Defector Tells of Soviet and Chinese Germ Weapons
By WILLIAM J. BROAD and JUDITH MILLER
The most senior defector from the Soviet germ-warfare program says in a new
book that Soviet officials concluded that China had suffered a serious
accident at one of its secret plants for developing biological weapons,
causing two major epidemics.
The book also reports that Soviet researchers tried to turn HIV,
that causes AIDS, into a weapon and that even as the last Soviet president,
Mikhail Gorbachev, pursued peace openings with the West, he ordered a vast
expansion of the deadly effort to turn germs and viruses into weapons of
The defector, Kanatjan Alibekov, now known as Ken Alibek, says
in the book
that as deputy director of a top branch of the Soviet program, he knew of
the disaster in China because he saw secret Soviet intelligence reports
twice a month.
Spy satellites peering down at China found what seemed to be a
biological-weapons laboratory and plant near a remote site for testing
nuclear warheads, he wrote. Intelligence agents then found evidence that
two epidemics of hemorrhagic fever swept the region in the late 1980s. The
area had never previously known such diseases, which cause profuse bleeding
"Our analysts," Alibek said, "concluded that they were caused
accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponizing viral
diseases." Viral scourges that cause intense bleeding include Marburg fever
and the dreaded Ebola virus. Both are endemic to Africa.
China has signed a 1972 treaty banning biological weapons. During
War II it became one of the few modern countries to experience their
horrors when Japanese attackers sowed epidemics there, killing thousands of
U.S. intelligence agencies have long suspected that China harbors
biological-weapons program. Early in 1993, shortly after Alibek fled to the
United States, the outgoing Bush administration accused Beijing of having
an active germ-warfare effort, which it has denied. The United States
unilaterally ended its own germ-weapons program in 1969.
Last week, the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not return several
telephone calls seeking comment, and an American expert who tracks germ
intelligence said he did not know of any such epidemics in China.
The allegation is one of several in Alibek's new book, "Biohazard,"
was written with a journalist, Stephen Handelman, and is being published by
Random House this week. It was made available to The New York Times in
U.S. intelligence officials who know what Alibek said in secret
debriefings after his defection in 1992 give his new account considerable
credence. They have called him highly believable about the subjects he
knows firsthand, like the Soviet biological-weapons program from 1975 to
1992, when he served as one of Moscow's top germ warriors. He is less
reliable, they say, on political and military issues that he knows
The book asserts that Gorbachev, in his "characteristic scrawl,"
five-year plan for 1985 to 1990 that ordered the most ambitious effort ever
for the development of deadly germs and viruses, including smallpox, as
weapons. In 1980, world health authorities declared the ancient scourge
eradicated from all human populations.
"Gorbachev's Five-Year Plan -- and his generous funding, which
amount to over $1 billion by the end of the decade -- allowed us to catch
up" with the American biological weapons program, which was making great
strides, Alibek writes.
In 1988, as Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reform campaigns
full swing and the Russians and Americans were negotiating new arms-control
treaties, officials "at the highest levels," Alibek said, ordered the
arming of giant SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at New
York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago with anthrax and other deadly germs.
The secret move came as Soviet leaders publicly waged a peace
In his book "Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World"
(Harper & Row, 1987), Gorbachev argued that for decades Western experts had
falsely accused Moscow of weapon horrors and that the real engine of the
arms race was the United States.
Contacted through his office in Moscow, Gorbachev sidestepped
charges and questions about the germ program. His spokesman said that
Gorbachev did not know Alibek, and that there was "no sense in getting
involved in an endless process of commenting."
William C. Patrick III, a key figure in the United States' former
germ-warfare program who helped debrief Alibek after his defection in 1992,
said many of the book's assertions were consistent with what Alibek had
told U.S. officials in secret sessions at the time. He called the
information Alibek had provided "critical" to Washington's understanding of
the Soviet program.
"He laid it all out for the first time," Patrick said.
Among the book's new disclosures are:
-- Moscow mastered the art of rearranging genes to make harmful
even more potent and harder to counteract. Anthrax, a top biological
warfare agent that causes high fever and death, was genetically altered, he
says, to resist five kinds of antibiotics.
-- The top-secret program obtained a sample of HIV, the AIDS virus,
the United States in 1985 and tried unsuccessfully to turn the slow killer
into a weapon.
-- A senior military official told him that the Soviet Union had
germ warfare in Afghanistan from planes, spraying armed rebels with
glanders in an unsuccessful bid to subdue them. Glanders is a chronic
bacterial disease of horses that can be highly lethal in humans.
-- Under a top-secret project known as Bonfire, Soviet scientists
discovered "a new class of weapons" -- now called bioregulators -- that
could "damage the nervous system, alter moods, trigger psychological
changes and even kill." The KGB secret police agency was particularly
interested in them because they "could not be traced by pathologists." A
Soviet program called Flute worked on germs and other agents that could be
used mainly for political assassinations.
-- While directing about half of the Soviet biological-warfare
he says, he discovered that an abandoned factory in Kazakhstan where he and
his childhood friends had played after school had once made noxious germs
meant to kill enemy crops and livestock.
In his book, Alibek, a Kazakh by birth, says the Soviet state
considerable part of its treasury to readying deadly germs for war. At its
peak in the late 1980s, he writes, the program had 60,000 employees working
at scores of sites throughout the Soviet Union.
"The Americans had just two specialists in anthrax," he wrote
observations during his first tour of U.S. sites as part of a
Soviet-American inspection agreement in 1991. "We had two thousand."
About a dozen of the 40 institutes that were part of Biopreparat, the
civilian cover group that Alibek helped run, were used "exclusively" for
offensive agents and weapons for the military, he wrote.
After he fled Russia and took up residence in the United States,
says, he was approached by intermediaries of emissaries of several
countries that courted him for his deadly expertise, including South Korea,
France and Israel. The work for which he was to be hired was defensive, the
At least 25 people who used to work in the Soviet germ-warfare
work in the United States in nonweapons work, he writes. It is impossible
to know how many have been recruited overseas. But there is no doubt, he
adds, "that their expertise has been attracting bidders," including
countries unfriendly to the United States.
The germ warriors staying behind apparently can be dangerous as
said he had recently received a disconcerting flier from a Moscow-based
company, Bioeffekt Ltd. "It offered, by mail order, three genetically
engineered strains of tularemia," Alibek said.
The disease, spread by a highly infectious germ, causes chills,
muscle aches, fatigue and pneumonialike symptoms, and can be fatal. The
altered bacteria, he said, reportedly have new genes that increase the
disease's virulence. The flier, Alibek said, boasted that the germs were
produced by "technology unknown outside Russia."
Alibek has said he decided to speak out publicly to fight the
biological weapons and to seek absolution for having made them.
He described himself as once a "staunch patriot" who believed
tour of U.S. biological sites while still a Soviet official that the United
States had not unilaterally renounced offensive germ-weapons programs in
1969 as President Nixon had asserted. He said he had decided to write about
the weapons program that was for decades one of Moscow's deepest secrets.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company