- A secret Federal intelligence assessment
completed late last year concludes that Iraq, North Korea and Russia are
probably concealing the deadly smallpox virus for military use, Government
- The assessment, the officials say, is
based on evidence that includes disclosures by a senior Soviet defector,
blood samples from North Korean soldiers that show smallpox vaccinations
and the fairly recent manufacture of smallpox vaccine by Iraq.
- The officials say the warning was an
important factor in President Clinton's recent decision to reverse course
and forgo destruction of American stocks of the virus.
- Besides the United States, only Russia
retains openly declared stocks of the virus now, nearly 20 years after
the disease was declared to be eradicated. The intelligence assessment
concludes that Russia is most likely hiding additional stocks of the virus
at military sites.
- Although the United States has about
56,000 troops stationed near Iraq and North Korea and is periodically bombing
Iraq, the officials say there appears to be no imminent military threat
involving the virus.
- The steps to turn a microbe into a biological
weapon are many, they say, and the Government sees no signs of smallpox
arms or planned attacks by the suspect countries.
- The virus that causes smallpox is known
as variola. One of history's great killers, it ravaged the globe, killing
millions and crippling many survivors. Victims had high fever, nausea and
a pronounced rash that left many survivors with permanently pocked skin.
The disease was highly contagious and quick to attack anyone without immunity.
- The United States unilaterally renounced
germ warfare in 1969 and lobbied for a 1972 international treaty banning
such arms that more than 100 nations, including the Soviet Union, signed.
- Iraq and North Korea have repeatedly
denied that they have ongoing programs to develop germ weapons. Both signed
the 1972 treaty. And Mikhail A. Shurgalin, a spokesman at the Russian Embassy
in Washington, denied that Russia maintained secret military stocks of
smallpox. "We always observe our international commitments,"
he said, "including those relating to bacteriological weapons."
- The American warning was based on an
analysis of years of accumulated data, say the officials, and was prompted
by a White House review of whether American stocks of the smallpox virus
should be destroyed by the end of this month, as a panel of the World Health
Organization recommended in 1996. The United States had previously sided
with many other nations in urging that destruction.
- The new assessment, officials said, helped
persuade a team of Presidential advisers to urge Clinton unanimously to
delay the virus's destruction, a reversal the White House announced on
- A senior Defense Department official
familiar with the assessment said destroying the virus at the two official
repositories, in Russia and the United States, and declaring it abolished
globally would be "perpetrating a fraud."
- Another deciding factor in Clinton's
decision, officials said, was a report by the National Academy of Sciences
concluding that keeping the virus would speed the development of new anti-viral
- In recent years, American experts have
clashed bitterly over whether the virus exists outside the two official
repositories, with intelligence experts tending to argue that it does.
Covert stocks would undermine the global plan to exterminate the microbe,
and the very existence of hidden stockpiles would be a signal that the
countries holding them are interested in the development of germ weapons
for war or terrorism.
- New Vaccine Program May Be Accelerated
- The American military stopped routinely
vaccinating troops against smallpox in the late 1980's and would be hard-pressed
to resume. The nation's civilian store of smallpox vaccine has quality-control
problems, experts say, and the process that was used to manufacture it
would not meet modern standards.
- The Pentagon has a program under way
to develop a new vaccine, but its testing and development are usually projected
to take until 2005 at the earliest. The Defense Department official said
the new intelligence assessment and the President's reversal could end
up accelerating the Pentagon's program.
- Clinton's decision has been seen as likely
to give the declared stocks of the virus a new lease on life. Officially,
however, possible destruction has simply been put off while the world health
authorities research and debate the new arguments for keeping the stocks.
They have given themselves until June 2002 to do so. Russia has long opposed
the virus's destruction.
- Outside of the lab, variola thrives only
in the human body. After the world health authorities declared humans free
of smallpox in 1980, plans were made to destroy laboratory stocks. The
cause of the ancient pestilence was to be the world's first species made
extinct by design rather than accident.
- Today, declared stocks exist only in
guarded freezers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta
and the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (known
as Vector) near Novosibirsk, in Siberia.
- The officials who discussed the new intelligence
warning refused to divulge it in its entirety. But in a series of interviews,
they disclosed some details and pointed out supporting evidence scattered
among declassified intelligence reports.
- Considerable weight, they said, was given
to the disclosures by a Soviet defector, Ken Alibek. Alibek came to the
United States in 1992, after serving as a top official in the Soviet Union's
illicit germ warfare program, now known to have been the world's largest
and most advanced. The Russian President, Boris N. Yeltsin, ordered it
to end in 1992.
