In March 1988, Saddam Hussein unloaded some of his Pandora’s box of chemical weapons on the Kurdish village of Halabja. As many as 5,000 were killed by nerve agents believed to have included VX, a poison so deadly that a single drop the size of a pinhead can cause death minutes after touching the skin.
By forcing all the body’s nerves to fire continuously, causing all of a victim’s involuntary muscles to contract, VX leads to racing heart, drooling, vomiting, gut spasms and, finally, death by asphyxiation.
Fifteen years later, in 2003, that attack was still cited as a reason to force Iraq to get rid of its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, then believed to additionally include giant fermentors used to grow deadly bacteria such as anthrax and botulinum. Civilized countries, including the United States, had sworn off such weapons a generation earlier and were busy dismantling Cold War-era chemical and biological weapons factories.
Much of the job of destroying America’s WMD stockpile took place in Utah’s west desert at the Deseret Chemical Depot, 12 miles south of Tooele. In March 2005, the depot celebrated its milestone destruction of the millionth VX-filled munition. The date of the announcement coincided nicely with a worldwide celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, when more than 150 countries pledged to never again make weapons of mass destruction.
But something else was going on that March in the west desert that has some questioning the United States’ dedication to nonproliferation. Over at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds'the chemical depot’s Tooele County neighbor'procurement officers quietly placed orders for a system of bacteria-growing fermentors that would have made Saddam salivate.
According to government solicitation, the order called for four fermentors with a total capacity of producing nearly 3,500 liters of bacteria and the possibility of another five fermentors in the future. That is enough bacteria-making equipment to cook up about three-fourths the 8,400 liters of anthrax Iraq admitted to having produced for Saddam’s biowar program.
The order didn’t detail what Dugway wanted to grow, but at the same time, the secretive Army base put out feelers for a second set of fermentors and contractors willing to make 1,500-liter batches of a benign strain of anthrax called Sterne.
The request sent shockwaves through the community of government watchdogs and scientists dedicated to ensuring the biowar genie stays in its bottle. For, while the fermentors were ostensibly ordered for production of a nonlethal strain of anthrax, they could easily be used to produce vast quantities of the lethal strain as well.
Dugway had long been known to experiment with deadly agents. In spring 2003, for example, the base advertised for help brewing up paralysis-inducing botulinum toxin, as well as Ricin, plague, rabbit fever, food poisoning, the horse disease glanders and all manner of nerve agents including the Nazi-invented tabun and soman.
But as far as anyone knew, Dugway only used small amounts of the agents inside sealed laboratories.
“To anybody’s knowledge, there was no fermentation capacity anywhere near that size at Dugway until this decision to build it,” said Edward Hammond, who keeps an eye on bioweapons research from his Texas-based Sunshine Project. “A few years ago, if somebody did that it would be viewed as possibly a smoking gun of an offensive program. It would probably get the Iranians bombed if they did that at one of their facilities.”
The requests for fermentors were the clearest sign yet that a huge build-up of U.S. biowar research, begun after 9/11, was coming to Utah. Dugway, long home to the nation’s biodefense testing, reports a 60 percent increase in its workload since the attacks on the World Trade Center and, late last year, readied plans for construction to double testing again.
All of the testing is done in the name of protecting the country from terrorist attack with biological or chemical weapons. But the direction in which some of the testing is headed'including all but making WMDs ourselves'is troubling an increasingly vocal group of scientists. Even if America’s motives are pure, they worry, the work could spark a new WMD arms race.
For Utah watchdogs, the prospect of increased testing at Dugway resurrects memories of a time before 1969, when outdoor testing with biological and chemical weapons was stopped. One chilling, unexplained request from Dugway last year asked for batches of dead, frozen sheep for testing a mobile crematorium, resurrecting the specter of 6,000 sheep found dead in Utah’s Skull Valley following the accidental release of VX from Dugway in 1968. Some worry the likelihood of accidents will increase as more tests are performed at a supposedly secure Army base where nine illegal workers from Mexico were found working for a subcontractor in February, hard at work building a new hotel.
“There is a very blurry line between offense and defense when it comes to germ warfare,” said Salt Lake City Dugway watchdog Steve Erickson, director of the Citizens Education Project.
