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BIOHAZARD By Ken Alibek Random House $24.95

KEN ALIBEK'S BIOHAZARD IS really two books. One is "the chilling true story of the largest covert biological weapons program in the world," as the dust jacket proclaims, by a young Soviet doctor, a descendant of ancient Kazakh khans and son of a patriotic veteran, whose talents, ambition, enthusiasm and credulity as a "bioweaponeer" thrust him swiftly to the peak of the ultra-clandestine, clubby, and privileged program. As Kanatjan Alibekov (he changed his name after defecting to the United States), Alibek proudly plays a central role in "weaponizing" anthrax, and smallpox, among other diseases, pausing rarely, and only perfunctorily, to ponder how this work might violate his doctor's oath.

This is also a gripping and frightening story about weapons that could have sent millions to unspeakably gruesome deaths, their tissues dissolving and blood oozing from their nose, mouth, and genitals--as a colleague of Alibek's dies after accidentally injecting himself with the Marburg virus, or suffocating from pulmonary anthrax, as untold dozens of Russians did when spores were accidentally released into the atmosphere from a secret plant in Sverdlovsk in June 1979. Secret laboratories and plants were scattered across the Soviet Union, hidden from the world by walls, restrictions, anonymous "post-office box" addresses, and layers upon layers of KGB scrutiny.

It was Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika program that spurred Dr. Alibek to question the insidious weapons program of which he was a part. First he puzzles over the bureaucratic inflexibility and reaction of his own secret world, then the usefulness and ethics of what he is doing, and finally, when the Soviet empire collapses, his own place as a Kazakh, a foreigner, in the new Russian state. Dr. Alibek tells us he cannot reveal the details of his defection in order to protect those who were involved. Given the survival of the KGB apparatus and the revival of paranoia in Russia, that is fair enough.

Following his defection in 1992, Dr. Alibek was debriefed at length by American intelligence, and he now works on biodefense. In interviews and testimony before congressional committees, he has repeatedly warned of the continued danger posed by residual Russian expertise in biological weapons, including the fact that much of the program remains carefully guarded. Even if Russia itself is no longer a threat, Dr. Alibek argues, it could export the expertise and seed germs to other nations or to terrorists.

This is a gripping and frightening tale, wonderfully crafted by Stephen Handelman, author of the groundbreaking book on organized crime in Russia, Comrade Criminal: Russia's New Mafia. It moves like a suspense novel, with useful but never ponderous chunks of scientific background and history scattered among the accounts of scientific breakthroughs, bureaucratic wars, horrible accidents, and personal travails.

But there is another book here, too, equally intriguing for someone who spent 10 years as a reporter in the Soviet Union and Russia. This is the grim insight into the cynicism, paranoia and militarism that was the Soviet state. Even after so many years of direct exposure to the Soviet Union, I was again taken aback at the sheer immensity and pervasiveness of the state's obsession with power, control, and secrecy.

Dr. Alibek is not a cold warrior. He makes no secret of his own voluntary immersion in the system, of his own conviction that he was working for the security and glory of his fatherland, of his willing suppression of conscience, of his pride in discoveries that could kill millions. Describing his growing dedication as a young officer in the bioweapons program, he writes: "I still shuddered occasionally when I looked at the bacteria multiplying in our fermenters and considered that they could end the lives of millions of people. But the secret culture of our labs had changed my outlook. My parents would not have recognized the man I had become"

Some reviewers have questioned the sincerity of Dr. Alibek's defection and subsequent expressions of horror at the program in which he worked, wondering whether he might not be singing for his American supper. I have not met him, but I have known enough people who worked enthusiastically in the Soviet system and then turned on it with disgust to believe that his conversion was honest.

The Soviet Union was a world in which there was one employer, one avenue for self-fulfillment, one legal source of information, one sanctioned world view. A young man growing up in that world, especially a highly talented member of a minority in a remote corner of that world, would be flattered and overjoyed by a chance to enter the elite of his state. It meant not only privilege and power; it also meant a proud place in a state in which most people really were patriotic, and most, like Dr. Alibek and even Dr. Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and dissident, earnestly believed that the United States was out to destroy the Soviet Union and had to be resisted with every means at hand. "We had been taught as schoolchildren and it was drummed into us as young military officers that the capitalist world was united in only one aim: to destroy the Soviet Union," writes Dr. Alibekov. "It was not difficult for me to believe that the United States would use any conceivable weapon against us, and that our own survival depended on matching their duplicity."

Like Dr. Sakharov, Dr. Alibekov came to the light gradually. So did many other people I knew. It was hard. To accept that the Soviet system was wrong was to reject a religion, to conclude that an entire preceding lifetime was misguided.

I dwell at some length on this aspect of the book because there are readers who will say that the United States and other countries also had top-secret biological weapons programs, along with all the chemical and nuclear means for mass destruction. Gruesome as the germs were that Dr. Alibekov describes, this was the name of the Cold War game in which neither side was clean.

Yet what Dr. Alibekov chronicles is something else, a system in which every resource, every skill was harnessed to the power of the state to an extraordinary degree. In every school across the vast nation, promising students were routinely recruited for the secret work of the state. When anthrax escapes into the air at Sverdlovsk, the overriding concern of the state is to conceal what happened. When the World Health Organization announces in 1980 that smallpox has been eradicated from the plant, the Kremlin recognizes a military opportunity: "A world no longer protected from smallpox was a world newly vulnerable to the disease" When a colleague begs to drop out of "The System" and return to his collective farm, the KGB reports with satisfaction that he went home and "accidentally" drowned.

For the Soviet Union, signing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972 was the signal to create "the largest and most advanced biological warfare establishment in the world" When Dr. Alibekov is finally initiated into the knowledge that he would be making biological weapons and that this was in violation of an international treaty, he is told, "But the United States signed it too, and we believe that the Americans are lying"

"I told him, earnestly, that I believed it too," writes Dr. Alibekov, adding: "The five minutes I spent with him represented the first and last time any official would bring up a question of ethics for the rest of my career."

Dr. Alibekov's conviction, which he has argued before his debriefers and congressional committees, is that such habits linger long. The old Soviet secrecy has settled on the surviving centers of biological research, and the accumulated knowledge of his period remains available for quick revival. Though the state he served is dead, he is regarded by many in Russia as a traitor, and there have been threats on his life.

All this may sound unduly sinister, and Russia is certainly not the Soviet Union. Yet to me the real value of Dr. Alibekov's story is that it is not only an expose of biological horrors, but also the revelation of a system that created a medium in which more than 60,000 people, a young Kazakh officer among them, willingly dedicated their talents and lives to cultivating deadly germs.

SERGE SCHMEMANN, deputy foreign editor of The New York Times, was the Times' Moscow bureau chief from 1980-86 and '90-94.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Schmemann, Serge
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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