"Anthrax War" via Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "The Passionate Eye"
And now on the Passionate Eye - Who was behind the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States?
Montage: “He's dead. And they can close the case and he can't defend himself.”
“The lone gunman theory fits the needs of the FBI.”
The investigation spans the globe, uncovering the deadly world of germ warfare.
Montage: “It was about killing people and not being able to be found out. Designing assassination weapons, classic spy stuff.”
Are we on the verge of the unthinkable?
Montage: “They could launch biowarfare by means of anthrax anywhere in the world today.”
FRANCIS BOYLE, PROFESSOR OF INT. LAW: “You must understand that the human race stands at a critical turning point. In terms of biowarfare technology. We are at risk now, as I speak.”
It was the 21st century's first act of biological terrorism. And that set investigative journalist Bob Coen on his journey, to penetrate the darkest secrets of many countries-- allies and enemies alike-- and all linked by their common pursuit of the ultimate bioweapon.
If his travels are teaching him anything, it's this. When it comes to bioterrorism, the terrorists are not who you might expect.
OPENING TITLE MONTAGE
It came through the mail just weeks after 9/11 - new terror attacks. First in Florida, then New York and Washington. Anthrax. It spread fear and panic through the nation.
REPORT: Two media offices and a Microsoft office received letters containing anthrax. One man is dead. Two people are being treated for the infection.
Someone had mailed letters laced with the deadly powder to the media and to US senators.
REPORT: President Bush said he could not rule out that Osama bin Laden is behind the scare.
And for the first time in modern history, the United States Congress was shut down. Five people were killed, 22 infected and the whole country filled with foreboding.
FRANCIS BOYLE: “If you take September 11, and the anthrax attacks on Congress, it was a one-two punch on our republic.”
JEAN PATTERSON, VIROLOGIST, SFBR: “And you have to remember the country is pretty jittery at the time. Because it was right after 9/11. People just thought we were just under siege. And so you know, it was a perfect sort of storm that everyone was convinced that the world was out to get us and then suddenly now we have anthrax. So it was a pretty good attack.”
STUART JACOBSEN, CHEMIST
“If you think about it, the attack was against all of us in that it went into the mail system so that means that it had the potential for spores to be delivered into anybody's home.”
Fear of anthrax infected the American psyche and was crucial in justifying the war against Iraq.
COLIN POWELL: “Less than a teaspoon full of dry anthrax in an envelope shut down the United States Senate. Iraq declared 8500 liters of anthrax, and Saddam Hussein has not verifiably accounted for even one teaspoon full of this deadly material.”
We all remember the horror of the Twin Towers, but the anthrax attacks all but disappeared from public consciousness, but not from Coen's mind. He was raised in Africa, where anthrax had been used against the black majority during Zimbabwe's war of liberation. It had caused the largest anthrax epidemic in modern times.
As the five victims of the US anthrax attacks were being buried, it was certain this crime could never be understood without also understanding the larger story of bioweapons research.
The FBI’s investigation, one of the largest in its history and codenamed Amerithrax stretched out across six continents. It appeared the FBI was looking for a lone killer, and they soon zeroed in on a “person of interest”. An army biodefense scientist named Steven Hatfill.
Charges were never laid, yet Hatfield continued to be harassed by the FBI and hounded by the media.
HATFILL: “I object to an investigation characterized as this one has been by outrageous official statements, calculated leaks to the media and causing a feeding frenzy operating to my great prejudice”
Steven Hatfill sued, and in June 2008, the US Justice Department settled out of court paying Hatfill $5.8 million. The FBI’s anthrax investigation appeared to be a cold case. And then on August 1, 2008, the FBI announced they had their man, another military scientist.
“There is finally a suspect in the anthrax attacks. He worked for the government's anthrax lab, and unfortunately, he's dead.”
“Because we believed that based on the evidence we had collected, we could prove his guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“His name was Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, Dr Ivins dying Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland, reportedly after taking a massive dose of prescription Tylenol with codeine. His lawyer today asserting his client’s innocent.”
With the only suspect now dead, the FBI’s case would never have to be proven in court. As Bruce Ivins was being remembered, the FBI said it was closing the case. But some Army specialists like biowarfare expert Richard Spertzel, were skeptical.
SPERTZEL: “He’s dead and they can close the case, and he can't defend himself. Nice and convenient, isn’t it.”
EDWARD J. EPSTEIN, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: “As we read Sherlock Holmes or we read detective stories, you always say who benefits, who had a motive? The lone gunman theory fits the needs of the FBI, some madman had basically stolen a small quantity of this or mixed it in his own house or whatever. He sent out a few letters, and he is dead, so we don't need a motive.”
