts about whether germs would ever be used in war, even as he became more deeply involved. “I never believed those weapons could ever be used. I always believed they would never be used, because it was so absurd, everything was so absurd and so self-destructive.” He said it would be “ridiculous” to use germs on a battlefield, the impact being so unpredictable. He added, “The only justification for me to be involved in this absurdity was that I was pushed … There was a popular saying that if they fire you, there will be just one place to find a job. It will be the Western Siberia Hat Company.” That was a metaphor for a humiliating dead end. At Koltsovo, by contrast, promising research challenges, facilities, and opportunity beckoned.

The KGB had a large presence at the institute, supervising documents, watching management, keeping an eye out for spies. Each employee went through a meticulous background check. Links to the outside world were forbidden, and contacts with foreigners rare. “And there was great, great suspicion regarding somebody who came from abroad,” Popov recalled. “The KGB instructed us how to deal with the visitor, the KGB assigned a special person to follow every step of that visitor, and everybody who contacted that visitor fell under the KGB’s suspicion, so it was a lot of trouble to even talk to the foreigner.” Some scientific articles from overseas journals were distributed, but general Western literature was prohibited. Suspicion was rife. Once, the scientific secretary of the institute was accused of reading literature about yoga, Popov recalled. “And also he had been noticed standing on his head. Head down, and legs up, and that was clearly unacceptable for a person in his position. Although he did it purely at his leisure at home, his abnormal behavior raised the suspicion that if he was capable of doing something like this, he could not be trusted. He was dismissed.”

The true purpose of Koltsovo was concealed with a “legend,” or cover story. “The so-called open legend provided to everybody was that the purpose of the institute was to push the development of industrial microbiology. And we wanted to know how to modify microbes, how to make them producers of different kinds of biological substances. It was a legitimate goal, which covered up the biological weapons program, because its purpose sounded exactly like the peaceful program. There was only one exception—those modified microbes had, ultimately, to be killers.”

Amid all the secrecy, Popov recognized a fault in the cover story. A normal institute of this size would be a source of dozens or hundreds of scientific papers in the professional journals. But Popov said scientists were severely restricted in what they could publish. Any paper had to say nothing about their real work, and fit the cover story. “It had to be a confusing, or misleading, or irrelevant story,” he said. The dearth of serious papers from a facility with thousands of research workers would be suspicious. If not making discoveries for science, what were they doing? But Popov was told by high-level officials that the United States had a hidden biological weapons program too, and he believed it. There was hardly any discussion of the 1972 treaty. “You know, the overall perception was that we were quite undeveloped, which was mainly true,” Popov said, reflecting on his thinking in those times. “We thought about ourselves as a country that needed to develop its own capability in terms of biological weapons. We feared being without them, and nobody essentially ever doubted that the Americans had the best biological weapons. And think about the predominant social mentality of the Soviets at that time. Who ever doubted that Americans were always cheating on us? Nobody did, simply because we always did—and expected others would be stupid not to behave in the same way.”

Viruses are extraordinarily small, submicroscopic particles, hundreds of times smaller than a grain of sand, that infect a biological organism and cause disease. They were first discovered by Dmitri Ivanovsky, a Russian microbiologist, in 1892, and six years later by Martinus Beijerinck, a Dutch microbiologist and botanist. Ivanovsky was trying to understand why tobacco mosaic disease, in the sap of tobacco plants, could not be captured by a porcelain filter that trapped bacteria. He realized that the disease particle was so small that it was passing through the filter. Viruses are barely life-forms, consisting of nothing more than a protein shell and bits of genetic material and sometimes a membrane. But they can be destroyers, carrying incredibly high virulence and contagiousness. They have caused smallpox and influenza epidemics. They work by infecting a host cell, then directing the cell to replicate and produce more viruses. Unlike bacteria, they cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Sandakhchiev’s dream was to build viral demons the world had never known—viruses that would attack troops or populations. But there were formidable hurdles to be overcome in this still-backward realm of Soviet science. The researchers had to learn to walk before they could run, and one of the early challenges was to synthesize genetic material, to make artificial DNA. At the time, methods were known in the West for creating simple genes, but the Soviet Union was still far behind. In the first six months of 1980, Sandakhchiev sent Popov on an extraordinary mission. Popov went to the University of Cambridge, England, to the famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology, a center of many of the world’s advances in microbiology, to absorb and copy the technology for DNA synthesis and bring it back. Travel abroad by a participant in the Soviet bioweapons program was highly unusual, and Popov’s trip had to be approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow. Popov went alone, without his family, posing as a civilian researcher for six months, studying intensively, and returned to Koltsovo with the know-how. He also had been given a glimpse of life in the West—something he never forgot.4

When he returned to Koltsovo, laborious and time-consuming synthesis of DNA got underway. The fragments of genetic material had to be fabricated from nucleotides, the fundamental units of nucleic acids, one by one. For a small gene, this might be feasible. For example, somatostatin, a growth regulatory hormone, is a tiny protein, only fourteen amino acids long. Scientists could synthesize it by making a DNA chain forty-two nucleotides long. But more complex genes could require hundreds or thousands of nucleotides. In his laboratory, Popov recalled, he often had more than fifty scientists with doctorate training engaged in this arduous work. “The labs were filled up with flasks, bottles of solvents and reagents, people standing in front of numerous fume hoods, doing that tedious, step-by-step chemical procedure.”

