Today Americans have begun to grapple with two difficult truths: that there is no terrorist threat more horrifying—and less understood—than germ warfare, and that it would take very little to mount a devastating attack on American soil.
Featuring an inside look at how germ warfare has been waged throughout history and what form its future might take (and in whose hands), Germs reads like a gripping detective story told by fascinating key figures: American and Soviet medical specialists who once made germ weapons but now fight their spread, FBI agents who track Islamic radicals, the Iraqis who built Saddam Hussein's secret arsenal, spies who travel the world collecting lethal microbes, and scientists who see ominous developments on the horizon.
With clear scientific explanations and harrowing insights, Germs is a vivid, masterfully written—and timely—work of investigative journalism.
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About the Author
William J. Broad has practiced yoga since 1970. A bestselling author and senior writer at The New York Times, he has won every major award in print and television during more than thirty years as a science journalist. With New York Times colleagues, he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as an Emmy Award and a DuPont. He is the author or coauthor of seven books, including Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, a #1 New York Times bestseller.
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Chapter 2: Warrior
Decades before the Rajneeshees started their experimentation, the United States and the Soviet Union were already veterans at turning germs into weapons, having produced arsenals to cripple and kill millions of people. There had been challenges. On the American side, a main problem solver was Bill Patrick. For two decades, he had done biological research at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the U.S. Army's sprawling base for the design of germ weapons. He had been awarded five patents and risen to become chief of what was known as the Product Development Division. In 1969, when President Nixon suddenly ended the program, he had stayed on at Detrick doing defensive work.
So when the Federal Bureau of Investigation needed a top expert to study the attack of the Rajneeshees and examine the cult's compound, it turned to Patrick. Flown out from Detrick to Oregon in late 1985, he sensed that the cult was to blame for the outbreak. For one thing, he found a germ incubator an unusual piece of equipment for a health clinic. Patrick knew salmonella well. Scientists at Detrick had investigated the bug as a weapon, with at least one worker falling ill.
As the evidence grew, Patrick could see that the people in The Dalles had been victims of crude bioterrorism. The Rajneesh crowd had chosen one of the mildest pathogens and had ignored the airborne delivery of biological agents the traditional and most effective way of mobilizing microbes for war. Growing germs was easy; the process was like brewing beer. It was the subtleties of biological engineering drying germs, encapsulating them in special coatings, making them hardy and stable enough for wide dissemination by aerosol sprayers, learning how to extend their shelf life that turned pathogens into deadly weapons.
Beginning in the 1950s, Patrick and his men had devised little biological time bombs that would float invisibly in the air for hours, like dust, or sail far on the wind. The small size of the particles meant that once they encountered a person, they could penetrate deep into the lungs. The natural defenses of the human respiratory tract, ranging from hairs in the nose to cilia along the windpipe, easily block large particles. But small ones zip right by. Inside the lung, multiplying in moist tissues, a single invader could produce millions of offspring. Patrick and his coworkers had also learned how to concentrate the tiny bomblets, ensuring wide destruction. In time, they had managed to increase the potency of anthrax a usually fatal disease of coughing, high fevers, hard breathing, chest pain, heavy perspiration, and a bluish discoloration of the skin caused by lack of oxygen so that a single gallon held up to eight billion lethal doses, enough to kill every man, woman, and child on the planet. A bigger challenge was distributing the poison, most of which would dissipate in the wind. American scientists had spent decades investigating how to make lethal dissemination as efficient as possible.
Such progress had a price, of course. Painstakingly, the germ-development program at Fort Detrick had tested prospective germ weapons on nearly a thousand American soldiers, in sealed chambers and the wilds of the Utah desert. Reaching beyond the military, it had exposed prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary, where volunteers were carefully monitored. Clandestinely, it also sprayed American cities with mild germs to investigate the likely impact of deadly pathogens.
The price of progress also included a number of accidents in which the experimenters, including Patrick, were inadvertently turned into human guinea pigs. Women were largely banned from the work after two gave birth to children with severe birth defects. Both babies died. In all, the scientists made enough mistakes to become victims of their own pathogens 456 times. All but three survived. Two men fell to anthrax. One was consumed by Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, an exotic ailment that eats away at the body's internal organs and causes profuse bleeding from the nose, mouth, anus, and other mucous membranes. Patrick himself came down with Q fever. This relatively mild disease was meant to cripple foes with chills, coughing, headaches, hallucinations, and fevers of up to 104 degrees.
Patrick had no regrets. After decades of living with burdensome secrecy rules, he spoke freely in his early seventies about the experiments, his own illness, and the deaths. It had all been done in the line of duty, driven by fear of the Communists, he said. What Moscow's germ program was in fact doing turned out to be far worse than anything Patrick and his colleagues ever imagined.
In speaking out, Patrick wanted to rebut critics who argued that germ weapons were impractical and too dangerous to use. He was eager to show not only the seriousness of the foreign menace but also how far the black art had come in American hands. In addition, he wanted to warn that the Rajneeshees' attack was but a foretaste of things to come. Terrorism was on the rise, and increasingly its targets were American. Late in life, he worked hard with many federal agencies to encourage better defenses, worried about the threat not only to Americans but also his own family.
Nothing in his past had suggested that Bill Patrick would become a germ warrior. Like a surprising number of his peers who developed weapons for biological warfare, he had begun his career eager to save lives and aid the revolution that was turning medicine from an art into a science. To all appearances, he was just a regular guy.
William Capers Patrick III was born July 24, 1926, the only child of a southern couple whose families were of Scotch-Irish descent. His middle name was taken from a relation who was a Methodist bishop. His hometown of Furman, South Carolina, was a tiny speck of civilization that lay in the Low Country near the Savannah River. While provincial, with a population of about one hundred people, the town and the surrounding area were a boy's dream.
Patrick was serving in the army during the Second World War when he first encountered penicillin, which was just coming into wide use as a way to battle microbes in the human body. Fascinated by the development, he went back to school ready to cure diseases and aid the new field of antibiotic medicine.
He received a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of South Carolina in 1948 and, a year later, a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Upon graduation in 1949, he began working for a company in Indiana that made the new wonder drugs of antibiotic medicine. A research microbiologist, he helped pioneer ways to mass-produce penicillin and bacitracin, another antibiotic. His work centered on learning how best to grow microbes and extract their antibiotics, which are natural compounds that germs use to fight one another in microscopic wars. Most fundamentally, he helped find ways to keep the bacterial colonies alive and reproducing, a process that required the constant renewal of food supplies and the removal of metabolic wastes.
In his antibiotic work, Patrick was aiding one of the greatest and most inconspicuous of human revolutions. People in antiquity had lived an average of twenty or thirty years. By Patrick's day, the figure had risen to more than sixty years. By the century's end, in industrial nations, it stood at roughly eighty years. The lengthening of the human life span was due largely to the decline of infectious disease. One by one, history's great killers and cripplers plague, cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox, typhus, leprosy, diphtheria, polio, influenza, dysentery, pneumonia, whooping cough, and a dozen other scourges had been vanquished or tamed.
One day, Patrick got a call from a former teacher in Tennessee who had gone to work for the military on secret projects. His work, the mentor confided, centered on how highly pathogenic organisms might be deployed to help deter and win wars. He could give no details; such talk was forbidden. But the research was fascinating. He urged the biologist to sign up, appealing to his love of country and his sense of scientific adventure.
The young scientist was eager for challenges and flattered by the attentions of a former teacher. In 1951 after a background check that took more than half a year, Patrick won a top-secret clearance and permission to work at what was then called Camp Detrick, the heart of the federal government's research on germ warfare.
