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Selling the threat of bioterrorism

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

July 01, 2007|David Willman | Times Staff Writer

Uncertainty surrounds the threat of a biological attack. Authorities list no fewer than 30 fungi, bacteria and viruses as potential biological weapons. One agent, anthrax, already has been deployed in the U.S., killing five people in late 2001. Because anthrax spores can be dispersed in a variety of ways -- perhaps even by bomb -- some experts believe that a well-executed attack could kill millions of people over large areas. Others, citing the vagaries of weather, say that anthrax or other airborne agents are unlikely mass killers.

Some experts question Alibek's characterizations of the threats.

Dr. Philip K. Russell, a retired Army major general and physician who joined the Bush administration from 2001 to 2004 to confront the perceived threat of smallpox, said he was convinced that Alibek had solid firsthand information about the former Soviet Union's production of anthrax. But regarding other threats, such as genetically engineered smallpox, Russell said he "began to think that Ken was more fanciful than precise in some of his recollections."

"He would claim that certain things had been done, and then when you came right down to it, he didn't have direct knowledge of it -- he'd heard it from somebody. For example, the issue of putting Ebola genes into smallpox virus. That was viewed, at least in many of our minds, as somewhat fanciful. And probably not true."

Alibek told The Times that the comments in question were based on articles he read in Russia's "scientific literature."


Big transition

Alibek, 56, is now a player in the multibillion-dollar business that has sprouted around the U.S. war on terrorism.

It's been a stark transformation for the former Communist military man.

Alibek grew up in Almaty, the capital of the then-Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. After entering the Tomsk Medical Institute in Siberia, he studied the 1942-43 battle of Stalingrad.

As he described in a 1999 memoir, "Biohazard," Alibek concluded that the Soviets had waged biological warfare against the Germans and that "large numbers" of the invaders fell ill with tularemia, a deadly infectious disease also known as rabbit fever.

But Alibek also described a lesson he learned about the risk of waging germ warfare: Because of a wind shift, the Soviets had inadvertently infected their own troops and civilians, causing perhaps thousands of casualties.

When Alibek emerged with a medical degree, he was recruited by the Soviet government and climbed in military rank while earning a doctorate in microbiology. In 1987, he was promoted to a top position in Biopreparat, the civilian agency that ran the Soviets' secret biological-weapons program.

Alibek has said he worked with numerous lethal agents -- including Marburg virus, plague, smallpox and a virulent "battle strain" of anthrax. The Soviets assumed that the U.S., which began developing germ weapons during World War II, maintained its program despite the 1972 international ban.

By the late 1980s, with the Cold War ending, teams of U.S. and Soviet biological warfare experts prepared to visit each other's laboratories to see for themselves.

On Dec. 11, 1991, Alibek and his Soviet colleagues traveled to Ft. Detrick, Md., home to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where researchers studied how to protect troops from germ warfare, work that was allowed under the 1972 agreement. And Alibek began making personal connections that would soon ease his transition to American life.

None would prove more important to him than his rapport with USAMRIID director Charles L. Bailey, an entomologist and U.S. Army colonel.

Within a year, Alibek resigned from Biopreparat and fled to the U.S. with his wife and three children. Bailey retired from the Army but stayed at Ft. Detrick as an analyst with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

Bailey's job was to assess what the Russians were up to.

This gave him a close view of Alibek's confidential debriefings with U.S. intelligence agents. The debriefings, Bailey said, provided "very valuable" information about the Russian program. Alibek described threats beyond the Russian borders.

"Alibek thought that every country that had anthrax" also had smallpox, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, Bailey said.

In the mid-1990s, when Bailey went to work for a Huntsville, Ala., company with defense and intelligence contracts, Alibek visited frequently. They shared meals, attended horse shows. Alibek seemed to enjoy learning about American life.

"He was easy to like," Bailey recalled. "We became friends."

They also became a commercially sought-after team.

"I helped to build Alibek's reputation with the military," Bailey said. "A lot of people were impressed with Alibek. I was impressed."

The Alabama company also hired Alibek as a consultant, and asked him to compose a history of the Soviet program that could be used by the intelligence community.

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