Judith Miller

Germs—Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War

VTR Date: November 6, 2002

Judith Miller discusses her books on germs and biological warfare.


GUEST: Judith Miller
VTR: 11/06/2002

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Judith Miller, The New York Times redoubtable, peripatetic Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for a quarter century now.

Well for most of us, of course, all hell broke loose on 9/11/01 at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But Ms. Miller had long since joined her fellow journalists William Broad and Steven Engelberg in developing their chilling study titled Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War. For though when she joined me here a dozen years ago it was to discuss her extraordinary first book One By One By One her provocative account of how people of six nations distorted the memory of the Holocaust.

Judith Miller has also been Chief of the Times Cairo Bureau from which she covered the Arab World. Has been The Times’ Special Correspondent in Paris, has been News Editor and Deputy Chief of The Times Washington Bureau. Has covered the Persian Gulf during the war there. Has written about Quaddifi, bin Laden, and Arafat. And journalistically has generally been there, done that.

So let me begin today’s exchange by asking Ms. Miller if Germs, her new book scares her as much as it scares me. And it does, Judith.

Miller: That wasn’t the intention, but if it got your attention by scaring you I’m glad because what my colleagues and I wanted to do was really call attention to what we believe is the kind of challenge of the future. And we were actually a little ahead of our time, we thought, when we were writing this book, and then we had the anthrax attacks. But I have to tell you … all of my life I’ve been writing about evil … different kinds of evil, whether it’s the Holocaust or Saddam Hussein and the crisis in the Gulf or militant Islam. But when I started to do the research for Germs I couldn’t sleep at night.When I first started learning about what the Soviet Union had done, for example. What we had been working on in the bad old days of our germ warfare program it was so upsetting to me that I had real nightmares. It took me a long time to adjust to being calm about pathogens that could wipe out the planet. And knowing that people, even now, were probably working with them to weaponize them and to use them against us. It was hugely unsettling.

Heffner: You say, “Was hugely unsettling” …

Miller: Yes.

Heffner: Today?

Miller: Yes. The work continues in a country … a set of countries which we identify as the “dirty dozen”. They are, unfortunately, a lot of Middle Eastern countries, the rogue states; the Iran’s, the Iraq’s of the world. I guess I got used to disease by the ton … mega death. Thinking as a bio-warrior would think in order to write this book. But I guess the more I think about the possibilities of this, and what is possible today and what will be possible a decade from now, the more alarming the prospect of bio-weapons and bio-warfare really, really are to me.

Heffner: Do you think that thinking the unthinkable is a key in itself, in a sense, to continuing this whole process?

Miller: I think you have to …

Heffner: You’ve opened up …

Miller: [Laughter] … yes …

Heffner: … you’ve opened it up for us.


Miller: You have to think the way quote “the enemy” thinks. You have to understand that there are people in the world who are willing, more than willing, to take the most ancient of natural scourges, like smallpox, Marburg, Ebola virus and to turn them into weapons. Because if you don’t think that way your society will not be prepared to deal with such an attack when and if it occurs. I don’t know that we’re going to be attacked by biological weapons, again, as we were in October of 2001. but I certainly know that from this national security standpoint, I don’t think our country can pretend that it can’t happen and won’t happen. I think, on the contrary, any Administration, Democratic or Republican is going to have to prepare as if it was going to happen tomorrow.

Heffner: Judith, you say, “Attacked again.” Explain yourself.

