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Selling the threat of bioterrorism

FEAR INC. -- A TIMES INVESTIGATION

A scientist defected, warned of epidemics, helped shape policy and sought to profit.

July 01, 2007|David Willman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the fall of 1992, Kanatjan Alibekov defected from Russia to the United States, bringing detailed, and chilling, descriptions of his role in making biological weapons for the former Soviet Union.

As a doctor of microbiology, a physician and a colonel in the Red Army, he helped lead the Soviet effort. He told U.S. intelligence agencies that the Soviets had devoted at least 30,000 scientists, working at dozens of sites, to develop bioweapons, despite a 1972 international ban on such work.

He said that emigrating Russian scientists and others posed imminent threats. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he said, several specialists went to Iraq and North Korea. Both countries, he said, may have obtained anthrax and smallpox. The transfer of smallpox would be especially ominous because the Russians, he said, had sought to genetically modify the virus, posing lethal risk even to those who had been vaccinated.

His expertise, combined with his dire pronouncements, solidified his cachet in Washington. He simplified his name to Ken Alibek, became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, and emerged as one of the most important voices in U.S. decisions to spend billions of dollars to counter anthrax, smallpox and other potential bioterrorism agents.

"It was Alibek's revelations, when he defected, that really provided the first information about the scope" of both the Soviet program and the possible proliferation to Iran and Iraq, said Dr. Thomas Monath, who was a top biodefense specialist for the U.S. Army.

Monath, who later led a group of experts that advised the Central Intelligence Agency on ways to counter biological attacks, said Alibek's information resonated at high levels of the U.S. government and was "amplified by 9/11."

"I think he influenced many people who were in position to make some decisions about response," Monath said, adding, "Concern about smallpox, in particular, was driven by Alibek."

Dr. Kenneth W. Bernard, who served President Bush as a special assistant for biodefense, agreed, saying that Alibek "had a substantial and profound effect."

Having raised the prospect that Iraq had acquired the ability to wield smallpox or anthrax, Alibek also was outspoken as the U.S. went to war in early 2003, saying there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Officials still value his seminal depictions of the Soviet program. But recent events have propelled questions about Alibek's reliability:

No biological weapon of mass destruction has been found in Iraq. His most sensational research findings, with U.S. colleagues, have not withstood peer review by scientific specialists. His promotion of nonprescription pills -- sold in his name over the Internet and claiming to bolster the immune system -- was ridiculed by some scientists. He resigned as executive director of a Virginia university's biodefense center 10 months ago while facing internal strife over his stewardship.

And, as Alibek raised fear of bioterrorism in the United States, he also has sought to profit from that fear.

By his count, Alibek has won about $28 million in federal grants or contracts for himself or entities that hired him.

He has had well-placed help. Some of the money has been allocated because of a Southern California congressman's "earmarks," controversial budget maneuvers that direct federal agencies' spending. Moreover, two senior aides to a New Jersey congressman who also provided crucial help to Alibek left government and promptly joined his commercial efforts.

Alibek now is seeking new government contracts related to countering biological terrorism that could be worth tens of millions of dollars.

He has followed an unconventional scientific approach, seeking a product that would protect against an array of deadly viruses and bacteria, not just a single germ.

He also is raising money to build a drug-manufacturing plant in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. From there, his company will seek to sell its antiviral agents and antibiotics to the U.S. government's Strategic National Stockpile, he said.

Thickly built and with willing, if imperfect, English, Alibek said in an interview that his focus had been scientific, "in terms of raising awareness about biological weapons and biological terrorism." An attack, he said, could kill "hundreds of millions, if not billions" of people.

The Los Angeles Times explored Alibek's public pronouncements, research and business activities as part of a series that will examine companies and government officials central to the U.S. war on terrorism.

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