Pentagon began project to replicate deadly anthrax strain before 9/11
Ivins did not have the ways and means to weaponize his anthrax. But West Jefferson, Ohio, laboratory of the Battelle Memorial Institute, a military contractor that has been selected to create the genetically altered anthrax did.
SEP 04, 2001
U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
This article was reported and written by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William J. Broad.
Over the past several years, the United States has embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that, some officials say, tests the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons.
The 1972 treaty forbids nations from developing or acquiring weapons that spread disease, but it allows work on vaccines and other protective measures. Government officials said the secret research, which mimicked the major steps a state or terrorist would take to create a biological arsenal, was aimed at better understanding the threat.
The projects, which have not been previously disclosed, were begun under President Clinton and have been embraced by the Bush administration, which intends to expand them.
Earlier this year, administration officials said, the Pentagon drew up plans to engineer genetically a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax, a deadly disease ideal for germ warfare.
The experiment has been devised to assess whether the vaccine now being given to millions of American soldiers is effective against such a superbug, which was first created by Russian scientists. A Bush administration official said the National Security Council is expected to give the final go-ahead later this month.
Administration officials said the need to keep such projects secret was a significant reason behind President Bush's recent rejection of a draft agreement to strengthen the germ-weapons treaty, which has been signed by 143 nations.
The draft would require those countries to disclose where they are conducting defensive research involving gene-splicing or germs likely to be used in weapons. The sites would then be subject to international inspections.
Many national security officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations opposed the draft, arguing that it would give potential adversaries a road map to what the United States considers its most serious vulnerabilities.
Among the facilities likely to be open to inspection under the draft agreement would be the West Jefferson, Ohio, laboratory of the Battelle Memorial Institute, a military contractor that has been selected to create the genetically altered anthrax.
Several officials who served in senior posts in the Clinton administration acknowledged that the secretive efforts were so poorly coordinated that even the White House was unaware of their full scope.
The Pentagon's project to build a germ factory was not reported to the White House, they said. President Clinton, who developed an intense interest in germ weapons, was never briefed on the programs under way or contemplated, the officials said.
Designing a Delivery System
In the mid-1990's, the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies stepped up their search for information about other nations' biological research programs, focusing on the former Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq and Libya, among others. Much of the initial emphasis was on the germs that enemies might use in an attack, officials said.
But in 1997, the agency embarked on Clear Vision, which focused on weapons systems that would deliver the germs.
Intelligence officials said the project was led by Gene Johnson, a senior C.I.A. scientist who had long worked with some of the world's deadliest viruses. Dr. Johnson was eager to understand the damage that Soviet miniature bombs — bomblets, in military parlance — might inflict.
Breeding More Potent Anthrax
In the 1990's, government officials also grew increasingly worried about the possibility that scientists could use the widely available techniques of gene-splicing to create even more deadly weapons.
Those concerns deepened in 1995, when Russian scientists disclosed at a scientific conference in Britain that they had implanted genes from Bacillus cereus, an organism that causes food poisoning, into the anthrax microbe.
The scientists said later that the experiments were peaceful; the two microbes can be found side-by-side in nature and, the Russians said, they wanted to see what happened if they cross-bred.
A published account of the experiment, which appeared in a scientific journal in late 1997, alarmed the Pentagon, which had just decided to require that American soldiers be vaccinated against anthrax. According to the article, the new strain was resistant to Russia's anthrax vaccine, at least in hamsters.
American officials tried to obtain a sample from Russia through a scientific exchange program to see whether the Russians had really created such a hybrid. The Americans also wanted to test whether the microbe could defeat the American vaccine, which is different from that used by Russia.
Despite repeated promises, the bacteria were never provided.
Eventually the C.I.A. drew up plans to replicate the strain, but intelligence officials said the agency hesitated because there was no specific report that an adversary was attempting to turn the superbug into a weapon.
This year, officials said, the project was taken over by the Pentagon's intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency. Pentagon lawyers reviewed the proposal and said it complied with the treaty. Officials said the research would be part of Project Jefferson, yet another government effort to track the dangers posed by germ weapons.
A spokesman for Defense Intelligence, Lt. Cmdr. James Brooks, declined comment. Asked about the precautions at Battelle, which is to create the enhanced anthrax, Commander Brooks said security was "entirely suitable for all work already conducted and planned for Project Jefferson."