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On a brilliant summer day, June 2, 1995, a chartered white and blue Yak-40 jet descended to the remote city of Stepnogorsk in northern Kazakhstan, landing on a bumpy airstrip of concrete slabs. The plane, emblazoned with the name Kazakhstan Airlines, carried Andy Weber and a team of biological weapons experts from the United States. About nine miles away stood the anthrax factory Alibek had built in the 1980s. Never before had a Westerner set foot in the secret plant, where, in the event of war, anthrax bacteria was to be fermented, processed into a thick brown slurry, dried, milled and filled into bombs—by the ton.
Weber’s flight to Stepnogorsk was the culmination of months of careful preparation. His mission was to find a new entryway into the secret empire of Biopreparat. In Russia, attempts by American and British officials to penetrate the biological weapons program had been blocked, made even more difficult after Aldrich Ames gave the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate to the Russians in late 1993. Moreover, Yeltsin’s promises of openness had been subverted by his own generals.
But now, there was another chance. A colossal anthrax-processing machine stood intact at Stepnogorsk, and if Weber could get inside, it might hold a key to the larger Soviet biological weapons story.
Weber began laying the groundwork for this mission days after Project Sapphire was over. In November 1994, he started a series of inoculations against potential pathogens he might encounter at Stepnogorsk, including anthrax and tularemia. Then he lobbied the Kazakh government for permission to visit three facilities with a team of experts: the chemical weapons plant at Pavlodar, in the northeast near the Russian border; the biological weapons plant at Stepnogorsk, also in the north; and a testing grounds for germ warfare agents at Vozrozhdeniye Island, in the Aral Sea, which borders Kazakhstan in the far west. The hulking industrial works were frozen in time, equipment mothballed or rusting, the halls and laboratories monitored by Russians who remained the stewards long after the Soviet Union imploded.
When Weber discovered the highly-enriched uranium in Ust-Kamenogorsk, he had followed a single tip on a small piece of paper. This time, he had much more information, thanks to Alibek, who was debriefed for more than a year by American intelligence and military agencies, meeting daily in a second-floor conference room in an office building in northern Virginia. Alibek sketched out the sprawling Biopreparat and military germ warfare complex: the facilities, pathogens, history, scientists, directors, structure, accomplishments and goals. While Pasechnik had done the same for the British in London, Alibek held a higher-ranking position.
To the Americans, there were still many unknowns—not only the hidden history, but also the urgent questions about whether the Russians were actually closing down the Soviet biological weapons program, as Yeltsin had promised. The earlier visits to Obolensk, Vector and other facilities had all been frustrated by the cover-up. The Trilateral Agreement reached a dead end. The Americans wanted to know: which pathogens and laboratories could still be a proliferation threat?1
Alibek provided a gold mine of new data about the laboratories and factories of Biopreparat. He knew a great deal about Stepnogorsk, which he had directed in the 1980s: the layout, building numbers, pipelines, processes, machinery, fermenters and bunkers. Thanks to Alibek, Weber had a road map.2
In the last days of May 1995, Weber made final appeals to the Kazakh government. When he got the green light, the American team immediately flew in from overseas to join him. On the first leg of the journey, Weber headed to Pavlodar, the abandoned chemical weapons plant, where he was given open access and cooperation. “They showed us everything,” he recalled. The main engineer explained that Pavlodar was a war mobilization plant, designed to produce sarin and soman for bombs in a matter of weeks if the orders came from Moscow. But the factory showed signs of having been left behind years earlier. “It was a wreck,” Weber remembered.
Then, on Friday, June 2, they took off for Stepnogorsk, 261 miles to the west of Pavlodar. The Stepnogorsk plant was alerted—by someone in the Kazakh government—that an American delegation was coming to town and should be met at the airstrip. Weber was accompanied by a security official from the president’s office, in case there were any questions about his authority to be there. When he climbed down the stairs of the plane, Weber ran into trouble.
“Remember, it’s a chartered plane, this is Stepnogorsk. The airport no longer operates. They didn’t get a lot of flights coming in. So they came right out to our plane,” Weber said. The first person he met was Gennady Lepyoshkin, director of the plant. A Soviet army colonel, Lepyoshkin had first come to Stepnogorsk in 1984 as Alibek’s deputy, and took over when Alibek went to Moscow in 1987. He was shorter than Weber, with dark hair combed straight over, and thick glasses. Lepyoshkin brought his own security man, who offered Weber a finger-crushing handshake. Lepyoshkin left no doubt about his attitude.
