Military history

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Ground zero for testing smallpox and other biological weapons in the Soviet Union was a hot, arid and sandy island, isolated and remote. It was named Vozrozhdeniye, or Rebirth Island, and located in the middle of the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest inland sea in the world. In the early 1970s, the sea was drying up. Rivers that fed the sea had been diverted for cotton irrigation by Soviet planners. The shoreline receded and water deteriorated, while pesticide runoff increased, threatening birds, fish and small mammals with extinction.

In mid-July 1971, a Soviet civilian research ship, the Lev Berg, named after a famous Russian biologist and geologist, set sail from Aralsk, a city of fifty thousand then at the northern tip of the sea. On those summer days, the mission of the Lev Berg was to sample the ecological damage. The ship left July 15 and made a long circle around the shoreline. Winds across the water always drifted in a southerly direction. On July 31, the Lev Berg was south of Vozrozhdeniye Island. The ship then returned to home port August 11. A twenty-four-year-old woman who had worked on the deck of the ship, hauling nets and archiving samples, went home and became very ill. In the weeks that followed, she came down with smallpox, then spread it to nine other people in Aralsk. Three died, including two infants under one year old.1

No direct evidence exists that a smallpox test was the reason for the outbreak, but a senior Soviet official, Pyotr Burgasov, said years later that a test had been conducted there. At the time of the smallpox outbreak, Burgasov was Soviet deputy minister of health.2 He recalled: “A highly potent smallpox formula was being tested on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea …

Suddenly I got a report saying that deaths from unknown causes had been registered in the town of Aralsk. Here is what happened: A research vessel from the Aralsk Shipping Company came within 15 kilometers of the island (it was forbidden to approach closer than 40 kilometers) and a lab assistant went out on deck twice a day, taking plankton samples. Smallpox pathogen—a mere 400 grams of the formula had been exploded on the island—“got” her; she contracted smallpox, and when she returned home to Aralsk, she infected several more people, some of them children. There were no survivors. When I had pieced together the facts, I called the chief of the USSR General Staff, asking him to forbid Alma-Ata–Moscow trains to stop in Aralsk. Thus a nation-wide epidemic was prevented. I called Andropov, KGB head at the time, and told him about the exceptionally potent smallpox formula developed on Vozrozhdeniye Island. He ordered me to keep mum. This is what real bacteriological weapons are like! Minimum effective range: 15 kilometers. You can easily imagine what would have happened had there been not just one lab assistant, but 100 or 200 people around at the time.3

The smallpox outbreak was hushed up by the Soviet authorities and never reported to the World Health Organization.

In 1971, the same year as the Aralsk outbreak, a renewed diplomatic effort was made to strengthen international control over germ warfare. The 1925 Geneva Protocol had covered both chemical and biological weapons. The British proposed at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to separate germ warfare from chemical weapons, and to tackle biological weapons first. The idea was that it would be easier to ban germ warfare before moving on to chemical weapons.4 Nixon’s decision to close down the American biological weapons program had given a new impetus to negotiations.

The Soviet Union had long insisted on an “immediate and simultaneous ban” on both biological and chemical weapons. But in March 1971, they suddenly agreed to split the two issues. The Soviet Union and the United States approved a new treaty prohibiting biological weapons, which was sent to the United Nations in August and approved unanimously by the General Assembly in December. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was signed in London, Washington and Moscow on April 10, 1972. The four-page agreement banned the development and production of biological weapons, and the means of delivering them. Specifically, Article 1 declared:

Each state party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.

But just as the Geneva Protocol a half century earlier had been weak, so was the new biological weapons treaty. It lacked on-site inspection mechanisms, because the Soviets had refused to accept any. It did not prohibit research if carried out for defensive purposes. At the time, Western diplomats reasoned it was better to get the treaty signed without verification than to have no agreement at all. The treaty simply left it up to each country to police itself. There were no penalties for cheating. There was no organization to monitor compliance.

