Newsreal: Clinton, Saddam and the hot zone

A biological warfare expert examines allegations that Iraq possesses a new class of genetically engineered "bioweaponry" that could kill hundreds of thousands of people and terrorize American cities.

Published November 11, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

To hear Iraq tell it, the reason to keep American United Nations weapons inspectors out of the country is because no matter what Iraq does to comply with U.N. resolutions, and no matter how badly Iraqis continue to suffer, the U.S. will never allow sanctions to be lifted as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power. So why bother to continue cooperating? In fact, claim Iraqi officials, U.S. inspectors are less concerned with Iraq's compliance with the U.N. resolutions and more with identifying targets that U.S. warplanes could bomb.

American and U.N. weapons inspectors have a different view: Not only were American inspectors improperly barred by Iraq, but lights were turned out to prevent sites from being monitored, inspectors were prevented from replacing air samplers that monitor the production of components used to make chemical and biological weapons, and when the Iraqis finally turned the lights back on, suspected weapons-making equipment had vanished.

If these charges are true, what is the regime of Saddam Hussein hiding? "Hot Zone" author Richard Preston, in last Friday's New York Times, wrote that the U.S. and U.N. have evidence that Iraq, courtesy of a new international black market, possesses genetically engineered strains of anthrax, bubonic plague, the Ebola virus, the botulinum toxin and smallpox. Painting a scenario in which Iraqi terrorists use such "bioweaponry" against a defenseless American city, Preston writes of "terror in slow motion, an unrolling horror with a death toll equivalent to dozens of Oklahoma City bombings occurring day after day."

Is this threat real? Or did U.S. intelligence co-opt Preston, who has just written a novel called "The Cobra Event," to create a scare that will solidify support for military action against Iraq? Salon spoke with Jonathan B. Tucker, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a private graduate school in Monterey, Calif.

Do we know for sure that Iraq has these genetically engineered toxins the Preston describes?

No. I read Preston's article, and it knocked my socks off. But he doesn't say who his sources are; I'd love to know who they are. Iraq does have a genetic engineering center in Baghdad, but as far as I know, it has a very limited capability.

Do we know what biological weapons Iraq does have?

U.N. inspectors have determined that the Iraqis manufactured three biological agents before the Gulf War: anthrax, botulinim toxin and aflatoxin, which is produced by a fungus.

Where did Iraq get them from?

They got the biological seed cultures from the United States and France before the Gulf War. One company involved in providing these materials to Iraq was American Type Culture Collection in Rockville, Md. They are a major supplier to research laboratories for disease-causing agents around the world. They have since tightened up their controls on sales of these materials. As for the original sale, they said at the time the Commerce Department issued them a license to ship these materials to Iraq.

Preston is alleging that rogue Russian scientists who had been involved in the Russian biological weapons program provided these genetically engineered strains to Iraq. Is that possible?

Yes, it's within the realm of possibility, but again, I'd love to know his sources. I don't know on what he's basing his allegations because his sources are not very specific. These are very sensational allegations, and it's irresponsible for him to make them unless he has really solid evidence for them.

How are genetically engineered biological weapons produced?

They involve cutting or splicing DNA molecules to move toxin genes from one type of microorganism to another. Or you could take, say, even a cobra toxin, which is produced by a snake, and splice it into a bacterium so that the bacterium starts producing that toxin. One also can use genetic engineering to transfer antibiotic resistance to microorganisms. So one could make a resistant strain of plague or anthrax that normally could no longer be treated with available medications. And you could clone these strains. You take a gene for a toxin and transfer it into a bacterium such as E-coli, which is widely used in genetic engineering, and then clone the gene. That would be one way of generating large quantities of otherwise hard-to-produce toxins.

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie.

This can be done today with conventional selection techniques. This is not science fiction.

But could its actual existence also be a kind of "X-Files" "bogus revelation" -- a scare planted by U.S. intelligence?

I don't know. It's a possibility. Richard Preston has written extensively on these issues. It's conceivable that he has sources within the intelligence community. But it could also be speculation that Preston has presented as fact. I'm skeptical until he provides evidence that his sources are credible.

Have U.N. inspectors suggested that Iraq possesses such genetically engineered weapons?

Not that I'm aware of. Nothing has appeared in any public report for the U.N. weapons inspection commission. But we do know that Iraq was engaged in extensive research and development on a wide range of agents, including fungal toxins and viral agents, both lethal and incapacitating. They did extensive experiments with animals. They put a number of these agents into weapons and tested them. So we know that Iraq had a very sophisticated biological weapons program.