Germs and warfare are old allies. More than two millennia ago, Scythian archers dipped arrowheads in manure and rotting corpses to increase the deadliness of their weapons. Tatars in the fourteenth century hurled dead bodies foul with plague over the walls of enemy cities. British soldiers during the French and Indian War gave unfriendly tribes blankets sown with smallpox. The Germans in World War I spread glanders, a disease of horses, among the mounts of rival cavalries. The Japanese in World War II dropped fleas infected with plague on Chinese cities, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people.
Despite occasional grim successes, germ weapons have never played decisive roles in warfare or terrorism. Unintended infection is another matter. European conquests around the globe were often made possible because the indigenous peoples lacked immunity to the invaders' endemic diseases, including smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, and plague. But intentional warfare with germ weapons has been relatively rare, especially in modern times, and has been widely condemned as unethical and inhumane. Even so, in the early twentieth century, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were among the many countries that investigated how to wage biological war.
All understood that the weapons they were developing were fundamentally different from bombs and bullets, grenades and missiles. These munitions were alive. They could multiply exponentially and, if highly contagious, spread like wildfire. Strangest of all, given war's din, they worked silently.
In the days before atom bombs, germ weapons were seen as an ideal means of mass destruction, one that left property intact. Their main drawback was their unpredictability. In the close confines of a battlefield, the weapons followed the dictates of nature, not military commanders. They might kill an adversary, or they might bounce back and devastate the ranks of the attacker and his allies. Their best use seemed to be against a distant enemy, reducing the chance that the disease would boomerang.
With intelligence agencies warning that Tokyo and Berlin had biological weapons, Washington began to mobilize against germ attacks in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly denounced the exotic arms of America's foes as "terrible and inhumane," even while preparing to retaliate in kind. The man chosen to lead the secret U.S. program was George W. Merck, the president of a drug company. Merck was a household name, and generations of physicians had come to rely on The Merck Manual as a trusted guide for diagnosing and treating disease. But the new effort was designed to be nearly invisible, its degree of secrecy matched only by America's project to build the atom bomb.
This germ initiative had its headquarters at Camp Detrick, an old army base in rural Maryland that was close enough to Washington for quick responsiveness, but far enough away to ensure a margin of isolating safety. The work got under way in 1943 and expanded quickly. From a rural outpost in farm country, the base grew overnight into a dense metropolis of 250 buildings and living quarters for five thousand people.
The post was ringed by fences, towers, and floodlights. Guards, under orders to shoot first and ask questions later, kept their machine guns loaded. The scientists were issued pistols, which they kept at their sides or nearby on workbenches. The headquarters building at the heart of the compound had its own set of armed guards on alert around the clock. All personnel had identity passes with employee photos a security precaution that would become widespread in future decades. Persons leaving the post surrendered their photo passes to the guards; accidentally keeping one could lead to arrest and interrogation.
The scientists toiled on anthrax for killing enemy troops and agricultural blights for destroying Japanese rice and German potatoes. It wasn't easy work. For instance, they had to coax the anthrax bug into its best form. Toward the end of its growth cycle, they used heat or chemical shock to force the rod-shaped bacteria to convert into spores, a dormant state. When the process worked properly, the spores were very hardy, resisting heat, disinfectants, sunlight, and other environmental factors. Anthrax spores had been known to remain viable for decades. The scientists harvested the spores and put them into weapons. Upon being inhaled, the spores would convert back to rods and establish an infection.
The Detrick scientists also learned how to reap the poisons that some bacteria excrete a tactic that sidestepped the necessity of infection and instead yielded deadly toxins that could be sprayed directly on foes. One was botulinum toxin, the most poisonous compound known to science. It paralyzes muscles, including the diaphragm, without which the lungs cannot function, and its victims quickly die. In time, the scientists learned how to make botulinum toxin so concentrated that a pound of it, if properly dispersed, could in theory kill a billion people.
None of the biological arms developed by the United States were used on the battlefield during the war, and afterward the effort slowed down markedly and shrank in size. But it endured. One reason was that the Americans obtained thousands of records from Japan documenting the Imperial Army's germ-warfare program during World War II. Japan had killed thousands of Chinese in widespread attacks with anthrax, typhoid, and plague on Manchurian towns and cities, Western scholars say. Doctors in the army's infamous Unit 731 had also conducted gruesome experiments on Chinese and other prisoners of war, including Americans. Doctors had infected healthy prisoners with pathogens to learn how diseases spread. Many victims, or "logs" as the Japanese called them, were deliberately starved and frozen to death. Some were dissected alive. While nine Japanese doctors and nurses were convicted after the war of having vivisected eight captured American fliers, no senior Japanese official was tried for having waged biological warfare. And American officials granted Unit 731's chief, Shiro Ishii, and several of his associates immunity from prosecution in exchange for the voluminous records of Japan's germ program and their help in deciphering them. The scientific data were considered a windfall and carefully studied.
The American military was fascinated by a weapon of mass destruction whose costs were so low compared with those for chemical arms and the atom bomb, recently invented. The federal government worried that not only the Soviets but other adversaries making similar comparisons would be tempted to develop pathogens for warfare. Pound for pound, germ weapons were seen as potentially rivaling nuclear blasts in their power to maim and kill, and some were considered even more destructive.
In a secret report of July 1949, a panel of more than a dozen senior federal and private experts told the secretary of defense that germ weapons deserved more attention in planning and development. Such warfare was "in its infancy," the panel said, and foreseeable advances would raise weapon effectiveness "by a very large factor." Germ weapons, silent but deadly, were ideal for covert attacks. "The resemblance of the results of such sabotage to natural occurrences," the panel said, would greatly aid clandestine use. It warned that germ attacks on the United States "might be disastrous" and urgently recommended crash programs of "home defense, involving collaborate efforts of federal, state and private agencies."
Some veterans of the secretive work disagreed with the government's reasoning. Theodor Rosebury, a microbiologist at Detrick during the war, assailed germ weapons in his 1949 book Peace or Pestilence. He warned that the field's promises were illusory and that its munitions had no real military value, since the outcome of germ attacks would always be impossible to predict or control. The expertise, he argued, should instead be turned to attacking infectious disease. His plea had no immediate impact.
In April 1951, Patrick arrived at the Detrick army base on the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland. He was twenty-five.
Barbed wire ran atop its fences. cameras are unauthorized read the sign at the front gate.
Guards, armed and alert, stood at the entrance.
Like all new employees, Patrick signed a waiver that granted the United States government rights to his body if he died from an illness acquired at Detrick. Having done that, he received a series of vaccinations, which were required before new employees could go into "hot zones" teeming with disease germs.
He quickly learned the other survival rituals the eating of anti-biotics, the washing of hands, the bathing of people and labs in ultra-violet light, the wavelength best suited for killing germs. Caution also called for protective hoods and masks, rubber gloves and boots. The men often donned protective suits that made them sweat and itch. They breathed purified air. They stood for hours at "hot boxes" glass housings with attached rubber gloves so the men could reach inside to handle glassware swarming with microbes or to assemble the guts of biological bombs. Despite the dangers, Patrick moved his family onto the post in 1952. It had its own housing, theater, restaurants, and child care. The social life revolved around the officers' club.
Patrick joined Detrick just as it was beginning to stir. The outbreak of the Cold War and the Korean War led Washington to put new emphasis on planning for germ battles. The testing of prototype nuclear arms at sites in the Soviet Union and the United States was already shaking the globe.
