A Plague of Bioweapons

In Iraq, a vial of harmless botulinium found in a scientist's refrigerator is cited by the United States' leaders as proof of the righteousness of the occupation of a foreign country, while in Los Angeles women throw Botox parties where participants receive injections of a related toxin to smooth wrinkles.

In Texas, a scientist respected for his decades of work studying and treating infectious diseases in some of the world's more squalid quarters is hauled in front of a court in chains on bio-terrorism-related charges because he didn't follow government regulations with his samples -- while his own university uses military funding to genetically engineer plants to produce even more deadly poisons.

Meanwhile, two American health workers are killed by a vaccine against a disease which should no longer exist; domestically produced anthrax spores terrorize the nation in one of history's great unsolved crimes; and the writings of respected advisors to our president tout the benefits of developing synthetic viruses that would target specific ethnic groups.

Welcome to the confounding, illogical and sometimes deadly space where public health and raw science meet national security and military secrecy.

This shadowy world, which stretches from a college campus near you to the terror training camps of Afghanistan, from the plague towns of Tanzania to the spotless labs of Ft. Detrick, is haunted by terrors real and imagined, bogeymen employed when convenient to drum up funds, intimidate critics or squelch scandals. In short, it is a conspiracy theorist's dream.

When it comes to talking about biological weapons, first employed three centuries ago when the British gave smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans, almost nothing is ever black and white.

Just ask Dr. Thomas Butler, who faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in jail after being convicted Monday on 47 out of 69 federal charges filed after the FBI said he lied to them about missing plague samples and launched an investigation into his research and financial practices. Yet only months ago, according to his peers, this Navy vet and Texas Tech researcher was considered not only a leading medical scientist but something of a hero for his years of work treating epidemics in rough-and-tumble places like Calcutta and wartime Vietnam.

"Butler is probably the nation's most eminent expert on the plague," he added. "Are students going to want to work on tropical medicine if there's a chance they might lose some samples, then be hauled off in the middle of the night?" Peter Agre, a former student of Butler's who won this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry, told the Los Angeles Times. But where Agre and the leaders of the National Academies believe this is an attack on scientific initiative, the FBI has a decidedly different take. "An incident that could have sparked widespread panic of a bio-terrorism threat in west Texas was stopped clean in its tracks," said U.S. Attorney Jane J. Boyle.

Butler, however, testified that the FBI forced him to lie in a statement and that he is innocent of all charges.

Lost in Lubbock

The story began in January of this year, when Butler reported 30 vials of plague bacterium missing and all hell broke loose. The FBI and local police sent in 60 investigators and soon Texas was abuzz with fears of a plague-wielding terrorist. After being interrogated and allegedly failing a lie dictator test, Butler signed a confession saying he had, in fact, destroyed the vials and lied to cover up his mistake.

After being arrested, however, Butler recanted his confession, saying he had been pressured to lie in order to calm public fears. He said FBI agent Dale Green told him "the FBI investigation pointed toward accidental destruction as the explanation for the missing vials. . . . Because they were destroyed, there was no danger to the public. [Green] wanted a written statement that would help them conclude the case."

The feds then upped the ante, charging Butler with a slew of other unrelated crimes dealing with his financial relationships. He was convicted of fraud and embezzlement based on secret relationships he had with pharmaceutical companies for whom he was doing clinical trials; apparently, he was siphoning off money that was to go to the university. Texas Tech has begun proceedings to fire him.

So is Butler the latest scientist to be framed by an over-exuberant FBI, a la Wen Ho Lee? Or was Butler so irresponsible in his treatment of potentially dangerous substances as to warrant such an aggressive prosecution? It's too early to say. One prosecution consultant, interviewed by the Times, waxed philosophical:

"It struck me how much the world had changed. When you have a change like that, you're going to have some casualties," said Victoria Sutton, director of the Texas Tech Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy.

What was Sutton, with such an appropriate "biodefense" specialization, doing there in remote Lubbock, pop. 200,000? As it turns out, Texas Tech is actually a large center for secretive military-funded research on bioweapons, much of it done under the broad mantle of counterterrorism and potentially unacceptable under the world Biological Weapons Convention.

Our guide here is The Sunshine Project, a nongovernmental organization that is devoted to documenting and debunking secrets and myths about biological weapons. Adding context to the Butler case, the group released a statement last week that said, "If life scientists are looking for a cause to symbolize their resentment of new oversight laws, the Butler case may not be the one that wins them public sympathy. There is a 'crime' far more heinous than Butler's bumbling that underlies the prosecution: the gutting of openness in academic institutions by secretive biodefense research."