Miller: Well, we still don’t know, as you know, who sent the anthrax letters …

Heffner: One of which you received …

Miller: Well, fortunately I received a false anthrax letter … a hoax letter … even though it was sent from Florida and it had the same kind of block script that the real anthrax letters had, it turned out to be, fortunately for me and for the people around me at The New York Times … a hoax. But people who worry about weapons tend to think about warheads and throw weights and accuracy and missiles and here we had a perfectly devastating weapon in the form of a letter. And I think recognizing that those letters were no accident, that this was a biological attack on the United States, it was the first biological attack in which people died. There had been previous attempts, but nothing like this. And the fact that it came right after 9/11 … the letters were mailed one to two weeks after the attacks of 9/11 made them even more of a kind of warning about what’s possible. The anthrax contained in those letters was very pure. It was clearly mad by someone, a domestic source, or foreign source who knew what he or she was doing. Some people believe … in the FBI … that it was sent by someone who didn’t intend to kill, but just to call attention to the threat of bio-terrorism and the need to protect against it. Whatever the case, that attack killed five of the 11 people who got pulmonary or inhalation anthrax and it put 20,000 Americans on Cipro and antibiotics. Now that’s not bad for a little bit of anthrax that was less than what you would have in two pats of butter. That’s all that it took to create the kind of panic and concern and fear that we all felt after those letters.

Heffner: Now, what efforts have been made to protect against a repetition?

Miller: Huge efforts. I mean, I think often times we forget how much this Administration has done …particularly in this area. The Bush Administration has thrown resources into bio-terrorism. Some people will tell you they’ve literally thrown it … that there’s been too little thought about where money can most effectively be spent. But I think they have done what needed to be done at least as the first step. And, for example, we are now greatly augmenting our stockpile, our national stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics. We will soon have enough smallpox vaccine for every man, woman and child in the United States. We’re stockpiling antibiotics, other vaccines in warehouses throughout the country. The Bush Administration is spending over $10 billion dollars in two years … that’s really a lot of money, even by Pentagon standards. And about a billion of that is going into the resuscitation of our public health system. Which this country has permitted to fall into a state of neglect which is almost criminal. And in a biological weapons attack the first line of defense are the doctors and the nurses and the pharmacists who are in a position to diagnose what may be a seemingly flu-like symptom and say, “No, there’s something else going on here.” And yet there are clinics, public health clinics in this country that don’t have microscopes, that don’t have computer access and all of that has to be changed. It’s just got to be improved. And the Bush Administration has started to do that.


Heffner: And you are sanguine … you’re hopeful. You’re more optimistic or are you still as scared as I am?

Miller: [Laughter] I’m still very concerned because biotechnology is proceeding as such a pace. There is so much now that scientists can do to make bad germs even worse. Natural killers even more terrifying. For example with a tweak of a, of a plasmid or a re-arranging of some DNA, you can create an anthrax which will not respond to antibiotics. The Russians did that in their program … the Soviet Union did it with many of the agents that they had developed as weapons, in their old program. So we are entering a world in which a whole new category of drugs and beneficial products of this era are possible, but also in which it will be a lot easier to make truly devastating weapons. And, of course, the experiments that used to win Nobel Prizes are now being done by our high school sophomores and juniors. This is not longer quote “brain science”, it’s, it’s very …the technology is becoming very widespread.

Heffner: On that subject … how dangerous is that? What … it does go on in our schools …

Miller: Oh, no. I, I think that … you know, this is science …

Heffner: I know.

Miller: Children have to learn how to do this. And, and genetic modification is very much in our future. Whether it’s in plants or food or livestock, the country’s agricultural base … it’s here. It’s going to continue, it’s not going to go away. I think what the scientific community and the national security communities are struggling with is how to make sure that experiments which could be really dangerous are not done without kind of thinking about the consequences before the research is undertaken. There are all kinds of questions about who should decide what kind of research is done … should it be the scientists themselves, or their oversight panels. Should it be the Federal government? Much of the work that we’re doing to defend ourselves against bio-terrorism is top secret. And I’m not sure that my colleagues and I could have written Germs today given the level of secrecy of these projects today.

Heffner: Seriously?

Miller: Seriously. It’s gotten a lot tougher to do reporting in this area.

Heffner: Now … you did do the reporting though.

Miller: [Laughter] Yes.

Heffner: And I want you to share with us what our own participation was in the range of biological warfare.

Miller: MmmHmmm. Well, the United States had a very robust program. It had one that developed after World War II and was conducted largely by the scientists at, at Fort Dietrich. What is Fort Dietrich, which today does defensive research. In those days it did offensive biological warfare research. And by the way the treaties that we have do not prohibit research in this area. So, technically countries are permitted to study any kind of pathogens they want to study, if it’s for quote “prophylactic purposes”. But the treaties are silent on, on research. It’s when you begin to take a germ and make a weapon out of it that you’ve crossed the line. And so we had …

Heffner: Excuse me …

Miller: … hundreds of men and women …

Heffner: Did we pass that line?