“You’re not welcome in our city,” Lepyoshkin told Weber. “Leave!”3
Weber insisted he had come at the invitation of the Kazakh government. Lepyoshkin demanded to see documents. Weber had brought none. After more back-and-forth, Lepyoshkin allowed Weber and his team to come into the town—but not the factory—and check into a guesthouse.
They next met at the mayor’s office. Weber recalled that the Russians regarded their installation as a satellite of Moscow, not under the authority of Kazakhstan. The town was largely populated by Russians, too. “I had entered Brezhnev-era Russia,” Weber recalled. “This was going back in a time warp.” He made a forceful case for the visit, saying that Nazarbayev had approved it. “Gennady and the locals didn’t really care” about the Kazakh president, however. Weber then called Courtney, the ambassador in Almaty. “We need something on paper,” he told him, “or this visit is not going to happen.”
The lone fax machine in the city was in the mayor’s office, and a few hours later a letter arrived from Vladimir Shkolnik, the Kazakh minister of science and new technologies, who had been the atomic energy chief at the time of Project Sapphire. Shkolnik urged Lepyoshkin to open up everything to the visitors. “When Lepyoshkin had the approval on paper, he was covered,” Weber said. “He didn’t like it but he couldn’t stop us.”
The next morning, Weber and his team drove out to the plant from the guesthouse. First they went to Lepyoshkin’s office, where Lepyoshkin gave them a briefing. He said they were making vaccines at the plant. Weber figured it was the cover story. At this moment, both Weber and Lepyoshkin knew more than they said aloud. Lepyoshkin knew that Alibek had gone to the United States. Weber knew the details of the Alibek debriefings, in which he had described the anthrax factory. Weber then gave a brief summary of what he believed the plant had been used for in the past.
Suddenly, Lepyoshkin’s deputy for security, Yuri Rufov, burst out, “That’s all lies! It’s a vaccine production plant! That’s all. We never had anything to do with biological weapons.”
At this point, Lepyoshkin’s manner changed. “Let’s end this discussion,” he said. “We’ll show you everything, and you can make your own judgments.”
On the first full day, Saturday, June 3, Weber and his team started by examining the complex from the exterior. Spanning the top of one building were letters spelling out “Progress” in Russian, the name of the civilian enterprise that served as cover for the biological weapons plant. When they alighted from a jeep they saw bunkers, with thick concrete walls, nestled deep into earthen mounds. Pipes snaked from building to building atop concrete pillars. Behind the bunkers, a crane and rail line marked the location where anthrax munitions would be loaded onto trains in the event of war. Lightning arrestors—another telltale sign of weapons work—were stacked up to one side. At the end of the first day, there were still many mysteries. At 9 P.M. that night, they spread out a schematic of the basement of the main production plant, wondering what was inside the rooms they had not yet seen.
The second day, Sunday, June 4, 1995, they returned and probed deeper inside. Most of the equipment had been mothballed but looked well preserved. Pipes and valve handles were color-coded blue, green and red. Storage tanks stood silent, connected by miles of tubes and wires. The whole complex seemed to be waiting to spring to life. While the interior was in good order, outside the facility had gone to seed. Roads were potholed and junk strewn everywhere. Sheep fed from a trough outside one building. A stiff wind blew across the steppe.
From what he saw, Weber realized that Alibek’s descriptions matched everything they found. One of the most important discoveries was in Building 600, the main laboratory. They located the pad where Alibek recalled there had been a giant stainless steel aerosol chamber for testing the most dangerous agents, such as anthrax, Marburg and Ebola on monkeys and other animals. The high-ceilinged hall was painted an institutional green, eerily empty save for pipes and wires around the periphery, disconnected from the bulbous experimental chamber that once filled up the middle. A crane loomed overhead—maybe to lift the stainless steel ball? In the center of the pad they found a drainage hole. Weber and his team carefully swabbed it for samples. Then they found what looked like a latched, plastic traveling cage for a pet dog, with a handle on top. But it wasn’t for traveling. A hole was cut in the front, and two V-shaped supports protruded from the hole. Here was where the dog’s head would be strapped down during biological weapons experiments.