"What has gone unreported in the Butler case is that Texas Tech's work with bioweapons is far from a little program at an ordinary state school in a flat and dusty corner of Middle America. In fact, Butler worked in the midst of a large and secretive biodefense program supported by the U.S. Army, a program that even many life scientists may not be aware of."

According to Sunshine's investigators, to inject military dollars into the university in order to fund research it needs done, the Army's Soldier Biological Chemical Command funnels money through the Institute for Environmental and Human Health, a biodefense research center located off-campus at Reese Air Force Base that receives four-fifths of its grant money from the Pentagon. From here, some money goes on to the university's Health Sciences Center to fund research on such subjects as, yes, bubonic plague. Texas Tech financial documents current through August 31 list 22 active biodefense contracts totaling more than $7.5 million, according to the nonprofit.

"Supporters of intellectual and scientific freedom who are aligning themselves to Butler's cause would be more likely to earn admiration by challenging the biodefense agenda that is compromising institutions like Texas Tech and that has led to Buler's aggressive indictment," writes Sunshine. "If there can be a positive outcome of Butler's trial, it will be a thorough public exploration of [Texas Tech's] research and of how biodefense is compromising the integrity of institutions like Texas Tech."

Ricin, the Lubbock treat

Another recent Sunshine Project investigative report illuminates how questionable some of this research appears to be.

During his pre-war presentation to the United Nations Security Council making the case that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was an imminent threat to world security, Secretary of State Colin Powell spent several minutes describing the deadly natural poison ricin, the production of which he alleged Al Qaeda operatives might have been exploring:

"The network is teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons. Let me remind you how ricin works. Less than a pinch -- image a pinch of salt -- less than a pinch of ricin, eating just this amount in your food, would cause shock followed by circulatory failure. Death comes within 72 hours and there is no antidote, there is no cure. It is fatal."

When a few grams of ricin were discovered in Europe in 2002, the Continent was sent into a panic. Yet back in Lubbock, Texas Tech aggie scientists have quietly been working for almost a decade to breed two kinds of specialty castor beans -- one which would produce low levels of ricin (to improve the safety of castor oil produced for human consumption) and one which would have very high levels of ricin. Why they would want to produce this high-ricin-yield plant is not apparent.

Not only were they successful in this dual-purpose endeavor, breeding both low- and high-yield variants, but in a parallel effort the university's chemical engineering department designed and built a machine to automate the extraction of ricin from plant matter. Tech scientists have even developed a way that other plants -- i.e., tobacco -- could be genetically modified to produce ricin, and is willing to sell the technology according to Texas Tech's website.

With all these advances, Texas Tech has now made it relatively easy to produce hundreds of kilos of deadly ricin off a small plot of castor beans. But why? There is no current practical use for ricin, and if one were to appear -- say in a new legal drug -- plenty could be harvested from normal castor beans using previously existing technology. It would appear that the only rational reason for Texas Tech to spend all this time and money doing this is to make it easier to produce biological weapons.

We don't know if the military was funding TTU's ricin projects. But if it wasn't, it might want to shut them down lest it provide more ammunition to those who criticize the United States as being hypocritical when it comes to weapons of mass destruction. After all, the United States insisted one of its key rationales for invading Iraq earlier this year was because it believed the country still had hidden stores and production facilities for ricin, despite ten years of UN inspections and sanctions.

"The effort at [Texas Tech] to develop ways to produce and use ricin involved a coordinated effort across several academic departments and activities that, if conducted in many countries, the US would consider proof of a weapons program," points out The Sunshine Project report. "Because [Texas Tech's] activities relate to production of a toxin subject to severe restrictions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, [Texas Tech] should provide a detailed public explanation of all its ricin projects."

(On Oct. 23 of this year, a small metal container found in an envelope in a postal handling facility in Greenville, South Carolina, was determined to contain ricin. The accompanying letter complained about legislation regulating the trucking industry. No suspects have been identified.)

Homegrown Toxin, Homegrown Terror

Whether or not Texas Tech is doing ricin research for the military or just in the name of raw science, the creation of this technology is worthy of public debate, if not censure. After all, this stuff can boomerang back on us; consider, for example, that the deadly anthrax spores delivered through the mail in late 2001 were, according to investigators who have done genetic comparisons, were spawned from an anthrax strain originally produced domestically in a U.S. military lab and "weaponized" using a very advanced technique invented by the United States' Bill Patrick.

