The hunt for the source of the weapons-grade anthrax that has been used in recent attacks on the media and the government has led investigators down many false roads.
The focus has been on Iraq, but according to the world?s leading germ warfare experts, suspicion points more directly at Russia?s military industrial complex. ?The obvious one is Russia, it?s a league ahead of Iraq,? says David Kelly, senior adviser to UN weapons inspectors for Iraq.
The Russian scientists who helped to run the Soviet Union?s secret germ warfare program are now unemployed and could be supplying weapons-grade anthrax to Islamic terrorists. It?s known that Osama bin Laden?s al-Qa?ida network has tried to buy ingredients for biological weapons from Russia in recent years.
The secret Russian germ warfare program was set up in the 1970s when the Soviets decided to cheat on their treaty commitment to destroy all anthrax and other germ warfare stocks. Experts believe parts of the program are still in operation today.
The scientists who worked on the program until it was officially disbanded in 1992 may also have sold their secrets on the open market. Kelly says that 30,000 people worked for the Soviet agency known as Biopreparat and ?between three and four thousand were professional scientists. Some would be available to go elsewhere.?
The full extent of Russia?s biowarfare activities were revealed to the CIA by Ken Alibek, the deputy director of Biopreparat, when he defected to the West in 1992. He described how the Soviet Union churned out two tons of anthrax a day at Stepanagorsk in Kazakhstan and said the Russians covered up an outbreak of anthrax in the Urals in 1979. He told a United States congressional committee last week, ?There are pieces of Biopreparat that are still running, some with a very high level of secrecy.? He says that no one knows where up to 50 Russian scientists who know secrets about weapons-grade anthrax are today.
The strain that infected 34 staff members of the U.S. Senate yesterday was a finely milled weapons-grade powder. Dick Spertzl, an American biowarfare expert, says, ?Any dedicated individual can learn how to make weapons-grade anthrax. If they had an adviser, it would be easier.?
But turning a laboratory-produced liquid into powdered spores isn?t easy. ?The knowledge of drying is not that common,? according to Spertzl. Iraqi weapons experts are believed to have concentrated on developing the liquid variety of anthrax, which can infect its victims through dropping anthrax-filled bombs or using aerosols.
Only three countries, Iraq, the United States and Russia, know how to turn anthrax into a weapon. The U.S. abandoned its program in 1969 and is now concentrating on biodefense. US anthrax stocks were destroyed in 1972.
Other countries that are thought to be working on biological weapons include Iran, North Korea, Libya, Cuba, Egypt and Pakistan. Iraq is believed to possess at least 8.4 tons of concentrated liquid anthrax, despite telling United Nations weapons inspectors that all stocks had been destroyed in 1991. Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the UN inspectors, says, ?We had concerns that Iraq was attempting to store it as a dry product, but no hard evidence.?
Three of the 19 September 11 hijackers have been linked to the rebel republic of Chechnya in Russia and the Islamic terrorist leader, Mohamed Atta, met twice with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. But David Kelly feels that Iraq, which has won support from Arab states for its efforts to break the 10-year-old UN sanctions, has ?too much at stake? to take part in terrorist actions against the United States.
Professor Alastair Hay, a biowarfare specialist at Leeds University in the U.K., says the term ?high grade? anthrax suggests that it is a strain that is more infectious, with a relatively small number of spores capable of causing a lung infection. Normally, between 2,500 and 10,000 spores must be inhaled to cause pulmonary anthrax, so a strain that could cause the disease using fewer spores would be of great value to terrorists.
Bioterrorism experts are concerned that anthrax, which is not contagious, might be genetically altered to a form that can be passed from person to person, but bacteriologists don?t believe this can be done.
Opinion: Would anyone be surprised if the 50 missing Russian bioweapons scientists are in Iraq?
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