Yet the restless Sandakhchiev pushed him hard to synthesize enough genetic material to make artificial viruses. “From the beginning it seemed like a crazy idea,” Popov said, “but Sandakhchiev was a master of ambitious projects who set high goals. While we were struggling with making DNA fragments of 15 to 20 units long, he dreamed about thousands. We understood that in order to really speed things up we had to do the synthesis automatically. Sandakhchiev came up with the idea to build a huge warehouse or factory with automatic robots assembling DNA of different viruses. One virus a month, that would be an ideal productivity. And you could assemble biological weapons one after another.”

The World Health Organization campaign against smallpox had taken more than a decade to complete. Now Sandakhchiev was proposing to create a new virus every month.

“There was a green light given to Sandakhchiev’s idea,” Popov recalled. “What if the Soviet Union would be able to produce disease agents one after another? Agents with unbelievable efficacy, and without a means of protection against them? That was his brilliant idea.” Popov was told to study how to construct a “synthesizer,” an assembly line—what would it take? Sandakhchiev was interested in making SV40, a virus that causes cancer in monkeys, since the genetic sequence was the only one already known. It was more than five thousand nucleotides long. Popov told him it would require two or three years. Sandakhchiev was disappointed; he still wanted a new virus every month. “To me it sounded like extreme stupidity,” Popov said, but “Sandakhchiev clearly understood the rules of the game with the Soviet military lobby. He stunned the generals with crazy, crazy, crazy ideas, well ahead of others.”

In the early 1980s, Popov and others at Vector, in conjunction with another institute in Moscow, genetically engineered an agent to create artificial interferon, an antiviral substance produced in the body.5 Popov was decorated with a high state award for his work on interferon. Interferon was a valuable civilian invention, and part of Vector’s cover story. Meanwhile, behind the curtain, Vector began to study smallpox, hoping to give it new life as a biological weapon.

The smallpox virus is called Variola. The most severe and common is Variola major. Over the course of human history, Variola major claimed hundreds of millions of lives, and caused the most feared of deadly scourges. Historically, Variola major had an overall fatality rate of about 30 percent.6 Those who contracted smallpox suffered terribly. Jonathan Tucker, who has written extensively on smallpox, described it this way: “After a two-week incubation period, smallpox racked the body with high fever, headache, backache, and nausea, and then peppered the face, trunk, limbs, mouth and throat with hideous, pus-filled boils. Patients with the infection were in agony—their skin felt as if it was being consumed by fire, and although they were tormented by thirst, lesions in the mouth and throat made it excruciating to swallow.” For those who survived, the disease ran its course in two or three weeks. But it was highly transmissible, spread in the air by talking or sneezing, and remained contagious in clothing and bed linens. As recently as 1967, the disease sickened between 10 and 15 million people each year in forty-three countries and caused an estimated 2 million deaths.7

A long campaign to eradicate smallpox ended with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaration of success May 8, 1980. The WHO recommended the end of vaccinations worldwide. “The conquest of smallpox,” Tucker said, “the first—and so far, only—infectious disease to have been eradicated from nature by human effort, was among the greatest medical achievements of the twentieth century.”

Now, at Vector, Popov urged Sandakhchiev to consider smallpox for reengineering in Project Factor, instead of re-creating SV40 or making artificial viruses. Why not invent something new out of smallpox? Smallpox was simple to grow, easily aerosolized, caused a disease with a high mortality and was stable in storage.

Popov did not at this point work directly on the dangerous smallpox virus, but used models with related viruses, such as vaccinia or ectromelia, mousepox. The models acted like a stand-in for the real thing. Popov recalled the institute was also coming under pressure from Moscow to produce results. It had been established almost ten years earlier and Sandakhchiev was being criticized for not producing more dramatic breakthroughs. “We were pushed very hard by the Central Committee to accelerate,” Popov recalled. “There were promises and big investments in the program, but no output. And that’s when Factor became a focus of my research.”

As he began trying to manipulate some microbes, Popov faced a serious difficulty. It was hard to get organisms to increase the amount of toxin they discharged. They could emit a small amount, but if he tried to make them more productive, there was an unexpected side effect: the microbe became less poisonous. The virulence of the organism would decline, instead of increasing. “If we made them good producers,” he said, “we often ended up with poor killers.” Through years of work, Popov searched for a solution.

His work eventually took him in a slightly different direction. Working with others, he found a way to set off a biological trigger, or switch, to deceive the body’s immune system. Normally, when there’s a disease, the body attacks it. But in this new concept, if the microbe is made to appear similar to the human body, the immune system would be triggered not only against the invader, but to attack the healthy person, to turn on itself. This made the genetically engineered organism a powerful killer—without having to produce more of the poison.

“The idea was to subvert the natural regulation of the human body and direct it against itself,” Popov explained to me. “All this would require only a biological switch, or signal, which the body is expected to follow.”

The body’s immune system could be fooled to attack the body itself.

