War In Iraq: Weapons of Mass Destruction
For years, UN weapons inspectors and, more recently, Sec. of State Colin Powell, have alleged that Iraq possesses or has the means to create chemical weapons. Since the opening of the war in Iraq over a week ago, coalition forces have found several caches of chemical weapons protection suits and Saddam Hussein's regime has reportedly made plans to use chemical weapons if U.S.-led forces attempt to enter Baghdad.
Ken Alibek, distinguished professor of medical microbiology and immunology at George Mason University, was online Monday, March 31 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss weapons of mass destruction.
Alibek is executive director of the George Mason University's Center for Biodefense. He also authored "Biohazard," the story of Russia's darkest, deadliest and most closely guarded Cold War secret, was the mastermind behind the former Soviet Union's offensive biological weapons program for two decades.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: Recently you had raised the issue of SARS being linked to bioterrorism. It seems that if so, it would be something akin to an accidental release by a bioweapons facility, possibly in Guangding Province. Do you have any information on possible bioweapons programs in mainland China in general, and Guangdong Province in particular?
Ken Alibek: It's a very strange epidemic and we haven't seen anything like this before, especially caused by this type of virus. What is more strange is that China is not forthcoming and don't let people investigate the epidemic and don't provide trustful information about the epidemic there.
Syracuse, N.Y.: Dr. Alibek,
With respect to the anthrax mailings, do you agree that the electrostatic charge was not removed? And that small scale production is indicated? And with respect to your letter to the editor to The Washington Post (with Dr. Meselson), could you explain your view for the reason silica was detected in the anthrax? How do you explain the floatability? Under all the circumstances, do you believe the science points away from (or toward) a state sponsored program? Relatedly, do you feel al Qaeda is responsible (with or without help from a state-employed scientist)? Finally, do you feel you have a sufficient basis to form an expert opinion on these particular issues (based on what you have been able to see)?
Ken Alibek: We need to understand that there is no specific technological procedure to remove electric charges. All discussions about to remove or not remove are absolutely senseless. Yes, electric charges could decrease it, but there's not specific.
Wheaton, Md.: Is it right to assume that Saddam Hussein would have WMD and be using them on U.S. troops had it not been for our allies in Israel taking action in 1981?
Ken Alibek: There is no doubt in my mind that Hussein has WMD, but whether or not he'd use these is unknown. He's enjoying a widespread support from many countries now. If he used biological weapons, this support would evaporate immediately. He could do three things: Not use them under any circumstances. Second, use these as a last resort when he sees his life is in severe danger and, third, he would give these weapons (or already has) to terrorist groups and we would see attacks even after the war ends. Of course we'll find proof of his weapons programs, but it's going to take time.
Linwood, Pa.: A recent BBC documentary has proven that many Islamic countries are trying to obtain Zyklon B, the chemical that the Germans used in the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Has your recent research proven this as well?
Ken Alibek: For a long time, we have had a lot of information about a big interest in many Islamic countries to acquire chem and bio weapons and build capabilities. I've told several times that we shouldn't be so naive to believe that these are something you need in these countries. There is no doubt in my mind they have them.
Mechanicsburg, Pa.: An article by James Hosworthy in today's Wall Street Journal has reported that Saudi Arabia is stockpiling chemical weapons. Do you believe that we should seek to uncover and destroy these weapons after we finish the campaign in Iraq? It appears that Saudi Arabia is joining the "axis of evil."
Ken Alibek: It's a continuation of the previous question. There is nothing surprising in this report. There's an overall distinction that Middle Eastern countries are interested in these weapons. My personal opinion, I never believed that these people would be our friend.
Shiremanstown, Pa.: Professor Alibek, thank you for being with us today. It is so nice to have an authority in this area answer questions. After WWII some German scientists fled to Egypt where they helped develop chemical weapons for use against Israel. Why does the Arab world always seem to make alliances with the world's most brutal regimes?
Ken Alibek: Again, it's interesting, but a continuation. There's no question about this. Some believe Egypt is neutral. We have much information about Egyptian WMD capabilities.
Ken Alibek: It's hard to say on the second part.
Piscataway, .:. What is your opinion on the new flu that is hitting Asia -- SARS? Do you believe it could be some sort of biological attack? Thanks.
