4 Nations Thought To Possess Smallpox
Tuesday, November 5, 2002
A Bush administration intelligence review has concluded that four nations -- including Iraq and North Korea -- possess covert stocks of the smallpox pathogen, according to two officials who received classified briefings. Records and operations manuals captured this year in Afghanistan and elsewhere, they said, also disclosed that Osama bin Laden devoted money and personnel to pursue smallpox, among other biological weapons.
These assessments, though unrelated, have helped drive the U.S. government to the brink of a mass vaccination campaign that would be among the costliest steps, financially and politically, in a year-long effort to safeguard the U.S. homeland. Public health authorities in and out of government project that the vaccine itself, widely administered, could kill more Americans -- 300 is a common estimate, and some are higher -- than any terrorist attack save that of Sept. 11, 2001. It has been left to President Bush to resolve a deadlock among his advisers. Vice President Cheney is said by participants in the debate to be pressing for rapid, universal inoculation, while Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson prefers a voluntary program that would wait at least two years for an improved vaccine.
In public, the White House has described its smallpox concerns in only hypothetical terms, and until now the gravity of its assessment has not been known. Bush administration officials did not share their evidence with a panel of outside scientists established to advise them on smallpox. Some officials said the reticence results from unwillingness to compromise intelligence sources. Others cited fear of provoking public demands for action the government is not yet prepared to take.
Washington's anxiety about smallpox, and limited intelligence-sharing with friendly governments, have prompted urgent requests from allies in the Middle East -- including Jordan and Kuwait -- for assistance in obtaining vaccine before the outbreak of war with Iraq. The National Security Council's Deputies Committee, a panel of officials just below Cabinet rank, met last Tuesday to weigh the allies' requests.
Smallpox, which spreads by respiration and kills roughly one in three of those infected, took hundreds of millions of lives during a recorded history dating to Pharaonic Egypt. The last case was in 1978, and the disease was declared eradicated on May 8, 1980. All but two countries reported by Dec. 9, 1983, that they no longer possessed the virus, but the World Health Organization had no means to verify those reports. Seed cultures are now held officially in only two heavily guarded laboratories, one in Atlanta and the other in Koltsovo, Siberia. The United States renounced germ warfare in 1969 and has undertaken no known offensive program since.
An authoritative official said there is "no reason" to believe bin Laden succeeded in obtaining the smallpox pathogen. Bin Laden's efforts are significant chiefly because U.S. policymakers believe he would use it.
"Al Qaeda is interested in acquiring biological weapons, to include smallpox," according to a classified intelligence summary prepared for senior officials debating options on the scope of a preventive vaccination campaign. Officials who read the homeland security briefing said bin Laden's organization spent money on the effort, but gave higher priority to other biological and chemical agents. The "top five list" for al Qaeda, one official said, included anthrax, the nerve agent ricin, and botulinum toxin.
The U.S. government has known since the early 1990s about Soviet-era smallpox weapons, and collected circumstantial evidence of programs elsewhere. But substantial new reporting has circulated in recent months. "This is not an issue where once every two years we put out an intelligence estimate," one official said. "There's an ongoing requirement to assess the threat. I see reports on this every other week."
The CIA now assesses that four nations -- Iraq, North Korea, Russia and, to the surprise of some specialists, France -- have undeclared samples of the smallpox virus.
The agency's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC) described a sliding scale of confidence in those assessments in a briefing prepared last spring. The briefing circulated among senior homeland security, public health and national security officials. Though the quality of its information varied from "very high" to "medium," one official said the report covered only nations for which "we have good evidence."
WINPAC placed Russia in the top category, saying that contrary to diplomatic assurances, Russia retains covert stocks of the virus. The Soviet Union produced smallpox by the ton -- a laborious endeavor, since the standard method is to grow cultures in the lining of chicken eggs. Ken Alibek, who was second in command of "black biology" at Biopreparat before he defected in 1992, said in an interview that he supervised production of the virus in liquid form, suitable for delivery on intercontinental missiles. U.S. officials said they generally accept his account.
Iraq and France are assessed to have smallpox with high, but not very high, confidence.