There were different possible targets considered in the research, Popov said, but a decision was made to have the immune system turn against the body’s nervous system. Thus, if developed into a real weapon, it would cause victims to suffer in two waves. The first might be smallpox. But then, perhaps after a period of recovery, the body would turn on its own nervous system, and the victims would be paralyzed and die. The second wave would be unexpected; no vaccine could stop the process. “As a weapon, the thing would be absolutely untreatable,” he said. “Absolutely untreatable, because first of all it may come as a surprise after the initial disease has gone away, the person may recover completely. And then the new wave of disease would be the death response …”

In 1985, Popov built what is known as the “construct” of his idea, a piece of DNA that would be inserted somewhere into a genome. It was only the start, but it was significant enough that Sandakhchiev no longer needed the earlier proposal to manufacture large quantities of artificial DNA. They could make the deadly agents with just small bits of genetic material. And it became clear that a whole new generation of agents for potential use in weapons was beckoning.

At Koltsovo, scientists like Popov broke through barriers of knowledge, but building actual weapons was the job of the military, which maintained its own separate laboratories. Vector was a research facility. The “customer” was the 15th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense. Periodically, the customer came to visit Vector, to check on progress. And there was finally something to tell them.

Secluded in the forests outside of Moscow, another scientist was fighting his own battle. While Vector sought to alter viruses, Igor Domaradsky attempted to reengineer the genetic makeup of bacteria into an unstoppable warrior. Domaradsky walked with a slight limp; he had suffered polio as a child, and tuberculosis and malaria as an adult. He had a reputation for being irritable, hard to contain, and he later called himself a troublemaker, an inconvenient man. He was always restless. He yearned for the rewards of scientific discovery but worked in service of weapons of death.8

In 1984, he was fifty-nine years old. During the week, he lived alone in Protvino, a small town one hundred miles south of Moscow. He drove through the mixed forests of birch and bogs each day to start work at a secret laboratory. The location was called Obolensk, after ancient princes who once ruled the forests. He was fond of the drive, and often, in winter, came face-to-face with roaming elk. He remembered when Obolensk was carved out of the woods. At first, there were temporary “huts,” long, crude one-story barracks for researchers. By the early 1980s, the modern Korpus No. 1 rose out of the forest. Outwardly, it appeared to be another eight-story, boxy Soviet office building. But inside it was 400,417 square feet dedicated to the study and manipulation of dangerous pathogens. The third floor was devoted to especially hazardous materials. Massive airlocks and seals guarded against leaks.9 Obolensk itself was dark and marshy, and Domaradsky considered it a privilege to have his apartment ten miles to the south in Protvino, in the fresh air near the banks of the Oka River.

The laboratory at Obolensk was known as Post Office Box V-8724, one of dozens of closed Soviet cities and laboratories devoted to Cold War military work.10 Domaradsky worked in the laboratory during the week, living in his Protvino apartment, and drove two hours back to Moscow to see his family on weekends, sometimes lingering in the city on Monday. His wife, Svetlana Skvortsova, was a talented actress and teacher who thrived in Moscow’s rich cultural life. Domaradsky worked in lonesome isolation.

The enforced solitude caused him to ponder all that he had done. In the apartment, he began collecting papers and hiding notes of his life’s work, making illicit photocopies so the evidence of his achievements would not be destroyed by the secret services that watched over him.

On weekday mornings, Domaradsky switched on the radio in his apartment to listen to Radio Free Europe, the BBC and Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, which were easier to receive in the countryside than in the big cities. “Nobody bothered me, and I luxuriated in my freedom to listen to foreign radio, learning a great deal of news about the USSR and the world that was not available in Moscow.” He would then put on a record of his favorite music. Sometimes he went skiing, in the mornings or evenings after work, through a park and forest. Food shortages were common, but Domaradsky was permitted to shop at the small elite “Ryabinka” grocery store for directors of a nearby physics institute. While Soviet citizens were in lines for the basics, the store carried such rare commodities as instant coffee and caviar, delivering them to his door and taking his order for the next delivery. He felt well off, but his science was difficult, and its goals, he knew, were dreadful.

Tularemia, commonly known as “rabbit fever,” is caused by a bacterium that is highly infectious. It is formally known as Francisella tularensis and is found in animals, especially rodents, rabbits and hares. In the early 1980s, the microbe became the object of Domaradsky’s research. He yearned to work on several other pathogens at the same time, but the Soviet bosses wanted results from tularemia. He was searching for a way to make tularemia into an agent that would infect people while resisting both antibiotics and vaccines. He was searching for an unstoppable supergerm.

In general, the Soviet military preferred to use contagious pathogens like the smallpox virus and plague because they could cause epidemics. The military would simply light the spark, and the disease would spread like wildfire on its own. Tularemia is not contagious, and thus cannot be passed from human to human. Yet the military retained interest in tularemia because it required as few as ten microorganisms inhaled or ingested to infect someone.11 Tularemia is also stable and easy to aerosolize; the microorganism can survive for weeks at low temperatures.

