Huge Stocks Of BioWeapons
In The Former Soviet Union

By Fred Guterl and Eve Conant
Newsweek International 2-25-02

Bakyt Atshabar has worked for the anti-plague Institute for more than 25 years, and for much of that time there was little need for security guards and fences and heavy metal doors with keypad locks. As an unofficial part of the Soviet Union's vast bioweapons program, the institute routinely kept dozens of different strains of anthrax, plague and tularemia stored in unlocked refrigerators. But Moscow's ironclad control over life in Kazakhstan protected the labs. So did a veil of secrecy that hid the institute's bioweapons role from local residents.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, however, the thick shrubs surrounding the institute's campus began to attract petty thieves and drunks. "We had bums right outside my window here," says Atshabar, now director of the institute, which is located in a leafy suburb of Alma-Ata, the largest city in Kazakhstan. "They would sleep there"-he points to a tuft of trees-"and drink vodka." Criminals once broke in and stole an aluminum part of a centrifuge, useless except as scrap metal. It would have been even easier to rob-or smuggle out-a small vial of nasty germs to sell on the black market. As far as anybody knows, no such theft ever occurred at the institute (formally known as the Kazakh Science Center for Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases). But keeping close track of pathogen cultures is next to impossible, even for the most tightly run lab. And at the Alma-Ata institute, vials of anthrax are kept in coffee cans, which themselves are stored in a 40-year-old refrigerator secured with a simple padlock.
In the wake of September 11, the Big Fear-the one driving President George W. Bush's most important decisions and dire pronouncements-is that a terrorist group like Al Qaeda will eventually get its hands on weapons of mass destruction. These worries are heightened because U.S. officials have learned that Osama bin Laden's network was trying to acquire such weapons. Documents recovered from Qaeda safe houses and camps in Afghanistan "show that bin Laden was pursuing a sophisticated biological weapons research program," CIA Director George Tenet told Congress earlier this month. Bush has used such concerns to justify his warnings against Iraq, Iran and North Korea-what he calls the "axis of evil." Such countries "could provide these arms to terrorists," he declared in his State of the Union Message. In large part, it's the fear of WMD in the hands of terrorists that is behind large increases in spending on the military and on home-land defense.
But the "rogue states" are not the only concern when it comes to WMD proliferation. Some experts worry that the countries of the former Soviet Union, with enormous stockpiles of pathogens, high levels of corruption and grim conditions for scientists, could be vulnerable to terrorists looking for highly destructive agents. Al Qaeda itself appears to have targeted ex-Soviet weapons scientists for recruitment. According to U.S. intelligence reports, some Russian experts traveled to Kandahar for job interviews with unidentified Qaeda leaders. Intelligence officials believe the Russians turned down the chance to work for bin Laden, however, and by all accounts Al Qaeda's efforts to make or acquire bioweapons have gone nowhere.
So how worried should we be? At their peak, the Soviets probably employed upwards of 60, 000 people on bioweapons projects, which produced a greater volume and variety of deadly agents than any other country. When Ken Alibek, a senior Soviet bioweapons official, defected in 1992, he described a staggering offensive bioweapons production capacity-4,500 metric tons of anthrax a year, for instance-and an alarming array of deadly pathogens, including smallpox and antibiotic-resistant anthrax.
Gennady Lepyoshkin was Alibek's deputy in the Soviet era, and later took his job as head of the giant production facility at Stepnogorsk in Kazakhstan. In its heyday, the facility, with fermenting tanks as tall as four-story buildings, could produce 1.5 tons of weaponized anthrax in only 24 hours. Lepyoshkin has more than 20 years' experience in biowarfare, a doctorate in biology and another in microbiology. Now he's unemployed.
(Russian born, he was replaced recently by a Kazakh.) As he walks along the perimeter fence at Stepnogorsk, where he no longer has clearance, he drinks a shot of cognac in honor of his old haunt. "Most of our scientists left for Russia, Ukraine or Belarus," he says. "But the ones who stayed-biological and chemical engineers-make ends meet by driving to Omsk to buy sausage and cheeses and then selling them here."