At Detrick, construction crews built a hollow metal sphere four stories high. Employees called it the eight ball. Inside, germ weapons were to be exploded, creating mists of infectious aerosols for testing on animals and people. Workers also erected Building 470, a windowless prototype factory for making anthrax. It rose eight stories, a skyscraper among the low buildings.
Under military orders, often clandestinely, Detrick experts fanned out to probe the nation's vulnerability to saboteurs. The scientists sprayed mild germs on San Francisco and shattered lightbulbs filled with bacteria in the New York City subway, all to assess the ability of pathogens to spread through urban centers. The germs were meant to be harmless. But years later critics charged that some had produced hidden epidemics, especially among the old and infirm. After the army sprayed the San Francisco area with Serratia marcescens, eleven patients at the Stanford University hospital came down with that type of infection. One patient died there. The doctors were so mystified by the outbreak that they wrote it up in a medical journal. The government later denied any responsibility for the death or the other infections, producing evidence in court that its germs were not to blame. The scientific dispute was never resolved.
The army also studied the threat of enemies wielding a speculative class of munitions known as ethnic weapons germs that selectively target particular races. One military worry centered on Coccidioides immitis, a fungus that causes fever, cough, and chills and, if left untreated, kills blacks far more often than whites. The military feared that it would be used against bases, where blacks tended to do the manual labor. In 1951, at navy supply depots in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk, Virginia, the Detrick scientists staged mock attacks with a nonlethal variant of the deadly fungus. The depots, said a report on the action, employed "many Negroes, whose incapacitation would seriously affect the operation of the supply system."
American scientists also did outdoor experiments to assess how Soviet cities could be attacked with anthrax germs. Dry runs were made against Saint Louis, Minneapolis, and Winnipeg, cities whose climates and sizes were judged similar to the Soviet targets. The effort was code-named Project Saint Jo. The clandestine tests, involving 173 releases of noninfectious aerosols, were meant to determine how much agent would have to rain down on Kiev, Leningrad, and Moscow to kill its residents. Each cluster bomb in the planned attacks held 536 bomblets. Upon hitting the ground, each bomblet would emit a little more than an ounce of anthrax mist. The disease, if untreated, kills nearly every infected person a very high rate of mortality, even compared with plague and most other pathogens.
The snow was deep and the sky clear when experimenters in a special car drove into a Minneapolis suburb of homes, light industry, trees, and pine foliage to release the test mist. There was very little wind, and the winter night was marked by a strong temperature inversion. Overhead, a dome of warm air trapped cool air below. Air samplers showed that the release traveled nearly a mile. The "dosage area," experimenters wrote, was "unusually large."
Until Patrick's arrival, America's hunt for living weapons had focused mainly on bacterial diseases, including anthrax, plague, and tularemia, a disease which kills one out of twenty people and leaves the rest very sick. Tularemia produced not only the usual chills, fever, and coughing of infectious disease but also skin lesions larger than those of smallpox ulcers up to an inch wide, their centers raw, their edges turned up in reddish mounds.
But the shortcomings of bacteria as weapons were becoming obvious. Infections acquired in attacks on cities or battlefields could be successfully treated by large doses of antibiotics the wonder drugs that Patrick as an industry researcher had been pioneering. That emerging fact of medical life diminished the role of bacteria as killers and cripplers for war.
Viruses were a beguiling alternative. Compared with bacteria, they were less complex and often more deadly. To Detrick scientists, their microscopic size offered a range of potential military advantages.
A single human egg is just visible to the naked eye and has a width of about one hundred microns, or millionths of a meter. Human hairs are seventy-five to one hundred microns wide and easier to see because they are long. An ordinary human cell is about ten microns wide and by definition invisible. Most bacteria are one or two microns wide. They and their cousins, such as the mycobacteria, are considered the smallest of the microscopic world's fully living things.
By contrast, viruses are hundreds of times smaller, and occasionally a thousand times. If bacteria were the size of cars and minivans, viruses would be the size of cell phones. One of the tinier ones, the yellow fever virus, is only two one-hundredths of a micron wide. The foot-and-mouth virus is smaller. Viruses are small because they lack most of life's usual parts and processes, such as metabolism and respiration. Scientists consider them barely alive, seeing them more as robots than organisms. To thrive and reproduce, they invade a cell and take over its biochemical gear, often at the expense of the host.
Over the ages, this biological intimacy has made viruses one of the most dangerous of all humanity's foes. They include the causative agents of influenza, smallpox, and Ebola, the scourge from Africa that bleeds its victims dry.
People can be powerless against them. Viruses are small enough to slip into cells, where they are safe from the assaults of the human immune system. By contrast, anthrax bacteria, lumbering giants at up to four microns wide, must battle their way into the body, with many thousands of them often needed to start an infestation.
Moreover, viruses are largely invulnerable to attack by antibiotics or other weapons of science because they are nearly indistinguishable from their human hosts. As an army reference book on germ warfare put it, viruses "may be particularly attractive" because so few treatments are available against them.
As Detrick scientists investigated such issues, they did know of one treatment that worked against viruses immunization. Most vaccines are made of viruses that are dead, weakened, or harmless yet biologically akin to noxious ones. When injected or, in some cases, swallowed the vaccine sends a false alarm of pending attack to the body's immune system, which then forms antibodies to fight a particular type of invader. The defensive buildup is slow. So, to ward off invaders effectively, vaccines must often be given weeks to months in advance. They seldom work right away.
From the start, the army knew that the protective action of vaccines could be turned on its head to make viruses more suitable for war. An aggressor could use immunization to protect his troops, while an unvaccinated enemy would be vulnerable.
As Patrick settled into Detrick, the genocidal power of viruses was driven home by two dramatic episodes of pest control. The target was rabbits. The creatures had overrun Australia, their numbers competing so vigorously for sheep and cattle pasture that livestock production began to fall. In 1950, scientists responded with the virus that causes myxomatosis, a disease that often kills rabbits after leaving them blind and twitching. It spread fast and killed more than 99 percent of the infected animals. Europe in the postwar period had suffered a similar explosion of rabbits, which ate farmers'crops. In 1952, French experts released a few animals infected with the virus at Eure-et-Loire, not far from the palace at Versailles. By the next year, the disease had swept not only through France but as far as Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany, killing up to 90 percent of the rabbits. Farmers were elated. In time, the exterminations were seen as vital to the postwar revival of European agriculture.
The rabbit killing was of special interest to the American germ warriors because the myxomatosis virus is part of the pox family, whose most famous member causes smallpox. So the rabbit drama was considered useful in studying how the smallpox virus might spread through populations of unvaccinated humans.
Patrick's credentials won him a leading role in Detrick's expanding operations. He evaluated viral agents that the scientists were developing and did experiments to see if the microbes could be produced easily in bulk and still maintain their virulence. He was a production engineer, though at this time, in the early 1950s, he was also working toward a doctorate in microbiology at the University of Maryland.
The army needed large amounts of viruses to test for deadliness and, if it came to that, for making bombs. Patrick knew a lot about microbial mass production and quality control from his experience in industry. He advanced quickly, soon becoming manager of Detrick's effort to make prototype virus factories.
His foremost tool was the chicken egg. Cheap and simple to procure, eggs are rich in the proteins and nutrients needed for viral growth and reproduction and are surrounded by a hard shell that makes them easy to handle. Drug companies often incubate viruses for vaccines in eggs. At Detrick, in a similar way, fertilized chicken eggs were found ideal for viral mass production.