Unlike viruses, which are nothing more than a few genes and protein, with perhaps a membrane, bacteria live inside rigid outer walls. The wall is critical to the cell’s survival, giving it structure and support. Without it, the cell dies. In the 1930s and 1940s, antibiotics were developed that could attack bacteria; the first was penicillin. These drugs could slow or even kill the bacteria in several ways: weaken the cell wall, inhibit its growth or stop its replication. Antibiotics helped defeat infections that have threatened man through the centuries. Diseases such as rheumatic fever, syphilis and bacterial pneumonia became easily treatable. These miracle medicines held promise that some diseases could be wiped out. By the 1940s, there were dozens of antibiotics, but then came another twist: bacteria acquired resistance to them. Within a few years, many of the powerful wonder drugs were losing their efficacy. The remaining bacteria were no longer vulnerable to antibiotics, as a result of natural selection—those which were genetically able to resist the drugs had survived. Over time only the resistant bacteria remained, and the drugs lost their effectiveness.12

The goal of Domaradsky’s research was to build a new microbe that would be resistant to many antibiotics. As an instrument of war, it would slice through helpless populations or armies like a scythe. According to Ken Alibek, who rose to become deputy director of the Soviet bioweapons program in the late 1980s, Domaradsky had once proposed to develop a strain of tularemia that would stand up against a whole spectrum of antibiotics, overcome vaccines and at the same time not lose its virulence. “The Soviet army wasn’t satisfied with weapons resistant to one type of antibiotic,” Alibek said. “The only worthwhile genetically altered weapon, for military strategists, was one that could resist all possible treatments.”13 The generals wanted a strain that could resist up to ten different antibiotics at once, Alibek recalled. The proposal was audacious, complex and difficult to fulfill.

Domaradsky had little to work with. Knowledge in the Soviet Union about the tularemia microbe was scant. “We had no data on its biochemistry or its genetics,” he said. Domaradsky persuaded the Moscow authorities to let him recruit the best researchers in the country for his project.

By his own account, Domaradsky’s long struggle was complicated by constant pressure from the Soviet leadership, which wanted results delivered on a rigid schedule of five-year plans. The biological weapons program was under the purview of a powerful agency, the Military Industrial Commission, which set down deadlines that Domaradsky found infuriating. By 1984, he had been working on the tularemia idea for nearly eight years. Every month, the bosses arrived from Moscow in official cars, driving up to Obolensk with sirens wailing and lights flashing. The visitors, impatient, wanted to know how the project was going, and turned to Domaradsky. His research was slow and painstaking. “That microbe does not recognize genetic information, nor does it possess the right genes for antibiotic resistance on its own,” he said of tularemia. While Domaradsky reported making progress toward conquering resistance to antibiotics, he said, “we were nowhere near” the second goal of creating a germ that could also overcome vaccines.

Once, Domaradsky bitterly fought with his bosses when they suggested changing the outward appearance of the germ by attaching another organism, staphylococcus, to the tularemia bacteria. “This amounted to trying to stick a piece of the staphylococcus germ directly onto the surface of the tularemia cells, which could not possibly have worked,” he recalled. The creation would never replicate. “It’s a little like sticking the wings of a crow onto a cat and hoping the cat will produce flying kittens,” Domaradsky scolded.

Domaradsky had been appointed scientific director of Obolensk in 1978. Four years later, a new general director was appointed, Major General Nikolai Urakov, who had come from a military laboratory in Kirov. Urakov was tall, his hair always combed in a swoop back from his forehead, a man of military style and bearing. He loved expressions such as “master the situation!” and “burn with a white-hot iron!,” which meant to utterly destroy something.

While Domaradsky treasured his independence, and was eager to follow his curiosity into different subjects, Urakov tried to force progress on the tularemia project, and refused to let Domaradsky work on other pathogens. He made Domaradsky’s life miserable, sometimes calling meetings about tularemia on Saturday so the scientist could not visit his family in Moscow. “Being a soldier to the marrow of his bones, Urakov respected only force and brooked no arguments,” Domaradsky complained years later in his memoir. “For me and my colleagues, however, the most difficult aspect of Urakov’s regime was the complete neglect of fundamental science. Everyone who has ever dealt with the genetics of bacteria knows how complicated it is to produce a new strain, indeed to create a new species! In order to make Urakov realize this, we reported to him every detail of our work: how we obtained different variants, and the methods we used.” But Domaradsky said the director would not listen.

“I don’t need your strains! I need just one strain!” Urakov declared. “We are not playing here, we are making a weapon!”

In the laboratory, Domaradsky faced a huge obstacle: if a bacterium acquired some new characteristic, it could lose others. This happened to tularemia. “Having become resistant to several antibiotics, the strain lost its virulence, which was unacceptable to the military,” he said. If the virulence fell, or if a test animal managed to survive a day longer, the military regarded it as a serious setback. “The desired bioweapons strain had to be fully virulent and deliverable in aerosol form. One germ cell had to be enough to start a lethal infection in a monkey,” Domaradsky said. “Furthermore, the infection had to be incurable.”

Domaradsky came up with a fresh approach. He suggested taking two strains, both of which had lost virulence because of genetic engineering, but both having gained resistance to different antibiotics, and combining them into one super-germ. The pair, working together, might compensate for what each had lost in the genetic engineering. Domaradsky called this the “binary” approach, and had high hopes for it. The result might be “a rapidly growing, extremely virulent, and essentially untreatable disease, which would bring about the same result as if we had managed to produce a single super strain with its virulence and other properties intact.” He estimated the pair might be resistant to six or eight antibiotics at once. “This would make countering a biological weapons attack all but impossible,” he said, “especially on a large scale.”

But Urakov stubbornly rejected his plan.