A few years ago the U.S. government estimated that 7,000 former Soviet bio-weaponeers were a "proliferation concern," says Amy Smithson, a bioweapons expert at the Stimson Center in Washington. After September 11, they upped the figure to 10,000. Suddenly, formerly benign activities began to look worrisome-veterinary institutes, for instance, hold livestock pathogens that in the wrong hands could devastate a nation's farms.
For the past eight years the State Department has been retraining former weapons scientists and helping institutes turn their bioweapons programs into peaceful, commercial ventures. The incoming Bush administration initially regarded this-and similar efforts to help Russian scientists-with deep suspicion. But 9-11 changed that. Now the Defense Department's work on former Soviet bioweapons facilities is to be greatly expanded, from $17 million in the current fiscal year to $55 million. Early this year the State Department's assistance program received a one-time appropriation of $30 million, which it will use to dismantle the Stepnogorsk military fermenters and put former Soviet scientists to work making vaccines. "They do a great job with the resources they have," says Smithson, "but even with the extra money they're only getting at the tip of the iceberg."
Not everyone agrees. It would be irresponsible for an expert like Smithson not to be concerned, but many respected specialists believe the numbers of unemployed bioweapons scientists are exaggerated. Alibek, the Soviet defector, has said that there are perhaps 100 former Soviet scientists capable of building a soup-to-nuts bioweapons factory. Western bioweapons experts put that figure higher-"the low hundreds," says one. But the more important point, says an intelligence source, is that "we think we know where almost all of those people are." An effort by Iran to recruit former Soviet scientists in 1997, in fact, helped invigorate the U.S. push to pay the scientists to stay in place. "We said, 'Work with us and you will get funding for real collaborative research; work with Iran and you will never see a penny of our money'," says Elisa Harris, who handled nonproliferation programs in the Clinton administration. Experts also stress, moreover, how difficult it is to turn a pathogen into a bioweapons agent like the "aerosolized" anthrax sent through the U.S. mail system in October. (Although investigators haven't ruled out a foreign source, the prevailing theory is still that the anthrax came from within the United States.)
But what about ready-made stockpiles of weaponized agents, or even just virulent strains? Two years ago the DOD began helping former Soviet bioweapons labs to beef up security. The institute in Alma-Ata, which houses cultures of nonweaponized, but still dangerous, germs, now boasts a 2.5-meter concrete wall topped with barbed wire. Two guards armed with stun guns and tear gas patrol the front and rear entrances. But still, nobody is searched upon entering or leaving the building. And on a recent visit, no security guards were posted at the door to the "highly hazardous infections" wing.
The larger problem is that the Alma-Ata lab is about as good as it gets. Kazakhstan alone has eight other anti-plague institutes and about 140 minor labs. None of them have had the benefit of the DOD program. Beyond Kazakhstan, throughout the ruins of the Soviet empire, hundreds of laboratories holding samples of bioweapons agents also are poorly guarded. September 11 spurred the Bush administration to take the issue more seriously. But when success includes anthrax vials in coffee cans, it'll be a long time, if ever, before anybody feels absolutely secure. With John Barry, Mark Hosenball and Adam Rogers in Washington
New Fears About an Old Threat
U.S. officials have long worried about lax security at former Soviet bioweapons facilities. These concerns were heightened after the September 11 attacks. Select from the cities below to find out where bio-weapons agents are located in Russia:
Kirov - Plague, Anthrax
Koltsovo - Smallpox, Hemorrhagic fevers (including Ebola, Marburg, Lassa Viruses and others)
Minsk - Anthrax, Tularemia, Plague
Obninsk - Hemorrhagic fevers (including Ebola, Marburg, Lassa Viruses and others)
Omutninsk - Plague, Tularemia
Penza - Anthrax
Rostov - Anthrax, Tularemia, Plague
Samara - Anthrax, Tularemia, Plague
Saratov - Anthrax, Tularemia, Plague
Sergiyev Posad - Tularemia
Stavropol - Anthrax, Tularemia, Plague
St. Petersberg - Anthrax, Tularemia, Plague
Tbilisi - Hemorrhagic fevers (including Ebola, Marburg, Lassa Viruses and others)
Volgograd - Anthrax, Tularemia, Plague
Yekaterinburg - Tularemia, Botulism

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