Wielding syringes, Patrick's workers injected viruses into eggs and sealed them for incubation in warm ovens. The germs would infect the growing embryo and multiply, producing trillions of offspring. After a few days, the germs and their dying hosts would be harvested, the resulting compounds often pink in color.
The viral agents would then be tested on mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, rhesus monkeys, and in time American soldiers. One insight drawn from the preliminary tests and analysis was surprising and counterintuitive. Early on, the military concluded that killing enemy soldiers was unnecessary. In fact, viral crippling came to be seen as preferable to death, since an ailing soldier tied up more enemy transports, doctors, nurses, hospitals, drugs, and bureaucrats. Moreover, compared with the alternative, the incapacitation of troops could be billed as humane no small thing in war, especially in a democracy, where public disapproval could quickly end a military plan or operation.
Viruses turned out to lend themselves to this subtle range of debilitation. Most affecting humans were not lethal. In fact, like the common cold and the flu, most tended to be merely bothersome, if generally debilitating and only occasionally deadly. Over evolutionary time, the microbes had often found it in their best interest to keep their human hosts alive.
Among the viruses that Patrick and his colleagues developed as weapons were those that give rise to encephalitis, a brain disease of fevers, seizures, comas, and in some cases death. Another was the yellow fever virus, which causes chills, stomach bleeding, and yellow skin due to liver failure and bile accumulation. The scientists also investigated rickettsiae, which range in size between viruses and bacteria. Like viruses, most burrow into cells to reproduce. Unlike viruses, some are slowed by antibiotics. One rickettsia that Patrick studied was the Q-fever microbe, an extremely hardy germ that causes fevers, chills, and a throbbing headache, usually behind the eyes.
In time, Patrick and his successors identified about fifty different viruses and rickettsiae that were good candidates for germ warfare. That was nearly three times the number of suitable bacteria. The advances meant that antibiotics alone would be insufficient to protect people from germ attacks.
The army, eager to assess the effectiveness of the Q-fever microbe, Coxiella burnetii, approved its being tested on people, which Patrick hailed as an experimental breakthrough. Tests on surrogates, such as guinea pigs and rhesus monkeys, left scientists unsure about the effect on humans. The test subjects were Seventh-Day Adventists, conscientious objectors who, following the Old Testament's injunction not to kill, refused to bear arms for their country but were persuaded to volunteer their bodies for germ-warfare studies.
At Detrick, Patrick and his team made up batches of Coxiella burnetii while working in a brand-new structure of yellow bricks known as the virus pilot plant, Building 434. Its thirty-four employees could process about one thousand eggs a day, making quarts of test agent that swarmed with trillions of germs.
Patrick had the slurries of Q-fever germs carefully transported to the test sites. The first was Detrick's own eight ball. There, starting in early 1955, the Adventists gathered around the ball's periphery to don face masks and breathe deeply, inhaling mists of germs through rubber hoses connected to the ball's interior. Army experimenters administered a range of doses and droplet sizes to the men.
Once infected, the Adventists were carefully monitored. If symptoms broke out, they would be given antibiotics to cut the illness short and avoid serious complications. Though often no worse than the flu, if left untreated, Q fever can progress to severe chills, trembling, blinding headaches, muscle and joint pain, diarrhea, weight loss, visual and auditory hallucinations, facial pain, speech impairments, heart inflammation, and congestive heart failure. About one in a hundred infected people die. The Adventists were carefully supervised. All survived.
The tests produced a surprise. It turned out that just one microbe of Coxiella burnetii a single invader was enough to bring on the disease. That discovery was a medical first. Such powers of human infection had been suspected but never demonstrated.
Over the years, Patrick was often present at the sites where field testing took place, edgy over how his germs would do. At Dugway Proving Grounds in the Utah desert, thirty Adventists were assembled in the summer of 1955 for the first American field trial of germ warfare agents on human beings. The test measured how well the germs spread. At the center of the circular test grid were five sprayers, each holding five ounces of Patrick's Q-fever slurry. On the night of July 12, after almost a week of false starts, a fine mist emerged from the sprayers and sailed on a gentle breeze. The test subjects were more than a half mile away, waiting nervously, increasingly cold in the early evening, trying to follow instructions to breathe normally.
It worked. The pattern of infection among the Adventists showed that Coxiella burnetii was ideal for aerosol dissemination.
The next hurdle was figuring out how to spread the germ in war. A key test centered on the nation's newest jet fighter, the F-100 Super Sabre, the first production aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight. The jet was built to carry nuclear and conventional bombs. Now a test model was rigged up for scattering germs.
Mechanics strapped a tank onto the plane's belly and connected it to special nozzles that expelled the germs into the wind. The question was whether the turbulence would break enough of the spray into particles one to five microns wide, the ideal range for penetrating human lungs. The jet thundered over the Utah desert, and the method turned out to be remarkably effective.
Only animals were exposed intentionally in this test series. But one F-100 pilot fell ill when he got out of his plane before it was decontaminated. The man had been on his honeymoon, Patrick recalled, and his wife looked like Marilyn Monroe. Three soldiers were also stricken as they manned distant barricades on a road at the proving ground's edge. Their job was to stop traffic if the winds shifted suddenly. The germs had sailed fifty miles. "We were overjoyed," Patrick recalled. The incident showed that the scientists' mathematical models for germ dispersion were correct. More important, he said, it demonstrated that his team was beginning to produce "a liquid product that was very, very good." The finding was celebrated, even as news of the accident was suppressed.
American officials suspected that Moscow was engaged in similar experiments. This belief was strengthened in 1956, when the Soviet defense minister, Georgi Zhukov, told a Communist Party Congress that any modern war would certainly include the use of biological weapons.
Soon Washington uncovered hard evidence. An American U-2 spy plane, while flying high over a desolate island in the Aral Sea, snapped photo after photo of dense clusters of buildings and odd geometric grids. Analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency saw a link to biological weapons.
One day, Patrick and dozens of other managers at Detrick were summoned to a special meeting. Security was tight. Guards at the conference room door checked the security badges of arriving personnel against names on a list. After brief introductions, officials from the Central Intelligence Agency passed around the spy photos.
The structures on the Soviet island were unmistakably similar to the bull's-eye pattern of rings in the Utah desert, where roads, sensors, electrical poles, and test subjects were arrayed at increasing distances from germ sprayers.
The confirmation of what had long been suspected reinforced the conviction among the scientists that their labors were not only justified but also crucial, if for no other reason than to threaten the Soviets with retaliation. What they saw in examining the photos turned out to be a glimpse of a large enterprise that had long predated the American effort. It is now known that the Soviet program for germ warfare began in the 1920s and 1930s and grew steadily into one of the earliest and largest of the modern era, developing arms to infect people with anthrax, typhus, and other diseases. At that time, the United States had no germ weapons. Stalin's totalitarian rule poured vast resources into the endeavor, though in time his purges killed or imprisoned many leading microbiologists.
The turning point for Moscow was the Second World War. The capture of a Japanese germ unit, the study of its techniques, and the resolve to strengthen the Soviet military after the wartime slaughter of millions of Russians helped renew interest in germ weapons. In 1946 at Sverdlovsk, military engineers set up a factory that specialized in anthrax. In 1947 outside Zagorsk, the Soviet military built a complex for making viral weapons, including smallpox. By 1956, when the U-2 planes started flying over the Soviet Union, Moscow had built many secret bases across the land for developing and producing germ weapons.
