Russia's Poorly Guarded Past

Security Lacking at Facilities Used for Soviet Bioweapons Research

June 17, 2002; Page A01
By Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writer

POKROV, Russia -- Bunker 12A of the Pokrov Biologics Plant is a pill factory like none other on Earth.

To enter, visitors pass through the five-ton blast doors and down the steep corridor to an underground laboratory, built of reinforced concrete to survive a nuclear attack. Inside, a few dozen workers in white coats churn out pain-relief tablets in a room lined with relics from the plant's still-secret past: 30-year-old machines used for growing viruses. Ask the plant's director about the bunker or machines and he chooses his words carefully.

"These were built," Vladimir Gavrilov says, "to handle very dangerous pathogens."

In fact, the full extent of the dangers posed by this obscure pharmaceutical factory is only beginning to be appreciated. Most of the ingredients for a biological weapon still exist here in a crumbling and poorly guarded facility that has become another front line in the battle to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Built ostensibly as a vaccine factory for farm animals, Pokrov operated for decades as a secret within a secret: An off-the-books participant in a clandestine military program that produced the most fearsome biological weapons ever imagined. Together with a sister plant across town, Pokrov specialized in livestock maladies such as foot-and-mouth disease that could be put into weapons and unleashed on American farms in a future war, Russian and U.S. officials say. The same kinds of biological weapons are known to be coveted by al Qaeda, the terrorist group linked last week to a plot to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in a U.S. city.

"Anti-livestock" or "anti-agriculture" weapons can wreak economic havoc and even undermine a nation's ability to feed itself. Under the Soviets, as many as six agricultural research centers and up to 10,000 scientists and technicians were believed to have been devoted to developing them, working under a shroud of secrecy that persists today and complicates efforts to keep dangerous materials out of the hands of terrorists, U.S. officials say.

At some of the facilities, animals weren't the only targets. Pokrov's five underground bunkers were equipped as standby production facilities that could also manufacture smallpox weapons in times of war, according to former participants in the Soviet program and U.S. biodefense experts. "Pokrov could do it all," said a senior U.S. analyst familiar with the plant. "It could produce the virus . . . weaponize it and even fill the bombs."

Russia says it has halted offensive biological research and destroyed its bioweapons stockpile. There are close parallels between offensive biological weapons programs, which use lethal pathogens, and the development of defensive vaccines and other medicines using the same dangerous materials. Russia, like the United States, continues to carry out research with a wide range of dangerous microbes, developing vaccines and drugs to defend against natural outbreaks as well as acts of terrorism.

Gavrilov, Pokrov's director, said the facility is engaged only in developing vaccines and other civilian products. According to U.S. officials, the facility is believed to possess more than a dozen viruses, including Newcastle, a highly contagious disease that infects poultry and other birds.

The microbes, along with equipment needed to grow them in massive quantities, are housed in a dilapidated compound that struggles daily to do the basics: patching together its ancient alarm system, paying the arrears of its electricity bill and keeping its underpaid scientists from being lured away to other countries.

Terrorism is a constant worry. Gavrilov acknowledged there have been break-ins, as well as attempts by mysterious "Arab businessmen" to purchase various things. He said none of the attempts succeeded, as far as he knows.

"We have security concerns," the plant's director said cautiously. "But fixing them will be complicated and expensive."

Western governments have done virtually nothing to help, despite a growing awareness of the disaster that could result if terrorists acquire a single vial of the deadly microbes stored at Pokrov and more than 50 similar sites in the former Soviet Union. U.S. programs launched 10 years ago to help Russia secure its nuclear weapons have only recently begun targeting biological and chemical facilities, and progress has been slowed by money shortages and bureaucratic resistance in both countries.

Some of the largest of the former Soviet bioweapons centers, such as Vector, the onetime smallpox production complex in western Siberia, have erected fences and installed security cameras in the past three years with U.S. assistance. But at Pokrov, the first formal security assessment isn't scheduled to begin until the fall, despite two years of requests for assistance. Other bioweapons factories have yet to be visited by U.S. officials.

"On the biological side we are far, far behind," said Raymond Zilinskas, a microbiologist and bioweapons expert with the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California. "There's a whole history of things that went on in these plants that we don't even know about."

In a country that produced the world's largest stockpiles of biological weapons, there are ample reasons to fear the unknown. Iran has made attempts to obtain Russian material and know-how for its own bioweapons programs. The same al Qaeda leaders that plotted to explode a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States had an equally ambitious plan for acquiring bacteria and viruses of the kind used in Soviet weapons programs, CIA officials told Congress this year.

