People/Web Search Calendars UVA Maps A-Z Index spacer University of Virginia Home Page
UVa Newsmakersphoto spacer
Archives by Speaker
View All Archives
TV News Home
Staff Contacts
UVa NewsMakers Home
spacer
   
 
JUDITH MILLER

Judith Miller
Senior Writer, The New York Times
Author
"Germs: Biological Weapons and American’s Secret War"
November 18, 2001

Judith Miller: As we have now seen the Anthrax scare that we are living through simply will not go away. Just over the weekend we learned that in addition to the letter sent to Senator Daschle and to the news organizations, another letter that was destined for Senator Leahy of Vermont was written, sealed and sent…fortunately that letter was intercepted…it did not reach it’s intended victim.

But, whether or not there are other such letters, what we have seen so far suggests that germs are not just as we feared when we were writing our book, The Weapon of the Future, but they are apparently the weapon of the present. Now, my colleagues and I…trust me, did not know how timely our book would be when we began writing Germs, but we did feel that we had identified a threat that had received all too little priority on the national security community.

Germs were always what I call the Caboose of the weapons of mass destruction train. Real men worried about nuclear weapons, throw weights, things like that. And that left the girls to worry about ew, germs. And that was really the way they were considered. I can tell you…and there were a preponderance of women analysts and scientists in this field when I began my research, which helped me enormously in the beginning. A small group of us would assemble in a room…maybe the size of the front part of this podium…it was called the bugs for breakfast group…and discuss recent threats, developments that were worrying them, scientific discoveries that could be used for ill as well as good. But, it was a small group of people who thought this was something that merited national security attention.

I want to talk to you about the threat…how we came to discover it and about the history of these terrible weapons because I think unless you understand a little bit about the history, it is tough to understand why they are going to be with us in the future. The roots of the anthrax scare lie not, I think, in the September 11th attacks…at least I hope not. Or even in the 1984 attack on America. It was the nation’s first mass bioterrorism incident, by the way, in The (gorgeous) Dalles, Oregon, which I had the pleasure to visit last year.

Modern bioterrorism and warfare really have their roots in the early 1940s when Japan was experimenting in Eastern China and in the labs run by the infamous Unit 731. These were a horrible group of Japanese military officers who conducted some of the most gruesome experiments the world has ever seen, mainly on Chinese but also on American flyers who were captured and some of whom were killed in a terrible way: vivisected live. And it was these people who were charged with developing Japan’s biowarfare program. Now, Shiro Ishii and his associates did things like drop plague infested flees on villages and towns in Eastern China, in Manchuria. The logs…as they called these human victims, human subjects of their experimentation were captured people who were sick, who were infected would be made even sicker through their ghoulish experiments.

The Unit 731 folks watched healthy people suffer and die. People they had infected deliberately with some of the more terrible germs man has ever known. And they engaged as I said, in live vivisections. Of course without antibiotics. They kept meticulous records just as the German’s did of their concentration camp’s victims. The outcome was a little different. The Japanese killed hundreds according to Sheldon Harris who is the leading American expert on this subject. Probably tens of thousands of Chinese…we will never know for sure. Why, because after the war they paid almost no price for their heinous activities.

Both the United States and the Soviets were very interested in what the Japanese had accomplished. And so each independent of the other, but aware of the others interests, started out to identify the lead players in this mass warfare program and to get their hands on them and their experiments before the other did so. And so, the Russians who put a group of Japanese officers on trial also identified some senior officers and carted away caseloads of Japanese experimental records. It was no accident, I learned, when I subsequently toured these massive Soviet germ warfare facilities that they resembled the plans that the Japanese had drawn up for their own facilities because the Russian facilities…Soviet, I should say, were based largely on what the Japanese had learned and from the records they had collected.

But, before we cluck, cluck about the Russians, I would also point out that the United States decided in the late ‘40s that these germs and the germ warfare program could be useful. And we gave Mr. Ishii, General Ishii, immunity and debriefed him and got some of his experimental records…thousands and thousands of them. And these were used in part to help set up our own germ warfare program at Fort Dettrick in the early ‘50s.

