This is a nuclear-themed blog, but as you probably could guess, I’m pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to being interested in weapons of mass destruction. (Heck, I find conventional weapons pretty important, too!)
I had previously read a two interesting reviews — one by Steven Aftergood, another by David Hoffman — of Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas‘ new book, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (Harvard University Press, 2012). My prior knowledge of this topic came from reading Hoffman’s book, The Dead Hand (which is a disturbing and fascinating read in and of itself, and well-deserving of its Pulitzer), and from an association I had with Matthew Meselson as a graduate student at Harvard, but the reviews hinted that there was a lot of new stuff here.
So I was pretty excited to snag an invitation to hear Milton Leitenberg speak at the Wilson Center, at a small talk last Friday afternoon, organized by my friend Kathleen M. Vogel. I was one of maybe four “academics” in the audience; the rest of the people there were affiliated with the intelligence community in one way or another — I didn’t ask for details, but it was not a classified talk (obviously, or they wouldn’t have let me in there).1 Below are some of the things that really grabbed me about Leitenberg’s talk, with a preface that I’m working from notes here, and biology isn’t really my strongest suite, so if I write something outlandish, blame me, not the book.2
Two generations of BW
Leitenberg and Zilinskas periodize the Soviet biological weapons program into two phases. The first generation was from 1928 through 1971, and used classical genetic selection techniques — Mendelian selection and its subsequent variations. The very early program was an outgrowth of a chemical weapons program, and made the USSR the only country in the world at the time (the first?) to have a devoted BW program. (France may have had one at the same time; Japan would start its own up soon after.) In 1939 the Soviet BW program was taken over by none other than Lavrenty Beria, the security chief/rapist/executioner who also later ran the Soviet atomic bomb project.
The second generation program, from 1972 until 1993, is the really interesting one. This one used new molecular genetics techniques — genetic engineering. The goal was to produce better and different “bugs” — with a high priority placed on changing the surface properties of the bacteria and viruses, so that not only would pre-existing antibiotics and vaccines not work, but even the detection methods would be erroneous.
What makes this especially surprising is that the USSR wasn’t exactly known as a genetics powerhouse, a inevitable result of their long foray with Lysenkoism. Leitenberg says that the second generation program was pushed by the biologists, who saw it as the way to quickly reboot Soviet genetics post-Lysenko. A new, high-tech BW program was seen as a way to re-build Soviet biology after a generation of persecution.
As with most Soviet R&D, the strategy was first copy whatever the US was doing, and then move forward with their own lines of research. It’s not a bad strategy in a world where you do know there’s a country that is throwing gobs of money at a scientific program. It was a strategy made somewhat easier because of the relative openness of the US; when the US declassified and published designs for biological bomblets, the USSR copied them and used them for their own program.
I would just note that we often, in this literature, making “copying” seem like an easy thing, but it’s really not — a huge amount of work still goes into replicating a basic design. In any case, I’m always surprised that we Americans acted personally offended when the USSR copied US technology — as if it were a form of high-stakes academic plagiarism or piracy. Hey, they were just going after solutions that were known to work, and it’s a pretty high compliment, is it not? I don’t think we should take this sort of thing personally.
The Soviet BW program had five major subprograms:
- Bonfire, the main program, which succeed in making multi-antibiotic resistance for bacteria and modified antigenic structures for viruses (bad things)
- Factor, which sought higher virulence out of existing agents, as well as higher stability and new outcomes — which are basic goals for any BW program, but again, were being done with molecular genetics methods for the most part
- Hunter, which attempted to make hybrids of bacteria and viruses — apparently they were trying to come up with agents that were essentially bacterial, but if you used antibiotics to kill the bacteria, they would then release viruses into the system, which sounds like something from a movie
- Chimera, which were working on “exotic viral genes” (i.e. making better Ebola)
- Flute, which were trying to attack neuropeptide regulators, bioweapons meant for targeted assassinations
All together they produced twelve “recipes,” as they called them, which were “type-verified” and ready to produce. Some of these were mass produced to the tune of hundreds of tons. Leitenberg and Zilinskas were able to identify eleven of them, and they’re scary — anthrax, plague, tularemia, and Marburg virus, to name a few ones that even I recognized — but the identity of the last one is still a mystery to them.
