The Rebirth of American Biological Warfare : GENE WARS Military Control Over the New Genetic Technologies<i> by Charles Piller and Keith R. Yamamoto (Beech Tree Books/William Morrow: $18.95; 352 pp.) </i>

<i> Kevles, the author of "The Physicists" (Harvard University Press), is Koepfli Professor of the Humanities at Caltech. </i>

The U.S. military began serious investigations of biological warfare (BW) early in World War II and continued them after the defeat of Japan, mainly at Ft. Detrick, Md., where research was conducted on the weapons potential of a variety of diseases, including typhus, plague, yellow fever, and botulism. The Ft. Detrick work benefited from BW data obtained during the war by the Japanese, who had used nearly 3,000 prisoners as human guinea pigs (the data was decidedly valuable, a high-ranking Ft. Detrick scientist remarked, explaining, “Such information could not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation”). During the 1950s and 1960s, Army scientists pursued BW research by conducting animal experiments and hundreds of secret open-air tests in the Army’s Utah proving grounds.

Nevertheless, practical considerations kept the military’s enthusiasm for biological agents in check: They seemed to be almost useless as either offensive or retaliatory weapons, since they might, for example, accidentally infect friendly populations or one’s own troops. Thus, on Nov. 25, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon unilaterally renounced BW, ordering the destruction of U.S. stockpiles and ending all but defensive research. He also set the country upon a course that resulted in its ratification, in 1975, of the 1925 Geneva Protocol against the use of chemical and biological weapons and of a new Convention, negotiated in 1972, that broadened the Protocol to include severe strictures against BW.

However, as Charles Piller and Keith Yamamoto point out in this highly informative and disturbing book, the recent advent of biotechnology--particularly the techniques of recombinant DNA--has revived the military’s interest in biological warfare. In 1986, a Defense Department official told Congress, “The technology that now makes possible so-called ‘designer drugs’ also makes possible designer BW.” Biotechnology has stimulated offensive visions--for example, organisms or toxins custom-made to defeat an enemy’s available vaccines or to prey upon an adversary’s ethnobiological characteristics (because of genetic variations, particular ethnic or racial groups are more susceptible than others to certain diseases or toxins). Biotechnology has also raised hopes of devising more effective defenses (for example, vaccines tailored to protect troops against their own biological weapons).


Piller and Yamamoto note that the 1972 Convention on BW allowed for defensive research, thus creating a large loophole in the agreement. Defensive research can easily be interpreted to require investigation into the offensive biological agents that need to be defended against. Planners in the Department of Defense have been increasingly prone to exploit the loophole since Ronald Reagan entered the White House. Reagan Administration officials insist that the Soviets are pursuing a major program of offensive BW research and development, so the United States must maintain a vigorous effort of its own. According to “Gene Wars,” there is little if any evidence of a growing Soviet BW threat. All the same, since 1981, the U.S. BW budget, which had stagnated in the 1970s, has risen at an average of 37% annually, reaching about $90 million in fiscal 1985.

The bulk of “Gene Wars” is devoted to an examination of American policy and activities in biological warfare since the 1960s--not an easy subject to get at. Federal law mandates that BW research is to be defensive, unclassified, and open, but the Defense Department has been less than forthcoming with information about its efforts in the area. Piller and Yamamoto found it simple to obtain from Ft. Detrick a cursory list of BW projects and investigators but very difficult to get anything more substantial about the projects than a few descriptive phrases.

However, Piller, who is an investigative journalist, and Yamamoto, who is an accomplished molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, combine considerable resourcefulness with technical knowledge. They have managed to gather data from a wide range of technical analyses and reports and from materials obtained through more than a dozen requests for information that one of them submitted under the Freedom of Information Act to the Defense Department (which routinely took months of repeated badgering to respond).

With this hard-won information, they have pieced together a mosaic of the American BW program--about as revealing a portrait as one might hope to achieve with unclassified material. “Gene Wars” is perhaps the most searching analysis of its subject currently available to the general public. The book is also an arresting brief against much of the U.S. BW program.

In the convincing view of Piller and Yamamoto, it is unlikely that miraculous new biological weapons (the ethnically specific or any other kind) lie just around the corner. It is also unlikely that biotechnology can yield weapons any less awkward or more effective than the products of conventional bacteriology that were rejected in the past as militarily impractical. The authors conclude--from brief summaries of the purpose and content of 329 Defense Department biotechnology research projects--that a sizable fraction of the BW effort concerns potentially offensive applications and that another sizable fraction is poorly conceived or addresses problems of dubious significance. They also find that the military’s leading BW researchers have tended to spend a lot of money yet publish little in reputable scientific journals. In the authors’ view, many Defense Department laboratories may be filled with “incompetents” or their scientists may be conducting “illicit, secret research”--not an implausible speculation, since, as they rightly remind us, for several decades the U.S. government has “systematically lied about, hidden, and disguised the range, depth, and goals” of its enterprises in chemical and biological warfare.

While Piller and Yamamoto concede the necessity of some type of American BW research program, they urge several steps toward a reduction of the U.S. role in the intensification of preparations for biological warfare. Basic to these steps is the elimination of all secret BW research and development. In addition, they call upon professional scientific societies to expel members who work on biological warfare. One doubts that, in the current climate, their recommendations will compel assent in the scientific community, let alone in the political system. The value of “Gene Wars” lies in the chilling report it provides of the U.S. BW program and in the alarm it raises against permitting the arms race to expand into a new and insidious arena.