So, no one in the germ warfare business, neither superpower, and now only one remaining superpower, has clean hands. And I think we all have to come to the subject with a little bit of humility about what men and women are capable of if given sufficient motive.

But, there was a major difference between the Soviet Union and Us. At least one in the area of germs and that is that we stopped our program in 1969, the Soviets chose the occasion of the Treaty which stopped…which followed America’s unilateral abandoning of the program…the Soviets took that occasion to double the size of their secret program. The ink was barely dry on the Treaty that the Soviet Union signed banning such weapons when they began expanding by tens of thousands of scientists ultimately their own program to make things that even today are unknown to American science and scientists.

The author of America’s decision to abandon germ warfare was none other than that rather unlikely peacemaker to some Americans, Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon understood that a weapon that was relatively cheap to make compared to nuclear weapons, it was undetectable when you were making it, was not a good weapon for the Americans to be doing because it might encourage others to make such weapons. So, he thought that rather than encourage the world to follow in American lead, he would make a very, I think, courageous and determined step away from this kind of warfare. And he did that.

And in 1972 the world’s nations began overwhelmingly signing up to this wonderful treaty, at least in theory, that bans this class of weapons. And so, America assumed the world was safe from biological warfare, at least as it had seen during WWII.

That of course, was just the beginning because another thing occurred just as America was walking away from it’s program, and the Soviet Union was expanding it’s effort. A biotechnological revolution was taking place in America. Two Americans, Stanley Cullen and Boyer learned how to modify genes, how to genetically manipulate genes and were doing so and were creating some astonishing new experiments in life. They quickly understood, as did American science, that biotechnology would offer the nation and the world a capacity for extraordinary, extraordinary good. New classes of vaccines, new classes of antibiotics, things to keep us healthy. At the same time they also recognized that this kind of technology could be misused to create new, even deadlier germs that the world had ever seen.

Once again this was in kind of the back recesses of people’s minds because America, after all, had walked away from it’s program and I believe we really did. You will often hear people speculate about whether or not the United States is still engaged in offensive research. I can only tell you that while my colleagues looked very hard for such research, what we were able to find were programs in the defensive area that were borderline in terms of their adherence to what the biological weapons treaty permits and does not permit. But that was the worst we were able to find.

So, who now has this class of weapons today? The United States abandoned it’s program and even when we learned that the Russians…Soviets had not, the Soviet Union was approached privately, quietly to see if we could persuade them to stop. The Russians said they would stop, but did not. And even today, we do not know for sure whether or not their military labs are continuing to turn out new classes of weapons that involve germs because we have never been permitted to visit these facilities despite rather considerable pressure by the Clinton Administration and now the Bush Administration.

So, one candidate for continued bioweaponry is of course, mother Russia herself, which had the largest program the world has ever seen. I can only tell you, it is hard to describe but if you imagine a program it was an empire really, with tens of thousands…some say as many as sixty to seventy thousand scientists and technicians working away in more than a dozen main facilities and dozens of smaller laboratories and research places throughout the former Soviet empire. That is how seriously the Soviets took these weapons. It was a program unlike the world has ever seen and if we are really lucky, unlike any we will ever see again.

But, Russia is still a suspect state even though we are working closely with the Russians now in biodefense. And even though through our joint efforts we are learning a great deal about what the Russians were able to do and what their Soviet predecessors were able to develop. This is an extremely government program until recently very underfunded called Cooperative Threat Reduction. It was started by Richard Lugor and Senator Sam Nunn, Republican and Democrat, two of…one of whom of course Sam Nunn is no longer in the US Senate. But these gentlemen really understood this kind of a threat and the way to go about dealing with it which was to work with our former adversary, turn that former adversary into an ally and learn what they were able to do and not able to do in their program.

Now, the Bush Administration is going to significantly increase money for this program, which my colleagues and I applaud because this is one of the best ways of discovering the horror that awaits us.