Biodefense experts and former employees of the Army medical research institute at Ft. Detrick have charged that sloppy security procedures, disgruntled researchers and secret research into weaponization and delivery techniques could have provided the deadly combination that wrought such terror and paranoia across the country. News reports also claimed that one alleged suspect, scientist Steven Hatfill, had commissioned a report for Science Applications International Corporation a couple years before the attacks on how to deal with an anthrax attack by mail.

"Some very expert field person would have been given this job [of studying the mailing of anthrax] and it would have been left to him to decide exactly how to carry it out," Dr. Barbara Rosenberg, of the Federation of American Scientists told the BBC last year. "The result might have been a project gone badly awry if he decided to use it for his own purposes and target the media and the Senate for his own motives as not intended by the government project." The likely motive? Generating attention and budget funds for the biodefense industry -- which they certainly accomplished.

The details of the mailing of anthrax report are sketchy. Patrick wrote the report, according to ABCNews, describing "a hypothetical anthrax attack, specifying an amount and quality of anthrax that is remarkably similar to what was sent to the offices of Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle" in 2001. But Patrick denied writing the report. As for Hatfill, who had received the anthrax vaccine, had ready access to the substance and lost his security clearance for unknown reasons just before 9/11, he called ABC's report "completely inaccurate, scandalous and libelous."

While nobody has been charged with perpetrating the anthrax attacks, a clear profile of who could have done it has emerged. Col. David Franz, who was in charge of Ft. Detrick for 11 years, through 1998, believes the anthrax attacks were carried out by a person or persons who knew their stuff. "It's not someone who just got on the Internet or went to the library and got a book and led the book in one hand and a big wooden spoon in the other and stirred up batches," Franz told the BBC in the same report, adding that they would have needed a lot of experience to understand how to grow, purify and dry anthrax spores.

So why are we making this awful stuff? Less than one-millionth of a gram is a deadly dose, and it is proscribed by international conventions. Furthermore, the United States was supposed to have ended its production of biological weapons three decades ago. In fact, though, the line between "biodefense" and "bioweapons" is so blurry as to be nearly useless. Just days before 9/11, the New York Times published an investigative article that reported a military contractor called Battelle had actually been commissioned to create genetically altered anthrax.

Another secret project, according to Rosenberg, writing in the Los Angeles Times "involved the construction of bomblets designed for dispersion of biological agents, although the Biological Weapons Convention explicitly prohibits developing, producing or possessing 'means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes.'"

Rosenberg, a biodefense expert who believes the bioterror threat is increasing and that the American public is the most likely target, is frustrated that under the Bush administration, "the U.S. has opposed every international effort to monitor the ban on the development and possession of biological weapons by states or to strengthen the toothless Biological Weapons Convention in any way."

This is odd, since we were supposed to have the moral high ground when it came to Iraq, which had produced, according to President Bush, "more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents. The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount. This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and capable of killing millions."

To be fair, President Clinton's Republican Defense Secretary William Cohen had been similarly apocalyptic when it came to describing Iraq's anthrax potential, noting in 1998 "a five-pound bag, properly dispersed, could kill half the population of Columbus, Ohio." And a month after 9/11, it was Clinton's ex-CIA director James Woolsey who announced on TV that "If we see the use of biological agents such as smallpox or anthrax, that would strongly suggest to me that a state is involved with the terrorists because the state would be the likely producer of such weapons. I personally believe the most likely state to be involved in something like this would be Iraq."

This would make sense in more ways than Woolsey acknowledged: The Commerce Department under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had long permitted U.S. companies to sell anthrax and other biological and chemical supplies to Iraq, the Senate Banking Committee has documented. If Iraq had used anthrax, these U.S. companies and leaders should surely bear some of the moral responsibility for whatever tragedies might have ensued.

Within days of Woolsey's statements, five people would be dead from anthrax poisoning in the United States in one of the most amazing unsolved crimes of the past century. Meanwhile, hundreds of U.S. inspectors have found no signs of anthrax in Iraq despite more than a half a year of looking.

A Big Threat From a Smallpox

When, in the wake of 9/11, our president and noted "counterterrorism experts" (who make a living off fear, it should be remembered) decided to add a new bogeyman to the list of terrors we should worry about, the exterminated disease smallpox, it raised disturbing questions. Since the only known living smallpox virus was supposedly held by Russia and the United States, it would seem that somebody would have to really have goofed up for smallpox to have found its way into the hands of terrorists who had, as yet, never successfully (or unsuccessfully, as far as we know) employed biological or chemical weapons in an attack -- even those much easier to produce. Did the president know more than he was telling?