LEAHY: “I do not believe in any way, shape or manner, that he is the only person involved in this attack on Congress and the American people. I do not believe that at all. I believe there are others involved either as accessories before or accessories after the fact. I believe there are others that can be charged with murder.”
The key to this case was the murder weapon, inhalation anthrax. Anthrax is a naturally occurring bacteria that causes an acute pneumonia-like disease.
Bruce Ivins worked with anthrax in one of the world's most secret military labs, the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
COEN (Driving by) “Big factory. Germ factory.”
The US biowarfare program was born here during World War Two in response to fears about enemy germ weapon programs. It turned out that the Japanese actually deployed these weapons against the Chinese, in Manchuria. After the war, Fort Detrick was ramped up as army scientists weaponized anthrax and other deadly organisms. The spores of weaponized anthrax are processed into a fine aerosolized powder, easily inhaled into the lungs, causing death in as little as three days. At the height of the Cold War, the US and other major powers possessed enough biological weapons to wipe out the human race. Then, the US moved to stop the madness.
NIXON: “The United States of America will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate.”
President Nixon's decision paved the way for the destruction of the world stockpiles of biological weapons. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention outlawed bioweapons. Only defensive programs using lethal germs to develop vaccines, like the one Bruce Ivins was working on at Fort Detrick, were allowed.
Many experts agreed. The anthrax in the 2001 letter attacks was the most sophisticated they had ever seen. But some dispute how a single scientist working alone could refine this level of anthrax without support. Richard Spertzel, Fort Detrick's former deputy commander was among them.
SPERTZEL: “I'm fully convinced, as are other experts, I’m not alone by any chance, that Dr. Ivins could not have done this with the equipment that he had. The material that was in the Daschle and Leahy letters, according to FBI releases was 1.5 to three microns in particle size. This was super sophisticated. To get 1.5 to three microns mass median diameter is phenomenal. I contend that that kind of powder could not be made at Fort Detrick, because they don't have the equipment necessary to get down to that particle size with that kind of refinement.”
The list of suspect labs expanded beyond the United States, when early in their investigation, officials released a key piece of information.
Tom Ridge, US Homeland Security Press Conference
REPORTER: “Can you tell us which strain it is, sir and does the fact..”
TOM RIDGE, US HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: “The Ames Strain”
EPSTEIN: “So I began to look who had the means and the availability of the Ames strain abroad, which labs, were there any labs that could have done this? You couldn't limit this to America and exclude everyplace else because it was available in England and Canada and many foreign countries.”
Stephen Dresch was asking similar questions. He had been a Republican legislator in Michigan now dedicated to exposing what he called the bioweapons mafia. And he was making an astounding claim that if anyone could provide a window into the anthrax letter attacks, it was a leading scientist at Britain's top military lab, Porton Down. Porton Down had received the Ames strain from Fort Detrick.
DRESCH: “The first time that I heard of Dr. David Kelly was soon after 9/11. The anthrax letters had just hit the US. While public investigations seem to sputter, I had begun to penetrate what I've come to call the international bioweapons mafia. If anyone knew the secrets of the international bioweapons mafia, it was David Kelly. Then he too turned up dead. Dead in the woods.”
REPORTER: “David Kelly took a walk in the woods near his home, slit his wrists and killed himself.”
Kelly had also been a top UN weapons inspector in Iraq
REPORTER: “At the root of it all is whether Dr. David Kelly was the source of stories that the British government had exaggerated intelligence reports in order to draw the country more easily into war.”
Dresch was on his way to England to investigate David Kelly's death for himself, and Coen decided to join him.
Investigating the death of military microbiologist David Kelly was just the beginning of our journey with private eye Dresch. What might Kelly's death illuminate about the secret world of anthrax and its international connections?
REPORTER: “The Ministry of Defense moved with great speed this afternoon, confirming that there will be an inquiry led by one of Britain's most senior judges.”
Lord Hutton heard 74 witnesses in just 22 days, none of them under oath. Many considered Hutton's report clearing the British government of wrongdoing, a whitewash.
The official ruling of suicide was challenged by a group of medical experts who called for the reopening of a coroner's inquest. Dresch and Coen flew to London, the day it was scheduled to take place. Despite inconsistencies in the forensic evidence, the court in less than 10 minutes, announced there would be no further investigation.
MONTAGE: “I do believe one moment that he took his own life.”
