- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

It was late May 1992 and Boris N. Yeltsin was about to fly to Washington for the first official U.S.-Russian summit since the collapse of the Soviet Union six months earlier.
Grateful to the United States for its support during his power struggle with a die-hard Communist clique during the final days of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Yeltsin wanted to show President George Bush a spirit of cooperation and openness about Moscow's secretive past.
So one of the new president's senior aides whispered to a Russian newspaper reporter who was preparing to interview Mr. Yeltsin a suggestion for an unusual question. It involved a 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk, Mr. Yeltsin's hometown, now called Yekaterinburg, where he was then head of the Communist Party.
In answering the question, Mr. Yeltsin made a startling revelation: The epidemic, which killed nearly 70 people, had not been caused by meat from infected livestock, as he and other officials had insisted at the time, but by a leak at a secret biological-weapons facility maintained by the military.
The incident had aroused suspicions in the West, but Moscow had never before acknowledged the research site, whose existence was a clear violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Mr. Yeltsin said he had never before disclosed the real reason for the anthrax outbreak because no one had asked him about it.
Although the Russian president's admission ranked lower than the bombshells he would later become notorious for dropping, the U.S. scientific community took note of it. It finally began to grasp the scope and potential threat of the Soviet germ-warfare program.

Other research funded
The future of more than two dozen research centers, production plants and storage facilities, as well as that of over 25,000 people working for the program, greatly alarmed the United States. It quickly decided to finance research for health and other peaceful purposes "to prevent the proliferation of weapons expertise," said a State Department official who helped create the U.S. funding program and is still deeply involved in it.
"At the time, the term everybody used was 'brain drain,'" another State Department official said. "We wanted to keep those scientists and engineers at home and reasonably comfortable, so they wouldn't want to move to Iran and North Korea or contract with countries that have proliferation programs."
As the United States copes with the danger of biological warfare, which now seems more imminent than ever before, investigators and experts are taking a fresh look at the biological-warfare capabilities of other countries, seeking the sources of the anthrax found in a number of letters over the last couple of weeks.
U.S. officials, who are also examining potential domestic sources, say that while foreign governments may not necessarily be behind the current anthrax offensive, help from such quarters to initiators of the attacks cannot be ruled out.
Between 13 and 17 countries are believed to have active biological-warfare programs, according to differing data from several government agencies, including the State and Defense departments and the Office of Technology Assessment.
Not surprisingly, Iraq is No. 1 on the list of potential state sponsors of bioterrorism, experts said in interviews last week. North Korea is another theoretical, though much less likely, possibility, they said.
"If a state was involved, Iraq is clearly on top of the list," said Michael L. Moodie, president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute. "North Korea is thought to have worked on anthrax and one can argue that it's using the situation, but it's a much less likely option than Iraq."

Pathogens sent to Iraq
American and other Western companies exported "pathogens and production equipment" to Iraq in the 1980s for "legitimate peaceful scientific research," said Elisa Harris, who was director of nonproliferation on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. Those initially small quantities were eventually stockpiled by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and used to produce weapons.
The question now, Mrs. Harris said, is whether it's "in Saddam's interest to risk his regime's survival" by providing assistance to terrorist groups.
The Bush administration has not excluded the possibility of a link between the anthrax scares and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Mr. Moodie said bin Laden "has articulated a rationale" for using biological weapons and al Qaeda apparently has "the necessary set of skills, resources and organizational capability" to acquire them.
The administration has been careful not to blame Iraq for collaborating with bin Laden without clear evidence. Reports have emerged, however, that Mohamed Atta, one of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague last year.
Washington had substantial knowledge of Baghdad's biological capabilities until three years ago, when they were virtually dismantled by a U.N. special commission that worked on disarming Iraq. But Saddam is believed to have rebuilt his germs program after he expelled the inspectors in 1998.