Chaotic, corrupt Russia was trotted out whenever smallpox came up in the media: Those poor Russian scientists might have sold some to Al Qaeda for some hard currency, reporters and experts said. While this was simply speculation, it was loosely based on the fact that in 1989 a Soviet defector claimed his country had weaponized and produced up to 20 tons of smallpox.

But if it wasn't understood before, the anthrax attacks should have been a wake-up call that our own security surrounding these dangerous substances was rather lacking. The stricter controls that have tangled up Dr. Butler are an attempt to batten down the hatches. It would seem there's more to be done: An Associated Press report on Nov. 21 told the scary story of a vial of one of the most deadly plagues ever discovered sitting in an unlocked freezer controlled by an undergraduate lecturer.

The question few asked, even as close to 40,000 Americans -- health and emergency workers, mostly -- were subsequently vaccinated for smallpox at the government's instruction, was whether the whole scare was nothing more than an irresponsible, panicky reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Or, far worse, a cynical attempt to increase our already soaring national fear levels. After all, the smallpox vaccine itself was known to be somewhat dangerous.

In fact, two women died after receiving the shots, killed by "adverse cardiac events" of a kind associated with the vaccine. Since then, the civilian program has basically ceased functioning, although the military continues to vaccinate soldiers; one died of a mysterious "lupus-like" disease last week after receiving the smallpox, anthrax and other vaccines on the same day.

Putting these tragedies aside, the questions remain: Did the threat demand this? Was there even a realistic threat at all? Colin Powell, speaking at the UN, seemed to think so. "Saddam Hussein has investigated dozens of biological agents causing diseases such as gas gangrene, plague, typhus, tetanus, cholera, camelpox and hemorrhagic fever, and he also has the wherewithal to develop smallpox," Powell claimed.

Powell didn't explain this last sentence. There are two likely ways smallpox, a truly devastating disease which is estimated to have killed 30 million people in the last century, could be reintroduced to humanity: From a strain kept in a lab somewhere, or through a synthetic version of the virus made by gene wizards. However, the latter is very unlikely, especially in the case of a rogue state like Iraq, since the complex variola virus that causes smallpox is quite large and complex, and would be a major challenge to recreate in a lab.

What is not clear is who might have kept a smallpox strain and why. The World Health Organization had recommended that all virus stocks be destroyed by 1999, but this almost certainly did not happen. And while the virus was supposedly only held in two locations in the United States and Russia, it is possible that other nations kept secret stashes of it taken in the years before it was eradicated in the populace. Donald Henderson, a science advisor to the U.S. government, noted last month in the Independent that the countries of Iraq, Syria and Iran could theoretically have retained smallpox samples from a natural outbreak there in 1972.

The government's official position on smallpox, which has no cure, is simply that "the deliberate release of smallpox as an epidemic disease is now regarded as a possibility." No smallpox samples have been discovered in Iraq.

It Gets Uglier

Even as we fear the resurrection of one of the few plagues mankind has completely defeated, some of those who advise and work for President Bush have talked warmly of possibilities even more horrifying.

A decade ago, neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby who now occupy powerful positions in the White House wrote a draft policy paper that, among other calls for aggressively increasing U.S. power in the world, argued that the government consider the development of biological weapons that "can target specific genotypes [and] may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool."

Nobody who has living through the astonishing medical and scientific advances of recent decades can doubt that such a horror might be possible. But to suggest we develop such diseases to add to our arsenal in defiance of international covenants and human decency is abominable.

This month, the CIA convened a gathering of life sciences experts who warned that genetically engineered diseases "could be worse than any disease known to man." The report generated by the scientists, "The Darker Bioweapons Future," argues, "The same science that may cure some of our worst diseases could be used to create the world's most frightening weapons." They also noted the possibility that these monstrous creations could potentially be released secretly, and thus avoid any international "blowback."

"One panelist cited the possibility of a stealth virus attack that could cripple a large portion of people in their forties with severe arthritis, concealing its hostile origin and leaving a country with massive health and economic problems," the report says.

Is this just more fear mongering, or the sci-fi fantasies of a researcher who is dependent on federal funds for his research? We won't know for a while, of course, but just this week, scientist L. Craig Venter, one of the key players in the mapping of the human genome, posted on the Internet instructions for how to build a synthetic virus (he is working on the artificial creation of living organisms that could clean up pollution).

In any event, if such nightmares should come true, it is likely to be in the United States, the birthplace of bio-terrorism, which will have had the scientific ability, bureaucratic organization and research money needed to create them.

Christopher Scheer is a staff writer for AlterNet. He is co-author of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.