- In secret debriefings, Alibek said that
Russia had grown vast quantities of the smallpox virus for war and that
as Russian scientists sought new ways to support themselves when the Soviet
system collapsed, samples of the virus might have been sold or hidden.
- A May 1994 report by the Defense Intelligence
Agency, citing an unidentified source whose credibility has been questioned
by some experts, echoed Alibek's worry. It said some of the Russian smallpox
had been sent to Iraq and North Korea, naming no other nations. The transfers,
it said, apparently occurred in the late 1980's and early 1990's.
- "There is concern that the virus
was transferred," a top intelligence expert said in an interview.
- Provocative Details From an Iraqi Soldier
- raq is well known to have worked hard
at using germs in unconventional arms, which could most easily be spread
by some form of spraying. But the United Nations, which investigated Iraq
after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, never listed smallpox as a focus of
Iraq's biological weapons programs.
- An Iraqi soldier told the allied authorities
during the gulf war that he had been immunized against smallpox as a warfare
safeguard around 1985 or 1986 during the Iraq-Iran conflict, which ended
- The soldier, a Defense Intelligence Agency
report said, told of having seen "smallpox casualties" and "acne-type
skin inflammations, eating into body tissue." Just who suffered the
casualties was unclear, as was whether the soldier could diagnose smallpox
- The officials who discussed the warning
said the soldier's claims were supported by widespread evidence of immunizations
in blood taken from Iraqi prisoners during the gulf war, although some
experts said such immunity could come from routine vaccinations years earlier.
- Evidence for the warning also came from
the United Nations, which shared its findings about Baghdad's weapons programs
with Washington. In interviews, United Nations arms inspectors said they
discovered that the Iraqis were making the smallpox vaccine as late as
1989, a decade after the disease had been eradicated and long after the
United States had stopped doing so.
- Another discovery prompted even stronger
suspicions that Iraq was working on smallpox weapons, experts said. In
the mid-1990's, inspectors found a special apparatus, a freeze-drier, labeled
"smallpox" at the maintenance shop of the State Establishment
for Medical Appliances Marketing, an arm of the Ministry of Health, which
was involved in germ warfare.
- Freeze-driers, experts said, have applications
in both vaccine production and preparing germs for dissemination in war.
- Finally, suspicions about Iraq increased
further when a senior Iraqi virologist involved in making germ weapons,
Hazem Ali, told arms inspectors that Iraq was working on camel pox, which
causes fever and skin rash in camels but which rarely infects humans. An
inspector said Baghdad's germ scientists were suspected of using the disease
as a less deadly surrogate for smallpox to perform research and refine
- A Central Intelligence Agency report
echoed that, saying in May 1996 that camel pox "could possibly serve
as a research model for smallpox."
- In contrast to Iraq, North Korea has
long been publicly accused of keeping secret stocks of smallpox.
- Russia made the charge forcibly in the
early 1990's when its Foreign Intelligence Service, the successor to the
Soviet Union's K.G.B., wrote a report on the spread of weapons of mass
destruction. Among other things, the report said North Korea, a former
ally, was working on smallpox weapons.
- The Senate Committee on Government Affairs,
headed by John Glenn, then a Republican Senator from Ohio, obtained a copy
of the Russian report, had it translated and made it public in February
1993. At an open hearing, a Central Intelligence Agency expert said he
believed that the report was "not a bad summary," but he declined
to address specifics.
- Hints of Data From North Korea
- Adding new clues about North Korea, Federal
officials said in interviews that they had inferred from the meetings with
intelligence officials that key parts of the warning were bolstered by
disclosures from a North Korean defector.
- They also said that recent blood samples
from North Korean soldiers showed evidence of immunizations, and that other
information indicates some vaccinations were fresh.
- "The vaccinations are as close to
a smoking gun as you can come," the Defense Department official said.
- Senior intelligence analysts presented
their warning to the Presidential advisory team early this year in oral
and written form, the Defense Department official said, helping persuade
them, in combination with the Academy report, that it was prudent for the
United States to forgo smallpox destruction.
- But other officials said some members
of the advisory team debating the virus destruction had doubts about some
of the data, especially blood evidence about vaccinations.
- The strongest suspicions of secret smallpox
work described in the intelligence warning, they said, surround Russia's
military labs, which, unlike Vector, remain closed to outsiders. But the
officials would not give further details.
- That finding is politically sensitive
because the Clinton Administration is helping former Russian germ warriors
find civilian work, despite Republican assertions that such aid can foster
secret military strides. Backers of the Clinton approach say it provides
the best window into all Russian germ work, both civilian and military.