A Spy Among Us?

A Soviet mole might hav smuggled deadly viruses out of a Maryland Army base in the 1980s, experts say

July 30, 2006|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN REPORTER

It could be the plot of a Cold War thriller: A Soviet mole burrows into America's top biodefense lab and steals strains of the deadly viruses that cause Rift Valley and Lassa fevers.

He ships the killer microbes back to Moscow in the bags of Aeroflot pilots, who turn them over to a super-secret arm of the KGB that plots bioterror attacks.

A chilling tale of fictional intrigue? Some biowarfare experts think it actually happened at Fort Detrick in the 1980s, and they say there is evidence to support their suspicions.

Alexander Y. Kouzminov, a biophysicist who says he once worked for the KGB, first made the allegation last year in a book, Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West.

Biowarfare experts dismissed the memoir at first, largely because Kouzminov also claimed that a series of contemporary disease outbreaks resulted from the release of germ weapons.

But in recent weeks, another former Soviet scientist told The Sun that his lab routinely received dangerous pathogens and other materials from Western labs through a clandestine channel like the one Kouzminov described.

Also, a U.S. arms control specialist says he has independent evidence of a Soviet spy at Fort Detrick. Although not definitive, their statements buttress Kouzminov's allegations about the Frederick military installation.

Experts worry that the United States' huge $7-billion-a-year biological defense effort will increase the odds of bioterrorism - by generating dangerous new microbes and scientific knowledge that could be diverted or stolen.

The FBI declined to comment on the possibility of Soviet spying at Fort Detrick in the 1980s. However, if an agent once penetrated America's top biodefense lab, biowarfare experts say, the incident would show how difficult preventing such losses can be.

The Detrick agent, Kouzminov wrote, clandestinely "gained information" on experiments with Rift Valley and Lassa fevers, hemorrhagic diseases that can drown a victim in his own body fluid, as well as the bacterium that causes tularemia, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting and pneumonia.

KGB officials also sought a sample of the U.S. smallpox vaccine, although Kouzminov does not say whether they obtained it. Soviet defectors have reported that in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S.S.R. was trying to develop vaccine-resistant organisms capable of defeating U.S. biowarfare defenses.

Serguei Popov, a scientist once based in a Soviet bioweapons lab in Obolensk, south of Moscow, said that by the early 1980s his colleagues had obtained at least two strains of anthrax commonly studied in Detrick and affiliated labs. They included the Ames strain, first identified at Detrick in the early 1980s. It became the standard used for testing U.S. military vaccines, and it was the strain contained in the 2001 anthrax letters that killed five people and infected 23 in the U.S.

Popov, now at the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Disease at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said Obolensk researchers could easily obtain organisms mentioned in Western research papers.

"If you wanted `special materials,' you had to fill out a request," he said. "And, essentially, those materials were provided. How and by whom, I can't say."

One colleague, Popov said, used this "special materials" program to obtain a strain of Yersinia pestis, a plague bacterium being studied in a Western lab. But he didn't know whether that particular germ came from Detrick.

There has never been any doubt about Detrick's key role in the history of U.S. biowarfare. Once a sleepy military airfield, the facility was turned into a center for top-secret research into biological weapons in the waning days of World War II.

It remained so until 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon ended development of new U.S. bioweapons, and the military study of lethal organisms shifted to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID.

That agency was founded at Fort Detrick in the late 1960s to conduct defensive biological research. Its scientists developed new vaccines and drugs to treat natural and manmade outbreaks.

Given that change in mission, former Detrick scientists and arms control experts agree that there were no secret, offensive programs at Detrick in the 1980s. In fact, they say there wasn't much secret work at all.

But Kouzminov says the KGB still wanted specific items from Western labs - including Detrick - that were closely held or at least not widely available.

Those included samples of specific disease strains, the growth media used to raise microbes, and vaccines the labs developed. The Soviets also wanted the aerosol powders U.S. scientists used to infect animals with bioagents during drug and vaccine tests.

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