Review of GERMS: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War

Review of GERMS: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War

GERMS: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War
Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad
Simon & Schuster

When Judith Miller reached for her mail on October 12, her attention was focused on a financial story, not germ warfare, a subject she had spent years investigating as a reporter for the New York Times. But suddenly, biowarfare was in her face—literally.

As Miller later explained to Times readers, "Had I not been distracted, I probably would not have opened the stamped letter in the plain white envelope with no return address." But open it she did. A talc-like substance spilled out, "dusting my face, sweater, and hands." Soon, moon-suited technicians converged on the newsroom. Tests for anthrax were negative. But the incident brought home the terrifying scenarios that Miller and two Times colleagues, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, explore in an all too timely book, Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War.

In 1997 the authors set out to investigate why the government was preparing to vaccinate U.S. troops against deadly anthrax. Their research uncovered a buried history of military work on infectious organisms, cultivated for the sole purpose of killing or incapacitating an enemy. Few government leaders have acknowledged this black art, much less offered a rationale for funding it, though germ warfare budgets continue to expand. Like it or not, the authors contend, we must come to grips with this secret history and guard against its implicit threat.

They begin by describing a little-reported 1984 biological attack on residents of Wasco County, Oregon. Followers of a cult leader known as the Bagwan Shree Rajneesh had clashed with authorities over the Bagwan's plan to expand a communal ranch. The issue was up for a public vote; cult members, the Rajneeshees, hatched a diabolical scheme to brew salmonella and sprinkle it in local food supplies to sicken voters (most of whom opposed the cult) and keep them away from the polls. (A preelection test run made 751 people sick.) But the Rajneeshees suffered an internal split before the election: the plot was foiled. In 1986 a handful of perpetrators were caught; two served brief prison terms.

Next, the authors focus on Russian and U.S. investments in bioweapons. This country built a massive arsenal that included anthrax, smallpox and botulinum toxin. President Nixon unilaterally halted this program in 1969, ordered the stocks destroyed (which they were but for a small arsenal held secretly by the CIA) and invited the Soviet Union to follow. The Soviets agreed publicly but privately invested in bioweapons on a mind-boggling scale. Their deadly stockpile grew to include hundreds of tons of smallpox, anthrax and plague germs.

Now the weapons developed by the United States and the former Soviet Union have spilled over to the less-developed world. The grim conclusion: "We remain woefully unprepared for a calamity that would be unlike any this country has ever experienced."

Eliot Marshall, based in Washington, D.C., is an editor and writer at Science.

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