Scientist Maps U.S. Biological Defense

MONTEREY, California -- The only effective way for the United States to defend against biological weapon attacks would be to develop immune system boosters that could battle everything from the plague to smallpox, said Ken Alibek, a former Soviet expert in biological weapons.

Developing that type of booster would probably take five years and cost billions of dollars, but it would be far more effective than the current U.S. program to invent a variety of vaccines, he said Friday.

Alibek, 48, worked his way up the biological weapons program in the Soviet Union from 1975 until he quit in 1991 as deputy director of the entire complex.

He moved to the United States in 1992. Although friends say he defected, Alibek prefers to say that he came at the invitation of the U.S. government.

Until March, few people in the country knew of his existence. But an appearance on "Prime Time Live" followed by articles in The New Yorker magazine and The New York Times and a PBS interview, have thrust this somewhat reluctant speaker into the public circuit.

On Friday, he was a featured lecturer at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a small graduate school on California's central coast.

In Russia, he was Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, a man whose commitment to keeping up with what he heard was a tremendous biological weapons program in the enemy United States was unmatched.

These days he is a Defense Department adviser, and a program manager at Battelle Memorial Institute, working to undo potential harm from most of his life's work.

"Unfortunately, my main achievement was developing one of the most powerful weapons on Earth," he said.

Although Alibek will not discuss details of his dry form of anthrax, he will say that a small amount, not more than half a kilo or so, could kill 10,000 people in an urban metro system in a day.

Alibek said Moscow is likely continuing to develop and produce biological weapons, and said the only way to know for certain would be to open up four top-secret facilities in Russia.

In September 1992, President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged the existence of a Soviet biological weapons program, and since then has issued several decrees declaring that biological weapons-related activities are illegal.

The Foreign Ministry denies Alibek's allegations, and has repeatedly said Russia is complying with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.

Ministry spokesman Valery Nesterushkin has lashed out at "so-called former Soviet experts who earn a living by spreading false allegations."

Jonathan Tucker, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, said Western concerns about the program persist.

"Efforts at defense conversion and stemming the brain drain of former biological weapons scientists has been inadequate," he said.

Alibek said that by the early 1990s, about 70,000 doctors, scientists and engineers were working on the Soviet Union's biological weapons program. Some of those researchers remain in Russia, while others have spread since the end of the Cold War from North Korea to the United States.

Alibek said that his own experiences in the Soviet Union developing about 100 different forms of plague, smallpox, glanders and other diseases has convinced him that the only defense against the enormous and varied threat is a single immune booster.

"Bioterrorism and biological weapons could create quite a wide spectrum of consequences," he said. "You have to be prepared for any possible threat."