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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Defector Lays Germ Warfare Program Bare

NEW YORK -- The most senior defector from the Soviet germ-warfare program says in a new book that Soviet officials concluded that China had suffered a serious accident at one of its secret plants for developing biological weapons, causing two major epidemics.

The book also reports that Soviet researchers tried to turn HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, into a weapon, and that even as the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, pursued peace openings with the West, he ordered a vast expansion of the deadly effort to turn germs and viruses into weapons of mass destruction.

The defector, Kanatjan Alibekov, now known as Ken Alibek, says in the book that as deputy director of a top branch of the Soviet program, he knew of the disaster in China because he saw secret Soviet intelligence reports twice a month.

Spy satellites peering down at China found what seemed to be a large biological-weapons laboratory and plant near a remote site for testing nuclear warheads, he wrote. Intelligence agents then found evidence that two epidemics of hemorrhagic fever swept the region in the late 1980s. The area had never previously known such diseases, which cause profuse bleeding and death.

The allegation is one of several in Alibek's new book, "Biohazard," which was written with a journalist, Stephen Handelman, and is being published by Random House.

U.S. intelligence officials who know what Alibek said in secret debriefings after his defection in 1992 give his new account considerable credence. They have called him highly believable about the subjects he knows firsthand, like the Soviet biological-weapons program from 1975 to 1992, when he served as one of Moscow's top germ warriors. He is less reliable, they say, on political and military issues that he knows secondhand.

The book asserts that Gorbachev, in his "characteristic scrawl," signed a five-year plan for 1985 to 1990 that ordered the most ambitious effort ever for the development of deadly germs and viruses, including smallpox, as weapons. In 1980, world health authorities declared the ancient scourge eradicated from all human populations.

In 1988, as Russians and Americans were negotiating new arms-control treaties, officials "at the highest levels," Alibek said, ordered the arming of giant SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago with anthrax and other deadly germs. Contacted through his office in Moscow, Gorbachev sidestepped Alibek's charges and questions about the germ program.

Among the book's new disclosures are:

?The Russians mastered the art of rearranging genes to make harmful microbes even more potent and harder to counteract. Anthrax, a top biological warfare agent that causes high fever and death, was genetically altered, he says, to resist five kinds of antibiotics.

?The top-secret program obtained a sample of HIV, the AIDS virus, from the United States in 1985 and tried unsuccessfully to turn the slow killer into a weapon.

?A senior military official told him that the Soviet Union had waged germ warfare in Afghanistan from planes, spraying armed rebels with glanders in an unsuccessful bid to subdue them. Glanders is a chronic bacterial disease of horses that can be highly lethal in humans.

?Under a top-secret project known as Bonfire, Soviet scientists in 1989 discovered "a new class of weapons" f now called bioregulators f that could "damage the nervous system, alter moods, trigger psychological changes and even kill." The KGB secret police agency was particularly interested in them because they "could not be traced by pathologists." A Soviet program called Flute worked on germs and other agents that could be used mainly for political assassinations.

In his book, Alibek says the Soviet state devoted a considerable part of its treasury to readying deadly germs for war. At its peak in the late 1980s, he writes, the program had 60,000 employees working at scores of sites throughout the Soviet Union.