Former senator Sam Nunn, who has long advocated securing Soviet weapons of mass destruction as a national priority, said a brief visit to Pokrov last month was a reminder of why loose biological, nuclear and chemical material remains the "world's gravest threat."

"We are in a new arms race: a race between those seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction and those seeking to stop them," Nunn said. "Keeping dangerous things out of the hands of dangerous people is the most important thing we can do."

A Heavily Fortified Vaccine Factory

Even now, a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, Pokrov's managers won't talk about the peculiar brand of agricultural research conducted there in the last decade of the Cold War.

Officially, the story is the same as it was in Soviet times: The plant produced only livestock and poultry vaccines for peaceful purposes. As a civilian institute of the Agriculture Ministry, Pokrov had no visible ties to the Soviet military.

It also had no official link to Biopreparat, the secret agency established by Soviet military leaders in the early 1970s to launch a massive biological weapons program under the guise of a network of civilian pharmaceutical plants. While Russian officials acknowledged Biopreparat's existence in the early 1990s, Moscow has never fully disclosed the contributions of other Soviet agencies, such as the Agriculture and Health ministries, to the bioweapons effort. At Pokrov, the official story begins to unravel within minutes of entering the sprawling campus 50 miles east of Moscow.

The plant's most prominent feature is a row of nuclear-hardened bunkers, an odd architectural choice for an institute concerned mostly with preventing Newcastle disease in chickens. Deputy Director Valery Stavnichy, in leading visitors through the complex, freely pointed out the bunkers' safety features, including the heavy blast doors and an underground water system that ensured uninterrupted production "in the event of emergencies."

What kinds of emergencies?

"Hurricanes. Or earthquakes," the deputy director replied. The Moscow region is not known for either.

Equally jarring to Western visitors is the scale of Pokrov's virus-making capacity. David Kelly, a British bioweapons expert who was among the first Western scientists to visit the factory, recalled his initial shock at finding bunkers filled with row after row of incubators that collectively held tens of thousands of hen eggs. "That's the standard method for growing smallpox virus," he said.

A clearer picture of Pokrov's past has recently begun to take shape from the stories of former Biopreparat officials and U.S. officials and scientists who have slowly built relationships with their Russian counterparts.

Ken Alibek, the former Biopreparat deputy director who helped expose the Soviet Union's secret bioweapons programs when he defected to the United States in 1992, said Pokrov's official role as a vaccine factory was a perfect cover for one of the biggest virus mills in the Soviet Union. If war appeared imminent, Pokrov was equipped to immediately begin production of smallpox virus at a staggering rate of 200 tons a year, said Alibek, now vice chairman and chief scientist of the Alexandria, Va., biotechnology firm Hadron Inc., in an interview.

The mobilization orders never came. But throughout their history, the Pokrov plant and its sister facility across town tested viruses for use in new types of biological weapons that targeted livestock and poultry, according to Russian and U.S. officials familiar with the program.

Igor Domaradsky, a former chairman of the Soviet Union's secret Interagency Science and Technology Council on Molecular Biology and Genetics, said Pokrov was "one of the biggest" players in an extensive network of institutes exploring anti-crop and anti-livestock weapons that could be delivered by bomb or missile. He said most of the research centered around foot-and-mouth disease, the same illness that prompted the slaughter last year of more than 4 million cows, pigs and sheep in Britain.

"Both of these [Pokrov] facilities were well equipped with a good system of sanitation and security to prevent the possibility of an escape of [viral] agents," said Domaradsky, 77, in an interview at his apartment in Moscow. "Had any escaped, it could have led to the death of many cattle, not to mention an international reaction which would have been very hard to contain."

Eventually, the Soviets abandoned most of the anti-agriculture research, primarily because of the expense and serious reservations among Soviet military planners about the weapons' effectiveness, Domaradsky said.

The retired scientist in a 1995 memoir defied Russia's scientific establishment by describing formerly secret details of Biopreparat's activities. He scoffed at what he called the "failure of memory" of Russian officials who still refuse to own up to the nation's past bioweapons activities. But whether they want to talk about it or not, he said, Russian officials must deal with the legacy of Biopreparat and Pokrov, which includes protecting some of the world's most dangerous viruses against theft.

"Even to support vaccine production you need many different strains -- a whole collection of them," he said. "And these need very tight security."

Security: A Dog and a Clay Seal

Each night at 5 p.m., as the last of the Pokrov plant's day shift boards the village bus for home, the job of protecting the factory's virus collection falls to a night watchman and a large German shepherd. The dog is judged highly capable -- "he's very mean," one plant official confided -- but also a poor substitute for the kind of security called for at a place that holds the seeds of multiple epidemics.

If the dog is reliable, that is more than Pokrov can claim for the rest of its security apparatus.

The plant's alarm system is 30 years old, and officials acknowledge it no longer works in parts of the campus, which is overrun with weeds and littered with debris. The military garrison once assigned to Pokrov is gone, and today's guards are mostly old men. A visitor recently saw no sign the guards were armed.

There are bars on the windows in the small building where pathogens are kept. But once inside, security for the virus freezers consists of a simple lock and a string with a seal of soft clay. A disturbed seal is a signal that viruses may have been tampered with -- presumably after the thief has gotten away.

Lawrence Renteria, a Virginia-based security contractor who is helping several former weapons plants improve their systems, said Pokrov is in better shape than some.

"It isn't pretty," said Renteria, senior system engineer for Stratford Technology of Montross. "At one plant we visited, security consisted of two fat guys in sweat pants. They say they patrol the plant. But we know they don't."

Officials at Pokrov are acutely aware of the problems with security but said they lacked the money to fix them. Four years ago, the plant ran out of money for its staff, some of whom worked for up to six months without a paycheck, which was common in Russia during the 1990s. Today Pokrov pays workers the equivalent of $65 a month, with senior scientists earning about $145.

Pokrov director Gavrilov is eagerly courting Western firms for potential joint ventures that could help pay for new equipment. He also is waiting for U.S. officials to deliver on a two-year-old promise to install a modern security system.

The delay, U.S. officials explained, is due to competing demands on the limited money Congress sets aside each year to help protect and dismantle Soviet weapons of mass destruction. Funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, established by Nunn and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) in 1991, has remained essentially flat in recent years, and had been targeted for deep cuts before the Sept. 11 attacks.

For most of the past decade, greater emphasis was placed on safeguarding nuclear materials and physically dismantling strategic weapons such as the massive Soviet submarines that could launch nuclear missiles. Officials acknowledge the U.S. efforts were relatively slow to recognize the threat posed by biological and chemical weapons facilities in the former Soviet Union.

Despite substantial progress, the U.S. programs have managed to provide security upgrades for only about 40 percent of Russia's nuclear facilities, and a much smaller percentage of biological and chemical sites. Lugar, who is pressing for legislation to expand the program, said at the current rate it will be 27 years before some Russian facilities are fully secure.

"If someone gets their hands on just one of these weapons of mass destruction, the horror will be so awesome that all of life will change substantially," Lugar said during a visit to Russia in May. "If we do not take the leadership and take it aggressively, heaven help the rest of the world."

Invitations From Iran

In the western Siberian town of Koltsovo, 1,800 miles east of Pokrov, Russia's only authorized smallpox research facility scarcely worries about intruders. The former bioweapons complex known as Vector is now ringed by three brand-new fences and a network of the latest Western-made cameras and motion sensors.

Troops armed with assault rifles patrol the entrances, stopping and searching each vehicle that arrives or departs from the State Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology, as Vector is formally known. These days, many of the vehicles carry Western businessmen and scientists involved in one of nearly 50 joint ventures currently underway here.

Lev Sandakhchiev, a biologist who now serves as director, acknowledged that new fences have not solved all of Vector's problems. But the heavy U.S. and European presence here appears to have eased multiple security concerns -- including the fear that Iran would steal Vector's microbes or expertise.

"We no longer hear about the Iranians here," said one senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We know they are active in other places -- the second-tier places -- but not at facilities where we have influence."

It almost didn't turn out that way. As recently as 1998, Iran was aggressively wooing Vector's top scientists and officers, proposing cooperative ventures intended to enhance Tehran's biological capabilities, said Yuri Klimov, Vector's financial director.

Klimov said he was one of several Vector officials invited to visit Tehran to explore business opportunities -- an invitation he accepted. Describing the encounters in an interview outside Vector's front gate, the natty, powerfully built Klimov said the Iranians turned up at a time of great uncertainty for the institute, which was then struggling to find its niche amid Russian economic chaos and a newly competitive business climate.

"They invited some of our scientists to go to Tehran. I myself went there twice," Klimov said. "They offered our scientists $5,000 a month -- a very good salary."

The Iranians were vague about their intentions, even with their Russian guests in Tehran, he said.

"They talked about arranging a joint research facility, and they were interested in technologies that we had, especially our expertise in virology," he said. "To be honest, I never understood it. And they would never directly answer our questions."

All the scientists eventually returned to Russia, Klimov said, and further contact with the Iranians was halted -- for the simple reason that newly arriving Western scientists were making a better offer.

"This was the same time when we began to arrange research contacts with the United States," he said. "Ultimately we made a decision to go that way instead."

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