Nixon had little faith in the new treaty. He was reluctant to even attend the signing ceremony. On the day he signed it, Nixon privately told Kissinger it was a “silly biological warfare thing which doesn’t mean anything,” and the next day, speaking to Treasury Secretary John Connally, he called it “that jackass treaty on biological warfare.”5

The Biological Weapons Convention, which took effect on March 26, 1975, was the first post–World War II disarmament treaty in which an entire class of weapons was to be done away with. But the hopes for it were in vain.

In the winter months of 1972, Igor Domaradsky was recuperating from tuberculosis at a rest home outside of Moscow. One day, an official car arrived unexpectedly to pick him up. Domaradsky was driven to the Soviet health ministry in Moscow, and then to the Kremlin. High-Ranking officials told him that he was being officially transferred from Rostov to Moscow to work for an organization involving microbiology. They were vague about what Domaradsky would do. That summer, in preparation, he defended a new doctorate dissertation in biology. “Had I known what was in store for me I would not have wanted to do it,” he recalled later of the move to Moscow, “and I would certainly have refused.”6 He was assigned to work at a government agency, Glavmikro-bioprom, which was a shortened name for the main directorate of the microbiological industry. Originally, the agency was created to help improve agriculture and medicine, such as creating artificial sweeteners and proteins. When Domaradsky got a small office there, he recalled, he wasn’t sure why.

In the West, genetics and molecular biology were accelerating. The experiments of cutting, pasting and copying DNA fragments by Herb Boyer and Stanley Cohen in California were pushing the science of molecular biology to new levels. Many of the advances came just as Domaradsky was transferred to Moscow. The 1973 experiments of Cohen and Boyer marked the dawn of genetic engineering.7

Soviet leaders made a momentous decision. Up to this point, their germ warfare program had been a military one. They had signed the new biological weapons treaty. But in deepest secrecy, they decided to violate the agreement, and to expand their pursuit of offensive biological weapons to exploit the new advances in genetic engineering. In the past they had used natural pathogens for weapons. Now they rushed to modify nature and create dangerous new agents. Domaradsky was recruited to be at the center of the program.

The germ warfare effort was far different from the nuclear arms race. Both superpowers formally negotiated on nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons were legal by the rules of the day. The countries made treaties, set limits and went to great lengths to regulate the competition by arms control negotiations, which they discussed in the open. To protect against cheating, they created verification regimes. But when the Soviet leaders expanded their biological weapons program in the early 1970s, they moved into a dark underside of the arms race. The Soviet program was illegal by the terms of a treaty that Soviet leaders had signed. They broke their own promises, and there was no regulation, verification or enforcement. Their actions give the lie to decades of Soviet propaganda about seeking disarmament. Almost every participant in the Soviet program has said they assumed the United States was also cheating. But in fact the U.S. program had stopped.

At the time, Brezhnev was influenced by a leading molecular biologist, Yuri Ovchinnikov, vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He and several colleagues persuaded Brezhnev to harness the new genesplicing technology for offensive military purposes. According to Ken Alibek, who became deputy director of the Soviet biological weapons program, Ovchinnikov “understood the significance of what he had read in Western scientific journals, and he knew that there were no Soviet laboratories, and few Soviet scientists, equipped to match that level of work.” When it came to convincing the military of the value of this new quest, Alibek said, “Ovchinnikov was persuasive. The most skeptical military commander would have to agree that it was dangerous, if not outrageous, to be behind the West in anything. Ovchinnikov found an influential ally in Leonid Brezhnev. The onetime metallurgical engineer who led the Soviet Union for eighteen years until his death in 1982 regarded the magisterial akademiks of the Soviet scientific establishment with a respect bordering on awe. Ovchinnikov was soon giving private lectures on genetics to Brezhnev and his aides. Slowly the message sank in.”8

The message was: they had to catch up. As part of the effort, Domaradsky recalled that several prominent Soviet scientists scoured the West for literature on molecular biology and genetics. Among them was Victor Zhdanov, a noted virologist who had initially proposed the global campaign to eradicate smallpox in 1958. Zhdanov won the high regard of Western scientists, and was often permitted to travel abroad. Domaradsky described Zhdanov as sophisticated and worldly. But Zhdanov was also aware of the terrible secrets—plans for a new generation of Soviet biological weapons.