“Kelly, I mean, he would not take the type of knife he took if he was seriously going to commit suicide”
“It’s a cover up of a cover up and of course it gets to the point they just can't stop because he's opening a can of worms”
We sought out John Scurr, Britain's leading vascular surgeon. Scurr questioned how Kelly could have died from a self-inflicted pocket knife wound.
SCURR: “Cutting the wrist is usually something that's done by often young people, girls, some men, it's a sort of cry for help. It's not generally regarded as a reliable way of committing suicide. In this case, as I understand it, and certainly the information I've been given, it would have been necessary to use the knife, really the wrong way round, and go up. So it's an unusual way of trying to cut your wrist to start with.”
Louise Holmes was the first to discover Kelly's body.
INVESTIGATOR: “Can you describe where the body was?”
HOLMES: “Yeah, the body was against a tree with the head and the shoulders just slumped back a little bit on the tree.
INVESTIGATOR: “But you would not say he was lying on the ground.”
HOLMES: “No, he was not - the way that I described how he was was the way that I described it in court with his head and his shoulders against the base of the tree and the rest of his body on the floor”
The police report described the body as laying flat on the ground. Who might have moved Kelly, and why? One British Member of Parliament concluded that the Hutton inquiry had been a cover up. By that time, Dresch was dying of cancer. And Coen was back in London on his own.
BAKER: “I'm convinced beyond reasonable doubt, more than that, in fact, that David Kelley was murdered.”
Norman Baker, a long-standing member of the House of Commons, had spent a year investigating Kelly's death.
BAKER: “There were no fingerprints on the knife that Kelly allegedly used to kill himself, which to my mind only reinforced my view that it was extremely difficult to conclude that he had committed suicide.”
Who may have wanted David Kelly dead and why? Gordon Thomas, an author who writes about the world of secret intelligence had met David Kelly a few months before his death.
THOMAS: “David Kelly was a major part of the biological warfare intelligence world. He knew more than perhaps anybody I know. And perhaps anybody knew. And he was brilliant. That's why he was always consulted by other intelligence services. If they got into a mess, CIA, Canadian Intelligence, they’d say, better ask Dr. Kelly, what he thinks. He had explored with two or three writers, of which I'm happy to include myself the possibility he could write a book about his life. And I said to him at the time, you know, David, you’ve signed the Official Secrets Act. He said I know and I need somebody else to write it with information I provide, I said but you know, you won't get away with it, David.”
Intrigued by Thomas's account Coen decided to look into Kelly's place of work, Porton Down, the UK secret biological and chemical weapons complex. Porton Down had received the Ames strain from Fort Detrick in the 80s.
COEN (Driving by): “Look at this, “Prohibited”. We’re at Porton Down”
David Kelly had been head of microbiology at Porton Down. At the time of his death, Porton Down was the target of a major police investigation. Codenamed Operation Antler, it looked into deaths and injuries to British soldiers caused by secret experiments conducted between 1939 and 1989. Attorney Alan Care represented some of the victims.
CARE: “There were experiments for example, putting men in gas chambers and subjecting them to sarin nerve gas, a chemical warfare weapon, to mustard gas to lewisite, to CS gas, which is used for riot control, and also including other substances for example, the biological agent virexial.
After a three-year investigation, the police had enough evidence to recommend the prosecution of eight cases against Porton Down scientists. But just days before Kelly's death in July 2003, the crown prosecutor dropped the case.
CARE: “The Operation Antler investigation wasn't referred to in the Hutton Report. And yet so you you basically have 30 detectives who are investigating the goings-on at Portion Down in terms of criminal behavior, you have Kelly's death, and the two are never put together. It seems very odd, it seems like something dropping behind the filing cabinet, but...”
Human experiments at Porton Down are part of the untold story of the international effort to add biological weapons to the arsenal of war.
JULIAN PERRY-ROBINSON, PROFESSOR, CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS: “Well you have a collaboration which started off between Britain and Canada in 1940. That expanded gradually to bring the Americans in, and that then became a division of labor. Research work for instance tended to happen in Britain,the idea of production would happen in the United States, field testing munitions would happen in Canada.”
This collaboration required America's military lab Fort Detrick to work closely with Porton Down.
Fort Detrick scientist Frank Olson was a liaison between the two facilities.
On November 28, 1953, Olson fell 13 stories from a New York City hotel room. Was his death part of a pattern of mysterious deaths of bioweapon scientists, including that of anthrax letter suspect Bruce Ivins, also of Fort Detrick?
Did all three scientists know too much?
