Commentary Magazine


Germs by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad

Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War
by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad
Simon & Schuster. 382 pp. $27.00

Osama Bin Laden has threatened all Americans with death. Biological agents now in existence can help make that happen. Biological-warfare capabilities have already made their way into the hands of terrorists, and have been used. The possibility cannot be excluded that bin Laden or some other terrorist, or terrorist state, will attempt to make good on his promise. Neither can the possibility that whoever does so will succeed.

The stark reality behind these statements emerges with painful vividness from Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War. Any honest reader must agree with the book’s conclusion: “We remain woefully unprepared for a calamity that would be unlike any this country has ever experienced.” And, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center and the anthrax outbreak of mid-October, events that occurred after Germs went to press, most readers will surely wish to add: “Something must be done urgently.”

Germs is a well-written, journalistic account of the history of biological-warfare programs, leavened with a few detailed excursions into actual attacks, events that may have been attacks, and other relevant international crises. All three of its authors are associated with the New York Times, Judith Miller as a reporter specializing in the Middle East and the former Soviet republics, Stephen Engelberg as the paper’s investigations editor, and William Broad as a science writer. In twelve chapters, proceeding roughly chronologically, they tell the story of germ warfare from the early programs in the Soviet Union and the U.S. at the outset of the cold war up through the present day. Among the subjects they treat in detail are a salmonella attack by a religious cult in Oregon on its neighbors during the 1980’s, the 1995 release of Sarin gas in Tokyo by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, and our long post-Gulf-war standoff with Iraq over its biological-weapons program.

Germs is a quick read, extensively researched, carefully argued, and perhaps excessively moderate in its conclusions. The book’s organization leaves something to be desired, especially in later chapters where the chronological framework compels the authors to hop back and forth between crises instead of dealing with each one systematically. Miller, Engelberg, and Broad also oversimplify the medical science underlying their arguments, a perhaps unavoidable flaw in a book aimed at a popular audience. A more serious problem is that later chapters rely largely on accounts by government officials, and lack the sort of verification that can only come from an independent look at documentary evidence that is still classified. This is a pitfall in almost any work of contemporary history, but because, in biological warfare, the devil literally is in the details, Germs may be especially in need of revision as more information becomes available.

This is hardly to say, however, that Miller, Engelberg, and Broad are guilty of exaggeration. Quite the contrary: not only would it be difficult to exaggerate the danger we are in, but prior, facile dismissals of its extent and immediacy have themselves had a major hand in bringing it about. Throughout the cold war, at least some students of Soviet chemical- and biological-weapons programs warned repeatedly that the Russians were extremely advanced in their capabilities and in open violation of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention they had signed and ratified in 1972. But many others refused to believe it, arguing, in effect, that in the absence of conclusive proof we had to trust the Russians because the alternative was too ghastly to contemplate. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the truth came out. The pessimists had been far too cautious: the Soviet germ-warfare program was light-years beyond anything even they had estimated.

The same pattern was evident in Iraq following the Gulf war. The United Nations inspection regime (UNSCOM) was itself split over the scale and significance of Iraqi efforts; for a long time, the team leader, Rolf Ekeus, was unwilling to act on indications that the Iraqis were concealing a massive germ-warfare program. Then in 1995 a defecting member of the Iraqi ruling family revealed that the program was much farther advanced than anyone had speculated, and pointed to evidence lying under the inspectors’ very noses.

The moral of these stories is plain. Regimes bent on mischief can escape detection and/or retribution almost indefinitely by raising doubts about evidence, presenting innocuous explanations for suspicious-seeming activities, and in general exploiting the unwillingness of Western scientists and diplomats to believe that anyone would seriously conceive of, let alone act upon, programs as horrific as those inspired by Soviet and Iraqi laboratory experiments.

So the first lesson that emerges from Germs is that there is unlimited evil in the world, and it is aimed at us. And the second lesson is that the United States government has been culpably negligent in its failure to respond to that evil. The record of this negligence spans administrations and political parties: the elder George Bush was as much to blame as Bill Clinton, and, until the most recent attacks, the current Bush administration showed few signs of doing any better.

The reason is simple: money. Although most of the countermeasures described in Germs would have cost only in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, American politicians, disbelieving or denying the seriousness of the threat, were unwilling to allocate the necessary funds. As a result, basic precautions, like preparing and stockpiling effective vaccines and antibiotics, were never taken. Even in the past five years, when the possibility of some sort of terrorist attack using chemical or biological agents became increasingly credible, research into vaccines and antitoxins never received urgent or even expedited consideration by the Food and Drug Administration, which preferred to concentrate instead on such questions as whether or not to ban the import of unpasteurized parmesan cheese. As we now race to catch up, it is sobering to be reminded that a reasonable amount of money, wisely spent, could have markedly diminished our vulnerability.

What then to do? The third lesson to emerge from Germs, and in many respects the hardest to absorb, is the need to avoid panic. The evidence presented by Miller, Engelberg, and Broad, ghastly as it is, nevertheless shows that it is easier to grow germs than to use them, and even the best-that is, worst—designs of our enemies will not always succeed. If we continue to shut down critical public facilities every time a trace of unexplained white powder is found, we will impose upon ourselves a psychic and economic cost that, over the long run, may be greater than any but the most devastating assault could exact.

For all the importance of defensive measures, moreover, the best defense remains a good offense. The Iraqis are still working feverishly to develop germ weapons so horrible that adjectives fail. That being so, what possible justification can there be for leaving Saddam Hussein in power? How can we tolerate a Syria that actively abets terrorist organizations working on similar horrors? It is true that anthrax and extract botulinum toxin can be grown in relatively primitive labs, but to “weaponize” such toxins for the purposes of large-scale attack has so far proved to be beyond the powers of most loosely organized terrorist groups. To topple the states that harbor and support these groups may not eliminate the danger, but it will go a long way toward mitigating it.

Lastly, a lesson that goes beyond Germs: we also cannot afford to focus on the biological-warfare threat to the exclusion of others. Not all of our enemies are terrorists or terrorist states, and neither are terrorists helpless without biological weapons, as the attack on the World Trade Center demonstrates. The United States has lived complacently for too long in the belief that the seas protect our continent-island sanctuary. Along with other recent events, this excellent book is a very powerful alarm bell.

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