They combed Building 211, the facility to prepare nutrient media for growing bacteria, with a capacity of thirty thousand metric tons a year. They checked out underground bunkers with reinforced concrete walls two meters thick for weaponization of the agents. The bunkers contained compressors and refrigerators to store agents, and special lines where the pathogens would be filled into bombs and sealed. They swabbed Building 231, where the anthrax bacteria would be dried and milled before being put into the bombs. It appeared never to have been operational.
The most important discovery was the main production facility, Building 221. Several stories tall, on the inside it resembled a scene from a very old science fiction movie, crammed full of pipes, tanks, valves, coils and wires. Most was not active, just standing in place. The building contained a high-level containment facility for handling dangerous pathogens. In a three-day production cycle, the facility could make 1.5 tons of bacteria. The nutrient media was pumped from Building 211 to the upper floors of Building 221, where small fermenters were inoculated with anthrax bacteria. After a period of growth, the content of the small chambers was drained downward into ten massive fermenters, each four stories tall. After further fermentation, the mixture was spun in centrifuges to remove culture medium and waste. The bacterial slurry was then pumped to Building 231 for drying and milling, and then to the bunkers for munitions filling or storage. The finished weapons would then be loaded onto waiting railway wagons for transport.
Of all the amazing discoveries, Weber recalled the day he saw the large fermenters as one of the most disturbing of his life.
“This is a plant that could produce and load onto weapons—targeted at the United States—300 metric tons of anthrax during a war-time mobilization period,” he said. “It looked like a plant right out of the 1930s. There was nothing high-tech about it. It was like when I held the uranium ingot in my hand. It was just metal. These were just big vessels that looked like something out of a 1930s movie. Yet we knew it had the capability of wiping out a big portion of population. It was just scary to think that you didn’t need some super-high sophisticated technology to produce these horrible weapons in massive quantities.”
In Building 221, Weber climbed to the top of one of the twenty-thousand-liter fermenters and looked down into it with a flashlight. The cylinder was made of specialty steel with a resin lining. He could see the impellers attached to a central rod that would stir the anthrax spores. He could not see the bottom in the dark, four floors below, but he got a full sense of the incredible volume, the trillions of spores of anthrax bacteria that would be swirling inside the chamber, enough to wipe out entire populations. Weber, taciturn, methodical and careful, felt a chill run up and down his spine. “I think more than any other day in my life,” he said, “this was my introduction to two things. First, to biological weapons. I had read about them. I had taken courses. But this was the real thing. And second, to the Soviet Union. I had never bought into Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ thing. I was a product of liberal eastern schools, I went to Cornell, but there it was. I was face to face with evil.”4
On Sunday, Lepyoshkin invited Weber and his team to the plant’s dacha, an A-frame cottage on the Seleti River, for a closing feast. It was a sunny afternoon and they went fishing and swimming, ate shish kebab and enjoyed fish soup, and Lepyoshkin poured vodka. They wore baseball caps in the bright sun that glinted off the reeds and blue surface of the river. Lepyoshkin opened the feast by declaring, “Now the official meeting is over.” Weber recalled, “What he really meant was, now we can talk to you. Now we can tell you the truth. Everything we said until now has been part of a script.”
Lepyoshkin then told them the full story of Stepnogorsk. “They were open about the whole history, the whole purpose,” Weber recalled. The anthrax factory was built after the 1979 Sverdlovsk accident. The goal was to give the Soviet Union the ability to wage biological war within a few weeks after the mobilization order was given. Pasechnik and Alibek had been right, and all those years, the Soviet and Russian generals and diplomats had lied about it. Indeed, Weber remembered, these men had lied to his face only two days before, saying the plant made vaccines.
The teams bonded over vodka on the riverbank; the Russians were candid about their own experiences inside the system. As Weber recalled it, they told him: “At the time we didn’t know it was wrong. We didn’t know it was illegal. We didn’t know there was a Biological Weapons Convention. We just thought we were defending our country. Now we know enough to know it was wrong, and we want to work together to do positive things for the rest of our lives.” Lepyoshkin said activity at Stepnogorsk had come to a halt four years earlier with the Soviet collapse. There had been nothing, officially, from Moscow since then. They had made halting attempts on their own to convert to civilian products. He hoped they would succeed someday.
