Reagan approves. In January 1981, Ronald Reagan took office; and, soon after, some of his researchers gathered evidence that the Soviet Union was working on a two-track plan: Stockpile old-fashioned germ weapons, such as anthrax, while developing advanced, bioengineered pathogens.
A research paper, issued by the army’s Drugway center in Utah, warned that such highly developed germs could be used to make highly concentrated weapons. In fact, genetic manipulation could change such diseases as anthrax, so they could not be treated by any medicine or protected against by vaccines.
In early 1984, Reagan ordered more money given to the military and intelligence to assess what was happening in certain foreign nations. In April, his administration told the public of the danger. Shortly afterward, the Wall Street Journal began a series of seven articles, warning about the dangers of super-germ weapons (Wall Street Journal, April 23, 1984, et al.).
More congressional hearings followed. America was awakening to the danger. Under Reagan, all types of new military weapons were produced. Biodefense alone was given $91 million annually. We started inventing our own “super bugs.”
In the name of defense. By this time, our leaders were declaring that we had not violated the earlier biological weapons treaty; since all research was only done for purposes of defense. This “biological defense” research (between 1980 and 1986) resulted in 51 projects which produced new bacteria and viruses, 32 which increased toxin production, 23 which no vaccine could resist, 14 which could not be diagnosed, and 3 which no drug could treat.
Urgent call for vaccine. In December 1984, a paper was produced by Fort Detrick researchers, which urgently called for the stockpiling of large amounts of anthrax and botulinum vaccine to inoculate two million soldiers against attack.
Brain-damaged children. But no drug company wanted to sign a contract. A rising number of lawsuits had been hitting the courts. Parents were suing the pharmaceutical companies because of vaccines which had caused brain damage and death to their children. Many immense judgments had been awarded by sympathetic juries.
The Michigan plant. So the army turned to the only licensed manufacturer of anthrax in America, a decades-old facility with run-down buildings and equipment owned by the Michigan Department of Public Health.
Iraq also doing it. A few months earlier, in June, it was learned that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein’s leadership, was beginning to build its own biological weapons stockpile. By that date, intelligence reports disclosed that Baghdad had already used Clostridium botulinum (botulism mold) to make a deadly toxin said to be 10,000 times more lethal than nerve gas. Iraq was said to be working on large quantities of anthrax and other biological agents. Reports had even disclosed that Saddam Hussein had scientists preparing things useful for assassination of selected individuals, and that his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, was personally in charge of the research work.
Made in the U.S.A. But that was not all: U.S. intelligence revealed that the Iraqis were buying their starter germs—from an American company, the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC). Without such starter germs, Saddam’s germ warfare development program could not go forward. We provided what was needed for him to get started in business (Defense Intelligence Agency, report dated June 28, 1988).
The ATCC, at that time located in Maryland on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., housed the world’s largest collection of germ strains, including the especially virulent variants of anthrax and botulinum which our germ warfare experts had developed in the 1950s.
The ATCC sold from its stockpile to overseas nations, so their scientists could find ways to improve the health of their citizens. At least, that was the plan. Licenses to purchase the most virulent strains could easily be obtained from the Department of Commerce.
The first purchase had been made in May 1986, when ATCC sold an assortment of terrible disease germs to the University of Baghdad (ATCC batch No. 010072; date of shipment: May 2, 1986). Included among them were three different types of anthrax, five of botulinum, and three of brucella (which causes brucellosis, an incapacitating livestock disease).
However, U.S. officials expressed little concern. Iraq was considered a friendly power in its fight against Iran, which earlier had held U.S. hostages. They even seemed not to be disturbed when Iraq used nerve gas on Kurds in northern Iraq. No calls were placed to ATCC, notifying them to stop selling to Iraq—or anyone else.
Three months after the intelligence report had been submitted to U.S. government leaders, a second large shipment of germs was sent to Iraq on September 29, 1988. It included four types of anthrax, including strain 11966, a type of specially deadly anthrax developed by Fort Detrick in 1951 for germ warfare.
The order was placed by the Iraqi Ministry of Trade’s Technical and Scientific Materials Import Division (TSMID). Even though we had earlier identified TSMID as a front for Baghdad’s germ warfare program, the State Department permitted the shipment to be sent.
Closing the barn door. It was not until February 23, 1989, that the Commerce Department banned sales of anthrax and dozens of other pathogens to Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria (all of which had earlier been able to buy virulent germs from ATCC). By that time, it was too late.
Drug-resistant germs. It was becoming obvious that microbes were becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics and other medicinal drugs. This included drug-resistant tuberculosis, new varieties of E. coli, and AIDs. Other diseases were becoming harder to treat. How would we deal with drug-resistant germs sent to us by foreign powers?
Funding refused. Throughout 1989 and the next year, an effort was made to obtain government funding for defenses against this threat. But the General Accounting Office said the project requests, totaling $47 million including toxic germ items, did not involve “valid threats” (GAO, special report, December 1990, p. 2). Senator John Glenn agreed and helped quash efforts to obtain the funding.
Big news. By 1989, the Soviets were still considered a problem; yet it was thought that they had shut down their germ weapon projects. But, in October, a leading Soviet biologist (Vladimir Pasachnik) defected to Britain. He had been the director of the Institute for Ultra-Pure Biological Preparations in Leningrad, one of many research and development sites.
Pasachnik revealed that over 10,000 Soviet scientists were hard at work on projects to produce the worst possible kind of microbes and ways to best deliver them to the enemy. Long-range missiles had been constructed which could carry them great distances. Cruise missiles were able to fly low and spray them in the air.
The Soviets had even perfected a type of bubonic plague which could not be defended against or treated. Pasachnik disclosed that they had packed a dry powdered form of the disease into bombs, rocket warheads, and artillery shells. Yet this was only one of many Soviet germ warfare projects.
Investigators found that Pasachnik was able to provide detailed information and freely admitted when he did not know the answer to a question. Yet, in spite of this, U.S. leaders hesitated. Was Pasachnik really telling the truth? Once again, nothing was done.