If there is a common thread that ties together a series of untimely deaths of military microbiologists, it may begin with Fort Detrick scientist Frank Olson. His son Eric is convinced his father's plunge from a hotel window was neither accident, nor suicide.
ERIC OLSON: “He had knowledge about experiments on human subjects. He had knowledge about, you know, extreme interrogation methods leading to death of the subjects. If there was a scary point during the Cold War that was it.”
Frank Olson was an anthrax delivery systems expert working for the CIA's Special Operations, a covert division at Fort Detrick. His son says Frank Olson wanted out
OLSON: “What's striking to me is you were bound to get situations during the Cold War where certain scientists, certain policymakers, certain administrators, certain military people, knew what was going on and said, you know, we're not doing this. This is not what the United States should be doing. And the question is, what were you going to do with such people? You couldn't put them on trial, you couldn't put them on military trial because in many cases the stuff they were doing had such a level of secrecy attached to it that you couldn't even deny it. So when a guy like that says he's had enough and he's quitting... *sigh*”
It was not until 1975, 22 years after Olsen's death that the government said he had been given LSD and then jumped out of the window. His son never believed it. In 1994 Eric Olson had his father's body exhumed. One of America's leading forensic pathologists studied the X- rays and determined Frank Olson had suffered a blow to the forehead before falling to his death.
OLSON: “But you really have to start by seeing not what went on in that little bloody hotel room, but the broader historical picture.”
Frank Olson and Bruce Ivins. Both Fort Detrick scientists, both dead in controversial circumstances 50 years apart. David Kelly at Porton Down, another questionable death. All three scientists working with anthrax in state biological research programs, programs justified in large part by the fact that Russians had been weaponizing deadly germs.
Fear of a nightmare scenario in which smaller nations might also develop bioweapons had led the US to initiate the treaty outlawing offensive programs.
JONATHAN KING, PROFESSOR OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY: “The 1972 biological weapons convention, probably the strongest disarmament treaty in human history, because it outlawed not only the use of the weapons, it outlawed the stockpiling, it outlawed the development of them. And it was really an excellent treaty. And I know most of us thought, phew thank goodness, there is one threat to human health and welfare that that's been put back into the box.”
In fact, the Soviet program was never put back into the box. Ken Alibek oversaw a vast secret bioweapons program.
ALIBEK: “I got an order from the Soviet government to develop industrial processes for anthrax, industrial manufacturing, and a new type of biological weapon.”
In 1989, as the Cold War was ending, the top Soviet bioweapons scientist who worked with Alibek defected to the west. Vladimir Pasechnik was debriefed by David Kelly on behalf of British intelligence.
THOMAS: “That debriefing is extremely interesting because the very first time Britain and America became aware of what the Soviet Union had been doing about biological warfare.”
Deep inside Russia bordering Siberia, Yekaterinburg was once a key center of the Soviet Union's bioweapons program. The legacy of this illicit program hangs over the city today. In 1979, one single gram of anthrax escaped Compound 19 - a secret army germ warfare lab. The spores carried over the sleeping city by the wind infected thousands and killed at least 66 people. Dr. Lev Grinberg was the state pathologist at the time of the accident.
GRINBERG: “At first we thought that it was the plague, and not anthrax, because anthrax and the plague are very similar.”
RESIDENT: “The majority of the people in this building died. All of us that worked in the factory. Each day we expected to hear that someone else had died. Many died. How can I remember them now?”
In the local cemetery Coen searched for the unmarked section where the victims of the anthrax outbreak were buried in specially made lead-lined coffins.
The Soviets never admitted that the anthrax came from a military lab. However, Dr. Grinberg and his colleagues were able to determine the victims had been killed by pulmonary anthrax. The spores had been weaponized, so they were tiny enough to be inhaled. Just like the anthrax spores in the US attacks.
GRINBERG: “In a country that was called the USSR, ensuring this sort of secrecy wasn't that difficult.”
THOMAS: “David Kelly said,’ Look, why don't we set up a company for you? Where you can do work inside the microbiology department in Porton Down.’ If you can imagine the difficulty of a top secret government department, letting a former enemy into work in their midst . It shows the power of David Kelly”.
Pasechnik began working on an antidote for anthrax. Then days after the US letter attacks, the scientist died of an apparent stroke.
THOMAS: “I think there has been an urgent need for some time for us to look again at the death of Mr. Pasechnik, because what happened to him was perhaps a forerunner of what would happen to Kelly”.
Author Gordon Thomas joins the skeptics who refuse to accept that Pasechnik had died of natural causes.
Coen went back to private eye Dresch. Though ailing, he was able to expand the investigation into the bio weapons underworld.