In microbiology, a fine line exists between research that offers the promise of improved human life—better vaccines, drugs and agricultural products—and research that could be used to exploit human vulnerability to toxins and infectious disease. In the early phases, the same laboratory can be used for either purpose. Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel laureate, wrote that in biological weapons, the “underlying science is unalterably dual-use.” This allowed the Soviet leaders to hide their weapons program.9

In 1973, soon after the treaty was signed but before it took effect, Brezhnev established a new organization, Biopreparat. The cover story would be that Biopreparat was making medicines and vaccines. But the truth was that Biopreparat was the dual-use mechanism for a recharged and ambitious Soviet effort to discover new offensive biological weapons. Under the cover of civilian pharmaceuticals, Biopreparat would be researching the most dangerous pathogens known to man. To guide it, Brezhnev ordered the creation of a secret, inner council. Brezhnev put the respected virologist Zhdanov in charge of the council, and Domaradsky was named deputy director.

Within the council, Domaradsky was also put in charge of a “special department” for planning biological weapons development. He had frequent contact with the military bioweapons laboratories, government ministries, Academy of Sciences, and security services. He was now at the “brain center” of the germ warfare research program. The code word for the new offensive weapons drive was “Ferment.” Eventually, it grew to employ tens of thousands of workers and received the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.10

In 1974, the Soviet government issued another decree, this one public, seeking to accelerate Soviet work in microbiology. “The meaning of this order was clear,” Domaradsky said, “to let the nation and the world know that we had at last awakened and resolved to overcome our backwardness in this field.”11 But once again, the open decree was intended to conceal the truth. The Biopreparat-run laboratories were secretly intended for weapons work and were being erected at Koltsovo and Obolensk. By Alibek’s account, it was the most ambitious Soviet arms program since development of the hydrogen bomb.12

In his new assignment, Domaradsky was to work in the shadows. All documents concerning Ferment were transported with armed escort in special vehicles. Meetings of the council were held in a specially soundproofed hall, which was checked for bugs by the security services before every meeting. Domaradsky’s subscriptions to scientific literature had to be screened in advance by the security service. He was prohibited to travel outside the Soviet bloc, and often not even there. “I knew too much,” he acknowledged. The travel restrictions, often imposed on those with access to top-secret materials, nonetheless caused him embarrassment. “I had to think up some reason for turning down pressing and very tempting invitations from my foreign colleagues.” He would say he had broken his leg, or come down with an illness, or he had “family problems.” Once, he was on the verge of leaving for an international conference on microbiology in Munich. At the very last minute, the KGB man accompanying the delegation stopped Domaradsky in the street, told him he could not go and demanded his ticket and travel money back.

Domaradsky and his researchers held ten “inventor’s certificates,” for introducing genetic material into plague, but these papers were classified. Keeping such papers secret was common procedure. Domaradsky was given only a number and date of registration. To see his own certificates he had to enter a special security room and could not take any documents out.

Domaradsky was deeply conflicted. He desired to explore science, yet was aware he was contributing to instruments of death. The pathogens he developed would eventually be turned into weapons, although he did not deal with the actual bombs, just the germs. “I found the science of Problem Ferment intriguing indeed,” he said. “The attraction of that science seemed more important to me than what was to be done with its results.” He added, “Compromising with my conscience seemed, at the time, like a small price to pay.” Domaradsky said his family’s long struggle with persecution had taught him to be ready to bend. “To survive, I had to hide my true attitude toward the Soviet regime from childhood; I learned quite early to adapt myself to this regime.”

Moreover, Domaradsky felt a “vaulting pride” at being in the heart of the Soviet effort. He had a secure Kremlin phone, car and good salary. “We saw ourselves engaged in patriotic work,” he said, “advancing the study of molecular biology, immunology, and genetics in the Soviet Union, where these fields had been allowed to languish.” He knew of the treaty prohibiting biological weapons, but assumed Americans were also cheating.

