Alibek (Alibekov), Ken (Kanatjan) with Handelman, Stephen. Biohazard: The Chilling True

 

Alibek (Alibekov), Ken (Kanatjan) with Handelman, Stephen. Biohazard: The Chilling True
Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World told by the Man Who Ran
It. New York: Dell, 2000.

This is a book written by one who ran the Russian bioweapons program and who defected to the
US in 1992. Since coming here he has told our weaponeers everything he knows about the
Russian program and now has written a book telling the world about that program. Alibek had
previously "gone public" with allegations about the Soviet program: in 1998, he went on
Primetime Live, and wrote articles for The New Yorker and the New York Times. In those
sources as well as here, he seeks absolution for having developed these "terrible weapons." (Like
the chimera virus linking smallpox and Ebola, [see p. 26], for which he does not claim "credit,"
but his prior work helped in its construction..)

He uses this quote to head his chapter on the work at Obolensk, a station primarily responsible
for genetically altered biological weapons: "Bacteriological warfare is science stood on its head...
a gross perversion" - from an official paper published by the Soviet Union in 1951. (p. 153) That
judgment from a man who spent his entire career in the Soviet program. Indeed, in his years
1975-1992, he claims to have earned a couple of Ph.D.s from unnamed universities, as well as
having risen from a junior physician to the guy in change of the whole program. He was on the
fast track and he played the game well.

Alibek claims to have been exposed to an official exposure to ethics only once, at the beginning
of his program, in 1975. Here's how he remembers the conversation:

"You are aware that this isn't normal work," the officer told me as I sat down. It was a
declaration, not a question.

"Yes," I replied.

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

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

"Good," he said with a satisfied nod. "You can go now and good luck."

The five minutes I spent with him represented the first and last time any official would bring up a
question of ethics for the rest of my career. (p. 53)

Some 200 pages later, he explains "Some of my colleagues might consider this (my defection to
the West) a betrayal. But I had come to believe that my real betrayal was to have pursued a career
that violated the oath I had taken as a doctor." (p. 252) Apparently he learns some things very
slowly. Alibek did, however, during those years, take advanced degrees precisely because those
degrees would advance his career: "It was absolutely necessary to complete the thesis if I was to
maintain my career path at Biopreparat. Nothing else seemed important." (p. 102) Indeed, it was
only by being a part of this work that his interests in epidemiology could be followed: researchers
in these fields had no other place to go in the Soviet Union to do this kind of work and it was
cutting-edge science. Furthermore, Alibek joined the Communist Party, not because it was
essential to the work but, "...because I knew it would look good on my record." (p. 95) Face it,
this guy hustled to make it in the Soviet Union but then, after the Soviet Union collapsed, when
ethical considerations finally became important, he defected. But we are to believe that he is not
hustling now.

How much exposure to ethics have our own American bioweaponeers had? How many scientists
worked in a program comparable to the Soviet's program? How many of our guys did not justify
their work precisely because "the Soviets were probably doing the same thing." And we know
that some of our biggest pharmaceutical houses were involved in our own work (George W.
Merck, president of Merck & Co., was the first director of the American effort in bioweaponry).
We claim, of course, that President Nixon ended our developmental program in 1969 but, I am
suspicious that the work done in the name of protecting our troops, developing vaccines and so
on, is so close to weapons development that the two might well be indistinguishable. I am also
aware that scientists engaged in work of the type described here exist on both sides, ours and
theirs.

Alibek was aware of the quantities of bioweapons which the Soviets were producing. He was
also aware of the quality of the weapons being produced (the Ebola-smallpox chimera is a good
example), and he was familiar with the special weapons programs the use of bioweapons for
political assassinations, for example. And all the time, he justified his work because "It was
impossible to believe that our most important military rival wasn't pursuing an active biological
warfare program." (p. 183) His ethic seems to be: I can and must do whatever I think or fear my
enemy is doing lest I fall behind. Moreover, whatever I do is justified because it is all done in the
name of protecting my country. Their ethic, in other words, is most likely our ethic. Hey, that
means we got the moral equivalents of Ken Alibek who are probably doing the same things he
was doing for the Soviet Union and they are doing them, supposedly, for us.

It is not impossible for me to believe that the Soviet Union and now Russia are engaged in
bioweaponeering. It is not impossible for me to believe that this man has exaggerated his own
importance in that program so as to sell more of his books and be of more use to the CIA and
other agencies of this country and yet still believe that much of what he suggests here is true. The
Soviet Union probably did develop these gawdawful weapons. Today, both the weapons and the
men who developed them are sought after by so-called rogue states: Libya, North Korea, South
Korea, Iraq, Iran, China, Egypt, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and Bulgaria.. These nations seek skilled
bioweaponeers and their weapons. The United States must worry about them and must do
something about them. That is what this book is about: we ought to be worried. We ought to be
worried about the novel weapons and the scientists who are developing them: on both sides they
are patriots.

An official of the National Institutes of Health was on CNN this past evening suggesting that the
United States was rapidly developing its stocks of smallpox vaccine, just in case. It's months
after September 11. We are aware of the threat of terrorism and, indeed, we have gone to war
against terrorism. Alibek's warnings came early (1999) but he did not get our attention. He has
our attention now: he warns of science in the process of developing weapons of mass and messy
destruction. Worry!