“When you think about tying things back to David Kelly, certainly South Africa’s a major part.”
During the 1980s apartheid South Africa had started up a top secret germ warfare program called Project Coast. Headed by Wouter Basson, later dubbed Dr. Death by the media, one of its goals was to develop germ weapons for use against its black population.
Officially, the white regime was shunned by the world community. But in London, it emerged that British MP Norman Baker was on the same trail as Dresch. He had uncovered evidence of unofficial links between David Kelly and Project Coast.
BAKER: “There were connections between the British government and the apartheid regime in South Africa. And there's an open question as to how much the British government at the time, the Thatcher government knew about Project Coast. Whether they were receiving any information that was derived from Project Coast, and whether in fact they were even supporting it surreptitiously.
It was clear that there was some involvement going back some time between David Kelley and Wouter Basson”.
The British military lab Porton Down was clearly an important bioweapons crossroads in a world of shared secrets.
What was the South African connection? And was there any link with the US anthrax attacks?
The white supremacist era may be history in the new South Africa, yet its brutal legacy remains. At the height of apartheid, the fight for freedom turned the townships of South Africa into battlegrounds. The white regime began using germ warfare against select targets within the black population. Exactly what was David Kelly's connection to this dark chapter? Did a link exists to the US anthrax attacks? Perhaps Wouter Basson would know.
COEN: “Good afternoon. This is Bob Coen calling for Dr. Basson please.”
Receptionist: He’s talking with a patient .Can he call you back?
Basson, now a practicing cardiologist, was apparently unscathed by his past. He had not spoken publicly in five years.
"I now declare that the hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is now in session."
Project Coast came to light in 1996 at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was set up to allow victims of apartheid to testify. The commission granted amnesty to former security agents who admitted to their roles in acts of violence. Project Coast scientists testified they were developing everything from assassination tools to methods of sterilizing the black population. But Wouter Basson would admit to nothing.
CHANDRE GOULD, TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION INVESTIGATOR: “Through the research reports that became available to the investigators of the truth commission, were reports that were clearly focused on trying to find toxins that could be administered to individuals and then lead to death, but that would be undetectable postmortem. So really, it was about killing people and not being able to be found out. Designing assassination weapons, you know, classic spy stuff. umbrellas, poison tipped umbrellas that could shoot out polycarbonate balls that would then release a poison into somebody's bloodstream and be undetectable postmortem.”
In 1999, Basson was brought to trial for murder, fraud, and drug smuggling. Witnesses described the horrors committed by Project Coast. Investigators revealed how the program had used private front companies, offshore bank accounts, and worldwide intelligence connections. It had employed 200 scientists and supplied agents like anthrax and cholera to the South African military and police.
30 months after his trial began. The judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Basson was found not guilty of all charges. According to investigator Chandre Gould, Project Coast reached far beyond Basson and his fellow South Africans.
GOULD: “What came out in the trial was that he also seemed to be connected with a far more shady underground, international, chemical and biological weapons smuggling network.”
The US Naval Academy's Helen Purkitt has spent years investigating Project Coast.
PURKITT: “From the beginning, this idea of “can we find a way to control the size of the black population?” was considered one of the most important areas of research. It got even more important over time as the size of the black population and the seriousness of the uprisings increased. So that's one reason why they got into genetic modification. Research into ‘Is there a way to have contraceptives that could somehow basically sterilize blacks without them knowing it?’. And kind of all kinds of what at the time or in hindsight seemed like pretty far out research.”
Wouter Basson was used to being demonized. But given the chance would he confirm his claim that Project Coast had received support from the West?
COEN: "Good evening, Dr. Basson. This is Bob Coen. Hi, just following up. I hope you received my email…"
COEN: Did you know David Kelly? Did you have a relationship with him?
BASSON: I met Mr. Kelly, on three or four occasions from a purely, pure information exchange point point of view.
COEN: You ever meet him at Porton Down?
BASSON: “That I can't answer. But we did meet him on a few occasions.”
COEN: You were able to visit Portland Down, Fort Detrick?
BASSON: Yes, we did.
COEN: What did you talk about?
BASSON: “No, I wouldn't like to. I mean, no. The next question that I get asked is who arranged and why and what and where? And then, you know, I already have hassles with the UK and American governments. I don't need any more. Thank you. That's enough for me.”
Basson was confirming visits to the main bioweapons labs in the West. But how far had these interactions gone? And what about the pursuit of a vaccine to render women infertile during Basson’s trial? This vaccine was characterized by many as an ethnic weapon to be used against blacks.