Ken Alibek: The WHO and UN must press China to open information about this epidemic. It's not something that would be considered a Chinese internal problem. We're facing a global epidemic with a huge number of casualties. We could face something like the Spanish flu if we don't do something now.
Piscataway, N.J.: How do they feel about you back in Russia? Have you gone back to Kazakstan? Does the Russian military feel that you betrayed them?
Ken Alibek: My country's the United States. All my five children are here. All of us are American citizens and I don't care how the Russian military feels that I betrayed them. I'm sure the Russian military betrayed their own country and the rest of the world for developing these weapons. They haven't come clean yet and the worst case is through the history of Russia -- they've forced physicians to develop these. It's these biggest betrayal that ever happened.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Is the current Russian government more open towards opening all files concerning Soviet research on biohazards? Has there been a full accounting of where all the biohazards current are, and, if some are missing, do our intelligence agencies have strong ideas where they are located?
Ken Alibek: Russia has never come clean. Russia accuses the U.S. in development and its absurdly untrue. It seems to me that Russia still tries to justify they're bioweapons research by saying the U.S. is. But Russia has been doing it for decades.
Lafayette, Calif.: I don't get it. It hasn't been proved to me that WMD have ANYTHING to do with THIS war.
So I read the piece on the alleged "yellow cake" sold by Niger to Iraq -- a set-up of some kind. And then there's Scott Ritter.
So, can you cut and paste a case to me (or not) which clearly delineates the connection?
Ken Alibek: Again, what I would say in this case -- we shouldn't believe that WMD like chem and bioweapons would require big storage facilities. They can be stored or hidden using some small places, far away in the country. Iraq is a huge country, the size of France. Saddam trying to repay big support for many countries and may try to destroy some of the chemical and biological weapons. At the same time, if some people know about this. There is high suspicion that in N. Iraq some sites have already been discovered.
Ken Alibek: With regard to Scott Ritter, I do not understand this guy. He knew Iraq had these weapons, and then when he recently visited, he made a conclusion that Iraq was clear of them. I have no idea how without doing an inspection, he was able to make such a final conclusion.
Hyde Park, Chicago, Ill.: Dear Dr Alibek,
Ken Alibek: We actually addressed this already and in my opinion, repeating this again. Saddam Hussein wants continued support from many countries. Of course he wouldn't use them -- up to a certain point -- it could be his last resort with the weapons. Second, even when he disappears from this country, these weapons will be in the hands of some terrorist groups after obtaining them from Iraq.
Falls Church, Va.: Thank you for joining us today Mr.Alibek.I respect your knowledge and opinions on this subject. What is your view about the site discovered by coalition forces that seems to contain and array of materials for military use of nerve agents as well as equipment and antidote for Iraqi military to use to protect themselves from this type of material? Do you think we are clever enough to discover any WMD the Iraqis may have hidden? It seems to me they have had ample opportunity to secret the materials away. Thank you.
Ken Alibek: Some people say that these finds do not prove anything because these are defensive materials. But I would answer a little differently. Hussein and his regime knew for sure that the U.S. would never use WMD against them. In this case -- why do they want these stockpiles of protective gear. If there was no threat, then why? It raises a completely different question. When you yourself use chemical weapons you need to protect your own forces.
Baltimore, Md.: The people who were infected with anthrax still complain of being sick. Do you think that their problems are still from the anthrax or from other causes?
Ken Alibek: Of course these people have no anthrax now, but we need to keep in mind -- if they feel sick, it could be some residual symptoms after having this disease, or treatment using Cipro. We shouldn't forget that any infection, they don't go away in terms of not having any residual symptoms. People could still have neurological symptoms, some signs of pain from many organs and systems in the body.
Baltimore, Md.: Gulf War Syndrome is thought to be due to exposure to Sarin, soman or other nerve gas agents. Do you expect to get more information about Gulf War Syndrome from Iraqi scientists after the war?
Ken Alibek: Nobody has ever proven that Gulf War Syndrome is a result of exposure to these gasses. It's one of the assumptions. It is my opinion that it is a collective term for a variety of different diseases and disorders that have different triggers. Years of residual toxification, stress conditions. In my opinion, it is not a specific disorder due to one single reason. It's a number of disorders resulting from different factors.
