Secret U.S. report concludes 3 nations likely hold smallpox

N. Korea, Iraq, Russia believed to have stocks of virus for military use

June 13, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A secret federal intelligence assessment completed this year concludes that Iraq, North Korea and Russia probably hold concealed smallpox virus for military use, government officials say.

The assessment, the officials say, is based on evidence that includes disclosures by a senior Soviet defector, blood samples from North Korean soldiers that show recent smallpox vaccinations and the fairly recent manufacture of smallpox vaccine by Iraq.

The officials say the warning was a deciding factor in President Clinton's recent decision to forgo destruction of U.S. stocks of the virus.

Besides the United States, only Russia retains openly declared stocks of the virus, nearly 20 years after the disease was declared eradicated. The intelligence assessment concludes that Russia is most likely hiding additional stocks of the virus at military sites.

Although the United States has about 56,000 troops stationed near Iraq and North Korea and is periodically bombing Iraq, the officials say there appears to be no imminent military threat involving the virus.

For centuries the virus that causes smallpox, variola, ravaged the globe, killing millions and crippling many survivors.

Victims suffered high fever, nausea and a rash that left survivors with permanently pocked skin. The disease was highly contagious and quick to attack anyone without immunity, making it one of history's great killers.

The United States unilaterally renounced germ warfare in 1969 and lobbied for a 1972 international ban, which more than 100 nations signed.

Iraq and North Korea have repeatedly denied that they have programs to develop germ weapons and both are signatories of the 1972 treaty. And Mikhail A. Shurgalin, a spokesman at the Russian Embassy in Washington, denied that Russia maintains secret military stocks of smallpox.

The warning was based on an analysis of years of accumulated data, say the American officials, and was prompted by a White House review of whether U.S. stocks of the smallpox virus should be destroyed.

The United States had previously sided with many other nations in urging that destruction.

The new intelligence assessment, officials said, helped persuade a team of presidential advisers to unanimously urge Clinton to delay the virus' destruction, a reversal the White House announced April 22.

A senior Defense Department official familiar with the assessment said that destroying the virus at the two official repositories, in Russia and the United States, and declaring it abolished globally would be "perpetrating a fraud."

Another key factor in Clinton's decision, officials said, was a report by the National Academy of Sciences concluding that keeping the virus would speed the development of new anti-viral treatments.

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