SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2012, Issue No. 70
July 18, 2012

Secrecy News Blog: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/

THE HISTORY OF THE SOVIET BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS PROGRAM

In 1972, the United States, the Soviet Union and other nations signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention that was supposed to ban biological weapons. At that very time, however, the Soviet Union was embarking on a massive expansion of its offensive biological weapons program, which began in the 1920s and continued under the Russian Federation at least into the 1990s.

The astonishing story of the Soviet biological weapons enterprise is told in an encyclopedic new work entitled "The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History" by Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas (Harvard University Press, 2012).

The Soviet biological weapons (BW) program was by far the largest and most sophisticated such program ever undertaken by any nation. It was also intensely secretive, and was masked by layers of classification, deception and misdirection.

"The program's most important facilities remain inaccessible to outsiders to this day," Leitenberg and Zilinskas write, "and it has been made a crime for anyone in present-day Russia to divulge information about the former offensive BW program." Needless to say, official archives are closed and Russian government officials are uncommunicative on the subject, or deny the existence of the program altogether.

Over a period of a decade or so, Leitenberg and Zilinskas were able to interview about a dozen former Soviet scientists who were involved in the Soviet BW program, along with dozens of other sources. Their revelations inform the authors' analysis and serve to advance public knowledge of the subject far beyond previous reports. Even relatively well-known incidents like the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax epidemic are cast in a new light. Many other aspects of the program will be entirely unfamiliar to most readers.

Much of the book is devoted to a description of the vast infrastructure of Soviet BW research and production, including descriptions of the various institutes, their history, their workforce and the nature of their research, as far as it could be discerned. Along the way, many fascinating and sometimes horrific topics are addressed. For example:

In 23 chapters, the authors painstakingly examine many facets of the history, structure and operation of the Soviet BW program. They scrupulously cite prior scholarship on the subject, while sorting out verifiable fact, plausible inference, dubious speculation, and error or fabrication. (Thus, "No SS-18 ICBM bomblet delivery system was ever completed, none was ever tested, and obviously none could ever have been employed.")

But even after 900 pages of often dense text, "there are large gaps in our understanding of the Soviet BW program" and "readers are cautioned that much remains to be discovered."

"We have not been able to resolve definitively some of the most important questions," they observe. Unanswered questions involve basic issues such as the motivation and purpose of the program. Why did the Soviet Union pursue the development and acquisition of biological weapons? Who was to be targeted by Soviet biological weapons the US? China? Europe? and under what conceivable circumstances? And what happens now?

Following a brief period during the Yeltsin years during which Russian officials acknowledged this activity, "Russia's current official position is that no offensive BW program had existed in the Soviet Union."

* * *

The History of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program was reviewed by author David E. Hoffman in Foreign Policy last month.

In 2010 the US Government signed an agreement with the former Soviet Republic of Armenia to cooperate in the control or destruction of dangerous pathogens, and in other efforts to prevent proliferation of biological weapons. The agreement, one of several such documents, was published earlier this year.


PUBLISHING SCIENTIFIC PAPERS WITH POTENTIAL SECURITY RISKS

The recent controversy over publication of scientific papers concerning the transmissibility of bird flu virus was reviewed in a new report by the Congressional Research Service. The report cautiously elucidates the relevant policy implications and considers the responses available to Congress.

"Because of the complexity of dual-use issues, analysis of a topic according to one set of policy priorities may lead to unforeseen complications due to its intersection with other policy priorities," the report says. "For example, maximizing security may lead to detriments in public health and scientific advancement, while maximizing scientific advancement may lead to security risks."

See "Publishing Scientific Papers with Potential Security Risks: Issues for Congress," July 12, 2012:


FY2013 DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION, AND MORE FROM CRS

Some other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following.

Defense: FY2013 Authorization and Appropriations, July 13, 2012:

The Unified Command Plan and Combatant Commands: Background and Issues for Congress, July 17, 2012:

LIBOR: Frequently Asked Questions, July 16, 2012:

The 2001 and 2003 Bush Tax Cuts and Deficit Reduction, July 16, 2012:

Guatemala: Political, Security, and Socio-Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations, June 26, 2012:

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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