Worried about the Soviet program and impressed with the powers of viruses and rickettsiae to cripple and kill, the United States in the late 1950s prepared to build factories capable of producing enough pathogens and biological toxins to fight wars. Officially, American policy at that time was no first use. Biological weapons were to be fired only in response to an enemy's germ attacks.
In 1956, at the age of thirty, Patrick won a promotion and soon became responsible for designing a distant plant where the production methods perfected at Detrick would be reproduced on a large scale so that viruses could be made not by the ounce but also by the gallon and the drum. The site was the Pine Bluff Arsenal, an army base that had been carved out of the woods of central Arkansas. The state was a leading producer of eggs.
The army was already using Pine Bluff to make weapons from bacteria, including those that cause tularemia. Under Patrick, it expanded into viruses. He worked with contractors and engineers on the design of the Pine Bluff virus plant, which was known as X1002. Its main function was to infect and harvest many thousands of eggs quickly. Workers at Detrick pushed around heavy metal trays each holding sixty eggs. At Pine Bluff, Patrick mechanized the process with conveyor belts.
By trial and error, he found that if egg trays moved past work stations slowly, at fifteen inches per minute, the operators would lose their concentration. "But if you moved it at twenty-two or twenty-three inches per minute, emotionally they could not accept that speed and would throw their hands up and quit," he recalled. "We found that twenty inches per minute was just right."
In time, Patrick's production lines began to hum and produce the germ responsible for Q fever. In a week, workers at X1002 could infect and process about 120,000 eggs, which in turn produced 120 gallons of agent enough to cripple millions of people.
The pace of production was even higher for the virus that caused Venezuelan equine encephalitis, or VEE. In a week, workers on the mechanized line could infect and harvest about 300,000 eggs, which in turn produced nearly 500 gallons of noxious agent. Patrick knew the VEE symptoms well because an accidental outbreak at Detrick had once sickened fifteen members of his crew. "It's not lethal," he said of the disease. "It just makes you think you want to die. Your eyes want to pop out of your head."
Public health workers also knew the disease well because VEE is indigenous to Florida, Trinidad, Mexico, and Central and South America places where mosquitoes carry the virus. The disease strikes suddenly to cause malaise, severe headache, high fevers, painful sensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting, cough, and diarrhea. The fatality rate, less than 1 percent in adults, is higher among the old, the young, and the infirm. In epidemics, one child in twenty-five develops signs of central nervous system infection, with convulsions, coma, and paralysis. In children with severe encephalitis, the fatality rate may rise to as high as 20 percent. Survivors can have permanent neurologic damage.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was briefed on Fort Detrick's advances just before he left the White House. The full meeting of the National Security Council took place on February 18, 1960. Absent was Richard M. Nixon, the vice president, who was preparing his own run for president.
Eisenhower was trying to leave a legacy of growing trust between the superpowers, with disarmament under way and defense budgets declining. But the Democrats were calling for steep rises in defense spending, and Eisenhower deeply resented their charge that America had fallen behind in missile forces. He saw the attacks as partisan.
At the meeting, Herbert F. York, a nuclear arms designer newly appointed as the Pentagon's chief scientist and its number three official, told Eisenhower that the field of controlled incapacitation promised to "open up a new dimension of warfare." The weapons, he said, were nonlethal. Instead of killing, they caused lethargy, irritation, blackout, paralysis, illness, and the lack of will to fight. The effects would be temporary, York said, though minor repercussions "might persist permanently." Agents such as Q fever and VEE were becoming more concentrated, he said, and scientists were finding ways to extend their storage lives from one to three years. In the future, he said, army scientists would produce a new agent an African virus that caused Rift Valley fever, a hemorrhagic disease of chills, bleeding, and stupor in most victims rather than death as well as "tailored variants" of other agents. The new arms promised a military advantage. By contrast, York noted, most Soviet biological agents were lethal.
General Lyman Lemnitzer, the army chief of staff, described how the weapons might be used. They could blanket large areas and inflict heavy casualties without destroying buildings or property. Their potential was especially great, he said, "where friendly civilians may be present in an area occupied by enemy forces," a situation that might arise in the Philippines or Indochina. Lemnitzer gave a hypothetical example: if Communist forces seized an important region, the United States could respond with an attack of the encephalitis virus. Planes could drop bomblets or spray agent on the contested area. Two medium bombers, he said, might be enough. In three days, after the agent had taken effect, planes would fly in American or allied parachutists to reclaim the territory.
York said such weapons were potentially revolutionary. The diseases could be as mildly disabling as influenza or as deadly as atomic bombs. Over the next five years, he added, the Pentagon wanted to invest more money in research and weapons production. George B. Kistiakowsky, the president's science adviser, said the field's "prospects were definitely bright" and backed a budget increase.
Thomas S. Gates Jr., the secretary of defense, asked what the world would think about the use of such weapons, and wondered if they should be thought of as tantamount to nuclear arms. Gordon Gray, the president's national security adviser, noted that under current U.S. policy, the use of either chemical and biological weapons required the president's approval.
Eisenhower, who had more combat experience than anyone else in the room, called incapacitating agents "a splendid idea" that nonetheless posed "one great difficulty." An enemy might consider their use as full-fledged germ warfare and retaliate with lethal agents.
General Nathan F. Twining, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, agreed. He said that if the United States were ever to use such incapacitating agents, "we should publicize their nonlethal effects to the greatest extent possible."
In an interview years later, York said that in time his own enthusiasm for nonlethal weapons gave way to deep skepticism because of the problem that Eisenhower had identified. An assault with incapacitating agents, though billed by the attacker as humane, he said, would surely invite terrible revenge.
Spending on biological weapons rose dramatically after John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961. Robert S. McNamara, the new secretary of defense, did a sweeping review of military programs, including biological weapons. The Joint Chiefs of Staff found that the arms had unique advantages, especially their ability to incapacitate rather than kill. They strongly endorsed a crash program to prepare the germs for war.
The virus work, already a high priority, was redoubled, and such companies as General Electric, Booz-Allen, Lockheed, Rand, Monsanto, Goodyear, General Dynamics, Aerojet General, North American Aviation, Litton Systems, and even General Mills, maker of Cheerios and Wheaties, joined the germ program. Quietly, the purveyor of dry cereals built a "line-source disseminator," a device meant to spray germs continuously from airplanes to ensure wide swaths of infective mists.
Eager for flexibility and greater range, Pentagon planners readied a half dozen missiles for biological warheads, including the Pershing, the Regulus, and the Sergeant. The payload for the Sergeant consisted of 720 bomblets, each three inches wide, holding seven ounces of disease agent. Released ten miles up, at the fringes of the atmosphere, the bomblets would scatter during their downward plunge to cover more than sixty square miles, spraying agent into the air as a fine spray.
Military leaders also directed that field trials fan out from the Utah desert to sites more typical of the target zones. To determine the usefulness in Southeast Asia, testing was undertaken in Okinawa, Panama, and the central Pacific. Much of Russia was cold, so germs were tested in Alaska.
The expansion produced a new military bureaucracy. Founded in May 1962, the unit had its headquarters at Fort Douglas, near Salt Lake City. Its hundreds of personnel oversaw the movement of ships, jets, people, gear, microbes.
After Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, American military officials drew up contingency plans to invade the island nation and topple the dictator. One of the most secretive was referred to by Fort Detrick as the Marshall Plan, an ironic reference to the American effort to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. The plan, never before revealed publicly, called for a huge assault by American troops that would begin with a biological strike against Cuba's soldiers and civilians.