Miller: I don’t believe so. In our book we looked long and hard ….

Heffner: MmmHmmm.

Miller: … for examples of clearly offensive research. There were heated debates within the State Department about whether a particular experiment was or was not within the legally acceptable definition of the treaty. And we describe those debates in our book. But I don’t think that my colleagues or I ever found an example where we were able to say, “Ah, you see, we really are doing what the Soviets were doing.” We never found that.

Heffner: But debates means that …

Miller: There were debates about whether or not research was appropriate under the treaty.

Heffner: That means … that means there were those in this country, obviously those with some degree of authority who were urging that we should move forward.


Miller: Or that we should not do certain kinds of research. I’ll just give you one example. There was a CIA project at one point called “Clear Vision” whose goal was to understand how the Soviet rockets and missiles would have delivered biological agent to the United States. And it occurred to the analysts at the agency that you might not know that unless you actually re-created a Soviet style weapon. And so they set about building a Russian, Soviet rocket. Or trying to replicate what we believed was a rocket that they would have made, to see what happens when it enters the atmosphere and … they never actually made the rocket and they never filled it with pathogen. But they created enough components to understand how it would function and what the impact on us would be. Now some lawyers at the State Department were deeply troubled by this work. Because they said, “Look the treaty clearly says, ‘Thou shalt not make a biological weapon’. And that’s what we’ve done.” And so this went right up to the White House and it went to the President. As far as we know.

Heffner: Which President would that have been?

Miller: This would have been President Clinton. And I have to say something about Bill Clinton … is that his interest in this topic and his alarm about biological weapons, he said they were the gift that keeps on giving. He, we had an opportunity to talk to him, Bill Broad and I about this topic and it became clear to us that we were on the right track, that he shared our concern and he knew, obviously much more than we did because he saw the intelligence reports about who was doing what around the world. He understood this problem and this challenge exquisitely. He was not able to get sufficient support either within his own Administration or within the Congress to do much of the bio-defensive work that he wanted to do. And he clearly intended to do.

Heffner: Defensive … bio-defensive?

Miller: Yes. Bio-defensive and …

Heffner: And bio-offensive?

Miller: No. The United States walked away from biological weapons in 1969. That unlikely peace-maker Richard Nixon said this was a class of weapons that was so just so horrendous, so morally reprehensible and also so cheap and easy to make, which was another reason he didn’t want to encourage lesser developed countries to go down this path. That the United States would give up this class of weapons. And as far as we were able to figure out from our research, the United States did abandon biological weapons. And its offensive … any kind of offensive research and development; it just stopped doing it. And it also pioneered a treaty in 1972 … Biological Weapons Convention Treaty. Which the Soviets were among the first to sign, and the ink was barely dry on the Treaty when they began violating it, lock, stock and barrel. And I think one of the incredible revelations for me was my work within the former Soviet Union … to understand exactly what a serious effort this was.

Heffner: On the Soviets’ part.

Miller: On the Soviets’ part … it was like nothing the world has ever seen. What … what France is to champagne … the Soviet Union was [laughter] to germs. There wasn’t a germ that existed that they didn’t want to weaponize or see if they could work with. I mean the program was huge, it was vast, it was industrialized, it was completely ammoral.

Heffner: Now, you have covered those parts of the world to a faretheewell where we are now most concerned about biological warfare.

Miller: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: What’s your own estimate, your own guess about what’s going on?Miller: Well, I think that I will rely on the American intelligence community in this instance because the analysts that my colleagues and I talked to believed that Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, just for starters … have programs, they all have programs, many of them have developed actual biological weapons, it is believed. For example we know now that Iraq developed anthrax as a weapon. And botulinin toxin, which is one of the most virulent poisons known to man. And aflutoxin which creates cancer over a period of years. And we also know that Iraq, for example, did whatever it could to hide this program. And I believe goes on hiding this program.