At the core of the entire bioweapons effort, Domaradsky was in position to see the paperwork, talk to the military and visit the laboratories. As Biopreparat took shape, Domaradsky drafted a plan, approved in 1975, to expand the drive for genetically engineered germ weapons in five major directions, including resistance to antibiotics. This was a key turning point. Programs got underway to transfer the genes from various deadly agents into the cells of bacteria, or into the DNA of viruses, to boost the pathogenetic factors. Domaradsky wanted to inject the genetic material directly into plague. These programs were called “Bonfire” and “Factor.” While Domaradsky worked as deputy director of the council in Moscow, the council also set up a parallel program to use genetically altered viruses and germ weapons to devastate crops and livestock, Project “Ecology.”

As a young man, Domaradsky had admired the heroic workers of the anti-plague institutes, who protected the public from scourge. Now, the same institutes were quietly dragged into the search for agents of killing. According to Domaradsky, the “Problem No. 5” for civil defense became a cover story for weapons work. The institutes were asked to gather dangerous pathogens they found on the steppe, and to study what made them virulent, so they could be fed into the Biopreparat flasks.

The Biological Weapons Convention entered into force on March 26, 1975. That June, Alexei A. Roshchin, the Soviet ambassador to the disarmament committee in Geneva, declared: “At the present time, the Soviet Union does not have in its possession any bacteriological (biological) agents or toxins, weapons, equipment or means of delivery specified in Article 1 of the Convention.”13

Whether Roshchin was aware of the reality is unknown, but Domaradsky certainly knew the truth. “I knew that I was part of a system that was out of control, but I could not think of an alternative way to live my life,” Domaradsky reflected later. “Like my colleagues, I faced a terrible choice: remain with a corrupt and non-functioning system, doing work of (at best) a certain moral ambiguity, or sacrifice my entire scientific career.”

Soon after the biological weapons treaty was ratified, U.S. intelligence satellites picked up signs of unusual new factories being built in the Soviet Union. William Beecher, the military correspondent of the Boston Globe, reported that satellites detected six potential biological warfare facilities. The plants “feature extremely high smokestacks and refrigerated storage bunkers associated with germ warfare production,” Beecher wrote.14

Then in April 1979 came the Sverdlovsk anthrax epidemic. Fragmentary reports began to reach the West. The intelligence community had long suspected a secret Soviet biological weapons program existed. Now perhaps there was evidence.

The first reports began filtering into the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency through Soviet émigrés. A top-secret CIA intelligence report on October 15, 1979, cited an unnamed Soviet émigré as saying that three close friends had told him in May “of an accident at a biological warfare (BW) institute in Sverdlovsk which resulted in 40 to 60 deaths. Other sources have also heard rumors of such an accident.” The report was vague, but noted there was “a suspect BW installation in Sverdlovsk” and that “two reports of the accident suggested a disease that also affects cattle, and one source identified the bacterial agent anthrax as a possible cause.”15

In December, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. The SALT II treaty was endangered. If the Soviets were found to have violated the five-year-old biological weapons treaty, it would be yet another serious setback to ratification of the nuclear arms agreement.

Unexpectedly, fresh intelligence arrived in Washington about Sverdlovsk. A secret CIA report on January 28, 1980, said: “Recent intelligence strengthens allegations that an accident at a BW installation caused civilian casualties in southern Sverdlovsk during April 1979.” This report added the claim of a possible explosion at the plant that caused the release. The report said that “pathogenic bacteria allegedly escaped into the air and spread over industrial and residential areas of southern Sverdlovsk.” The report also took note that, “An announcement about an anthrax epidemic in a public health context appears to have been designed to prevent a possible panic among Sverdlovsk’s million-plus population. The magnitude of the epidemic and the causative organism remain conjecture.”

In January and February 1980, a practicing surgeon from a Sverdlovsk hospital gave U.S. intelligence agencies a new and more detailed account, which the Defense Intelligence Agency described in a top-secret report March 3. Although some details were vague, the surgeon was correct about many specifics. He said the accident occurred inside a military installation where “dispersible biological weapons” were produced. He said that in April 1979 there had been a “loud explosion which was attributed to a jet aircraft”—this later turned out to be an error—and he noted that within four days, victims had been arriving at Hospital No. 20.

