Senior Writer, The New York Times
"Germs: Biological Weapons and Americans Secret War"
November 18, 2001
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
letter was intercepted
it did not reach its intended
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
at least I hope not. Or even in the 1984 attack on
America. It was the nations first mass bioterrorism incident,
by the way, in The (gorgeous) Dalles, Oregon, which I had the pleasure
to visit last year.
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 Japans 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
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.
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 Germans did of their concentration camps 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
never know for sure. Why, because after the war they paid almost
no price for their heinous activities.
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
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.
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.
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
followed Americas unilateral abandoning of the program
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.
author of Americas 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.
in 1972 the worlds 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.
of course, was just the beginning because another thing occurred
just as America was walking away from its program, and the
Soviet Union was expanding its 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.
again this was in kind of the back recesses of peoples minds
because America, after all, had walked away from its 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.
who now has this class of weapons today? The United States abandoned
its program and even when we learned that the Russians
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
certainly not to journalists and sometimes not even to US government
officials about their most secretive efforts.
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 dont 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.
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 dont 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.
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.
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.
these terrible diseases is the best way of protecting us from them
because you cant protect yourself if you dont 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
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 dont
like to make because it takes a long time, they dont 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 wont even buy you a decent lab in todays
world. We need much, much more to be serious about biological defense.
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
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.
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
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 dont
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 Americas
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
that really its 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 doesnt
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 doesnt betray our friends and traditional allies
in the region.
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.
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 dont 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.
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 its 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 doesnt make it right,
but it does make it easier to deal with.
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 dont
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.
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.
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 its 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.
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