As a young man, Domaradsky experienced the hardships and horrors of the early decades of the Soviet Union. Born in Moscow in 1925, he grew up in Saratov, along the Volga River, where his father had been sent after arrest and imprisonment during Stalin’s Great Terror. A grandfather was also arrested. Domaradsky never forgot the persecution of his relatives, the cruelty and violence of the system and the hunger of those early years. In late 1942, Domaradsky’s family fled to safety in Kazakhstan. In 1943, at seventeen years old, Domaradsky was summoned by the military for duty, but he was rejected because of the polio limp. He decided to study medicine and returned to Saratov after the war. By 1950, he had graduated from university and was assigned a research job at the All Union Anti-Plague Institute in Saratov, known informally as Mikrob.

Plague, the Black Death of the Middle Ages, has long been feared in Russia, and epidemics swept southern parts of the country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a result, the Soviet Union established a network of specialized institutes to prevent and control plague outbreaks, and the Mikrob institute became the nerve center for the whole country, organizing investigations of the steppes and the deserts. Rodents such as marmots, gerbils and prairie dogs carried plague and it sometimes flared into epizootic outbreaks, an epidemic among animals that could spill over into human populations. The agent, Yersinia pestis, is transmitted from sick rodents to humans through fleas. In the field, Soviet plague-control researchers had to be microbiologists, epidemiologists, zoologists, parasitologists and sometimes general practitioners.

The biochemistry of the plague microbe had not been studied in the Soviet Union. For his doctorate, Domaradsky decided to examine the organism’s protein metabolism. He successfully defended his doctorate in 1956. Within a year, at thirty-one years old, he was appointed director of the anti-plague institute at Irkutsk in Siberia, which handled plague control and research for the entire Far East. In 1964, he was transferred to the anti-plague institute in Rostov-on-Don. It was a time of turmoil. The focus of the institute was being shifted from routine work on plague control to devising new ways to defend against biological weapons. This was Domaradsky’s first, tentative step into the world of germ warfare. The search for defenses against biological attack was known as “Problem No. 5.”14

In the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s, both superpowers built arsenals of biological weapons from existing, known pathogens. Domaradsky viewed his work as a contribution to civil defense, a prudent measure to protect the population in the event of attack, just as underground bunkers would protect citizens from nuclear bomb fallout. The move to Rostov gave Domaradsky a rich opportunity to research the plague microbe just at the moment when microbiology was resurfacing in the Soviet Union.

Genetics expanded rapidly in the West with the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1953. In the decades that followed, scientists found ways to manipulate DNA in the laboratory. But in the Soviet Union, this was known only to a few Soviet scientists through smuggled journals and reports.

The field was paralyzed for a generation, starting in the 1930s, because of the influence of Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist who claimed that the acquired characteristics of plants and animals could be altered by tailoring their environment, and then passed from one generation to the next. Lysenko denied the fundamentals of genetics. He became a member of the Academy of Sciences, and his critics were persecuted and sent to the prison camps, including the great botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. By the 1950s, genetics disappeared as a discipline in the Soviet Union. Lysenko’s downfall came only a year after the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader in October 1964.15

Lysenko had left few scientists untouched. Domaradsky recalled that he had to insert some “rubbish” into his own doctorate dissertation to conform with Lysenko. But with Lysenko’s influence fading in the early 1960s, Domaradsky could push more deeply into the genetics of plague. At the Rostov laboratories, Domaradsky and his researchers made a major advance in understanding the nature of plasmids, strands of genetic material found in bacteria that carry the codes for such things as virulence and antibiotic resistance. Plasmids are used in genetic engineering because they can replicate without harming the organisms they come from and can be transferred into another bacterium, even of a different bacterial species. Domaradsky considered one of his triumphs the development of an antibiotic-resistant strain of plague that could be used for vaccines. It was developed for civil defense, he told himself; the Rostov institute had never been working directly on weapons. “On the other hand, there was a dark side to that research,” Domaradsky later acknowledged, “though I did not realize it at the time.” The dark side was that his discovery could just as easily be applied to Yersinia pestis to create a new, killer plague.

For centuries, humans have sought to use toxins and toxic agents in war. The very terms “toxic” and “toxin” are derived from the ancient Greek toxikon pharmakon (arrow poison). The first biowarfare was conducted with what are called fomites—the crude use of filth, animal carcasses and contagion as weapons. These have been used to contaminate wells, reservoirs and other water sources of armies and civilian populations under attack since antiquity, through the Napoleonic era and into the twentieth century.16

In World War I, advances in science and military technology gave rise to widespread use of chemical weapons. The use of German chlorine gas at Ypres on April 22, 1915, opened an epoch of horror. Over the next three years, 113,000 tons of chemical weapons agents were used in battle, killing more than 91,000 and wounding 1.2 million.17 In the aftermath, 128 nations signed an international agreement, the Geneva Protocol, on June 17, 1925, pledging never to use chemical or biological agents in war. The United States, despite being the country that championed the treaty, did not ratify the agreement at the time, and many nations signed but said they would reserve the right to retaliate with chemical weapons as a deterrent.18

The Geneva Protocol was little more than a no-first-use agreement. It did not stop basic research, production or possession of chemical and biological weapons, and there were no provisions for inspection.