War plans are written to cover every imaginable scenario. But the Marshall Plan was a serious option, according to several American officials involved in the preparations. Over the years, the work included not only close collaborations with Fort Detrick's germ experts but agent selection, casualty forecasts, and study of the weather patterns over Cuba. There were even drills to see how fast the required germs could be produced.
The plan's specifics evolved as new agents became available and as the Kennedy administration's increasing investment in military biology began to pay off. Initially, Detrick could provide mainly lethal agents, such as anthrax. But in the early 1960s, as production increased at the new Pine Bluff factories, Detrick was able to offer an increasingly wide selection of incapacitants meant to leave most of the target population alive. Military biologists and planners argued for using such pathogens and biological toxins if the president ordered an invasion. Incapacitants could immobilize Cuban defenses, significantly reducing projected American combat casualties.
As Detrick refined its plans for a biological strike, the Pentagon also investigated how it might produce fake incidents that could create popular outrage and backing for a Cuban invasion. Castro was to be falsely blamed for such covert American acts as hijacking planes, sinking boats carrying Cuban refugees, terrorizing Miami or Washington, D.C., and even blowing up an American ship in Cuban waters. The architect of the pretext strategy was General Lemnitzer, the same man who told President Eisenhower about the military uses of incapacitating germ weapons. Under Kennedy, he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Acts of subterfuge, Lemnitzer wrote McNamara in March 1962, "would provide justification for US military intervention in Cuba." Kennedy ultimately rejected Lemnitzer's ideas, and he was later shifted out of his post.
The Cuban missile crisis erupted in October 1962, bringing Washington and Moscow to the brink of nuclear war. President Kennedy ordered a large force to be assembled for a possible invasion. The Pentagon set more than a million people in motion. It estimated that in a conventional assault, the number of Americans wounded or killed in the first ten days of battle could easily reach 18,500, or roughly 10 percent of the 180,000-man invasion force.
The Kennedy administration considered a wide range of military options against Cuba during the crisis. But there is no indication that attacks with germs ever figured in the high-level debate over how to dislodge the Soviet Union's missile bases. McNamara, Kennedy's defense secretary, said in an interview that he had never heard of the Marshall Plan. He added that neither he nor President Kennedy ever had "any intention" of using pathogens or biological toxins against Cuba during the crisis. Philip D. Zelikow, a scholar who received security clearances to review the secret records of the confrontation, said he knew of no tape recording or document sent to the president and his senior advisers that made any mention of germ weapons.
But some in the American military, especially those serving at Fort Detrick, saw the Cuban missile crisis as a lesson suggesting that germ weapons might some day save thousands of American lives. And with the completion of new factories at Pine Bluff, it became possible to attack all of Cuba with incapacitating agents.
A Pentagon official who had access to military archives said the options for a possible invasion of Cuba eventually included biological attack. He said that the director of the staff officers working for the Joint Chiefs had approved it. This official said the plan specified a combination of germs that could be used, and he estimated that a biological strike would affect millions of Cubans. It remains unclear how seriously this option was considered. The staff officers were less powerful than they became decades later, and their approval of plans advanced by the army and other services and commands were often routine.
Riley D. Housewright, Fort Detrick's scientific director at the time, recalled that the planning was directed by Pentagon officials who encouraged the germ scientists to refine how, exactly, such an attack would work. "I'd get maps half the size of my desk" that indicated the position of Russian troops and weapons in Cuba, Housewright said. The military officials, he added, "were very good at keeping us informed," while he and his colleagues, in turn, helped the officers judge "the potential for success." In the early 1960s, Housewright said, his men prepared agents that could incapacitate or kill large numbers of Cubans. One lethal alternative that was considered, he said, involved spraying enemy troops with botulinum toxin. Housewright considered the Marshall Plan "a good thing" because it could have saved American lives in the event of an invasion of Cuba.
Federal officials and germ experts, most speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the Marshall Plan's details and its range of destructive goals. Patrick would say nothing, even though other officials said the plan was modified over time to draw heavily on his work at Detrick with incapacitants. But in a talk to military officers in 1999, Patrick did say that a Cuban attack plan had been drawn up which relied on two incapacitating germs that worked sequentially to lengthen the time of disability. "The concept was that if we got into a shooting war that we would spray these organisms concomitantly," Patrick told the group. "We would incapacitate the Cuban population from three days to a little over two weeks." No infrastructure was to be destroyed. "We'd just make a lot of people sick. Very few of them were going to die." The germs would strike down "old folks like me," he added, killing less than 2 percent of the population. "We could move our forces in and take over the country and that would be it."
In interviews, Patrick eventually did describe what other experts said was a Marshall Plan drill. He said it was done in the early 1960s, under secret orders from Detrick and the army hierarchy in the Pentagon. The purpose was to test whether the United States could mobilize quickly for a germ conflict.
American germ-warfare scientists had developed a special cocktail of two germs and one biological toxin designed to work sequentially so that victims would come down with uncommonly long periods of sickness and debilitation. Animal testing had suggested that the brew was potent. Now Patrick helped prepare amounts that dwarfed all previous efforts. In all, teams at Pine Bluff made thousands of gallons of the cocktail, enough to fill a swimming pool.
The toxin of the cocktail was staphylococcal enterotoxin B, known as SEB, a poison excreted by the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium and a main cause of food poisoning. The germ warriors made it into a weapon by cultivating up trillions of the bacteria and then concentrating the poison. Whoever breathed the vapor would fall ill three to twelve hours later. The symptoms included chills, headache, muscle pain, coughing, sudden fever up to 106 degrees (close to what produces coma, seizures, and death), and, less frequently, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The fever lasted days and the cough weeks.
The virus in the mix caused Venezuelan equine encephalitis. Its incubation period varied from one to five days, followed by the sudden onset of the nausea and diarrhea often associated with serious infection, as well as spiking fever up to 105 degrees. The acute phase lasted from one to three days, followed by weeks of weakness and lethargy.
The final element was the bug that caused Q fever. Its incubation period was ten to twenty days, after which it generally produced up to two weeks of debilitating symptoms, including headaches, chills, hallucinations, facial pain, and fevers of up to 104 degrees. Chronic Q fever, the U.S. Army found, was rare, but if the disease progressed to that stage it was frequently fatal.
In the Marshall Plan drill at Pine Bluff, Patrick's work was considered essential because he had helped perfect the means of mass producing the cocktail's three agents, SEB, VEE, and Q fever. "We tried to have a lot of different agents available," Housewright recalled. The incapacitants, he added, "showed that there was a humane aspect to the whole situation. It was not the same as putting an atomic bomb down their throat, which would have been just as easy or easier to deliver. It was a humane act."
Exposure to the agents would debilitate Cubans within a few hours, and the incapacitation would last up to three weeks. Jets would tank up at Pine Bluff's airfield, fly to Cuba, and spray the concoction over key towns, ports, and military bases, moving east to west with the trade winds. Havana, in the west, was to get special attention. The isolated Caribbean island of Cuba was seen as an ideal target for biological warfare. And the germs would pose no threat to American troops. None of the diseases was contagious, and according to forecasts, all the cocktail's mists would have dissipated before an invasion.
Cuba's population at the time was about 7 million. The plan's estimates were that about 1 percent of the population, or 70,000 people, might die if all individuals exposed to the cocktail became sick.