Russia is one candidate. What are the others? Well, there is a group of nations my colleagues and I call the dirty dozen. That is twelve leading suspect nations that are believed to have programs. And they are the countries you might expect to find on such a list. They include such nations as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Egypt, Syria, and Libya. But they also include some countries that are friends of the United States such as Israel…because Israel is surrounded by countries that have a vigorous programs and Israel believes that it needs to do whatever it can in this area to protect itself. Whether or not the work is offensive as well as defensive, once again we do not know because the Israelis do not talk to this…talk to certainly not to journalists and sometimes not even to US government officials about their most secretive efforts.

What can we as a nation do about these weapons? Well, here is the good news, ladies and gentlemen. This is a threat about which much can be done and now is being done. A biological weapon is unlike any other in that it is a living weapon. But, as a living weapon, it can be killed. In some cases, by something as simple as too much light or too much heat. And in other cases, these weapons, these bugs respond brilliantly to antibiotics. They don’t like them. They are dead. If you were unlucky enough to open a letter that contained anthrax, unless it were…was a very special kind of anthrax, 99% you would be saved if it were discovered early enough. You would be on antibiotics and you would be cured.

Hence the ability, the determination to develop vast stockpiles of antibiotics and vaccines, which the Bush Administration is now doing, which the Clinton Administration started, is an absolutely essential component of any kind of biodefense program. The other thing we can do which tends to receive less emphasis and less publicity is teach every doctor, nurse, pharmacist, emergency health care personnel person in this country how to recognize these diseases. You know it has been over twenty years since a doctor in America has seen a case of smallpox. Smallpox was officially declared eradicated as a disease by the World Health Organization in 1980. We stopped vaccinating our own people. Those of you old enough to have the scars on your arms don’t think that is protection. It is not. Those vaccinations last on average about ten years. If there were an outbreak of this supposedly eradicated disease, we would all need to be vaccinated if we were exposed to it. And as a result, the Bush Administration has taken the first steps to acquire enough vaccine for every man, woman, and child in America.

Now, there are some problems with this effort. Anyone who is HIV positive and the families of anyone who is HIV positive can not safely take this vaccine because it…someone whose immune system is compromised will develop the disease rather than the antibodies needed to protect them against the disease.

In addition, the Bush Administration has started a massive research program which began under the Clinton Administration but was not funded, to develop vaccines that everyone can take for these supposedly eradicated diseases. But recognizing a weird disease when you see one whether it is the Junta Virus or Plague or Smallpox or Marberg, there are some 28 to 30 agents that different countries have looked at in terms of turning them into weapons.

Recognizing these terrible diseases is the best way of protecting us from them because you can’t protect yourself if you don’t know that you have been attacked. And we have at the moment, no biodetectors that are reliable, that are cheap, and that can be distributed and can tell us whether or not anything unusual is in our air or our water. So, that is another area of emphasis in which research is essential.

But, teaching our doctors and nurses and health care people what to look for is essential and that tends to be the kind of bioinvestment that gets short shrift when everybody is worrying about other more elaborate forms of protection. But, that is the single best investment that our nation can make in protecting all of us whether or not we are ever attacked with a germ weapon. Because the bugs themselves are quite smart. They have figured out…we have had for forty years now a class of antibiotics that defeats them. They are figuring out how to develop immunity to those vaccines, to those antibiotics. Whether or not we are attacked, the great diseases which are our historic scourges are likely to reappear in different forms perhaps. But, recognize them quickly, that is the key to true biodefense. And that is the kind of investment which politicians don’t like to make because it takes a long time, they don’t get immediate rewards. That kind of investment is the kind of research that the society should be making and that it is not making. Even in the Presidents new bill, public health receives 130 million of some 20 billion dollars worth of terrorism…counter terrorism proposals. That is nothing. It won’t even buy you a decent lab in today’s world. We need much, much more to be serious about biological defense.

