ARAL SEA, Uzbekistan
- Some 2,300 miles
south of Moscow in the middle of the Aral Sea lies one
of the darkest
secrets of the Cold War: Vozrozhdeniye Island. For decades,
biological weapons scientists tested some of the deadliest germs
world there. Now their work is buried in a shallow, sandy grave
...alive and, according to U.S. experts, a major threat to everyone on
- "It's the closest place I can imagine to hell,"
Weber, one of the first Americans to visit the island on a secret
Department of Defense mission in 1995. Despite all the intelligence
information the U.S. had on the island by then, even he was amazed at what
- "For me personally, for the first time in my life
really, at a deep level, understood what [former U.S. President] Ronald
Reagan meant when he described the Soviet Union as an evil
- Vozrozhdeniye, or Renaissance Island, as it translates
English, was a secret testing facility for the former Soviet Union's
germ warfare program.
- When Weber's team touched down by helicopter four years
ago, he saw dozens of buildings now abandoned but once used to house over
1,000 scientists and their families. Scattered about on the ground were
hundreds of gas masks, empty cages, petrie dishes. Renaissance Island was
where the world's deadliest germs, including anthrax, the plague and
were developed. While smallpox was tested indoors,
set anthrax free in open air.
- U.S. spy plane photographs
taken in the 1960s identified
the site as a possible biological testing
area, but it was only some 30
years later when Ken Alibek, the former
head of the Soviet germ warfare
program, defected to the U.S. that the
full story emerged.
- OLD HABITS DIE HARD
- Renaissance Island,
throughout its history, was run essentially
by a front company ... a
pharmaceutical firm in Moscow called Biopreparat.
The company is still
in operation today, and U.S. intelligence sources
say so is the
infrastructure to make biological weapons in Russia. After
the fall of
the Soviet Union in 1991, Biopreparat was privatized. Today
it is run
by former Russian army officers.
- Biopreparat's assembly lines
once worked at dozens of
large factories, including one in Stepnogorsk,
now in present day Kazakstan.
During its heyday, it was the largest
production facility of biological
weapons in the world. Today, the U.S.
government is paying $5 million to
have it cut up and
- At the top-secret facility, former chief Alibek engineered
germs to be super resistant to antibiotics. "People can die during
a conversation, for example. They start bleeding through the nose and
they die," he said.
- Renaissance Island was used as
an open-air testing ground.
At night, to avoid American satellite
detection and because most biological
agents are more effective then,
Soviet scientists would move monkeys in
cages downwind from the labs.
Bomblets would explode overhead releasing
deadly germs, like a
fictional horror movie.
- "The cloud would start moving towards the monkeys.
They were crying because they knew they would die," Alibek said.
of animals were killed.
- "I think there was a sense
of shock when we learned
of the scale, the monstrous scale of the
program and also how far it had
progressed," Weber, the U.S.
Department of Defense expert, told NBC
- TARGETING CAPITALIST
- But the apparent target of the Soviets' most sinister
weapons was Americans. Alibek was ordered to prepare a strain of anthrax,
smallpox and the plague to be delivered in the warheads of SS-18
ballistic missiles pointed at American cities.
- "New York,
Seattle or Chicago, Boston," Alibek
said. "Believe me,
depending on a very specific scenario, we would
see very large numbers
of killed and infected people."
- Bill Patrick, an American who
once made biological weapons
for the U.S. government until they were
outlawed, debriefed Alibek when
the scientist defected.
- "It's almost
unbelievable what they could have used
on us," he said.
"[It's] incomprehensible. You cannot conceive
of the casualties
that would have occurred."
- In the 1980s, as the Cold War frost between Moscow and
Washington was supposedly melting, U.S. and British leaders became
aware of the Soviet bio-weapons program and pressured
Gorbachev to come clean. Gorbachev, according to
Alibek, continued to
develop biological weapons. When confronted with
evidence that outside
governments were learning more, the order was
issued in 1988 to bury the
- The anthrax was placed into
60-gallon drums and bleach
was poured on top to neutralize the germs.
According to U.S. sources, close
to 100 tons of anthrax was then moved
by rail about 1,000 miles to Renaissance
Island. Officials charged with
the burial, however, didn't want to waste
valuable steel drums, so they
poured the anthrax out into 11 sandy burial
- LIVING, DEADLY
- U.S. government sources said that when their inspection
team took soil samples of the island four years ago they found the anthrax
spores were still alive - an alarming discovery.
- "The primary [threat]
would be if a rogue nation
or terrorist state was able to obtain access
to these spores, which were
perfected over many decades of work by the
Soviet Union, and then culture
them and deploy them as a bio-terrorist
weapon against a subway system
in New York or inside an airplane,"
- "Really, America is vulnerable to such an attack
homeland, and that's why we think it's most effective to try to
the threat at the source."
- And U.S. officials told NBC News that the exiled Saudi
millionaire Osama bin Laden, blamed by Washington for orchestrating
against U.S. facilities, is, in fact, seeking such agents,
is no intelligence he has targeted Renaissance
- The Department of Defense Threat Reduction Program is
negotiating with the governments of Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, which
share a border on the island, to remove or neutralize the anthrax.
- The anthrax threat is
now a ticking time bomb because
the Aral Sea is shrinking, building a
deadly land bridge to mainland Uzbekistan
and Kazakhstan. The Aral,
once the fourth largest inland sea in the world,
is now two-thirds its
original size, drained decades ago by the Soviets
to make farmland for
get a bird's eye view of Renaissance Island's threat,
we chartered the
only airplane in the area. The island is now separated
mainland only by about two miles of water. And the water is not
most of it only chest high.
- Experts fear that species of animals living on the
which can burrow in the sands, could be infected with plague or
and carry drug-resistant strains of germs to humans on the
- This summer, a 9-year-old boy living on the shores of
died of the plague. In September, there were two cases of anthrax
infecting people in living in the district of Jambul, Kazakstan.
- DANGEROUS WINDS
- In Muynak,
Uzbekistan, also on the shores of the Aral
Sea, people are chronically
sick in frightening numbers. In a local tuberculosis
shake their heads, fearful that rates of tuberculosis,
some of the
highest in the world, are increasingly drug resistant. There
is also a
high rate of unexplained cancers, and 90 percent of women suffer
- Most of the illness can be blamed on a deadly cocktail
pesticides used in cotton farming and dust blown up from the dry Aral
Sea floor, according to Dr. Joost Vandermeer, who oversees a successful
local tuberculosis program run by the French relief organization Medecins
Sans Frontiers, or Doctors without Borders. But experts also question
there is a link between the region's widespread health problems
- "We don't know what has been tested, and what is
there, and what's not there and that's exactly the issue," Vandermeer
- Uzbekistan refuses permission for journalists to land
Renaissance Island. But NBC News interviewed oil workers who had been
drilling on the island. This year they drilled down some 4,200 feet, they
said, and no one told them anything about buried anthrax or the deadly
germs they could have been exposed to.
- Even though Russia may well be
sitting on deadly biological
weapons reserves, there is little evidence
that Moscow is preparing to
use them. What chills the U.S. government
the most, defense department
officials said, is the prospect of those
biological bombs falling into
the wrong hands. They fear the new battle
front for a terrorist could be
any American city. \
- NBC's Dana Lewis is
based in Moscow. NBC investigative
producer Robert Windrem contributed
to this report.