How do we know that?

From U.N. investigations and from declarations that Iraq itself has made to the U.N. They initially denied that they had any such program, and over the years they've admitted more and more. First they maintained they had a strictly defensive program, then they said they only had a small research program for offensive weapons. Then they admitted that they had larger quantities, and then they admitted that they had weaponized these agents. So Iraq has proven itself to be totally untrustworthy.

Apart from what Iraq has admitted to, what else do we know, and how do we know it?

One big breakthrough occurred in 1995, when Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected to Jordan and spilled the beans on a lot of these programs. U.N. inspectors also have discovered another huge discrepancy in the amount of growth medium for bacteria that Iraq had imported -- about 40 metric tons. Iraq claims it was used in medical clinics for diagnostic purposes, but that would only account for only 200 kilograms. We're talking about 40 tons. There are strong indications that they still have a stockpile of dried anthrax hidden somewhere in the desert.

What do you make of Preston's allegations about a black market in genetically engineered weapons?

It's shocking. It's particularly shocking, if true, that smallpox is part of this international black market.


Because smallpox is supposed to have been eradicated, except for small quantities that are stored under very high security at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and in a comparable facility in Moscow. A couple of years ago, there was a debate about whether to destroy these last samples and eradicate the virus from the earth once and for all. There was a great reluctance in the U.S. government to destroy them because of fear that elements of the Russian military might want to develop smallpox as a biological weapon. The U.S. wanted to hedge its bets until it had a better idea of what's really going on in the Russian biological weapons program.

And now it looks like we know.

Yes, if true. But I'm not entirely persuaded that it is true. Smallpox is an extremely virulent and deadly virus. But it's not a particularly good biological weapon because it's uncontrollable and so contagious; it would spread through a population like wildfire. Most biological weapons are not contagious like that. So it could only be used as a genocidal weapon.

The same goes for Ebola. It could be used as a terror weapon, but I can't see its military utility. We know the Aum Shin Rikyo (the Japanese cult that used sarin nerve gas on unsuspecting subway riders in Tokyo) was also interested in Ebola. We know they went down to Zaire, probably to get a sample of the Ebola virus to develop into a biological weapon. In that case, they just wanted to kill a lot of people and wreak havoc. It would be a good weapon for that purpose. But it doesn't have any military utility. You could use it strategically to threaten a city, sort of a slow-motion Hiroshima, but it wouldn't be effective on a battlefield against troops.

Wasn't Saddam's biological weapons capability supposed to have been pretty much eliminated when the biological weapons facility at Al Hakem was destroyed?

No, it's not true. I was at Al Hakem before it was destroyed, and it was a pretty impressive facility. It was clearly designed as a dedicated biological weapons production facility. But Iraq has dozens of vaccine and pharmaceutical plants around the country that could be used to make biological weapons. This is all dual-use equipment, and the Iraqis have legitimate uses for it. With anthrax endemic in Iraq, they do have a need to make an anthrax vaccine. And to make the anthrax vaccine, you have to make anthrax. But the facilities could easily be diverted to make illicit agents.

So at least we know about them.

There have been surveillance cameras placed at such facilities, but now the Iraqis are tampering with them. If you lose surveillance over these facilities for even a few hours, the Iraqis could start producing agents. So there are enormous problems with verification and compliance.

How could U.N. inspectors determine if the Iraqis are engaged in the production of these genetically engineered bioweapons?

You have to take samples to determine the genetic structure of a particular microorganism using techniques like genetic analysis and gene probes. Preston mentions that inspectors took such samples, but until his article, the discovery of such genetically engineered biological agents in Iraq has never been in the public domain. Garth Nicholson, at the University of California-Irvine Medical Center, claims that Gulf War illness is the result of a genetically engineered Iraqi microorganism, but I don't find his evidence particularly compelling.

Let's say it's all true. If the U.S. were to bomb Iraqi sites suspected of producing such bioweapons, isn't there a danger of germ-laden fallout from such an attack?

There is an enormous danger unless they use weapons that incinerate the agent. I'm talking about fuel-air explosives or some other incendiary that would burn up the agent. They couldn't use regular bombs: The biological agents, once released into the air, could kill or infect hundreds of thousands of people. It could drift over to Iran, or south into Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, even to our ships in the gulf. I think the Kamasiya incident during the war, in which Army engineers blew up an Iraqi depot containing nerve gas bombs and exposed 100,000 troops, has taught the Pentagon the dangers of collateral damage from blowing things up with conventional explosives.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Iraq Middle East United Nations