“When they start doing stuff like ordering up fermentors, there is just no knowing what they are going to do,” said Erickson. “It’s not just unsettling for us locally, it is an international cause for concern. A lot of these other countries that are signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention'what will they think? Perception in this arena is critical.”
Dugway isn’t saying why it wanted large volumes of the nonlethal Sterne anthrax, except that it was acting on orders from the U.S. Army Developmental Test Command. The particular solicitation that alarmed watchdogs was canceled when no contractor responded, said Dugway spokeswoman Paula Nicholson. Base commanders did not respond to questions about whether the order had been filled in another way. Dugway has been growing small amounts of its own Sterne-strain anthrax since 2002, according to Nicholson. It’s used as a substitute for the real thing when testing battlefield detectors that sniff out biowar agents and other defense equipment.
Hammond thinks the only explanation for the Army’s need for thousands of liters of non-lethal anthrax would be outdoor testing. In such a case, faux anthrax would be grown in fermentors, dried out and turned into an aerosol to be released as a cloud above a Dugway training range to test detectors or to train troops.
Critics say the problem is that such experiments look a lot like what a country would do if it wanted to make biological weapons.
Because biological weapons don’t keep well, a biological weapons program looks like a bunch of fermentors ready to be turned on in case of war. When the Bush administration went to the United Nations with its case for war with Iraq, it noted reports that Saddam could produce 25,000 liters of anthrax. The administration didn’t claim Saddam had that much anthrax, just that it “had biological weapons sufficient to produce” that much. In other words, fermentors and equipment enough to turn the resulting death soup into a powder that will float on the wind.
The best defense is a good offense, goes the old sports analogy. The question many are asking is, when it comes to military research, how do you tell the difference?
Equipment used to grow large amounts of the type of anthrax given to soldiers to vaccinate them against the disease could just as easily grow the disease that causes black, crater-like swelling on the skin and that suffocates a victim in three days, said Hammond. And the real anthrax is also stored at Dugway, inside biological laboratories newly expanded in 2003 as part of the national biodefense build-up.
Anthrax, thought to be either the fifth or sixth plague of Egypt described in the Bible, has been a favorite of WMD research because of its ability to survive as a spore for decades before finding its way into a host. As a skin infection, anthrax forms black, bacteria-oozing patches that can cover an entire limb, but it’s most deadly in the lungs. Infections from inhaling spores begin like a mild case of the flu that continues until the sudden onset of troubled breathing, when it’s often too late to stop. The skin turns bluish and a victim’s chest swells as anthrax spores, activated in the warmth of the lungs, begin to reproduce, widening a gap behind the breastbone and causing massive bleeding inside the chest cavity. Ultimately, the bacteria spread through the blood to the rest of the body, resulting in shock and death in two to three days.
One of the furthest reaching, if little advertised, effects of the War on Terror has been a dramatic increase in U.S. spending on biological and chemical warfare research.
A cursory review of Bush’s 2007 budget request released early February shows $7 billion in dedicated bioterror funding. That compares with about $750 million spent before 9/11. Hammond calculates that if off-the-books “black budget” spending is included, the United States is already spending up to $8 billion per year on biodefense.
The same people who told us Saddam had weapons of mass destruction believe an attack on the United States with chemical or biological weapons is a dire threat. To justify experiments that a few years ago were generally considered off-limits for defensive purposes, the Department of Homeland Security has resorted to reinterpreting the Biological Weapons Convention, said Alan Pearson, director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s biological and chemical weapons program.
On its face, the treaty bans development of biological weapon agents or methods of delivery, but in writing up plans for new biodefense centers being constructed this year, the Homeland Security department suggested developing defensive biological weapons would be OK. That’s a position taken by no other country, Pearson said.
Announced plans for the new National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center include the United States working to “acquire, grow, modify, store, stabilize, package [and] disperse” biological weapons. Other announced biodefense plans include development of genetically-modified versions of deadly bacteria. The justification in both cases is threat assessment. That is determining what terrorists might be capable of in terms of producing vaccine-resistant strains of deadly biological agents or new methods of agent delivery.
Scientific groups coming out against portions of the biodefense effort include Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Council for Responsible Genetics. The former chief American negotiator of the Biological Weapons Convention, James Leonard, has warned the administration’s initiative could be interpreted as “development” of biological weapons in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.
