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Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War
by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad

Reviewed by
Merete Rietveld

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The recent incidences of anthrax terrorism in the United States may leave people with the impression that biological agents are new weapons of war. Not so. The history of work on biological weapons during the past 50 years in the United States and abroad is comprehensively described in the book Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War by three reporters for The New York Times. "Germs and warfare," they say, "are old allies." The authors present a comprehensive survey of often public but little known information about the history of potential and real incidents of biological warfare that put the anthrax scare in context. A reader does not have to be a military history buff, conspiracy theorist, or doomsday harbinger to understand that Germs forges a well-documented path from White House corridors to Iraqi war labs to document how bioweapons have become the major security threat of the twenty-first century.

The authors—Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad—set out to explore germ weapons after the Pentagon decided to vaccinate American soldiers against anthrax in December 1997. By then, six years had passed since the Persian Gulf War and two years since the discovery of Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program. Curious as to what motivated the Clinton administration to bring germ weapons to the top of their agenda, the three journalists used their combined experience to report on intelligence agencies, international terrorism and weapons. Among other things, they describe the situation in the former Soviet Union.

"Known to the Soviets as 'the Concern,' Biopreparat [the laboratories and plants that supposedly manufactured vaccines and other civilian pharmaceutical products] was in fact a hub of Moscow's germ effort, a vast network of secret cities, production plants, and centers that studied and perfected germs as weapons." The Soviet Union—that Ronald Reagan called the 'evil empire' in 1981—spent billions of dollars over the subsequent decade mobilizing disease for war. However, when a top Soviet biologist defected to Britain in 1989, Western experts were still arguing whether the Soviet Union possessed biological weapons at all.

One of the many defectors to come, the Soviet biologist Ken Alibek gave American intelligence its first inside look into a Soviet germ program. The Soviets had produced aerosolized pathogens that could be sprayed from low-flying robotic crafts; they had experimented with plague, creating a strain resistant to existing vaccines and antibiotics; they had 'improved' bio-warfare agents and designed a new class of weapons, the 'superplague.'

By the time Western intelligence penetrated the Soviet germ-warfare program, the Soviet Union was in decline, and the rusting hulks of germ factories raised concerns in many Western nations. What happened to the hundreds of scientists who had once worked there? Where had the Soviet's germ stockpiles gone? Western governments feared that rogue nations and terrorist groups might gain access to unguarded biological weapons in the Soviet Union.


‘Germ weapons contain an element of uncertainty that magnifies their threat.’

One of the twelve chapters in Germs, titled "Secrets and Lies", explores Iraq's campaign to hide its weapons infrastructure from the United Nations after the Gulf War. As in other chapters in Germs, which progresses chronologically, the authors cover several major projects unfolding on the bio-warfare front at the same time. While the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) was policing Iraq for unconventional weapons, the Pentagon was working on building up America's biological defenses, and the CIA was recruiting ex-biowarriors from the Soviet's weapons program. The movement of the text between these three unfolding events adds depth to the chapter, while the voices of the three authors remain unified.

The organization of Germs and its clear writing contrasts with the chaotic workings of the American government chronicled in the text. In the U.S., bio-warfare research of various offensive and defensive sorts was conducted independently by several agencies, leading inevitably to a lack of communication among agencies, and a failure to produce a coherent federal effort. While UNSCOM was sifting through layers of lies and camouflage generated by the Iraqi government, the CIA was sitting on crucial information received from a spy's report. "It would take the United Nations teams nearly four years and countless trips to Iraq to piece together what the CIA had figured out by the fall of 1991," the authors write.

Another chapter titled "The President" describes Bill Clinton's entre into the world of biological weapons. At a dinner party in 1997, Clinton questioned J. Craig Venter, then head of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, about the possibility of smallpox being spliced with another bug to make it a lethal agent of war. Venter warned Clinton that smallpox is "contagious wildfire" as contrasted with anthrax, which is generally not spread from person to person; it infects only those who come into direct contact with anthrax spores. The next day, Clinton asked Venter to help create a panel of experts to advise him on germ warfare.

Venter explained the value of genome sequencing as a way to strengthen the nation's germ defense and mentioned Richard Preston's book, The Cobra Event, as an example of how recombinant technology could be used to create a lethal bioweapon. He argued that the techniques of genetic sequencing and gene identification were crucial to detecting germs and designing antidotes against them. For instance, the authors explore the role of genetics in biodefense. Gene-based vaccines are presented as safer and more stable than traditional vaccines, which use weakened or dead versions of disease organisms to stimulate immunity.

With 42 pages of footnotes, which a reader is welcome not to read, Germs is well researched. In each chapter, the authors report interviews with multiple scientists and senior officials from both the defensive and offensive lines of bio-warfare. While presenting the horror of the Soviet massive germ program, the authors also give the reader an understanding of the Russian psyche that created it. World War II, in which Soviet losses were seventy times those of the U.S., is presented as a "fundamental touchstone of [Russia's] post-revolutionary state and the ever-suspicious national psyche." The Russians presumed that the U.S. was maintaining an offensive germ-warfare program as well, an assumption that was reinforced by the extreme isolation of Russian scientists working at the cutting edge of technology yet unaware of major political events happening in the world.

While reading Germs, it is easy to forget that the text is nonfiction. The fascinating narratives generate a sense of adventure characteristic of science fiction. The threat is real, of course, and the conclusion of the book is that America remains unprepared for a bioweapons attack. Germ weapons contain an element of uncertainty that magnifies their threat. The 2001 anthrax attack demonstrated this well when five people died yet millions were affected by a panic that took a huge economic and emotional toll.

See related GNN book review The Cobra Event

Merete Rietveld is a freelance writer who lives in Palo Alto, California.

Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg & William Broad. Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001.

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