Bio-Terrorism under the Microscope

By Catherine Arnst


Biological Weapons and America's Secret War

By Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad

Simon & Schuster -- 382pp -- $27

In September, 1984, a severe outbreak of salmonella poisoning hit The Dalles, Ore., a town of 10,000 in the shadow of Mt. Hood. Almost 1,000 people reported symptoms, and although no one died, every one of the 125 beds in the town's only hospital was filled, and patients were stacked up in the corridors. Investigators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) were called in, but despite checking every possible source, no one could find the cause of the outbreak.

It was only a year later that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the founder of a huge cult with a settlement on the edges of town, told authorities that some of his followers caused the outbreak by spraying salad bars around town with salmonella. The perpetrators, angry about efforts by the town to block expansion of their 4,000-member community, had fled the country days before Rajneesh's announcement, but law-enforcement agents soon discovered evidence the group had been busy developing plenty of other chemical and bacterial weapons. "Call us naive," said one of the first victims of the salmonella attack, "but we never imagined people could have done such a thing. You don't expect bio-terrorism in paradise."

Welcome to Paradise Lost. This chilling salmonella attack--the only known incidence of bio-terrorism on U.S. soil--is recounted in the opening chapter of Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, by New York Times reporters Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad. It's a timely and sobering primer on the threat we have all suddenly come to fear. Granted, various defense experts, Nobel laureates, government officials, and even Hollywood movies have been warning for years that an attack on the U.S. with biological weapons is a very real danger. But the public paid little heed until we learned in catastrophic detail just how deadly terrorists can be. Now, a recent Newsweek poll finds that 86% of Americans think a bio-terrorist attack is at least somewhat likely.

Miller, Engelberg, and Broad's book is an ominous, if somewhat conflicted, view of bio-terrorism. Its greatest virtue is its lack of hysteria: The authors recount the arguments of defense experts who think a biological-weapons attack is unlikely side by side with those of scientists who fear nothing more intensely. But the authors' own conclusion is a somewhat befuddling acknowledgement that the threat of germ weapons is both real and exaggerated. Despite this seeming contradiction, their steadfast insistence on balance enhances the book's veracity as it recounts the many efforts around the globe to develop bio-weapons--including in the U.S.

Some of the material may sound familiar after the extensive coverage that bio-terrorism has received in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. But Germs is one of the more reliable sources of information on this 21st century worry: There are 42 pages of notes and a bibliography, and the authors interviewed dozens of players across the globe, including former President Bill Clinton.

Much of the book retells the history of biological weapons, starting with a massive and secret U.S. program that began in the 1950s. (There was one earlier experiment: a failed effort to poison a suspected Hitler henchman who turned out to be an anti-Hitler plotter). The U.S. stopped its own development of such weapons in 1969 and signed an international ban on bio-warfare in 1975. But the Soviet Union kept going, despite signing the same ban. It was only in 1992, thanks to the defection of a prominent Soviet scientist, that the U.S. learned of Moscow's massive, decades-long program to turn deadly bugs such as anthrax, tularemia, typhus, and plague into weapons. The program was ended in the early 1990s, and the labs dismantled, but the scientists who had worked there were aggressively courted by Iran and Iraq, the authors report.

Iraq's efforts to develop biological weapons have been well covered in the past, and Germs adds little to the story. The book breaks new ground, however, in its detailed account of Clinton's determination to bolster the nation's bio-terrorism defenses. The first President to declare bio-weapons a real threat to domestic security, Clinton persuaded Congress to appropriate $10 billion a year to defend the nation against terrorism, including $381 million for research into dangerous pathogens. Some of this money was funneled to secret CIA and Pentagon programs to develop a better understanding of weapons and delivery methods engineered by foreign scientists. The CIA'S Operation ClearVision figured that the best way to outsmart the enemy was to emulate it by reverse-engineering a bio-weapon. In essence, the CIA was building its own bio-bomb, and the effort was eventually shut down out of fear that it came dangerously close to violating the germ warfare treaty.

The final chapter of Germs is the most provocative: a detailed look at America's ability to ward off a bio-attack. Clinton's anti-terrorism program included a renewed effort to beef up the public health system, which had fallen into disarray over decades of neglect by federal and local governments. But government simulations of germ warfare show that we remain woefully unprepared. The U.S. today is in some ways less able to protect the population against an outbreak of deadly disease than it was a half-century ago, conclude the authors. As evidence, look at that lone hospital in The Dalles. When the Rajneeshees struck in 1984, it had 125 beds. Today, it has 49.

Senior Writer Arnst covers medicine and science.

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