Chemical weapons consist of inert substances, such as arsenic, while biological weapons are made from living things, such as bacteria and viruses. A third category are toxins, which are isolated from living organisms, but unlike bacteria or viruses, they can’t replicate.

In the years that followed the Geneva Protocol, the race to discover biological weapons did not stop.

Japan’s quest was horrific. After reading of the Geneva accord in 1927, a Japanese military scientist, Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, traveled the globe, and concluded Japan should arm itself with the weapon others were forsaking. The Japanese biological weapons program included four biological warfare units in China between 1936 and 1945. The largest of them during World War II was known as Unit 731, at Ping Fan in occupied Manchuria. Japan cultivated deadly bacteria and carried out large-scale, open-air testing of live pathogens, including anthrax as bacterial slurry in bombs. Japan also tested pathogens on prisoners of war. The precise death toll is not known but was in the thousands, and perhaps more if various epidemics are included. Japanese aircraft also dropped ceramic bombs containing plague-infested fleas, and grain to attract rats, in a series of field tests of aerial biological bombs on eleven Chinese cities in 1940. In the end, the military effectiveness of the Japanese weapons remains unclear. But the toll in death and suffering overall was large.19

For Russian troops in the wars at the turn of the twentieth century—the Russo-Japanese war, World War I and the civil war of 1918–1921—infectious diseases transmitted naturally caused far greater casualties than battlefield wounds. Typhus was feared the most; an epidemic during the civil war made a deep impression on the military commanders—disease had been more deadly than bullets. The Red Army looked for methods to defend against disease, but also experimented with biological weapons.20 A British spy, in a secret intelligence report sent to London, described open-air tests of a crude aerial bomb in October 1926 on Kulali Island in the Caspian Sea. The bomb contained ampoules of tetanus bacilli in a steel cylinder, with blades that would cause it to rotate as it fell. At the right moment, the bomb exploded and the germs were broadcast out—the tests showed they were spread up to five hundred meters away and did not lose their virulence.21

In 1928, a full-scale biowarfare program was ordered by the Soviet Union’s Revolutionary Military Council. The decree ordered the transformation of typhus into a battlefield weapon. The main biowarfare laboratory was located in Leningrad. One hundred miles north, at a prison camp on Solovetsky Island in the White Sea, additional tests were made in the 1930s with typhus, Q fever, glanders and melioidosis.

At the start of World War II, with the German advance, all the Soviet germ warfare facilities were hurriedly evacuated eastward by rail to the city of Kirov, where the whole effort was reassembled in the regional hospital.

At war’s end, the Soviet Union had acquired and weaponized a group of biological warfare agents they referred to as the golden triangle: plague, anthrax and cholera. Soviet troops had overrun the Japanese biological weapons headquarters in Manchuria in 1945. They found buildings destroyed by the retreating Japanese, but they seized prisoners and documents. In 1949, the Soviets tried a dozen Japanese prisoners who testified about germ warfare experiments. Details of the Japanese biological weapons program were sent to Moscow, including “blueprints for biological warfare assembly plants, far larger and more complex than our own.” Stalin ordered the Japanese plans to be used to build a military research facility in Sverdlovsk. Yet another laboratory run by the military was opened in the city of Zagorsk, north of Moscow, in 1953 for the study of viruses. And a remote base for germ warfare testing, which had been used in 1937–1938, was reactivated in the Aral Sea in the early 1950s.22

Through the 1950s and 1960s, American intelligence agencies struggled to learn more about Soviet biological weapons, but without much success. There was a tantalizing hint about the island in the Aral Sea. It was first identified as a potential bioweapons testing site by Walter Hirsch, a captured German chemical warfare expert who mentioned the site in a 1951 report he wrote for the United States.23 The American intelligence community then examined everything they could find about the Aral Sea, but came up with nothing. A 1954 CIA intelligence estimate declared:

The USSR has the technical knowledge, trained personnel, and facilities necessary for a program of research and development in biological warfare, and we believe that such a program is almost certainly in progress. Firm evidence on the subject is, however, exceedingly scanty, and is likely to remain so because of the ease with which such a program can be concealed. Our estimates must be almost exclusively of what the USSR is capable of accomplishing in this field, rather than of what it has in fact accomplished.24

In 1957, high-altitude photography of the island in the Aral Sea by U-2 spy planes showed more than 150 buildings, grouped into two settlements about two and a half miles apart. Still, intelligence analysts found the photos inconclusive. Another U-2 photo run was made in 1959. The photos offered no more clues; the U.S. analysts still had doubts. They said the facilities seemed too crude for testing of biological weapons. In 1965, the Soviet program still remained a mystery. A CIA study that year concluded: “Despite a considerable expenditure of time and resources, the pursuit of intelligence on biological warfare activities in the USSR has been unrewarding. There is no firm evidence of the existence of an offensive Soviet BW program.” The CIA analysts were puzzled because they expected to find a Soviet germ warfare program, but had not. They titled their report “The Enigma of Soviet BW.”25