He also recounted the symptoms of the victims, the deaths of workers at the ceramics factory, the decision to send patients to hospital No. 40 and the announcement that tainted meat caused the outbreak. He added, “This explanation was not accepted by the doctors in attendance because the fatalities were caused by the pulmonary type of anthrax as opposed to the gastric or skin anthrax which would be more likely if one had eaten or handled contaminated beef.” The intelligence agency concluded in the report that the information “presents a very strong circumstantial case for biological weapons activity” at the facility.

In Moscow on Monday, March 17, 1980, the U.S. ambassador, Thomas Watson, raised the Sverdlovsk anthrax epidemic in a quiet inquiry with the Soviet Foreign Ministry.16 The ministry did not respond right away. In Washington on Tuesday, March 18, a State Department spokesman, responding to questions from journalists, read out a public statement saying there were “disturbing indications” that “a lethal biological agent” might have hit Sverdlovsk in 1979 and this had raised questions “about whether such material was present in quantities consistent with” the biological weapons treaty. The Soviets were surprised by the State Department’s public announcement, which they hadn’t expected.17 The Soviet response came on Thursday, March 20, that the outbreak was caused by contaminated meat.18 The issue was extremely sensitive because that same week in Geneva, diplomats from fifty-three countries were winding up the first five-year review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention. They were on the verge of approving a final declaration. The U.S. ambassador to the talks, Charles Flowerree, told his Soviet counterpart, Victor Israelyan, about the message of concern over Sverdlovsk delivered in Moscow.

The Soviets decided to keep stonewalling. On Friday, March 21, acting on instructions from Moscow, Israelyan made a public statement to the conference. He reassured the conference there was nothing to worry about. “There are no grounds whatsoever” for the questions raised by the United States, he said. “In March–April 1979 in the area of Sverdlovsk there did in fact occur an ordinary outbreak of anthrax among animals, which arose from natural causes, and there were cases where people contracted an intestinal form of this infection as a result of eating meat from cattle which was sold against the regulations established by the veterinary inspectorate.”19

The same day, after this statement, the conference approved a final declaration on the Biological Weapons Convention. The treaty was working, the member states declared. No one had filed any complaints about violations. Indeed, the word “violation” did not even appear in the final declaration. All the nations that signed the treaty reaffirmed their “strong determination for the sake of all mankind” to avoid biological weapons.20

A week later, the United States passed a secret message back to Moscow, saying that “reports available to us indicate a prolonged outbreak of pulmonary anthrax in Sverdlovsk, involving a large number of fatalities. Based on our experience, we would expect an outbreak of anthrax resulting from contaminated meat to have been of relatively short duration and to have resulted in only a small number of fatalities.”21

In Washington, the Central Intelligence Agency turned to experts, including Matthew Meselson, the Harvard molecular biologist who had earlier urged Nixon to outlaw biological weapons. Meselson got a call from Julian Hoptman, the CIA’s longtime analyst of biological weapons. For a week, Meselson stayed at Hoptman’s home, and, with secret clearances, worked at Hoptman’s office at CIA headquarters. They pored over the raw intelligence reports, but the evidence was ambiguous. Hoptman had located the practicing surgeon from Sverdlovsk mentioned in the DIA report, who had emigrated to Israel, and interviewed him. But other sources traveling through Sverdlovsk heard nothing about an epidemic. It turned out the report of an explosion was not correct, but there were many unanswered questions, especially about the diagnosis. In notes he made from that week, Meselson wrote, “The main technical question in my mind at this point concerns the diagnosis of respiratory anthrax.” Was the anthrax inhaled by the victims, which might point to biological weapons dispersed in an aerosol, or was it ingested by them, which could be explained by distribution of bad meat? Or was it some other respiratory disease altogether?