Alexandria, Va.: Are nerve agents like Sarin a bioweapon? Are any chemical weapons as dangerous as bioweapons?
Ken Alibek: No, the nerve agents are chemical weapons. Chemical weapons and bioweapons have different mechanisms of action. Chemical work instantly, bioweapons have incubation periods. Both have advantages and disadvantages. They're both very awful.
Alexandria, Va.: Whatever happened to Saddam's famous "baby milk factory?"
Is it known that the "baby milk factory" which featured a hastily scrawled cardboard English sign to that effect was in fact a bio-weapons factory.
Ken Alibek: It's pretty obvious. Saddam had many undercover facilities and he claimed that some of them were milk factories and some to produce single-cell proteins. It's a usual way to cover up facilities. In this case, as soon as we start doing thorough searches in Iraq we'd find those same examples.
Reston, Va.: How does the WHO determine whether or not SARS is a biological weapon? If in fact this is a "super-heated" virus that was used as a biological weapon, would the WHO announce that information to the public?
Ken Alibek: WHO would be able to determine whether or not this is a bioweapon if China permits knowledgeable experts to come to China for a thorough examination. It's a very strange epidemic.
Dallas, Tex.: A published analysis of the anthrax mailed to government and media in Oct. 2001 shows unambiguously that silicon dioxide was present on the surface of the spores. The work was performed by the AFIP and the results can be seen here.
Ken Alibek: We paid to much attention to the silicon oxide on the surface of the spores. I haven't seen any silicon presence on micrographs of this anthrax. We shouldn't forget that silica would be a natural component. In this case, in my opinion, silica was a natural presence in these spores. There was no special need to add silica to this anthrax.
Ken Alibek: Presence or absence of silica says nothing about whether it was state sponsored. It's very hard from technical characteristics to make conclusions about possible source. That's why in my opinion, we should focus on two major directions. We have to do technical examination -- equipment, source of the spores. And regular interrogation. Interview people who could be sources of valuable information. One more thing, we need to investigate how -- we know when these letters have been sent and locations and we need to check and see what people would be at that location at a certain time. It should be more technical issues, though.
Somewhere, USA: Would silica be detected (in a comparable manner as in the product used in the anthrax mailings in the U.S.) if the instructions for bacillus thuringiensis were followed, such as described in the UN's description by the Food and Agriculture Organization below? Is bacteriologist Abdul Qadoos Khan, in whose home Khalid Mohammed was reportedly arrested, expert in the production of B.T. from his work for the UN in Sudan and Zambia? What was the field of expertise of that bacteriologist?
Ken Alibek: Again, I said before that silica could be naturally present in spores. In this case, we shouldn't over focus on silica. There are many other parameters and issues we need to pay attention to.
Syracuse, N.Y.: In the Air Force Journal, May 2002, DOD's Defense Threat Reduction Agency Younger said that essentially the same process to make powderized anthrax is used to make dried milk. Could someone expert in making dried milk make the product used in the Daschle and Leahy letters?
Ken Alibek: Let me answer it this way -- yes, actually, it would be the same technique to make a powderized anthrax, but at the same time we shouldn't overestimate the complexity of making it. My opinion is this -- in order to make this powder there is no need to have sophisticated equipment. Such a small amount, keep in mind that the people who did it could have very simple equipment and very simple procedures. There is no need for industrial equipment. It would be enough to have small equipment. But at the same time, when people talk about it being "weaponized" -- I can't say it was that sophisticated. I saw the particles -- they were the size of 40 microns. We can't say anything about the quality of this powder because we saw it after it had gone through mail sorting machines which create very powerful pressure. There was no coating. What I saw on micrograph was no coating. It was natural spores and for some people they mistakenly thought it wasn't. Some experts said there was more charge because it was fluffy and made a cloud when put on scale. This is another mistake. It did have charge. IT went through the sorting machine and it's a matter of friction. In this case, it meant that this powder had the same electric charge -- this is normal. In this case, I would say it's a long story, but there have been so many mistakes made in the conclusions, but I hope these mistakes were just in the media, but not the case with the FBI and do know more information.
Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Are artillery shells filled with chlorine or mustard or sarin or VX nerve gasses considered to be WMD and if so, why? Also, what is the "shelf-life" of these shells?
Ken Alibek: Of course they are WMD. The shelf life of these nerve gasses and chemical weapons. These are chemical weapons and they are WMD. The shelf life would be years.
Middletown, Del.: After Fort Detrick Biological warfare labs were closed some of the work and personnel were located to the Porton Downs U.K. Bio Warfare labs. Are we still utilizing this facility? Also, comments regarding Dugway Proving Grounds release of a BioWarfare chemical which decimated ranchers sheep herds and which is presently working on anthrax. Frederick, Md., is presently home of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases which does some BW studies.
Ken Alibek: Many people in our country like conspiracy theories. Whatever you say they are going to believe you. There is no offensive biological weapons program in the U.S. This comes from my personal experience. I've seen all these facilities. I was working with people at Ft. Deitrick and knew many people at Porton down. These are all defensive facitlities. This is a matter of propaganda coming from countries like Russia.
Palo Alto, Calif.: France and several other countries are still suggesting UN inspections as a means to uncover Saddam's WMD, or prove that they are not there. The recent French proposal suggesting tripling the number of inspectors. What would it take to make inspections effective to this task? Is an inspections program, of any type, up to the task of finding all of Iraq's chemical and bio weapons?
Ken Alibek: First of all, my personal opinion, I was in Russia when the U.S. was trying to inspect Soviet facilities. All inspectors will unsuccessful until Saddam's son in law defected. Inspections, in one case -- if a country has good will. Take France, you could put thousands of inspectors there and they wouldn't discover anything if the country has no desire to tell the truth. All inspection regimes actually discredit themselves. It will only work to prove the country doesn't do anything.
New York, N.Y.: Dr. Alibek, I've read your book "BioHazard" and found it terrifying. I'm curious if you think there is a potential for fighting biological weapons through special drugs, boosting the body's immune system, etc. Or is this too optimistic?
Ken Alibek: No, it's not too optimistic. Ever since the book was published, we've done a lot. In 1997 when I started the book, the research was considered silly. NOw people don't think so. It was possible to find many solutions and to boost the immune system using unknown substances to protect against bioweapons. It's a very complicated field and you've got funding hundreds of times smaller than in the fields of vaccine development. You've got many experts working on this.
Washington, D.C.: Hello Dr. Alibek --
I found your book fascinating, as well as extremely frightening. Thank you!
In your opinion, are there enough former Soviet scientists (or "bioweaponeers") in Iraq to make the current action there worth the damage we will take for this?
Ken Alibek: Let me give you an example. In 1995, an Iraqi delegation came to Moscow to buy some equipment for building a facility for "single cell protein production." they claimed that 5,000 liter reactors would be used to produce yeast. It was so silly. If you use this for protein production, your yeast would have have a price of a big piece of gold. The only real explanation would be that they had a completely different reason for this. But when I read the name of the person who headed the Russian delegation, Prof. Matveev, he's professor was a major designer of Russian bioweapons facilities. So there's a big question -- why this person was responsible for talking about equipment for protein production.
Washington, D.C.: Dr. Alibek:
Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us today. Do you find it strange that the U.S. is focusing so intently on smallpox when there are so many other awful bioweapons that can be used (tularemia, botulinium, etc.)? Even if smallpox is used, it could be one of the genetically altered strains which makes the serum ineffective.
What do you think the public health system should focus on instead of smallpox campaigns?
Ken Alibek: In my opinion, it's a great question. There are many biological agents that could be used, many deployment techniques. In this case, Smallpox, anthrax, plague -- many could be used. It's hard to say what you need to pay attention. Why smallpox is important is because it is highly contagious. It has a coefficient of contagiousness of 0.5 - 0.9. A lot of people would be infected by primary and secondary aerosols. It can cause epidemics and pandemics. It's stable in aerosol. If this happens, we need to pay attention to the issue of severe panic, anxiety and a severe damage to the economy of the U.S. It's obvious. Anthrax is not contagious. If it happened it would continue for several days and weeks. Smallpox would be unstoppable for a long period of time. So smallpox should be a great concern.