“The rapidity of elaboration of American biodefense programs, their ambition and administrative aggressiveness, and the degree to which they push against the prohibitions of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), are startling,” Leonard wrote in a critique authored with a former deputy director of the main U.S. biological-pathogens research center at Fort Deitrick, Md. The new defensive efforts “may constitute development in the guise of threat assessment, and they certainly will be interpreted that way,” they wrote.
Even the National Academy of Sciences has chimed in, calling U.S. efforts to make more deadly germs “concerningâ€'if only because they might give terrorists ideas.
Making his first appearance before Congress as national intelligence director in February, John Negroponte said a terrorist strike with conventional explosives remains the “most probable scenario,” but al Qaeda, along with nearly 40 other terrorist organizations, remains interested in acquiring chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
But since it’s now evident that Iraq dismantled its facilities producing weapons of mass destruction long before the American invasion of 2003, some scientists wonder if the current U.S. defensive biowar build-up is similarly based on faulty intelligence.
University of Michigan science historian Susan Wright calls the extent of fear of terrorism with biological weapons “completely unrealistic.
“Heaven only knows how they think a terrorist is going to put up a lab and do this stuff without being caught,” she said. “Labs with ventilation and good scientists leave huge footprints.
Others criticize the amount of money spent on biodefense.
“We have ongoing problems in coping with infectious disease that are killing tens of thousands of Americans every year and yet we’re soaking billions of dollars into the bioterrorist threat that is at the present time entirely hypothetical,” said University of California, Davis, microbiologist Mark Wheelis, one of many scientists arguing that if a bioterror attack occurs, spending on basic health infrastructure and emergency services will be far more important that exotic anti-biowar measures.
According to post-9/11 studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, an American’s odds of dying from heart disease are one in 322, while the odds of dying in an act of bioterrorism are one in 56 million.
Bush would fund next year’s proposed increased in bioterror research at the National Institutes of Health by trimming most other NIH disease programs.
It’s a spending pattern consistent with past years’ post-9/11 budgets. Since 2001, federal grants to study biowarfare agents have grown more than 2,000 percent while research dollars for some diseases that infect large numbers of Americans'including turberculosis and hepatitis'declined.
The U.S. biodefense build-up began one month after the 9/11 attacks, when envelopes containing anthrax were mailed to Congress and Bush requested $1.5 billion in counter-bioterrorism funding.
Erickson points out one of the great ironies: The anthrax in the letters almost certainly came not from international terrorists, but from a U.S. biodefense laboratory. While the perpetrator was never found, investigators determined the powder was a militarized anthrax strain developed at Fort Deitrick, in Maryland. Another irony is that Hussein got part of his anthrax starter kit from U.S. storehouses, which shipped to Iraq cultures on seven occasions between 1986 and 1988.
Despite increasing voices of caution, the biodefense boom shows no signs of slowing down.
Construction is set to begin on new multimillion-dollar biodefense centers at Fort Deitrick. Douglas Tamilio, commander of Dugway’s West Desert Test Center, said in a prepared statement that planned construction in Utah isn’t yet underway. While Dugway has added laboratories since 9/11, it has shut older labs so less room is available for testing than was available 10 years ago. While numbers of Dugway’s customers and related tests have “significantly increased” since 2001, the amount of biological agents or simulant used at Dugway hasn’t grown significantly, Tamilio wrote.
Still, last September, Dugway completed an environmental plan describing potential construction to support a doubling of the testing activities over the next seven years. That includes an annex for Dugway’s bio-laboratory and buildings for communications and protective-gear testing. A mock city was proposed for a dramatic expansion of Dugway’s soldier training. Last October, Dugway requested permission to take over an undisclosed amount of nearby federal land for training and test ranges.
Dugway’s requests for this year include lodging, a year of bus service to transport workers from Tooele, a crew of paramedics, a natural-gas transport pipeline for heating and a real-time continuous air-monitoring system. The base has received $25 million for a rebuilt runway.
It’s all for defense and perfectly safe. So says the government. But it makes watchdogs nervous.
“It’s not so much that I’m afraid that the U.S. is going to start weaponizing anthrax. We’ve got enough ways to kill people. The problem is, what if everybody in the world starts doing this?” Hammond asks. “We’re creating the threat we are supposed to be defending against, and there isn’t a technical solution. There is always going to be one more step, one more vaccine to be defeated. It’s like a dog chasing its own tail.”