A related puzzle was why the cases continued for seven weeks. The textbooks Meselson consulted had suggested the incubation period for anthrax was a few days. If there was a single cloud of spores, there should have been a rapid fall-off of new cases. Instead, people kept getting sick for quite some time. In his work in Hoptman’s office, Meselson concluded that they needed to know much, much more before they could reach a conclusion. Where did the victims work when they were exposed? Where did they live? Which direction were the winds blowing? What would they learn if they plotted all the victims on a map, and then drew an ellipse from Compound 19—how many would be inside that ellipse? And what was going on at Compound 19? Did the local authorities respond with drug therapy, and if they did, was it effective? Why were there so many fatalities if they had drugs readily available? At this early stage, Meselson was cautious, and probing. Meselson also learned that a Northwestern University physicist, Donald Ellis, had been on an academic exchange program with his family in Sverdlovsk at the time. He tracked down Ellis, who recalled he heard nothing about the epidemic. This added to Meselson’s sense of caution.22

Biological weapons were the ultimate challenge for spies, soldiers and scientists. From space, satellites could photograph intercontinental ballistic missile silos, and they could be counted. But germs were another matter. A satellite might spot an unusual building compound, like the one in Sverdlovsk, but seeing flasks in laboratories proved nearly impossible. That is why understanding Sverdlovsk was so important. It was a tantalizing bit of genuine evidence. With Sverdlovsk, the enormity of the Soviet germ warfare program had been glimpsed, but was still not proven.

After the Sverdlovsk accident, Soviet officials shipped a large supply of anthrax bacteria out of the city to a distant storage facility at Zima, near Irkutsk in Siberia. They wanted to get anthrax production running again, but they needed a new location. They knew Compound 19 would be suspect. Compound 19 was a military facility; now the Soviet officials wanted to hide the anthrax production more carefully. The best cover was Biopreparat, the supposedly civilian pharmaceutical enterprise. In 1981, Brezhnev approved relocating the Sverdlovsk facility. The destination was a remote desert town, Stepnogorsk, in northern Kazakhstan. This was a Biopreparat operation, and Ken Alibek was chosen to run it.23

Alibek was an ethnic Kazakh. After graduation from the Tomsk Medical Institute as a military doctor, he was assigned to a biopesticide factory at Omutninsk in western Russia, a training ground for those who would work on biological weapons.24 From the start, he recalled, “there were no orientation lectures or seminars, but if we had any doubts as to the real purpose of our assignment, they were quickly dispelled.” They were asked to sign a pledge of secrecy, then called in one by one to meet their KGB instructors.

“You are aware that this isn’t normal work,” the officer told Alibek as he sat down, more a declaration than a question.

“Yes,” Alibek replied.

“I have to inform you that there exists an international treaty on biological warfare, which the Soviet Union has signed,” the officer said. “According to that treaty no one is allowed to make biological weapons. But the United States signed it too, and we believe the Americans are lying.”

“I told him, earnestly, that I believed it too,” Alibek recalled. “We had been taught as schoolchildren and it was drummed into us as young military officers that the capitalist world was united in only one aim: to destroy the Soviet Union. It was not difficult for me to believe that the United States would use any conceivable weapon against us, and that our own survival depended on matching their duplicity.”

The officer nodded at Alibek’s comment. He was satisfied. “You can go now,” he said. “And good luck.”

Many years later, Alibek remembered those five minutes as the first and last time any official brought up a question of ethics for the rest of his career.25

Alibek was sent to Stepnogorsk in 1983. The new germ warfare plant was attached to a civilian facility, the Progress Scientific and Production Association, which made pesticides and fertilizer and provided a cover story. Within a few weeks of his assignment, Alibek was summoned to Moscow for briefings. Biopreparat had moved to a headquarters at No. 4a Samokatnaya Street, an elegant building with tall, arched windows, once the home of the nineteenth-century vodka merchant Pyotr Smirnoff. Inside, Alibek was shown a secret decree Brezhnev had signed in 1982. “An intelligence officer pulled the decree from a red folder tied with a string, placed it gravely on a desk, and stood behind me while I read,” he recalled. “I already knew the gist of the order: we were to transform our sleepy facility in northern Kazakhstan into a munitions place that would eventually replace Sverdlovsk.”

The weapon was to be the “battle strain,” known as Anthrax 836. “Once I’d worked out the technique for its cultivation, concentration, and preparation, I was to develop the infrastructure to reproduce it on a massive scale—a goal that had eluded our military scientists for years. This meant assembling batteries of fermenters, drying and milling machines, and centrifuges, as well as the equipment required for preparing and filling hundreds of bombs.”26

“My job in Stepnogorsk was, in effect, to create the world’s most efficient assembly line for the mass production of weaponized anthrax.”