“They just poured their souls out to us,” Weber said. “For these people to meet Americans, who they had been taught to hate, to meet their counterparts and find out that they actually liked them, I think it was a big event for them, too. There was no more isolated place in the world than Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan. It’s this poor, little, isolated, artificial military city that was created in the middle of Kazakhstan on purpose to be as far away from life forms as possible. They knew we were the main enemy. And all of a sudden, we’re there, and we don’t have horns and we’re having fun with them. We’re laughing at their jokes and they are laughing at ours.”
Weber had broken through the secrecy. The trip produced proof that Biopreparat and the Soviet military envisioned manufacturing germ weapons by the metric ton in the event of war. The Soviets had grossly violated the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. He had seen, too, that the anthrax factory, while not operating, remained intact. The fermenters were still there, mothballed but ready. “By the end of that day we had gone from almost failing, the team not even being allowed in, to the exhilaration of succeeding in our mission beyond our wildest expectations,” Weber recalled.
Weber asked Lepyoshkin if he would come with them the next day as they headed to Vozrozhdeniye Island, where the germ weapons had long been tested. Weber thought it would be useful to have Lepyoshkin as a guide. The island had been at the heart of the Soviet germ warfare program. Lepyoshkin readily agreed. In the morning, they took off together in the Yak-40. On the flight, Weber wore a plaid open-necked shirt and took a window seat. Lepyoshkin sat next to him, in a sport coat and tie with red-white-and-blue stars and stripes. They lifted a toast to cooperation, Weber holding a small American flag in one hand.
They could not fly a fixed-wing jet to Aralsk, the closest city to the island, so they took the chartered Yak-40 to Kyzil Orda, a city to the east. Much to Lepyoshkin’s surprise, Weber, on the spot, chartered a Soviet-built Mi-8 helicopter from a medical rescue service, for $8,000, to make the flight to the testing range. Weber plunked down a stack of $100 bills for the chopper. “You’re quite a cowboy!” Lepyoshkin said, surprised at Weber’s determination and resourcefulness. “No, Gennady,” he replied, “you’re the cowboy.”
Boarding the chopper, fitted out with stretchers and emergency medical equipment, they flew about 228 miles west to the city of Aralsk, which had once been a fishing port on the edge of the Aral Sea, where the smallpox outbreak had occurred in 1971. Since then, the sea had dramatically receded, and Aralsk was now thirty miles from the nearest shoreline.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vozrozhdeniye Island was inside the borders of the newly independent nation of Uzbekistan. Weber realized he needed to get Uzbek approval for his flight to the testing ground. He and his team spent a night in a hot, miserable hotel in Aralsk, and then he worked the phones. It took hours and hours of effort. Weber also visited the former military support facility for the testing ground, based in Aralsk, which was now being used as a leper colony.
Finally, they took off. As the blue-and-white chopper with a bright Red Cross insignia lumbered through the air, the noise was deafening. Lepyoshkin, now in a white T-shirt, sat alone, gazing out the porthole window of the chopper. Below, the island appeared to be as devoid of life as the surface of the moon, a dull gray-brown with patches of vegetation. A cluster of low-lying buildings, bleached white with the sun and heat, marked the headquarters of the testing range, but there was no sign of inhabitants, not a person, not a car. Weber did not know if anyone remained on the site—maybe it was still guarded by the Russian military? Were there Uzbek border guards? They circled once in the helicopter, slowly, to make sure. Nothing. They landed near the headquarters and residential buildings, all with windows blown out. As the chopper engines came to a quiet halt, the only thing Weber heard was a dog barking in the distance. “It was all totally abandoned,” Weber said. “Like Planet of the Apes.”
They walked away from the chopper and toward the buildings. A rusting, abandoned truck, without wheels, lay where it last stopped. A faded Communist Party propaganda book was picked off the sidewalk. The first building they saw had a sign over the door: MEDICAL CLINIC. The door creaked open to desolate rooms, stripped, the paint peeling. Lizards skittered away in the grass. After another short chopper flight, they landed in the laboratory area. In the stifling heat, the Americans put on their white hazardous materials suits. Lepyoshkin, who had worked with pathogens for so many years, thought they were being overly cautious and did not suit up.
