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U.S. tested germ weapons in S. Pacific in 1960s.

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 Kyodo

The man who ran the former Soviet Union's biological weapons program says the United States conducted germ warfare tests at the Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific, an allegation confirmed by a former U.S. official who oversaw the tests.

Ken Alibek, the lead scientist for the Soviet Union and later Russia's biological warfare program from 1988 to 1992, told Kyodo News in an interview that he learned of the U.S. field tests from Soviet intelligence.

"They tested the tularemia biological weapon...(it) was clear that the tests were an unbelievable success," Alibek said.

William Patrick, the former head of the U.S. biological warfare testing program, confirmed Alibek's information.

"We conducted large-scale field tests out there from about 1964 to 1968," Patrick said in a telephone interview from his home in Maryland.

While the retired scientist would not confirm that the U.S. specifically tested a weapon derived from the deadly tularemia bacteria, he admitted "several agents" were tested at the tiny atoll, halfway between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands.

The Pentagon declined to comment on the U.S. tests.

Keiichi Tsuneishi, a Japanese expert on the history of biological warfare at Japan's Kanagawa University, said the testing was news to him.

"We know the U.S. was eager to develop biological weapons after World War II, but I've never heard that they conducted tests in the South Pacific," he said when reached by phone.

"That atoll is well-known for U.S. nuclear tests," Tsuneishi added. "I guess the U.S. tested whatever they wanted there."

Tularemia bacteria is a plague-like agent that incubates for two to 10 days before the host falls victim to symptoms of fever, chills, headache, malaise and sometimes ulcerous swellings. It is extremely contagious and has a 60% fatality rate in humans.

U.S. jets sprayed the germs in aerosol form over Navy ships anchored off the U.S.-owned atoll, 1,600 kilometers southwest of Hawaii. The ships were loaded with test animals such as rhesus monkeys and guinea pigs.

The biological warfare program was shut down by an Executive Order from President Richard Nixon in 1969. Nixon followed the advice of a special committee he set up to study the feasibility of biological weapons, which found them too inaccurate and expensive.

Patrick disputes the committee's findings, noting that at the time they did not have access to the top-secret data from the Johnston Atoll testing that provided "conclusive evidence of the large-scale effectiveness of biological warfare."

"A political decision was made to discontinue the program," he said.

In 1972, the U.S. signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and urged other nations to renounce germ warfare as immoral and repugnant.

The Soviet Union signed the ban, which entered into force in 1975, but actually accelerated its biological weapons research after 1972, according to Alibek.

Alibek, who defected to the U.S. in 1992 and is now a biological warfare defense strategist and scientist for a biotech consulting firm in Annandale, Virginia, said the atoll is unlikely to remain contaminated from the testing.

"Tularemia is not stable, it cannot survive is stable for days, maybe months, not years," he said.

However, anthrax spores -- another popular bio-warfare agent the U.S. is likely to have tested -- can linger in soil, remaining lethal for decades.

Currently, the Pacific atoll hosts one of the two U.S. facilities for the destruction of chemical and biological munitions. According to the U.S. army, the facility began operations in 1990 and has since destroyed nearly 2,000 tons of chemical weapons and agents.

Alibek made headlines in April of this year when he detailed Moscow's germ warfare program in his book "Biohazard," co-authored with journalist Stephen Handelman.

In the book, Alibek made the startling claim that Soviet intelligence found evidence that China suffered a major biological warfare testing disaster in the late 1980s, when epidemics of hemorrhagic fever swept through a remote test site.

After decades of building and then dismantling the U.S. germ warfare program, Patrick is as devoted as Alibek to trying to educate senior government officials, policy experts and ordinary citizens about the risks of germ terrorism and how to combat it.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Nov 8, 1999
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