Officially, Alibek was deputy director of Progress, the civilian enterprise, but he had a secret title as “war commander” of the entire installation. “I was expected to take control of the factory during what the army called ‘special periods’ of rising tensions between the superpowers. Upon receipt of a coded message from Moscow, I was to transform Progress into a munitions plant. Strains of virulent bacteria would be pulled from our vaults and seeded in our reactors and fermenters. Anthrax was our main agent at Stepnogorsk, but we also worked with glanders and were prepared to weaponize tularemia and plague.” The pathogens would be poured into bomblets and spray tanks and loaded onto trucks for shipment to a railroad station or airfield. “I was to maintain production until I received an order from Moscow to stop, or until our plant was destroyed.”

Alibek said he took seriously the prospect of a Cold War confrontation with the United States. Reagan’s election and military buildup were alarming. “Our soldiers were dying in Afghanistan at the hands of U.S.-backed guerrillas, and Washington was about to deploy a new generation of cruise missiles in Western Europe, capable of reaching Soviet soil in minutes. Intelligence reports claimed that Americans envisioned the death of at least sixty million Soviet citizens in the case of a nuclear war.

“We didn’t need hawkish intelligence briefings to persuade us of the danger,” he added. “Our newspapers chafed over Reagan’s description of our country as an evil empire, and the angry rhetoric of our leaders undermined the sense of security most of us had grown up with during the détente of the 1970s. Although we joked among ourselves about the senile old men in the Kremlin, it was easy to believe that the West would seize upon our moment of weakness to destroy us.”

On a plain nine miles from Stepnogorsk, an old uranium-mining town, the Progress enterprise was lined with high gray walls and an electric-wire fence. The surrounding land had been stripped of all vegetation, partly as a safeguard in the event of a leak. The barren space served as a security zone to stop intruders. Motion sensors were everywhere. Inside, dozens of buildings were arranged on a grid of narrow streets. New buildings rose off the desert floor. Building 221 was the main production facility; building 231 for the drying and milling of agents. Building 600 was the research center and housed the largest indoor testing facility built in the Soviet Union up to that time.27 It had two giant stainless steel testing chambers hidden inside. One was to test the decay rate and dissemination capacities of aerosol mixtures contained in Soviet germ bombs. The second one was for testing animals.

“Bioweapons are not rocket launchers,” Alibek explained in his memoir. “They cannot be loaded and fired. The most virulent culture in a test tube is useless as an offensive weapon until it has been put through a process that gives it stability and predictability. The manufacturing technique is, in a sense, the real weapon, and it is harder to develop than individual agents.”

To weaponize anthrax, Alibek and his workers began with freeze-dried spores in stoppered vials, stored in metal trays in a refrigerated vault, each positioned over a soft towel soaked in disinfectant, labeled with its own tag identifying the strain. No one was allowed into the vault alone; at least two people, a lab technician and a scientist, had to be present when a vial was taken down from the shelf, checked against a list and wheeled on a metal cart into the laboratory. There, the scientist put nutrient media into the vial, and then drew the mixture out and transferred it to larger bottles, which were left in heated boxes to incubate for one or two days. The liquid culture was then siphoned off into large flasks, which were connected to air-bubbling machines, turning it into a light froth. The oxygen allowed the bacteria to grow more efficiently. At this stage, it looked translucent and light brown, like Coca-Cola, Alibek said. “Each new generation of bacteria is transferred into progressively larger vessels, until there is enough anthrax to pipe under vacuum pressure into a room containing several fermenters,” he recalled. The giant fermenters incubated the substance for one or two days longer, and the bacteria continued to multiply before being put into centrifuges and concentrated. In the end, after mixing with stabilizing substances, the mixture would be loaded into munitions. The grounds were dotted with underground bunkers for storage and filling the bombs, and laced by rail lines to haul them away. If the order were given, Stepnogorsk was to make 300 tons of anthrax a year.28

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