In these buildings they found traces of what had gone before. Hundreds of gas masks tumbled out of a storage room. Another room held a large supply of flasks and Petri dishes. They found glove boxes for handling dangerous pathogens. Weber was surprised to discover some equipment in the labs was mothballed carefully. Placards were hung from it in Russian, saying “in conservation.” But mothballed for what? He wondered: was someone planning to come back another day?
In earlier times, Lepyoshkin spent seventeen summers on Vozrozhdeniye Island, helping carry out tests of Soviet biological warfare agents, and he knew it even better than Alibek. The proving ground was run by the military’s 15th Main Directorate, the one in charge of germ warfare. The scientists had lived in barracks, forbidden to tell anyone, including their families, where they were going. Alibek recalled in his memoir, “Winds swirling off the desert steppes provided the only respite from the heat. There were no birds and the dust settled everywhere, getting into clothes, hair, and eyes, sweeping through the animal cages and into the food and scientists’ notebooks.
“We used to say that the most fortunate inhabitants of the Soviet Union were the condemned monkeys” on Vozrozhdeniye Island, he added. “They were fed oranges, apples, bananas and other fresh fruits rarely seen by Soviet citizens.”
Now, as Weber walked through the laboratories, all that remained of the monkeys were cages—hundreds of them, including one large enough for a human to stand up in. Weber found reams of blank paper forms used to record the symptoms of biological weapons agents on the monkeys. On the left of the page was an outline of the primate with key places to check, and on the right were blanks for listing data gathered from those points. At the top of the form was written “Top Secret, When Filled In.”
In their hazardous materials suits, Weber and his team took samples of the filters in the laboratory, hoping to find pathogens trapped in them. On the windswept proving grounds, they saw the bleak poles where animals were harnessed for outdoor tests.
Alibek had told the Americans that the anthrax removed from Sverdlovsk, and later stored at the town of Zima, near Irkutsk in Siberia, had been buried on Vozrozhdeniye Island in 1988, but he had not said precisely where. Weber and his team extracted sample cores from the earth adjacent to the laboratory, where they thought the anthrax might be buried, and on the test grid. They didn’t find the anthrax that day; the pink powder was buried in eleven unmarked graves nearby. It would be discovered on a later expedition. But in finding the weathered buildings and discarded primate cages, in taking the samples and photographs and exploring the island, Weber had broken through the Soviet lies once again.
Weber and Lepyoshkin flew out together. They posed for a picture on the tarmac, both giving a thumbs-up. Lepyoshkin had nowhere to stay in Almaty; Weber invited him to be his houseguest in the mountains. By chance, there was a reception at the American Embassy for visiting officials from Washington. Among them was Carter, an assistant secretary of defense, who was an architect of the Nunn-Lugar legislation, and Starr, the principal director of the Pentagon’s threat reduction office, who led the “tiger team” for Project Sapphire. They met Lepyoshkin for the first time. Lepyoshkin seemed to have unmoored himself from the Soviet past. He was eager to meet the American officials. They talked in the leafy courtyard of the embassy. Lepyoshkin had only one request: he wanted them to help clean up Stepnogorsk and convert it to peaceful purposes. “I promise,” Carter told him, “we will.”
In Russia, Weber discovered the footprints of Iranians—and they were reaching for the germs.