Why do I think and why do my colleagues think that this threat is growing? Well, for some of the reasons that I talked about earlier. These weapons are cheap…cheaper I should say. If you can make a vaccine, you can probably make a biological weapon. They are harder to make than people commonly believe especially now with anthrax scare, but that is what protects us is that not every Tom, Dick and Harry…amateur aficionado can go into a laboratory and make finely honed particles the size and composition of which will float naturally in the air, infecting us. It is harder to do that than people understand.

But, it is less hard than building the kind of nuclear infrastructure needed to deliver weapons. So, if you wanted to deliver what the strategists call an asymmetric blow to a country like ours, a biological weapon is a very good way to go. Great bang for the buck in biological terms.

Second there is no shortage out there of people who hate us. Now, many other experts will talk to you about the reasons for this rage and hatred. I find that I am less interested in that today than I am in figuring out what needs to be done to protect us. I don’t buy the kind of poverty…roots of this rage being in poverty, being in our policy toward Israel. Militant Islamic groups have been around longer than there has been a state of Israel. And America’s policy towards Israel in the Middle East is too often a pretext for a rage that it is much deeper seated, I believe. A rage that affect…that really it’s roots stems from their own failure as a society to produce the kind of progress that the rest of the world is seeing. The fact that when you take a look at the list of scientists, of even poets of great writers from this part of the world, the Middle East, precious little emerges that doesn’t come from Israel. That is the root of Muslim rage and it is going to be very, very hard for America to do something about that in a way that doesn’t betray our friends and traditional allies in the region.

So, there are always going to be people who hate us. They are not by the way, most Arabs. And they are not most Muslims. 99% of the world, people who call themselves Muslims are appalled by what has happened to us. They are appalled by these weapons and by the hijacking of their religion by a militant few.

But that religion has been successfully hijacked in the world, in the media world in which we live. And people are frightened now of things they don’t understand. So, it is incumbent upon them, Middle Easterners and other Muslims, because most Muslims are not Middle Easterners, who resent this kind of hijacking of their faith to speak up and tell the world and tell one another and tell their militant few that this is not what their religion and their culture stands for. We cannot do it. They must.

But, you do have a growing demand for weapons of mass destruction among people who can fight us in no other way. You have a growing supply of the technology that can produce these weapons. Why? Because Russia has really closed down it’s largest facilities. There is no more. The plants that I visited are moth balled. They are not churning out anthrax by the ton any longer. If they are operating an offensive program, it is a small scale one. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it easier to deal with.

Their scientists are on the open market. When I visited Russia, I talked to scientists who were earning $40 a month when and if they were being paid. They were trying to conduct experiments in overcoats and unheated labs. They were desperate for contact with their western counterparts. Programs like Cooperative Threat Reduction can put them in touch with us, can harness their deadly expertise to good use. That is working against the weapons they helped create. Unless we do this, the temptation to go to work for an Iran, an Iraq, a North Korea or an Osama Bin Laden will be overwhelming. We don’t want these people to be unhappy in their lives or in their work. We want them to discover that there is another way to make a living.

Finally the biotech revolution. If you put growing supply and growing demand together with a revolution in biomedicine that is astonishing us daily, you create a potential for making the kinds of weapons the world has never seen. Smallpox is bad enough but imagine a smallpox that does not respond to vaccine. There is no cipro for smallpox even now. But, imagine a smallpox which responds to nothing, which responds to none of the antiviral drugs that are now being tested. That is the kind of smallpox that the Soviets were trying to develop. And that is infinitely more possible now because of the wonders of genetic modification.

Much of this work is discussed in the open literature and it has to be because scientists must learn from one another. But, this work is truly a warning to us. We cannot stop it. We dare not stop it, but we dare not ignore it and it’s potential for evil. Things that were incredible, fanciful only a decade ago are now being done by high school students in basic biology classes. We cannot stop a revolution. We must learn how to benefit from it and how to use it to protect us against weapons that are only now being imagined.

  Return to UVA NewsMakers Home

Maintained by Karen Asher
Last Modified: Friday, 30-May-2003 15:30:20 EDT
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia