Selling the threat of bioterrorism
In the fall of 1992, Kanatjan Alibekov defected from Russia to the United States, bringing detailed, and chilling, descriptions of his role in making biological weapons for the former Soviet Union.
As a doctor of microbiology, a physician and a colonel in the Red Army, he helped lead the Soviet effort. He told U.S. intelligence agencies that the Soviets had devoted at least 30,000 scientists, working at dozens of sites, to develop bioweapons, despite a 1972 international ban on such work.
He said that emigrating Russian scientists and others posed imminent threats. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he said, several specialists went to Iraq and North Korea. Both countries, he said, may have obtained anthrax and smallpox. The transfer of smallpox would be especially ominous because the Russians, he said, had sought to genetically modify the virus, posing lethal risk even to those who had been vaccinated.
His expertise, combined with his dire pronouncements, solidified his cachet in Washington. He simplified his name to Ken Alibek, became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, and emerged as one of the most important voices in U.S. decisions to spend billions of dollars to counter anthrax, smallpox and other potential bioterrorism agents.
“It was Alibek’s revelations, when he defected, that really provided the first information about the scope” of both the Soviet program and the possible proliferation to Iran and Iraq, said Dr. Thomas Monath, who was a top biodefense specialist for the U.S. Army.
Monath, who later led a group of experts that advised the Central Intelligence Agency on ways to counter biological attacks, said Alibek’s information resonated at high levels of the U.S. government and was “amplified by 9/11.”
“I think he influenced many people who were in position to make some decisions about response,” Monath said, adding, “Concern about smallpox, in particular, was driven by Alibek.”
Dr. Kenneth W. Bernard, who served President Bush as a special assistant for biodefense, agreed, saying that Alibek “had a substantial and profound effect.”
Having raised the prospect that Iraq had acquired the ability to wield smallpox or anthrax, Alibek also was outspoken as the U.S. went to war in early 2003, saying there was “no doubt” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Officials still value his seminal depictions of the Soviet program. But recent events have propelled questions about Alibek’s reliability:
No biological weapon of mass destruction has been found in Iraq. His most sensational research findings, with U.S. colleagues, have not withstood peer review by scientific specialists. His promotion of nonprescription pills -- sold in his name over the Internet and claiming to bolster the immune system -- was ridiculed by some scientists. He resigned as executive director of a Virginia university’s biodefense center 10 months ago while facing internal strife over his stewardship.
And, as Alibek raised fear of bioterrorism in the United States, he also has sought to profit from that fear.
By his count, Alibek has won about $28 million in federal grants or contracts for himself or entities that hired him.
He has had well-placed help. Some of the money has been allocated because of a Southern California congressman’s “earmarks,” controversial budget maneuvers that direct federal agencies’ spending. Moreover, two senior aides to a New Jersey congressman who also provided crucial help to Alibek left government and promptly joined his commercial efforts.
Alibek now is seeking new government contracts related to countering biological terrorism that could be worth tens of millions of dollars.
He has followed an unconventional scientific approach, seeking a product that would protect against an array of deadly viruses and bacteria, not just a single germ.
He also is raising money to build a drug-manufacturing plant in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. From there, his company will seek to sell its antiviral agents and antibiotics to the U.S. government’s Strategic National Stockpile, he said.
Thickly built and with willing, if imperfect, English, Alibek said in an interview that his focus had been scientific, “in terms of raising awareness about biological weapons and biological terrorism.” An attack, he said, could kill “hundreds of millions, if not billions” of people.
The Los Angeles Times explored Alibek’s public pronouncements, research and business activities as part of a series that will examine companies and government officials central to the U.S. war on terrorism.
Uncertainty surrounds the threat of a biological attack. Authorities list no fewer than 30 fungi, bacteria and viruses as potential biological weapons. One agent, anthrax, already has been deployed in the U.S., killing five people in late 2001. Because anthrax spores can be dispersed in a variety of ways -- perhaps even by bomb -- some experts believe that a well-executed attack could kill millions of people over large areas. Others, citing the vagaries of weather, say that anthrax or other airborne agents are unlikely mass killers.
Some experts question Alibek’s characterizations of the threats.
Dr. Philip K. Russell, a retired Army major general and physician who joined the Bush administration from 2001 to 2004 to confront the perceived threat of smallpox, said he was convinced that Alibek had solid firsthand information about the former Soviet Union’s production of anthrax. But regarding other threats, such as genetically engineered smallpox, Russell said he “began to think that Ken was more fanciful than precise in some of his recollections.”
“He would claim that certain things had been done, and then when you came right down to it, he didn’t have direct knowledge of it -- he’d heard it from somebody. For example, the issue of putting Ebola genes into smallpox virus. That was viewed, at least in many of our minds, as somewhat fanciful. And probably not true.”
Alibek told The Times that the comments in question were based on articles he read in Russia’s “scientific literature.”
Alibek, 56, is now a player in the multibillion-dollar business that has sprouted around the U.S. war on terrorism.
It’s been a stark transformation for the former Communist military man.
Alibek grew up in Almaty, the capital of the then-Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. After entering the Tomsk Medical Institute in Siberia, he studied the 1942-43 battle of Stalingrad.
As he described in a 1999 memoir, “Biohazard,” Alibek concluded that the Soviets had waged biological warfare against the Germans and that “large numbers” of the invaders fell ill with tularemia, a deadly infectious disease also known as rabbit fever.
But Alibek also described a lesson he learned about the risk of waging germ warfare: Because of a wind shift, the Soviets had inadvertently infected their own troops and civilians, causing perhaps thousands of casualties.
When Alibek emerged with a medical degree, he was recruited by the Soviet government and climbed in military rank while earning a doctorate in microbiology. In 1987, he was promoted to a top position in Biopreparat, the civilian agency that ran the Soviets’ secret biological-weapons program.
Alibek has said he worked with numerous lethal agents -- including Marburg virus, plague, smallpox and a virulent “battle strain” of anthrax. The Soviets assumed that the U.S., which began developing germ weapons during World War II, maintained its program despite the 1972 international ban.
By the late 1980s, with the Cold War ending, teams of U.S. and Soviet biological warfare experts prepared to visit each other’s laboratories to see for themselves.
On Dec. 11, 1991, Alibek and his Soviet colleagues traveled to Ft. Detrick, Md., home to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where researchers studied how to protect troops from germ warfare, work that was allowed under the 1972 agreement. And Alibek began making personal connections that would soon ease his transition to American life.
None would prove more important to him than his rapport with USAMRIID director Charles L. Bailey, an entomologist and U.S. Army colonel.
Within a year, Alibek resigned from Biopreparat and fled to the U.S. with his wife and three children. Bailey retired from the Army but stayed at Ft. Detrick as an analyst with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
Bailey’s job was to assess what the Russians were up to.
This gave him a close view of Alibek’s confidential debriefings with U.S. intelligence agents. The debriefings, Bailey said, provided “very valuable” information about the Russian program. Alibek described threats beyond the Russian borders.
“Alibek thought that every country that had anthrax” also had smallpox, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, Bailey said.
In the mid-1990s, when Bailey went to work for a Huntsville, Ala., company with defense and intelligence contracts, Alibek visited frequently. They shared meals, attended horse shows. Alibek seemed to enjoy learning about American life.
“He was easy to like,” Bailey recalled. “We became friends.”
They also became a commercially sought-after team.
“I helped to build Alibek’s reputation with the military,” Bailey said. “A lot of people were impressed with Alibek. I was impressed.”
The Alabama company also hired Alibek as a consultant, and asked him to compose a history of the Soviet program that could be used by the intelligence community.
In 1997, the two worked together for Battelle, a large nonprofit research and development organization. Next, they moved to Virginia-based Hadron Inc., another firm that had ties to U.S. intelligence agencies. Alibek also circulated among government officials. He privately briefed Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, then vice chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s second-highest military officer.
Alibek made his first network-television news appearance in February 1998, and three months later testified at a congressional committee hearing on terrorism and intelligence. A news release said Alibek would “provide new information on Russia’s offensive biological weapons program.”
The only contact listed was a committee staffer named Vaughn Forrest, a onetime candidate for Congress. Forrest in the 1980s had traveled to Afghanistan to support the Muslims who ultimately drove out the invading Soviet Union. In helping Afghanistan’s mujahedin, Forrest had developed a productive relationship with the CIA. Forrest introduced Alibek to the chairman of the Senate-House Joint Economic Committee. Forrest took the lead in arranging the hearing.
He and Alibek formed a lasting bond.
In his 1999 memoir, Alibek said that Forrest “was among the first to perceive the potential” for developing a product that would guard against not one, but an array of biological agents.
Forrest introduced Alibek to others who could help, including Florida Republican Bill McCollum, then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Forrest had once been McCollum’s chief of staff. McCollum, now Florida attorney general, said Alibek “was worried about what the Soviets had made and what somebody else could get ahold of.”
The list of identified suspects, McCollum said, included Libya, Iran and Iraq.
“I thought we had a real threat from this,” McCollum said, adding that he distributed Alibek’s book to “people in the administration and also members of Congress.”
When Forrest left the congressional payroll, he became a consultant to Hadron Inc., where Alibek and Bailey worked. Forrest later became a director with Alibek in a successor company. Forrest declined to be interviewed for this report.
Alibek’s public profile rose after the Sept. 11 attacks and the mailings of anthrax a month later that killed five people.
Appearing before a House subcommittee on national security in October 2001, Alibek said that earlier “attempts to wipe out Iraq’s biological weapons capability were probably not successful.” He also told the subcommittee that Russian biological weapons experts had “emigrated to rogue nations such as Iraq.” As the U.S.-led war got underway in March 2003, Alibek said during an online discussion hosted by the Washington Post: “There is no doubt in my mind that [Saddam] Hussein has WMD.”
Fear that Iraq possessed smallpox was emphasized by the Bush administration leading up to the war. As Congress prepared to vote on whether to authorize war, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18, 2002, that a smallpox attack by Iraq could kill as many as 1 million Americans and infect an additional 2 million.
Alibek has not retreated from his statements regarding Iraq’s possession of smallpox or other biological weapons. He said in an interview that he had “talked to people who actually visited the Iraqi sites. And they said they had no doubt [there] was an offensive biological weapons program.... We need to look for the traces.”
It is a lonely position today.
“There’s been a lot of people thrashing around there for the last five years,” said Russell, the retired general. “I don’t think anybody could have hid it.”
Millions in funding
Alibek’s most reliable benefactor in Washington has been Rep. H. James Saxton (R-N.J.), a gravelly voiced former elementary school teacher and state legislator. Saxton says that for two decades, he has focused on the threat posed by Islamic terrorism.
For most of the last decade, Saxton chaired the House Armed Services Committee’s terrorism subcommittee and also headed the Joint Economic Committee, where Forrest landed as a senior aide.
On May 21, 2002, Saxton called a news conference to announce “a potential new defense against bioterrorism,” based on Alibek’s tests with mice. After being treated with an experimental product, the mice had survived doses of smallpox and anthrax.
Saxton at the time said that the results held hope for “lifting some of the burden of fear that haunts Americans.”
And, while fighting for an earmark of federal grant money for Alibek at a March 2004 hearing, Saxton upbraided Anthony Tether, the Bush administration’s director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“You need to be more on his side,” Saxton said of Alibek, adding: “I find it hard to believe that I have to fight as hard as I can to get a few measly bucks to keep him going.”
Tether assured Saxton that he would accede to his wishes. Tether did so -- and fresh grant money was sent for Alibek’s research.
Tether said that he had resisted spending more on Alibek’s research because his “cocktail approach” -- mixing more than one drug with other ingredients in search of a product that might protect against smallpox, anthrax and plague -- made it “very hard to determine what is working and what is not.”
The research could have dragged on for years with the ambiguous results, Tether told The Times.
“After the [March 2004] hearing, I basically said, ‘OK, this is it, Alibek. You’re either going to get over here and listen ... or you’re not going to get a nickel from us,’ ” Tether said.
He preserved the funding, Tether said, after Alibek agreed privately to change his approach and perform experiments outlined by Tether’s staff. Some of Alibek’s subsequent work with mice has shown promise, Tether said.
Alibek also has been helped by Mark A. O’Connell, a lobbyist and Republican fundraiser who for a decade served as Saxton’s congressional chief of staff. (Campaign contributions in recent years to Saxton from Alibek, Alibek’s wife and one of their business partners have totaled $14,450, public records show.)
O’Connell said he began lobbying Congress for Alibek’s company in mid-2003, two months after he left Saxton’s staff. His congressional salary, O’Connell said, was slightly below a revolving-door threshold that would have barred him from lobbying Saxton or his staff for one year. He confirmed that he had lobbied for the congressional earmarks benefiting Alibek’s company.
Saxton acknowledged in an interview that he had done much for Alibek since Forrest brought them together about a decade ago:
He said he introduced Alibek to then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and to other congressional and executive-branch leaders. Among them was Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who from 1999 to 2005 was chairman of the subcommittee that controlled spending for national security projects. Lewis headed the full House Appropriations Committee from 2005 to 2006.
Lewis, Saxton said, began providing the annual earmarks of federal money for Alibek’s projects.
“We were able to convince Jerry Lewis to begin an appropriations stream for him,” Saxton said.
Lewis’ spokesman, Jim Specht, did not return telephone calls seeking an interview with the congressman. Earmarks generate controversy because they enable some projects to win federal funding based more on political influence than competitive merit. And earmarks can be carried out discreetly, obscuring the identity of the originator.
This year, Saxton said, he has guided Alibek as he seeks an additional $10 million in research funds -- from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Saxton said that he had helped Alibek solely to bolster national security.
“I was committed to do whatever I could do to help develop an answer to problems posed by bioterrorism,” he said.
“And if they had worked for Alibek or not, I would have been just as committed,” he added, referring to Forrest and O’Connell.
Alibek’s federal research money also has come from the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the State Department, according to company and government documents.
The company that Alibek formed and for which Forrest serves as general manager and as a director, AFG Biosolutions Inc., has said that it is developing “a new generation of vaccines” and medicines for anthrax, smallpox, plague and tularemia.
Claims in question
Some of the projects Alibek has helped lead were promoted heavily but faltered.
One sensational claim came in a Sept. 11, 2003, news release from Virginia’s George Mason University, where Alibek two years earlier arrived on the faculty.
Findings from laboratory research led by Alibek and another professor, the news release said, suggested that smallpox vaccination might increase a person’s immunity to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The release quoted Alibek saying, “Our outcomes are very encouraging.”
University President Alan Merten weighed in, saying the research might “produce dramatic, practical benefits for future generations.”
Scientists elsewhere were less enthused.
They pointed out that George Mason had announced the results even though the Journal of the American Medical Assn. had declined to publish them. Alibek and his colleagues also submitted a paper summarizing the research to another prominent medical journal, the Lancet.
The paper “was rejected after peer review,” said Dr. Sabine Kleinert, senior executive editor of the Lancet, in an e-mailed comment.
More than three years later, no published study has replicated the provocative results touted by Alibek and his colleagues at George Mason. Neither Alibek nor his principal collaborator, who had worked at another university, is still pursuing the project.
“This is a theory that, I must say, does not hold up at all, and it does not make any sense from a biologic point of view,” said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, a former White House science advisor whose work with the World Health Organization is credited with eradicating smallpox outbreaks globally. “This idea ... was straight off the wall. I would put no credence in it at all.”
Alibek said that it was not his decision alone to issue the September 2003 news release. He ascribed others’ criticisms to professional jealousies.
Apart from the university or his company, Alibek has used his ties with the government to promote “Dr. Ken Alibek’s Immune System Support Formula,” nonprescription pills sold over the Internet. Advertisements for the product described Alibek as a biological and medical expert who had “testified before Congressional committees and is a frequent consultant to the U.S. government.”
Alibek acknowledged that he did “consulting work” for a dietary supplement company that distributed the product in his name, but said that he was not paid for subsequent sales. However, an aide to the chief executive of the company, Vital Basics Inc., said that Alibek was paid.
More recently, Alibek’s warnings of bioterrorist threats echoed in the debate surrounding “Project Bioshield,” signed into law by Bush in July 2004. The program, with an initial budget of about $5.6 billion, aims to encourage companies to develop vaccines or other products that could counter a biological or chemical attack.
And, as Alibek has warned Congress that enemies of the U.S. have sought genetically altered biological agents to resist antibiotics or vaccines, he has promoted products that would address those very threats:
In 2004, a San Diego company, Aethlon Medical Inc., signed Alibek to its advisory board and issued a report, co-written by Alibek, which said its product for filtering toxins from blood “could be rapidly deployed even against genetically altered biowarfare agents.”
Alibek’s report emphasized the availability of federal funds, including from Project Bioshield. Aethlon said that Alibek served without pay on the advisory board but “may be compensated for future consulting work.”
Alibek also hopes to tap into Project Bioshield with his own company.
He said that he expected to submit a proposal to sell what could be millions of dollars of medicines to the government for use in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency. As envisioned by Alibek, his drug facility in the Ukraine would produce generic versions of antiviral agents or antibiotics at a cost “three, four, five times lower” than if they were made in the U.S.
Meanwhile, within the last year an internal controversy flared regarding Alibek’s leadership of the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, a fledgling graduate program at George Mason. Alibek resigned as a tenured and distinguished professor there last Aug. 31.
University spokeswoman Christine LaPaille confirmed the resignation and said that George Mason was no longer collaborating with Alibek’s company on research backed by any of the recent federal grants or contracts. LaPaille declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Alibek’s departure.
Alibek said the college administration had grown displeased with his company’s role in sharing grant-funded research. The university, he said, requested that he dismantle or leave AFG Biosolutions. He chose to resign from George Mason.
This spring, Alibek traveled to the Ukrainian city of Kiev to push his plans for the drug-manufacturing plant and for a center for cancer and cardiac care. He did so after making comments, reported by the Russian news agency Interfax, which struck some officials in Washington as inconsistent with his previous dramatic claims:
Since 1992, Alibek has told U.S. intelligence agencies, and later general audiences, that Russia had persisted in developing biological weapons. For instance, in his memoir, “Biohazard,” subtitled, “The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World -- Told From Inside by the Man Who Ran It,” Alibek wrote in 1999:
“I am convinced that a large portion of the Soviet Union’s offensive program remains viable despite [then-President Boris N.] Yeltsin’s ban on research and testing.”
And in a September 2000 interview with an online publication sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Alibek said:
“Russia is still retaining its biological weapons capability, specifically at the Ministry of Defense. The Ministry of Defense is maintaining four major research and production sites, which are still active.”
But as reported by Interfax, Alibek in November 2005 told a different story in his ancestral hometown of Almaty: As of the early 1990s, Alibek said, the Russians had stopped “all work to develop biological weapons.”
The arc of Alibek’s statements has not been lost on Bailey, the former USAMRIID chief who remains at George Mason after having been recruited there six years ago by his former friend. Does the inconsistency cause him to reassess Alibek’s earlier statements regarding global biological threats?
Bailey answered quietly.
“Definitely, it does.”
Times researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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Selling the threat
After helping to lead the Soviet Union’s germ-weapons program, Dr. Ken Alibek defected to the U.S. and began warning about the threat of a mass-casualty biological attack. Alibek also has sought to profit from the fear of such weapons of mass destruction, landing federal contracts or grants for himself or entities that hired him totaling about $28 million, including several listed below.
1992: Alibek begins describing to the Central Intelligence Agency details of the biological weapons that he helped research and develop for the then-newly dissolved Soviet Union. The alleged magnitude of the program stuns U.S. officials.
May 1998: Alibek tells a congressional committee that the Russians had produced “hundreds of tons of anthrax weapons” and “tons of smallpox and plague.” And by using genetic engineering, Alibek says, the Russians sought to “develop antibiotic-resistant” strains of various viruses. Alibek also raises the possibility that Soviet weapons scientists sold their expertise to regimes averse to the U.S., such as Iraq and Iran.
1999: In his memoir, Alibek writes: “I am convinced that a large portion of the Soviet Union’s offensive program remains viable despite [then-President Boris N.] Yeltsin’s ban on research and testing.”
October 2001: Appearing before a House subcommittee just a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Alibek says some Russian biological weapons experts “have emigrated to rogue nations such as Iraq.” He adds that he believes some countries have secret stocks of smallpox, and that “well-funded terrorist groups are capable of purchasing the knowledge” needed to execute a biological attack.
March 2003: As the U.S.-led war in Iraq gets underway, Alibek tells an online forum: “There is no doubt in my mind that [Saddam] Hussein has WMD.”
April 2007: Asked in an interview to reconcile his earlier statements with the failure to find smallpox or any other weapon of mass destruction in Iraq, Alibek says: “We need to look for the traces.”
July 2001: A company at which Alibek is an executive, Advanced Biosystems, wins a $3.59-million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
March 2004: A Republican committee chairman, Rep. H. James Saxton of New Jersey, upbraids the Bush administration’s director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on Alibek’s behalf. “You need to be more on his side,” Saxton says. The official, Anthony Tether, reassures Saxton, and releases grant money for Alibek’s research.
July 2004: Saxton and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) work to insert earmarks in appropriation bills that steer millions of dollars to research led by Alibek at George Mason University and at a Maryland company he co-founded, AFG Biosolutions Inc.
2005-2007: Alibek’s company wins more than $1 million in small-business innovation research grants from the National Institutes of Health. One of the company’s directors is a former aide to Rep. Saxton, and its Washington lobbyist is Saxton’s former chief of staff.