In 1997, back from overseas, he was working at the Pentagon on the Nunn-Lugar programs, which had become known as Cooperative Threat Reduction. He was trying to find a new approach to dealing with the danger of biological weapons inside Russia. Weber’s first trip there came in June 1997, when he took a train fourteen hours from Moscow to Kirov, five hundred miles east, to attend a scientific conference, accompanied by several other American experts. In a stroke of good luck, Weber met researchers from both Obolensk and Vector, the laboratories at the heart of Biopreparat’s research on bacteria and viruses. Late one afternoon, after the formal conference sessions, a small group of scientists from Obolensk invited Weber to share some beers in the banya, a traditional Russian sauna. Joining the scientists in the steam room, with his Russian-language skills and knowledge of biological weapons and pathogens, Weber made a personal connection, as he had done earlier with Mette and Lepyoshkin. In these discussions, Weber learned that scientists from Obolensk and Vector had recently participated in an officially sponsored Russian trade fair in Tehran, and very quickly, the Iranians had shown up at the Russian institutes. The Iranians were somewhat rough-cut agents of influence, and the Russians found them off-putting, the scientists said. From this informal talk in the banya, Weber realized the Iranians were trying to scoop up know-how for biological weapons. What really alarmed him was a discussion with a senior scientist at Obolensk who had been on the trip to Tehran. “They talk about pharmaceuticals,” the scientist said, “but it’s clear their interest is in dual use equipment that can be used for biological weapons.” The scientist said the Iranians had offered him thousands of dollars to teach in Tehran. And then the scientist took a business card from his wallet, which had been given to him by the Iranians. He showed it to Weber, who immediately recognized the name and the office: a front for the military and intelligence services in their drive to procure Russia’s weapons.
A few weeks later, Weber met Lev Sandakhchiev, the compact, intense, chain-smoking director of Vector, who had once pushed to create artificial viruses for biological weapons. Sandakhchiev had come to Washington for the first time. Weber took Sandakhchiev on an hour-long drive to Fort Detrick, Maryland, once the home of the American biowarfare effort, and now headquarters of the work on defense against dangerous pathogens. In the car, Sandakhchiev revealed to Weber the Iranians had come to Vector, hunting for technology and know-how. Weber sensed that Sandakhchiev wanted to cooperate with the United States, to open the Russian system to joint projects. He also realized that conditions at Vector were increasingly desperate, with salaries unpaid and subsidies drying up.
Weber and Sandakhchiev met again in October 1997 at a NATO conference in Budapest, and this time, in a hotel room, they had a knockdown, drag-out argument over Iran, as Sandakhchiev ate sausage and drank vodka. Sandakhchiev wanted to know: why was Iran such a bugaboo to the Americans? Weber replied, “You have to understand, they kept our Embassy and our diplomats hostage for 444 days!” Sandakhchiev looked puzzled. When was that? Weber reminded him it was 1979. Sandakhchiev, sounding sincere, told Weber that, isolated in his laboratory in Siberia, he had never heard of the Iran hostage-taking. Weber thought to himself it was an astonishing example of how closed the world of biowarfare had been in Soviet times, apparently so tight that not even the news of the hostage crisis had penetrated. Weber implored Sandakhchiev to stop the cooperation with Iran. Sandakhchiev was reluctant to give up the big money the Iranians had offered, but the Iranians were also very unpleasant partners—they made promises up front, but delivered money late, and constantly tried to bargain for less. Weber and Sandakhchiev went back and forth, arguing for hours. Weber found that Sandakhchiev was open with him, and Weber learned that in addition to work at Vector, there was probably a large, separate stockpile of Variola major virus at the military laboratory at Zagorsk. Later, on a tour in Budapest, they walked past the confessional in an old church, and Sandakhchiev turned to Weber and joked, in Russian, “Andy, let’s go in there and I’ll confess all my sins about biological weapons!”
Back in Washington, Weber searched for a way to act, to offer Sandakhchiev something to preempt the Iranians. But up to this point, the Nunn-Lugar program was largely devoted to nuclear materials and strategic weapons, and there was tremendous resistance in the U.S. government, especially in the intelligence agencies, to using any of it to stop the spread of biological weapons. The long history of Soviet and Russian deception about germ warfare had left a deep reservoir of mistrust in Washington. “There was this real fear of our funds being misused by these clearly dangerous, bad actors,” Weber recalled. At a meeting at the White House one day in late 1997, a decision was made to engage Vector, as Weber had urged. After the meeting, he walked to the State Department with Anne M. Harrington, who had helped establish the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow, and was now working on nonproliferation issues at the department. Harrington shared Weber’s goal of reaching out to the scientists at Vector. She knew they were in financial trouble; a few years earlier, the science center held workshops at Vector and Obolensk for possible grant recipients, and scientists at Obolensk said they hadn’t been paid for months. Many just stayed home to grow food or find other ways to support their families; to produce enough income to cover minimal salaries, Obolensk boasted a brewery and an assembly line for men’s suits, and was planning to start a vodka distillery. Harrington thought the beleaguered germ warfare scientists should get as much attention as had the nuclear engineers.5
When they reached the office, Weber and Harrington decided to take a chance and reach out to Sandakhchiev on their own. They would not go through the usual bureaucratic channels: embassies, cables, government ministries. On Harrington’s office computer, they tapped out an e-mail to Sandakhchiev. It was brief, noncommittal, but inviting, suggesting closer cooperation and asking if Weber could visit Vector. They didn’t know what would happen. “What are your employment options if this doesn’t work?” Harrington asked Weber.
But the gamble paid off. Sandakhchiev responded with an invitation. Weber made several visits to Vector, and on one of them, Weber asked to see Buildings 6 and 6A, where the research on smallpox had been done years earlier, and about which Sandakhchiev had earlier deceived the British and American visitors. This time, Weber was allowed a close look at the building, and to take photographs. “It was clear the place was just a wreck, crap all over the floors, the equipment was in terrible shape,” Weber recalled.
He went to Frank Miller, then acting assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, a longtime civil servant working on threat reduction. “I think we can break Vector’s ties with Iran,” Weber said. “They’re desperate for limited cooperation and investment.” Miller asked him how much money it would take. “Three million dollars,” Weber replied. Miller went to work and eventually found the money. They persuaded Sandakhchiev to curtail the deals with the shady agents of Tehran.
On each trip and with each passing year, it was more and more apparent to the Americans who visited the former Soviet Union that the Cold War legacy of danger far exceeded what anyone had imagined at first. Years had gone by since the Soviet collapse, yet pathogens in flasks, unguarded fissile materials, idle weapons scientists and marooned defense factories were still being discovered for the first time in the late 1990s.
In a lightly guarded building at the Anti-plague Institute in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Weber once discovered a clutch of test tubes, with plague strains, stored in an empty tin can of peas. In 1997, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Weber and another U.S. official were scouting out weapons specialists for the International Science and Technology Center. They explained to a group of institute directors at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences that grants were intended for those who had worked on Soviet weapons programs. How many in the room thought they might qualify? One by one, they stood up. Among them, Weber met the director of an institute that, in Soviet times, worked on plant pathogens intended to wipe out the entire American wheat supply. The director invited Weber to visit, and Weber found, to his amazement, they were also working on how to grow crops after a nuclear holocaust. Weber brought back to Washington a whole new list of dangerous pathogens to worry about.6
In 1998, Weber made contacts at the Research Center for Molecular Diagnostics and Therapy in Moscow. The institute, which worked with dangerous pathogens in the Soviet years, had fallen on hard times in the 1990s. A scientist from the institute confided to Weber he had just received an e-mail from a postdoctoral student in Tehran who wanted to come work there. Weber told him: don’t reply. Within weeks, Weber helped arrange grants from the International Science and Technology Center for some of the hard-pressed researchers to begin working on civilian projects.
Over the next few years, more secrets of Biopreparat spilled into the open. In 1998, Alibek published his memoir, describing his career in the germ warfare system. In May 2000, Nikolai Urakov, the director of Obolensk, hosted a conference cosponsored by the International Science and Technology Center. In an extraordinary day, journalists were shown around parts of Korpus No. 1, where Sergei Popov and Igor Domaradsky had worked on genetic engineering. Urakov complained the laboratory was receiving only 1 percent of the government budget of Soviet times—the rest they had to earn on their own. Urakov, director of the largest facility for developing bacteria for biological weapons in the old days, announced a new mission: “We have to protect humans from diseases.”7
Over and over again, Weber found the key was forging relationships with scientists, respecting their dignity, their desire to carry out useful research, and building their trust. Governments and agreements had their purpose, but the real success started when they could look you in the eye and speak directly. The banya talks worked wonders.
For Weber and many of those Westerners who went to the former Soviet Union to staunch the threats, there was also a frustrating unknown. They could tally up the success stories, measure the number of fences built and grants given, but could only guess at what had slipped through their fingers. It was the nature of threat reduction that it was always risky business, devilishly challenging, often defying a chance to declare absolute success. In trying to prevent something, the most consequential and terrifying metric was failure.