BASSON: “What happened is we had the objective to synthesize a certain protein that was in sperm for contraceptive purposes. The objective was if you could immunize a woman against sperm, then you would make them infertile. We were asked to do this by another country, who had a population explosion problem, as part of the exchange of technology. They were giving us other stuff they asked about,’ we haven't got the time or the place to do it, so you guys do that…’
Basson and his team never perfected the vaccine. He denies it was ever intended as an ethnic weapon. After the fall of apartheid, the United States and Great Britain pressured South Africa to destroy Project Coast documents and bioweapons. Basson claims these legacy stocks were disposed of far out at sea.
BASSON: “I have no idea where it happened. I was sitting in the back of the airplane. The pilot should know where he went, I don't know. And at a specific time, we opened the doors, we dumped the stuff out and went back home .”
A classified report prepared for President Mandela by South Africa's military confirms Project Coast stockpiles had all been destroyed, but had they?. After the anthrax attacks, the FBI interviewed Basson.
BASSON: “The FBI wanted to know how we'd managed and controlled and kept the program and the equipment and the products closed down, and I was very clear with them and I said ‘look, there was never any official attempt to deploy or disperse any of this technology and or chemicals and or product through into the world. Definitely not into any unsavory hands. But as in any program, you have one or two guys who take out insurance policies that they call it and they hide things, hide the document, hide the product, and you can have the best control mechanism in the world but the guy steals one gram of an anthrax isolate and he walks out the door with it - you can’t strip search him every time he goes in and out and he's a senior scientist.”
Despite his failing health, private eye Dresch kept working his sources. He uncovered a scheme hatched only months after the US letter attacks that seemed to confirm Basson’s theory. Former Project Coast senior scientist Dan Goosen was offering to sell anthrax and other lethal organisms to Washington.
DRESCH: “Goosen still had control over the cache. No one else had found it, he had it well hidden and the South African government had backed off and wasn't doing anything. So it is still there to be retrieved.”
Goosen agreed to meet, but said it was too dangerous to explain why the deal with Washington fell through or to reveal what had become of the missing stocks of germs.
Coen was going deeper into an underground universe with dead scientists, ethnic weapons and missing anthrax. It all seemed to converge with the 2001 letter attacks.
Will the answers be found where we started with the US bio defense program?
The exploration into the United States anthrax attacks had gone from the United Kingdom to the edge of Siberia to the tip of Africa. The investigation had revealed the threat posed by state biological research. Now it was time to take a deeper look into the US bio defense program.
In the wake of the anthrax letters, an important lead seems to have been overlooked. The Baltimore Sun reported US Army scientists in Utah had been making weapons grade anthrax and shipping it to Fort Detrick. The anthrax spores were virtually identical to those mailed to Congress.
STEVE ERICKSON: “One of the amazing things about this is there's plenty of country out there to keep your secret in.”
For decades, the vast Dugway Proving Ground has been the main site of biological and chemical weapons testing. It lies hidden in the Great Salt Lake Desert. In one of the most remote parts of the American Southwest. Steve Erickson, a social justice activist has been monitoring Dugway for more than a decade.
ERICKSON: “If we were to embark upon an offensive program, again, like we did once, this is where it would begin. We were suspicious all along that the quality of anthrax, the Ames strain, pointed a finger towards our own defense establishment, and hence Dugway, where we know that they've aerosolized these materials and outside of perhaps Fort Detrick in Maryland, have the most expertise in working with anthrax. So we do believe that it was highly likely that the anthrax was milled here at Dugway, shipped back to Detrick, maybe some of it got diverted along the way and wound up in the envelopes.”
Dr. Alan Jeff Mohr is chief of the biological division at Dugway.
MOHR: “So these are biosafety level three labs. If you look up at those cameras on the left hand side there, there's a hallway that runs parallel to this one, and everything behind this reinforced concrete wall is biosafety level three, and as you know, restricted admittance to there and you have to be on a list that says you have authorization to go into that laboratory”
COEN: We’re not going in there?
MOHR: No, I don’t think you guys are on that list
“It just so happens, one micron is an ideal size for a particle to be breathed down in the alveoli of your lungs. So the Select agents, the biological warfare agents that we work with are one micron long, because physically it's the right size for people to breathe in. And the bottom line for biological warfare agent is how effectively is it breathed into your system? And is it infectious and pathogenic to your system?”
COEN: Apparently, the anthrax attacks..that was pretty sophisticated anthrax. It was pretty small.