Diversion also possible
Mr. Moodie said state involvement in the anthrax mail cases may not be limited to a government's "policy decision," and the hazardous materials might have been acquired "from a poorly secured stock."
This is why many experts are concerned about the former Soviet Union's bioweapons program, which was the largest in the world and continued to exist even after President Richard M. Nixon unilaterally suspended the American program in 1969.
More than 20 years later, having discovered that it had been lied to for decades, the United States set out to destroy the Soviet bioweapons legacy and use the deadly skills of thousands of scientists, engineers and lab workers for health and other peaceful research.
The U.S. funding program originated in the first Bush administration, but the first amount of money wasn't committed until 1994, a year into the Clinton presidency.
Since then, Washington has spent $41 million on the program, which covered 5,400 people, said the senior State Department official involved in the effort. The "primary target population," or those "with enough information to be worried about," is between 7,000 and 9,000, the official said.
"Other important objectives of the program were support for Russia's transition to a market economy, solution of national and international technical problems and integration into the world scientific community, with all the transparency that goes along with that," she said.
In the late 1990s, Russia provided access to some of its biological facilities, the most publicized of which was the one in Obolensk, about 50 miles southwest of Moscow, where the Russian government allowed even American journalists.
Obolensk was part of a secret organization known as Biopreparat and specialized in anthrax and plague. An institute in Koltsova, in Siberia, dealt with hemorrhagic fevers and Venezuelan encephalitis. In Leningrad, now again St. Petersburg, studies were done on tularemia, according to press accounts.

'Unresolved questions'
But despite Moscow's willingness to reveal some formerly well-guarded secrets, it hasn't been forthcoming enough, Mr. Moodie said.
"There are still unresolved questions, and the Russians need to be more transparent," he said. "They haven't provided access everywhere and have been less open about their military programs."
The U.S. funding effort, which gradually involved half a dozen government agencies and is appropriated annually, was administered by the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in Moscow.
"We agreed to use ISTC as a mechanism with well-established oversight and audit process, which is very important, and a way to engage the Europeans, Japanese and others in some of those projects," the State Department official said. "Any individual or institute that was in the past involved in [bioweapons] activities is eligible to make proposals for a research project."
The official explained that the U.S. program "spends its money on a project-by-project basis it's not a U.N. fund where we offer the money into a pot and some committee decides where it goes." Most of the money is "paid directly to individual bank accounts that are set up for participating scientists, so there are tens of thousands of bank accounts under the program."
A "procurement office" has been set up for equipment purchases with standard, competitive procedures, and all travel is coordinated by another special office, she said.
Although recipients of U.S. funds are banned from working with countries that have proliferation programs or terrorists, administration officials admitted that there is no way to know what a scientist does in his or her office after hours. There is no reason to believe, however, that any beneficiary of U.S. assistance in Russia has helped foreign germ-warfare programs, they said.

Trying to keep tabs
"There is an intangible there, but if we are not in the environment, we are totally ignorant of what that environment is," the State Department official said. "If we are in it, at least we have that much of a picture of what's going on, who is involved. That has always been the rather stark choice: Is it risky to be in? Of course. Is it riskier not to be in? Absolutely."
The United States has also been working with other former Soviet republics on destroying their biological-weapons capabilities, she said. An anthrax production facility in Kazakhstan, the only one of its kind outside Russia, now looks like "a colossal junkyard" all essential equipment "has either been dismantled or rendered unusable."
Anthrax is "an extremely common bacterium," she said, "and I'd bet a large amount of money that if we sent a team to the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, they would identify anthrax, because its everywhere. We can track it down to type and whether it's genetically engineered, but it's not like nuclear forensics. Trying to analyze where a 1-to-5-micron piece of powder originated is much more difficult, unless we find the perpetrators."
Since Sept. 11, "we have been flooded with offers of assistance" from the Russians, the official said. "In fact, I'm getting data on experiments they are running on 'Can you really use microwave ovens to kill anthrax in mail?' I remember my first trip to one of these facilities foggy morning, police escort and now they are e-mailing me the results of their anthrax-killing experiments. It's remarkable."
Last week, Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko said Moscow could help with medicines and vaccines. One institute in the city of Saratov in the Volga region has already offered help.
"We certainly welcome the spirit behind that offer, the spirit of solidarity," U.S. ambassador Alexander Vershbow told a news conference. "And as the problem in the United States continues, I wouldn't exclude that we will be seeking assistance from our Russian friends."
Yesterday, President Bush and Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, pledged during a meeting in Shanghai to prevent nuclear, biological and chemical weapons from being used for terrorism and to stop funds that aid those involved.
"The presidents of the two countries are fully resolved to increase cooperation in the fight against new terrorist threats in the nuclear, chemical and biological fields, as well as in the field of computers," said a statement issued by the Kremlin after the meeting.

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