The United States entered the search for biological weapons early in World War II, following Great Britain, which feared the Axis powers would use the weapons. In October 1941, Secretary of War Henry Stimson asked the National Academy of Science for advice about the dangers. The response in February 1942 was that biological warfare was feasible.26 In May, a small civilian agency was set up, the War Reserve Service, under George W. Merck, chairman of Merck & Company, the pharmaceutical company, to begin developing a biological weapons program. In December, the army’s Chemical Warfare Service took over and prepared a large-scale research and development program. By April 1943, ground was broken for a research facility at Camp Detrick, Maryland, a small air national guard training site forty-five miles north of Washington. In December 1943, the Office of Strategic Services had received “inconclusive” intelligence that Germany might use biological weapons, perhaps putting anthrax or Botulinum toxin in their cross-channel rockets.27 The U.S. program was expanded, and more fully integrated into the War Department. Alarm about a possible German biological weapon led British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to ask the United States for 500,000 anthrax munitions. The army refitted a plant at Vigo, Indiana, in 1944 for the production of anthrax spore slurry. The Vigo plant was equipped with twelve 20,000-gallon fermenters, capable of producing fill for 240 four-pound anthrax bombs an hour. The plant underwent safety tests, but the war ended before production began.28 The Germans never weaponized biological agents; it turned out the Japanese program was much more active. During the war, the American biological weapons program was conducted with the secrecy equivalent of the Manhattan Project, and details were unveiled only in January 1946 by Merck. One aspect that remained hidden until later was the United States grant of immunity from prosecution to the leaders of Japan’s notorious Unit 731 in exchange for details about their research.29

During the Korean War, extensive propaganda from the Soviet Union and China accused the United States of using biological weapons in Korea. Documents declassified in recent years show that although the United States attempted to accelerate and acquire biological weapons during the war, the effort to create a viable weapons program was unsuccessful.30 After the war, the program expanded with the Cold War and competition with the Soviet Union. A facility built at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, for large-scale fermentation, concentration, storage and weaponization of microorganisms began production in 1954. Human experimentation using military and civilian volunteers started in 1955. Biological bombs were detonated inside a one-million-liter hollow metallic spherical aerosolization chamber at Fort Detrick, Maryland, known as “the 8 ball.”31 An open-air testing site was built at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. In May 1962, the army created a biological and chemical warfare coordinating organization, the Deseret Test Center, located at Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City, Utah. This center served as the headquarters for the biological warfare test operation. The United States carried out as many as 239 open-air trials between 1949 and 1969. Among them, American cities were unknowingly used as laboratories to test aerosols and dispersal methods; the test sites included tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.32 These field tests were carried out with harmless microbes that simulated the behavior of biological warfare. In the 1950s, an American program known as St. Jo developed and tested bombs and delivery methods for possible wartime use of anthrax weapons against Soviet cities. One hundred seventy-three test releases were made of noninfectious aerosols in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Winnipeg, Canada, cities chosen to have approximately the same climate, urban and industrial development and topography as Soviet cities. The weapon to be used was a cluster bomb holding 536 biological bomblets, each containing thirty-five milliliters of anthrax spore slurry and a small explosive charge.33Much more ambitious tests with live agents were used in sea trials carried out in 1965 and 1968 against monkeys as targets on ships and islands in the Pacific Ocean. The 1968 test showed that a single airborne dissemination tank could disperse a virulent infectious agent over nearly a thousand square miles.34 British trials using simulants between 1963 and 1969 also showed that if released by a ship or airplane along a hundred-mile-long line, significant concentrations of bacterial aerosol had passed more than fifty miles inland after a few hours. The trials confirmed that aerosolized bacteria could remain viable for several hours in the open, with 80 percent of the population infected up to forty miles, and half the population infected between forty and eighty miles inland.35

There was growing concern among scientists about the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. On February 14, 1967, some five thousand scientists, including seventeen Nobel Prize winners and 129 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, asked President Lyndon Johnson in a petition to “re-establish and categorically declare the intention of the United States to refrain from initiating the use of chemical and biological weapons.” Among those who organized the effort were Matthew Meselson, professor of molecular biology at Harvard University. The petition prompted a White House effort to draft a statement saying the United States would not be the first to use biological weapons in the future, but the military objected, and Johnson never issued the statement.36

Then came an accident. It involved a chemical weapons test but had much broader repercussions. At 5:30 P.M. on Wednesday, March 13, 1968, an air force jet roared over a circular target grid laid out at Dugway Proving Grounds on the Utah desert floor and sprayed 320 gallons of the lethal nerve gas VX. As the plane zoomed up, a valve failed to close. The deadly VX continued to pour from the plane, was picked up by wind gusts and spread as far as forty-five miles away. Within three days, thousands of sheep in the Skull and Rush valleys were sickened or died.37 The incident came to light only a year later when revealed in a television newsmagazine broadcast.38 Representative Richard McCarthy, a Democrat of Buffalo, New York, who saw the broadcast, began to challenge the army, angered by the secrecy surrounding chemical and biological weapons. “The rule seemed to be: tell as little as possible, and if you get caught in a mistake, fabricate your way out of it,” McCarthy said. Although some scientific research results from the U.S. program were openly published, there were also secret parts, including the Pacific Ocean field tests.