The million dollar question, though, is why the Soviets were doing it in the first place. I mean, post-1972 they were violating their own commitments to the Biological Weapons Convention — a treaty with no verification methods, but still a treaty. They were also completely convinced that the US must be doing their own BW work and violating the treaty themselves. Why? Because it’s what they’d do. (A nice illustration of the errors of assuming the enemy thinks like you do.)
But also, apparently, they were egged on in this idea by a collaborative Army-FBI operation in the late 1960s that fed them disinformation. Apparently the Soviets witnessed a test of a biological agent near Johnston Island, in the Pacific Ocean, sometime in the 1960s, and the Army-FBI operation decided that would really throw them off if they, through a double-agent, made them think that it was the test of a different biological agent, and added on to that — oddly enough — the line that the US was continuing a vigorous biological program. In the early 1970s, when SALT and the BWC were on the table, someone finally realized that this was a very bad idea, and they “cancelled” the disinformation effort. But how do you withdraw disinformation? Issue a statement that says, “sorry, that part of your intel was totally fabricated?” Who is going to believe that?
Even more strange, though, is that the USSR apparently didn’t have any strategic delivery mechanisms for the BW program. That is, they couldn’t actually target them on the US, according to Leitenberg and Zilinskas. They couldn’t fit them on ICBMs (they looked into it, but the program went nowhere), and the only planes that could disperse them were slow and wouldn’t last five seconds in NATO airspace. And apparently they weren’t thinking about using them on the Chinese, either.
So who was the BW program for? What was it for? Why have a secret BW program that you couldn’t use? Why keep a BW program through the 1980s and even early 1990s? Leitenberg isn’t really sure.
A few obvious possibilities stand out 1. maybe they did have strategic delivery and L. and Z. are just wrong on that; 2. maybe they just thought they’d work that out later (in the same way that the US put off serious work on the nuclear waste issue for the future); 3. maybe they were planning to use them in a way we really aren’t considering (e.g. tactically, though Leitenberg says there weren’t any tactical munitions); 4. maybe it was just bureaucracy run amok, egged on by scientists and generals who were ever eager to keep the funding flowing. I’d like to believe number four, because it would be the most amusing to me, but that doesn’t really pass logical muster.
The program even persisted into Gorbachev’s time, and Gorby himself apparently lied his pants off to the United States on this point. During the Gorbachev era, apparently only four people in the higher echelons of the Soviet government knew the “full story” about the BW program. George H.W. Bush apparently didn’t push Mikhail on this point, even though he had intelligence which said, straight up, that Gorbachev was lying. Leitenberg describes this as a “terrible” thing to have done, to avoid that confrontation. (Leitenberg says that he thinks Gorbachev would have liked to mothball the BW program, but found his hands pretty full with everything else that happened during the USSR’s endgame.) The flagrant violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, though, created all sorts of diplomatic complications for the late USSR — even though the BWC lacked verification, and thus was easy to cheat, it did create huge headaches to be caught out in 20 year lie.
The real take-aways, for me, were:
- Treaties without verification are not worth the paper they are written on, but before violating one, keep in mind how much of a bind you’ll put your future, reforming leaders when they find out about it.
- Disinformation that makes you out to be more scary than you are is a really bad idea.
- Even though your country may not be weaponizing the coolest, newest scientific techniques (like genetic engineering), someone else might be. Be aware of that before proclaiming your field of research totally unnecessary for regulation.
- Soviet WMD history seems like a super hard thing to do — a mixture of US intelligence reports, interviews with former participants who may or may not be interested in telling you the truth, and the occasional smuggled/given document which may or may not be true. In my experience, anyway, US WMD history is much more straightforward — there’s a real culture difference.
Anyway, it sounds like the Leitenberg and Zilinskas volume will bring a lot of enlightenment to our discussions of the Soviet biological weapons program, even while it raises deeper mysteries.
This post was updated later in the day to clarify a few points after a communication from Leitenberg.
- Note to future self: the dress code for summertime, lunchtime talks with intelligence community folks in DC is slacks, shirt, open collar, no tie, no jacket. I wore a tie and was conspicuously overdressed — a rare thing for unfashionable me! [↩]
- None other than Raymond A. Zilinskas himself once got on me at a talk I gave when I conflated the terms “mutated” and “genetic engineered” — which was helpful, in a way, because I won’t make that error again! [↩]