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Louis Untermeyer


Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War

By Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad
Simon & Schuster, 382 pp, 2001

Germs is a sleek, fast-paced overview of America's attempts to deal with biological weapons. Various groups, such as a cult from India and terrorist outfit in Japan, have acquired germs and converted them to weapons. Nations have done the same, such as the former Soviet Union and Iraq. The federal government has been aware of this threat since World War II. How has the government handled it? What have government officials, scientists, and bureaucrats done to protect America?

That's what this book answers, and it's not encouraging.

The book begins with the first known biological attack on American soil, and it didn't come from an enemy state, but a supposedly peaceful cult that originated in India. The cult had moved to an Oregon town and established a mini-county complete with its own little government and schools, including a medical lab. As the cult grew, it tried to win control of the local county board, but was met by stiff and bitter resistance from the locals. So its leader purchased salmonella germs, weaponized them in the medical lab, and infected salad bars all over the county. Hundreds became sick, and it was a couple years before law enforcement figured out who was responsible.

This episode, which happened in the mid-1980s, showed how damaging a biological attack could be. It produced fear, distrust, and near-panic in the local community.

The authors show that germ warfare programs started as early as the 1920s in the Soviet Union. America's germ warfare program started during World War II. Japan killed thousands of Chinese during that war with anthrax, typhoid, and plague. Saddam Hussein's labs have produced tons of anthrax since the late 1980s, and didn't use them during the Gulf War because President Bush threatened to nuke Baghdad if they did. And the Soviet Union, which along with the United States signed a treaty banning offensive germ weapons, produced hundreds of tons of anthrax, smallpox, and plague, experimented with killer viruses like Marburg and Ebola and AIDS, and possibly created a hybrid germ combining smallpox and Ebola that was immune to vaccines and antibiotics. Here's what we know of the Soviet program: it employed 30,000 people in more than 100 facilities and cost $1 billion per year. One facility alone produced 300 tons of anthrax every 220 days, enough to wipe out the earth's population several times over. It didn't surprise me that the Soviets lied about their program, because they lied about everything, but hopefully it opened up some eyes of gullible folks who lionize communism and despise capitalism and freedom.

That's one of the lessons of this book. Treaties don't mean squat. Evil countries like Communist Russia and Iraq flout them at will, while the good guys, like the United States, abide by such treaties. In fact, after President Nixon signed the treaty, the U.S. germ program became purely defensive as it figured out ways to defend American soldiers and civilians from germ weapons. The authors suggest this hurt even our defensive programs by de-emphasizing germ warfare. In fact, I believe signing the treaty put the United States in danger.

Why is that? Because even today, after years and years of hard work, the U.S. is no better prepared for a biological attack than it was in the 1940s. The U.S. has no reliable germ detectors, not enough vaccine or antibiotics, and too few facilities and personnel to deal with an attack. It takes way too long to even identify when an attack or outbreak takes place. When the West Nile virus hit New York in the mid-1990s, it was first misdiagnosed. All the experts missed it. A zoo pathologist in New York made the breakthrough that identified the illness as the West Nile virus.

If an attack happened here, emergency rooms would be overrun, antibodies would run out, and thousands would die. It'd be a hundred times worse than 9/11.

The federal government is aware of this and working toward a solution. But the result, so far, has been pork barrel projects and an unorganized mess. Perhaps this new Homeland Security department proposed by President Dubya will help. Don't hold your breath. 

Those who believe the federal government can protect America from biological weapons will be saddened and scared by this book. The only thing preventing America's enemies from using them is our nuclear arsenal. Think about that when peaceniks demand that the U.S. destroy its nuclear weapons.

This is a sobering book. The authors have done some good work. Let's see if any good comes from it.

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