Nixon had just taken office. His new defense secretary, Melvin Laird, a former eight-term congressman from Wisconsin, aware of the congressional mood, wrote to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that “it is clear the administration is going to be under increasing fire” from Congress. Laird urged a full-scale review of American germ warfare policy.39

Nixon faced huge protests at the time over Vietnam. The United States had used herbicides such as Agent Orange to defoliate forests and destroy rice crops, and tear gas to force out North Vietnamese fighters from bunkers, drawing international condemnation. Also, that summer the United Nations issued a startling report by fourteen scientists emphasizing the powerful impact of biological weapons, which, if used, could transform a society and its environment. The scientists said that in an attack, biological weapons would infect a wide area. The use of ten tons of agent might cover 38,610 square miles, slightly larger than the state of Indiana. The notion of using biological weapons in war “generates a sense of horror,” the scientists said. “Mass disease, following an attack, especially of civilian populations, could be expected not only because of the lack of timely warning of the danger but because effective measures of protection or treatment simply do not exist or cannot be provided on an adequate scale.”40 The World Health Organization, providing the scientific and medical details for the UN panel, estimated that 110 pounds of dry anthrax, if used by a single bomber against a target city in a suitable aerosol form, would affect an area far in excess of 7.7 square miles, “with tens to hundreds of thousands of deaths.”41

On November 25, 1969, Nixon announced the United States would unilaterally stop all offensive biological weapons research and destroy the stocks, while maintaining a program of defensive research. He also pledged no first use of chemical weapons, but said the United States would retain them. He vowed to finally send the 1925 Geneva Protocol to the Senate for ratification and he endorsed a British proposal for a follow-up treaty to limit biological weapons. It was the first time in the Cold War that an entire class of weapons was discarded unilaterally.42

Why did Nixon do it? He appears to have acted, at least in part, out of a personal desire to show that he was a more effective leader than his predecessors had been, especially Kennedy and Johnson. Nixon asserted to Kissinger the decision “wouldn’t have been possible without Nixon trust. And … Eisenhower didn’t even suggest these things.”43 According to diaries kept by his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, Nixon called Haldeman the night of the announcement and wanted to talk politics, urging Haldeman to convene a staff meeting for the next day so Kissinger could emphasize at the meeting that President Johnson could not have attained all Nixon had done—including the biological weapons decision—because Johnson “didn’t have the confidence of the people or the world leaders.”44

Nixon also adopted the view that nuclear weapons were the supreme deterrent and made biological weapons unnecessary. In his briefing for members of Congress, Kissinger’s written talking points said, “We do not need BW for deterrence when we have nuclears.” After Kissinger’s press briefing, Nixon asked Kissinger in their phone conversation “if he was able to get across the point on deterrent, and K said he had.” White House speechwriter William Safire, who drafted Nixon’s renunciation, asked the president whether a few biological weapons should be retained as a deterrent. “We’ll never use the damn germs, so what good is biological warfare as a deterrent?” Nixon replied. “If somebody uses germs on us, we’ll nuke ’em.”45

Nixon was also urged by scientists to give up biological weapons. Meselson, who knew Kissinger from Harvard, submitted a memorandum to him in September 1969, saying the United States should ratify the Geneva Protocols, outlawing the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. Meselson wrote, “Very small quantities of disease germs would be sufficient to cover large areas: a light aircraft can deliver enough to kill populations over several thousand square miles.” Medical defenses can be “rendered ineffective” against germ warfare, he said, and “reliable early warning systems have not yet been devised.” As a deterrent to attack, he added, the United States already had nuclear weapons. Thus, “we have no need to rely on lethal germ weapons and would lose nothing by giving up the option to use them first.” Meselson added, “Our major interest is to keep other nations from acquiring them.”46

Separately, scientists on a panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee finished a report in August urging Nixon to scrap offensive biological weapons research and destroy the stockpiles.47

Nixon announced his decision in the Roosevelt Room of the White House after informing congressional leaders. In his talking points for the press and members of Congress, Kissinger said, “Control and effectiveness of BW agents is questionable.”48 Nixon adopted this argument in his announcement: “Biological weapons have massive, unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable consequences. They may produce global epidemics and impair the health of future generations.”49 In fact, the American and British trials had shown biological weapons could be well-controlled strategic weapons. Nixon had omitted the related category of toxins from his first statement, but on February 14, 1970, renounced them as well.

A few months after the toxins announcement, Laird sent an inventory of the U.S. biological weapons arsenal to the White House. It included 220 pounds of anthrax dried agent. According to Laird’s list, the U.S. also had 804 pounds of dried tularemia bacteria and 334 pounds of the incapacitating agent Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis virus, dried, with another 4,991 gallons in liquid suspension. Also in liquid suspension were 5,098 gallons of Q fever. The list said the United States had filled 97,554 munitions with toxins, biological agents or simulants.50 The United States also stockpiled 158,684 pounds of wheat rust and 1,865 pounds of rice blast, both to be used as anti-crop weapons. No missiles were armed with biological warheads, although a bomblet-containing warhead for the short-range surface-to-surface Sergeant missile had been designed. There were eight aircraft sprayers.51 General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told Nixon at the National Security Council meeting that the Pine Bluff facility could go into production on thirty days’ notice.52 The military arsenal was destroyed by 1973, although the CIA was admonished during a congressional hearing two years later for illegal retention of extremely small amounts of toxin samples.

In his original declaration, Nixon expressed hope that other nations would follow the U.S. example. The Soviet Union did not.53

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