MOHR: “It was milled down to one micron single spores, yes it was”
COEN: That was why it was so dangerous, right?
MOHR: “That's one of the reasons it was so dangerous. There's actually a bunch of us here that worked with the FBI on Amerithrax. So we know all of the ins and outs and we have to we have to be careful what we say about that because we signed statements saying that we wouldn't talk about exactly what that anthrax looked like. But this laboratory does make weaponized anthrax.
There were other labs in the US besides Dugway that had been weaponizing anthrax, but this hadn't been publicized.
JUDITH MILLER: “I'm always worried about what we don't know. In an area that is so inherently secret, and secretive, and work that is so politically sensitive, potentially diplomatically explosive.”
One week before 9/11, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Judith Miller and two New York Times colleagues broke a front page story revealing the US had been weaponizing anthrax as part of several secret programs. One such program, Project Jefferson, involved the CIA and Battelle, a private national security lab that sought to engineer a potent new anthrax weapon.
MILLER: “The Batelle lab was a contractor on Project Jefferson. And what they were trying to do was to once again, figure out whether or not the Soviets had combined two agents to make an anthrax that would resist our vaccine. And so for many years, they struggled to do this at this top secret laboratory on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio.”
Miller revealed that private contractors were capable of weaponizing anthrax, but her report had been overshadowed by 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. Seven years later, one target of the anthrax letters was demanding answers from the FBI.
PATRICK LEAHY, US SENATOR: “These weapons that were used against the American people and they’re weapons, they’re weapons, the weapons that were used against the American people and Congress. Are you aware of any facility in the United States that is capable of making the weapons that were used on Congress and the American people besides Dugway Proving Ground Utah, the Batelle facility in West Jefferson, Ohio?
ROBERT MULLER: “I do believe there are others”
LEAHY: “Because I know of none besides Dugway and Batelle. But when we have a break, double check that”
MULLER: “With regard to the two laboratories that you mentioned, and whether any other laboratories that were in that had the capability of weaponizing anthrax, I respectfully ask that we provide that in a closed session. Aspects of the response to that question may well be classified.”
The FBI Director wasn't ruling out that other labs might be weaponizing anthrax. In fact, since the letter attacks, hundreds of labs are now registered to work with anthrax as part of US biodefense programs.
JONATHAN KING, PROFESSOR OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY: “Response to the anthrax attacks and the bioterrorism initiative has been to launch a nationwide billion-dollar campaign to, quote ‘defend us from unknown terrorists’. But the character of this program is roughly as follows. You say well, what would the terrorists come up with? What's the nastiest, most dangerous, most difficult to diagnose, difficult to treat, microorganisms that we can think of? Well, let's go bring that organism into existence, so that we can figure out how to defend against that. The fact of the matter is, it's indistinguishable from an offensive program in which you would do the same thing.”
Francis Boyle, a leading opponent of bioweapons, is alarmed at what's happened in the wake of the anthrax attacks.
BOYLE: “It's like the Wild West out there, and the government's just dispensing money all up and down. This massive proliferation of the bio labs all over the country, unregulated research, development, testing. There's too much money at stake here for anyone to say no.”
This is the real legacy of the anthrax attacks. Since 2001, the US government has budgeted over $50 billion for bi defense, much of it for private companies.
Investigative journalist Edward J. Epstein finds this troubling.
EPSTEIN: “It clouds the chain of responsibility because private companies are owned by other private companies. And not only that, but it creates a mask for what could be government action because now governments can do things and hide behind private companies.”
The poster child for privatized biodefense was the Bioport Corporation. It was the sole supplier of a controversial anthrax vaccine. Since 1998, the vaccine has been mandatory for frontline US troops. But hundreds of enlisted men and women refused the vaccine. They claimed it was unsafe.
Despite lawsuits to stop the mandatory vaccination programs, more than a million military personnel have received these anthrax shots. In 2003, Private Kamila Iwanowska refused to take the anthrax vaccine and was court martialed.
IWANOWSKA: “I read a lot of side effects that some troops experienced from taking previously. I also got familiar with the Gulf War Syndrome at the time I read about I should call them victims I guess, people who got sick, violently sick from anthrax vaccine”
Dr. Meryl Nass testified as an expert defense witness. She's treated soldiers suffering side effects she attributes to the vaccine.
NASS: “Multiple sclerosis, lupus, illnesses that are equivalent to Gulf War Syndrome where people have memory loss, muscle and joint pain, and severe fatigue. A variety of gastrointestinal disorders. There really is quite a lot of data to show the vaccine is unsafe.”
