- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2000

The threat of biological warfare attack on the United States is getting quite a bit of play in the press, but it is not a new menace. The Japanese had a very aggressive program in World War II, and during the Cold War the former Soviet Union built an impressive arsenal of biological weapons which could be mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles. These programs and other horrific facts concerning the biological threat are described by Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg in their fascinating book, "Plague Wars: The Terrifying Reality of Biological Warfare."The book not only documents the Japanese and Soviet programs, but goes on to describe the rogue efforts of Iraq and pre-Mandela South Africa as well as such non-state actors as the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan to use germs as weapons of war and terror. There is not much that is reassuring here, because the threat is insidious and can be proliferated.The Japanese effort would read like a comedy if it were not for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of human test subjects who died gruesome deaths under hideous conditions in the Japanese test sites in occupied China. Most of the victims were Chinese, but some American prisoners of war were also turned into human lab rats. Fortunately, the Japanese were more enthusiastic than technologically competent in their attempts to turn germs into weapons. In addition, their Rube Goldberg-like delivery means including hot air balloons virtually ensured failure.

The Soviet effort was more successful in creating usable weapons. What we know about the former Soviet program mostly comes from Ken Alibek, a defector who became disillusioned with the Soviet program when he learned that the United States had discontinued its offensive program in compliance with a treaty banning such activities in the 1970s. The Soviets cynically supposed that the Americans would routinely violate the treaty and continued their program unabated. Mr. Alibek learned the truth on an inspection trip to the United States in the early 1990s. He defected in 1992, bringing his story with him.

Mr. Alibek described a program that was both sophisticated and obscene. The Soviets created cocktails of virus combinations where one disease would mask something far worse. Doctors and first responders in a target nation would think that they were treating smallpox only to find themselves infected with something far worse such as Marburg fever. Mr. Alibek described the Soviet program in more detail in his own book published last summer, but "Plague Wars" gives a good Readers' Digest description of the Soviet program and the attempts to conceal it from Western inspectors in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The description of the South African programs comes replete with interviews with some of the self-styled "bio-weaponeers." These individuals, most of whom should be tracked down and tried as war criminals, are exceptional only in their pedestrian nature. Although their efforts were on a small scale, and aimed at primitive people in South Africa's border wars, the evil intent and ruthless execution are notable. The Iraqi efforts are somewhat better-known due to the controversy over inspections of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program, but the authors' description is a good introduction for readers not familiar with the machinations of Saddam Hussein.

Like their Japanese military predecessors, the antics of the Aum Shinrikyo death cult would be comical if they had not finally managed to kill 12 people in a Tokyo subway in 1995. The cult had experimented with a number of gruesome biological and chemical weapons possibilities before that. Their hapless chief scientist most resembles the coyote in the "Roadrunner" cartoons until one of his zany schemes actually kills some people in the 1995 incident.

The frightening thing about Aum Shinrikyo is that it is on the rebound. Its new leadership is apparently taking advantage of obscure freedom of religion clauses in the Japanese constitution, and the cult members are apparently back at it with a vengeance. As is the case with their inability to cope with earthquakes and weaknesses in their nuclear safety program, Japanese leaders are showing themselves to be slow learners when a clear and present danger arises.

The authors have good credentials to write such a book. Mr. Mangold is a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation and Mr. Goldberg is a Washington-based investigative reporter. They have written an excellent and timely introduction to this alarming subject.

Gary Anderson is writing a book, "The Andromeda Effect: A User's Guide for Civilian Leaders of the Military."

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