Though the Marshall Plan was never implemented, the emerging ability to conduct a new kind of warfare had potential repercussions far beyond Cuba. For instance, military planners also saw a possible use for incapacitating agents in Laos. Washington feared that the Chinese Communists might try to take the country in a southward drive. According to a once secret report that reviewed American and allied capabilities in 1962 for limited military operations, using biological weapons in Laos had obvious drawbacks. "The spreading of sickness among the people," it said, "would be regarded as a friendly act by few of them." But if a biological attack in Laos produced "a successful pacification at small human cost," such action might "come to be regarded in a different light."
In 1963, the Kennedy administration invited a number of academic specialists to Washington for the summer to offer advice on arms control. Among them was Matthew S. Meselson, a Harvard biologist who had recently done pioneering research on how DNA copies itself. At the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Meselson asked if he could look into biological issues. The agency's senior officials, busy negotiating a treaty with Moscow meant to ban most nuclear tests, told him to go ahead. Armed with secret clearances, Meselson set off.
At Detrick, he recalled, officials showed him the munitions and explained how they could cause many casualties. What was the rationale, Meselson asked, since the government already had nuclear arms? Germ weapons were cheaper, came the reply. Meselson then asked the CIA if any other nations were developing biological arms. No, came the answer, there were suspicions about the Soviet Union but no hard evidence. Meselson thought about this for a few days. The best thing for the wealthiest nation on earth to do, he reasoned, was to keep war expensive. Making it cheap enough for any dictator or undeveloped nation was a bad idea. Moreover, with biology every day becoming more powerful, germ weapons were increasingly dangerous.
Meselson went to see McGeorge Bundy, who a few years earlier, as Harvard's dean of faculty, had originally hired him. Now he served in Washington as the president's national security adviser. At the White House, Bundy told the biologist not to worry.
"We'll keep it out of the war plans," he told Meselson. "But we can't get rid of it because we have so many other things to do." In fact, the germs stayed in the war plans, former officials said. The budgets for biological warfare by this time were quite large, and there was no way the enterprise was about to declare itself useless.
As the Vietnam War intensified, scientists at Fort Detrick redoubled their work on smallpox. This virus was no mere incapacitant. Smallpox was ancient, highly contagious, and killed about a third of its victims, mainly from blood loss, cardiovascular collapse, and secondary infections as pustules spread over the body. Many survivors were scarred and blinded. Health authorities estimated that it had killed more people over the ages than any other infectious disease. In the twentieth century alone, it was estimated to have killed a half billion people more than all the wars and epidemics combined, including the great flu pandemic of 1918-19.
As a rule, the American military generally avoided contagious diseases because of their unpredictability. But the rule had exceptions. Washington kept the smallpox virus on hand as a weapon for special military actions and the clandestine wars of the Central Intelligence Agency, which maintained its own supply. The secretive work on smallpox took place in the 1960s as world and American health authorities began a global effort to eradicate the dread disease.
The highly contagious virus had been studied by Patrick and his peers at Detrick but, unlike SEB, VEE, and Coxiella burnetii, it was never listed publicly as part of the official arsenal of weapons the government acknowledged years and decades after the biological program ended. Instead, officials tended to say that smallpox had been found unsuitable as a weapon and implied that it had been abandoned.
The smallpox virus, known as variola major, is large, measuring four-tenths of a micron big enough to be seen easily in a light microscope and near the magical size for ease of human inhalation. It is also robust. Variola can survive outside the human host for days. Its size and hardiness explain why it spreads so easily. Typically, an infected person passes the virus to three or four others in close contact, often by coughing. But the virus can also be spread by contaminated bedsheets, clothes, blankets, and handkerchiefs. Its contagiousness and high fatality rate are what make it so destructive and feared.
Detrick experts learned how to multiply the germ in chicken eggs and human tissue cultures and tested it extensively on rhesus monkeys, which came down with high fevers, pustules, and symptoms of metabolic crisis. "Exposed monkey 3912," a report noted, "developed a facial twitch and paralysis of the right arm, and died on the sixth day after exposure."
The biologists at Detrick also found a way to alter the variola virus to make it even more durable. The trick was suspended animation.
In the battle between man and microorganisms, refrigeration slows down germ reproduction and metabolism. Typically, cooling also lengthens the lives of microbes. When microbes are frozen in exactly the right way (surrounded by sugar and protein, cooled quickly, and put under high vacuum to remove ice in a process known as sublimation), they can enter a dormant state in which they behave like vegetative spores. This process is known as lyophilization, or freeze-drying. Once dormant, the germ remains asleep even when returned to room temperature, staying that way for years or even decades. Industry uses the trick to make dry yeast for baking. It is only when such hibernating organisms are doused with water that they revive and multiply, in effect rising from the dead.
American weaponeers in the 1950s applied the new technique to microbial agents for war. They found that in some cases the process was so efficient it could make agents too strong. One solution was to dilute the dried agent with inert material.
At Detrick, investigators found that the drying process killed some microbes. But not smallpox. The virus easily withstood freeze-drying. The drying produced "no significant loss in virus viability," one smallpox study noted, adding that the tested strain showed "high mortality for man."
Virulence could thus be preserved for months and years without refrigeration, making the old scourge ideal for modern war. After three years, dried smallpox retained a quarter of its strength, one study found. Moreover, methods were developed that turned the dried virus into a fine powder that was found to be "easily disseminated."
The scientists devised means of clandestinely spreading the disease. Tiny aerosol generators, or atomizers, that could be hidden in everyday objects were developed. In May 1965, experts from Detrick's special-operations unit took the system on the road, using men's briefcases to spray mock smallpox germs in Washington National Airport, just outside the nation's capital. The lengthy report on the secret test, which was done to gauge America's vulnerability to enemy smallpox attacks, concluded that one in every twelve travelers would have become infected, quickly producing an epidemic as the disease spread across the country.
Smallpox would be an excellent choice for terrorism, the report said, because, among other things, "a long incubation period of relatively constant duration permits the operatives responsible for the attacks to leave the country before the first case is diagnosed." The incubation period of smallpox averages twelve days, at which point the disease shows its first symptoms, including malaise, fever, headache, and vomiting.
The public had no idea at the time about the secret tests. But popular culture reflected a growing fear of germ weapons. A 1965 movie, The Satan Bug, starring Richard Basehart and Anne Francis, was the story of a madman who stole a lethal virus from a secret government lab to take over the world. To demonstrate his seriousness, he first killed the inhabitants of a small Florida town and then threatened to destroy Los Angeles.
In the mid 1960s, as American forces began to bomb North Vietnam, the military came to Fort Detrick to ask for help with one of its most vexing problems: the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were using the jungle road as the lifeline for their war against the South. Nothing seemed to stop the movement of arms not ambushes, booby traps, high-tech sensors, heavy artillery, or B-52 strikes. American military commanders asked their colleagues at Fort Detrick if biological weapons might stanch the flow.
The planning turned to assessments of smallpox, a potential move that was logical, if desperate. A boomerang effect seemed unlikely, since American troops were routinely vaccinated against the contagious disease. And North Vietnamese troops appeared to be vulnerable. In some ways, the setting was ideal. Though Vietnam had experienced no smallpox outbreaks since 1959, the disease still lurked in neighboring countries, allowing an epidemic to be attributed to natural causes. In the argot of covert operations, the strike would be plausibly deniable, a key requirement.
But attacking with such a devastating disease had enormous potential drawbacks. The trail wove through three countries. Sickness and death could spread uncontrollably, possibly infecting allies and civilians. And North Vietnam could retaliate with other germ agents. The Communist government had powerful allies in China and the Soviet Union, both of which had biological arsenals.