Private Iwanowska was found guilty of disobeying orders and given a dishonorable discharge.
The vaccine Iwanowska refused to take had been developed by Fort Detrick army scientists, including according to the FBI, anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins.
Bioport Corporation is today called Emergent Biosolutions and it has received close to $1 billion government contracts. When asked to respond to concerns raised about the safety of its vaccine, the company issued the following statement. Quote, 'our vaccine is the only FDA approved vaccine to prevent the infection of anthrax has been studied more than just about any vaccine in the United States, and has been deemed safe and effective' end quotes.
In 2008, the US signed a law declaring a seven year anthrax emergency. Millions more doses of the anthrax vaccine were ordered for emergency response teams, and Fort Detrick underwent massive expansion.
BOYLE: “So if you add it together, it does appear that we're gearing up to fight biological and chemical warfare.”
Could the 2001 anthrax attacks really have laid the ground for the unthinkable?
Journalist Bob Coen was coming to a frightening realization. The anthrax attacks may be turning the biodefense programs intended to protect us into programs that could trigger a biological arms race.
That's what Francis Boyle fears. He's the author of the Biological Anti Terrorism Act. It prohibits US citizens from developing bioweapons for offensive use.
BOYLE: “If you have a look at the latest Department of Defense, Chemical and Biological Defense Program report to Congress, the Pentagon is now in a position in my opinion from reading through the latest report, that they could launch biowarfare by means of anthrax anywhere in the world today. They have all the equipment capability, the troops have been inoculated and everything's ready to go.”
Professor Boyle warns that such planning has global consequences.
BOYLE: “They are calling for a computer model to simulate a worldwide strike with 5000 biological weapons. It's in the document, it uses the term’ strike’. That's offensive.”
Indeed, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin has warned the West that new breakthroughs in bio, nano and information tech could lead to a new arms race.
PUTIN: “It’s now obvious that a fresh round of a new arms race has started.”
Some observers suspect the Russians themselves continue to develop bio weapons at sites like the military lab from which anthrax escaped in 1979.
Could the embers of the Cold War reignite and threaten the planet with a biological war?
One man in a position to know was Ken Alibek. He was the number two man in the Soviet biowarfare program before he defected to the West. Alibek went on to consult with the US government and assisted in the FBI’s anthrax investigation. He worries about the disappearing line between biodefense and biooffense.
ALIBEK: "The United States is spending a huge amount of money, billions and billions of dollars for so called biodefense they say. They create viruses like Spanish flu virus again. What would be the purpose for this? In some countries’ mind, it could look like you say, like a work to do to create some new biological weapons."
Today, Alibek runs a biotech company in Kiev in Ukraine. He is shadowed by a bodyguard. always mindful of the untimely deaths of fellow military scientists, Vladimir Pasechnik, and David Kelly.
ALIBEK: “If somebody wants to kill you, there is no problem for these people, if they're professionals to take care of it. Right.
Alibek is also worried about the larger threat.
ALIBEK: “I just hope that we’re not so crazy to start creating something which could wipe out the entire mankind.”
What began as an investigation into a crime that killed five people was leading to a far more frightening scenario. And what of the treaty intended to prevent such a catastrophe? In Geneva, at the annual meeting of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, international security expert Malcolm Dando sounded a warning,
DANDO: “Those engaged in the life sciences need to develop a culture of responsibility to ensure that these are used for the benefit of mankind.”
“We're in the middle of a really major scientific and technological revolution in the life sciences. And what confronts us is the possibility that that major revolution will be used both for hostile as well as for benign purposes? And the question we have to ask is, can we stop that happening? And the answer to that is, we don't know.”
The United States and Russia have resisted the introduction of verification and inspections measures. Without these measures, the treaty has no force. Paul Walker is a demilitarization advocate
WALKER: “ The Biological treaty today is ; ‘Trust me, I'm not doing anything. You know, trust me, my military biological research labs are just doing defensive research, not offensive research’. And that leads one to be really suspicious about what's going on.”
The investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks leads to a shadow world. The mystery surrounding the anthrax letters and the dead microbiologists may never be solved. What is certain is that the world of biological weapons is a world of dangerous secrets, secrets that put us all at peril.
BOYLE: “You must understand that the human race stands at a critical turning point in terms of bio warfare technology. We are at risk now, as I speak. We have to bring this research, development and testing and the technology itself under democratic control. We cannot rely upon the government to do this for us and we certainly cannot rely on the scientists. So it's going to be up to you and to me, to stop this, to reduce it, to bring it under control. If we do not, our children could suffer a biological catastrophe.”