Heffner: Which leads you to what point of view on … in terms of President Bush’s … shall we say … rather aggressive stance toward Iraq.

Miller: Well I think the demand for disarmament is completely justified. This is a country that agreed to give up these weapons after the last Gulf War in 1991. And we’ve had resolution after resolution … violated both in letter and in spirit. I think the President is correct in his assessment about the kind of man that Saddam Hussein is and the kind of regime he runs. On the other hand, I also have great questions about whether or not the United States has, for the moment, successfully contained him. I have questions that were raised by Brent Scowcroft when he wondered whether or not the United States could pursue both the war on terror and war against Iraq at the same time.I think it’s not an easy call and I’m glad that I don’t have to be the one to make it. I do think that for a long time too little attention has been paid to the suffering of the Iraqi people. I know it’s not fashionable these days to talk about human rights violations and friends and even my husband says, “Well, my gosh if we took out after every country that violates human rights, it would be war without end.” I realize that. But there are some forms of human rights violations that are just so egregious and so systematic, that eventually the civilized world has to stand up and say “Enough.” I think we may be approaching a moment like that with Iraq in which the UN will have to decide whether or not its resolutions mean anything. And I think we’re going to see very soon what that organization is made of. This is a tremendous test for the United Nations. Will it enforce it’s own resolutions or will it just permit them to be violated?

Heffner: And if it does not enforce them?

Miller: Then I think the United States must decide whether or not it wants to … with a coalition of the willing … as the Administration puts it … take it upon itself to enforce those resolutions. And I’m not going to express a personal opinion about that because I’m covering this, this issue. But I think that there is a debate within the Administration. I think we’ve seen signs of it, that indicate it is a tough call even for an Administration that is supposedly committed to regime change.

Heffner: You’re … it’s so interesting, you say you’re covering this whole area. What obligation does that journalistic endeavor place upon you? Or obligations? Where are you?

Miller: Well, I think as a journalist, as opposed to a columnist I have to be as objective as I can be. And I can … as I’ve just done, lay out the reasons that would support military action and the reasons that would way against it. And I think ultimately, in a democracy, it’s for the American people to decide whether or not they approve of such a venture. And I think one thing we’ve seen in the recent elections is that the American people seem to have faith in the course that the Republicans and the President have chosen.

Heffner: Is it unfair for me to ask whether you do, too?

Miller: It’s unfair and I won’t answer. [Laughter]

Heffner: Okay. Fair enough. Unfair. Where do you think we’re going in terms of the biological warfare concerns.

Miller: Obviously I am most concerned about biological warfare because it is the coward’s weapon. This is a weapon as the October 2001 anthrax letters showed us … that you can use and then you can run and you can hide to fight another day. And I think that makes it an ideal weapon for terrorists. And I have always been concerned for really the last ten, 15 years about the nexus between the terrorism of the Middle East and their hatred of the militant Islamists of us and their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. And when I first started to write about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden what alarmed me were his enormous ambitions. He talked very openly about the need for Al Qaeda to acquire nuclear and chemical and biological agents. And we now know, after the Taliban were evicted from Afghanistan, that in fact he was building an anthrax laboratory in Kanduhar which was a, a stronghold of the Taliban. That he had sought to acquire nuclear material as early as 1993. I saw tapes of dogs being killed by some kind of chemical agents. This organization was very serious about biological weaponry and weapons of mass destruction. And I believed that had they had them at the time of the September 11th attacks they would not have hesitated to use them.


Heffner: We have half a minute left. I want to ask you whether you think we, as a people, are concerned, frightened, aware enough of this threat?

Miller: I think we’re becoming more aware of the threat. But I think it’s a hard thing for people to think about. Just as it used to be hard to think about nuclear holocaust … it’s very hard to think about germs as weapons of war. And the reason we wrote the book is that what we really wanted people to think about it, as difficult, as frightening as it is, this is a new era, this is the new world. And germs will very much be part of it.

Heffner: And this books “Germs” is very much part of it. Thank you so much for joining me today …

Miller: Thank you.

Heffner: … Judith Miller.

Miller: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.