The idea was shelved. In the years that followed, the American government took a leading role in the global effort to eradicate smallpox, which was still killing millions of people each year. With a determined program of vaccinations, doctors and public health workers wiped out history's worst killer in just a few years.
Meanwhile, the American military's deliberations about a smallpox attack remained secret.
With public opposition to the Vietnam War growing, protestors took aim at the federal government's program for biological weapons. Its outlines were known from news articles and such books as Theodor Rosebury's Peace or Pestilence. In 1967, thousands of scientists signed a petition questioning the military's efforts. The opponents included Meselson, the Harvard biologist. His voice carried weight because he was a prestigious scientist with secret clearances. Another critic was Seymour M. Hersh, the investigative journalist who wrote an exposé in 1968 that was subtitled America's Hidden Arsenal. Fiction echoed the rising criticism. In his debut novel, The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton imagined the military flying into space to gather pathogens for germ warfare. In the story, a satellite crashes to Earth and begins a deadly outbreak that threatens human extinction. The contrast to The Satan Bug was telling: the military had now become the villain.
At Fort Detrick, crowds of antiwar protesters marched outside the gates, past armed guards and barbed wire. The American public, while knowing no details of what went on inside, understood that Fort Detrick was the hub of germ warfare. "They'd turn their back on you," Patrick said of the protesters. "But we thought we were doing the patriotic thing because we were risking life and limb."
The risk was real. In late 1968, a high-speed centrifuge that was spinning test tubes suddenly broke down and shattered the glass vials, exposing Patrick's men to a fog of psittacosis bacteria. The debilitating germ causes high fever and a severe pneumonia with hacking coughs. Just before Christmas, the illness sent five workers into the base hospital.
Opposition grew and found new outlets. At an airport, Meselson bumped into his old Harvard colleague Henry Kissinger, a history professor whom Richard M. Nixon, the new president, had recently named his national security adviser. The two men had worked next door to each other at Harvard and had talked on more than one occasion. Kissinger knew of the biologist's unease about germ weapons. "What should we do?" Kissinger asked, Meselson recalled. "I said, 'Let me think about it. I'll write you some papers.'"
One of Meselson's studies, dated September 1969, argued that the weapons, while extremely destructive, were unnecessary. A light aircraft could deliver enough to kill populations over several thousand square miles, he wrote, but the disease could spread far beyond the target area or create a long-term epidemic hazard. The same fickleness was true of incapacitating germs, Meselson argued. In an attack they might actually cause a large number of deaths among both enemy personnel and intermingled civilians, or might cause too little incapacitation to be militarily effective.
Meselson asserted that the nation's strategic nuclear forces were enough to deter attack. "We have no need to rely on lethal germ weapons and would lose nothing by giving up the option," he wrote. "Our major interest is to keep other nations from acquiring them," he noted, since the living munitions constituted cheap atom bombs. "Germ weapons that could threaten a large city are much simpler and cheaper to acquire than the corresponding nuclear weapons."
Meselson's arguments fell on fertile ground. For all the nation's work on germ weapons, the military chiefs and defense secretary found them of little use for the projection of American military power. And President Nixon needed a dramatic gesture amid growing discontent over the Vietnam War.
On November 25, 1969, Nixon ended it all the tests, the accidents, the war preparations. "The U.S.," he said, "shall renounce the use of lethal biological agents and weapons, and all other methods of biological warfare. The U.S. will confine its biological research to defensive measures." The human race, he added, "already carries in its hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction." Nixon had been in office ten months. He made his announcement at Fort Detrick, smiling and clearly relishing his role as a peacemaker.
Patrick was there in the crowd, just feet away from the president. He later admitted that it was one of the darkest days of his life. He felt that the threat of responding in kind to foreign germ attacks was the best possible deterrent, and that the president was foolish to throw it away.
Biological toxins that were extracted from bacteria, such as staphylococcal enterotoxin B, were spared from the ban and reclassified as chemical weapons to evade the new policy. In January 1970 Meselson wrote another paper for the White House, which he said President Nixon read. It argued that classing the toxins produced by germs as chemical weapons was a technical distinction that undermined the administration's policy goals, as well as the president's credibility. "The arms control benefits of our newly decided policy," Meselson wrote, "will be reduced if we maintain biological laboratories where secret work is done." An active U.S. toxin weapons program, he argued, "would prevent us from demilitarizing and declassifying our biological research laboratories at Fort Detrick and our germ weapons production facility at Pine Bluff."
The next month, Nixon extended his renunciation of germ weapons to cover biological toxins. Detrick was out of the offensive business, after more than a third of a century. The White House directed the military to concentrate on germ defense, the mirror image of its previous work. Now the main goal was to foil a foe who might attack the United States with viruses, bacteria, or toxins. The Nixon administration became the world's leading advocate for a treaty banning germ warfare, which Washington now condemned as immoral and repugnant. Starting in 1972, the United States, the Soviet Union, and more than one hundred other nations signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The accord prohibited the possession of deadly biological agents except for research into such defensive measures as vaccines, detectors, and protective gear. It was the world's first treaty to ban an entire class of weapons.
But it was only a pledge, and the treaty was filled with loopholes. No limits were set on the quantities of germs that could be used for research. No standards were stated for distinguishing between defensive and offensive work. No forms of consultation were specified. No mechanisms of enforcement were established.
Analysts inside and outside the government nonetheless saw the international ban as entirely in America's self-interest. Their logic was simple: when war was costly and military action required tons of advanced equipment and nuclear arms, only the wealthiest countries could play the game. Cheap arms of devastating force leveled the playing field. And that, experts agreed, was something that Washington wanted to avoid. It was a point that Meselson, among others, had raised early and had argued in public and private for years.
But Patrick and his colleagues felt that many countries were unlikely to honor their pledges to renounce germ weapons, which were so inexpensive and effective that they were destined to proliferate clandestinely. Moreover, he and his colleagues worried that such weapons would eventually be used against America. "Most of the people I worked with the chief of the pilot plant division, the chief of munitions all these people thought, 'Jeez, it's going to come around to bite us,'" he recalled. "This stuff is too damn good to go away."
Despite his misgivings, Patrick helped Fort Detrick go from "black to white," as he put it. He aided the three-year effort of destroying the offensive arsenal and then began working to develop germ defenses at the newly established United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. This was the center of the government's new defensive effort. It was based at Fort Detrick, in the shadow of its predecessor. The defensive work had far fewer experts and buildings, and a much smaller budget, than the offensive program did. In time, the army lab became but one of many tenants on the sprawling Fort Detrick base.
But Patrick was uneasy. He not only disliked the gamble he felt the nation was taking but found that the new work ran counter to sensibilities he had developed over the decades. "It's a different world," Patrick said of finding ways to blunt germ attacks. "Defense studies are so much more complicated. It takes eighteen months to develop a weapons-grade agent and ten years to develop a good vaccine against it."
Patrick was frank about relishing his days as a germ warrior, saying he was comfortable with memories of killing animals, infecting people, and finding new ways to produce death. It was all part of military readiness, of deterring foes, of keeping the nation strong. "At the time we were doing this, the objective was to solve the problem and not consider the philosophical ramifications of what we were doing," he said. "On Fridays, when we'd sit around and bullshit, we wouldn't say, 'We have a moral obligation to curtail this!' It would be, 'How do we increase the concentration?' You never connected it to people. Maybe that's bad. But there was danger involved here.
"We used to think about the Chinese and the Russians. And if we had known what they were really doing, we would have worked harder."
Copyright © 2001, 2002 by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad