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PBS' 'Living Weapon' film features MIT expert on U.S. biological weapons program

Jeanne Guillemin
Jeanne Guillemin
Photo / Donna Coveney

Decades before President Bush began railing against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the United States had its own top-secret program to develop biological weapons of mass destruction.

From 1943 to 1969, U.S. scientists worked with pathogens such as anthrax and tularemia, seeking to develop deadly bioweapons that experts say were meant for the mass slaughter of enemy civilians as well as enemy combatants.

The time is now ripe for a re-examination of this program, say these experts, including Jeanne Guillemin, senior advisor in MIT's Security Studies Program and author of "Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism" (2005).

Guillemin is among those featured in a PBS documentary on biological weapons, "American Experience: The Living Weapon," which airs Monday, Feb. 5, from 9 to 10 p.m. on WGBH 2. The documentary looks at the years of secret testing, animal experiments and top-level, closed-door meetings as American scientists attempted to turn some of the world's most potent germs into devastating weapons. First driven by fears that Nazi Germany was developing the bioweapons, then by Cold War agendas, U.S. military researchers raced to develop methods of dispersing lethal diseases in bombs and sprays. They even conducted open-air tests (with harmless bacteria) on major American cities to make sure the systems would work. The program was ended in 1969 by President Richard Nixon.

Guillemin, trained as a sociologist and anthropologist, has spent years studying issues of medicine, infectious disease and biological weapons. Her 1999 book, "Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak," documents a 1979 bioweapons accident in Russia; she's currently researching the 1934-1945 Japanese biological warfare program in Manchuria. Guillemin praised the new documentary for its timeliness and use of film footage and visuals to graphically highlight the ethical pitfalls of biological weapons.

Q: Many of the points of the documentary have been reported before. Why is it important to revisit the issues now? Are there any parallels to today?

A. I think the interest in having an overview of the history of biological weapons has been building since the end of the Cold War. Before the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992, and before the discovery of Iraq's chemical and biological programs, we in the United States were not really in a position to look back at our own program in any reflective or critical way. With a war that began on the premise that there were nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in Iraq, we have even more of a responsibility to consider our own role in creating threats and ask, "What have we as a nation been doing for the last 80 years or so in developing weapons of mass destruction?"

We are also positioned very well now to consider the problem of secrecy in government. We have seen increasing government secrecy since 2000 and especially after 9/11, in the name of national security. The history of biological weapons offers an example of an extremely dangerous secret program--the details of which were not known to members of Congress or to the public. We are in a very good position historically to look back and evaluate what were we doing in creating weapons that kill civilians. That was the point of these weapons, that they be a corollary to nuclear weapons for the mass murder of enemy civilians. That was the Cold War agenda.

Q. It is interesting that Richard Nixon stopped the program. Does that give us any reason to reevaluate Richard Nixon?

A: In many ways Nixon was able to do things because he was a hawk. His agenda, which was very much influenced by Henry Kissinger, was to make sure that Europe was not the battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union. He was able to accomplish a great deal because he was perceived as tough and he was also under pressure to eliminate chemical weapons use in Vietnam.

Q. Another revelation in the documentary was that Hitler did not pursue biological weapons.

A: Starting back in the late 1930s, the West and also the Soviet Union became convinced that Nazi Germany was working on biological weapons. It was presumed in the late 1930s and through most of the war that Hitler was progressing with biological weapons and would not hesitate to use them. In 1944, Allied intelligence revealed that this was absolutely not so. After 1945, when Nazi scientists were debriefed, it became even more clear that Hitler had blocked his own scientists from pursuing biological weapons.

Q: Are we lucky that there were no accidents in the U.S. program?

A: We were very lucky. The Soviet Union was not as lucky. In 1979 they lost 70 people in an accident at a military facility in the city of Sverdlovsk. It is surprising that something didn't happen here because we were doing mass production and open-air testing at sites all around the globe, in the Pacific, in the Arctic, in the deserts of the American west. We would conduct these very dangerous outdoor experiments with the feeling of owning the world.

Q: But are we applying modern sensibilities to an older mentality? Didn't U.S. officials truly believe they faced total destruction by an implacable enemy, the Soviet Union?

A: That Cold War mentality was a fact. But the question was: Do you effectively counter that threat with a weapon of mass destruction? Do you solve the problem by mass killing? Anyone who's thinking rationally would say no. Eventually the United States and the U.K. and France decided that, with nuclear weapons as deterrents, biological weapons were unnecessary. Even that step took a while.

Q: Why was no one within the program "thinking rationally"? Was it because there was only a small cadre involved?

A: That's right. The U.S. program was extremely secret--there was virtually no oversight. One of the lessons for today is if you're going to have heavy investment in military innovations aimed at civilians, you need oversight from agencies and Congress and you need public awareness and debate. Things can happen in secret that you could not believe. Afterwards one wonders, "What happened to the moral compass there? How can these scientists sleep at night?" And the answer is very simple: They worked within a closed moral order, they never questioned outside the particular goals of the technological innovation they were dealing with. And they felt patriotic.

Q: Is there any justification for creating non-lethal biological weapons, in which people just get sick, not die?

A: No. To begin, there's a problem with the term "non-lethal" when lethality can actually occur. It depends very much who the object of the attack is. We develop a notion of a non-lethal biological or chemical weapon based on the physical reactions of a sturdy 22-year-old. But these weapons are indiscriminate. You don't know if the target will include a sick older person, a pregnant woman or a child, and, with airborne agents, you cannot control the amount of exposure in an attack. You can call it "non-lethal," but the probability is that some percentage of victims will die.

Q. Now that today we have so many non-state players, is it still worthwhile to pursue or enforce international treaties against biological weapons?

A. It's very important to have the treaties--the Geneva Protocol and the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions--and to do everything necessary to enforce them. They create a norm, which if violated, puts the violator--whether a head of state or another responsible party--in a position of being both a pariah and a criminal.

Q: Realistically, is there anything else the United States should be doing to protect us against a biological weapons attack?

A: The best protection is a strong public health system, coupled with international efforts to increase transparency. We need to protect our population against health threats from any source. We also need to include as many nations as possible, including developing countries, within a normative legal framework, with treaties and technological sharing that fosters trust and openness among nations and networks of scientists.

The real danger now is that innovations in biotechnology could be used for hostile purposes. That is a clear possibility and a threat that our lead scientists should be addressing.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 7, 2007 (download PDF).

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