Posts Tagged ‘FBI’


Mysteries of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

This is a nuclear-themed blog, but as you probably could guess, I'm pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to being interested in weapons of mass destruction. (Heck, I find conventional weapons pretty important, too!)

I had previously read a two interesting reviews — one by Steven Aftergood, another by David Hoffman — of Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas' new book, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (Harvard University Press, 2012). My prior knowledge of this topic came from reading Hoffman's book, The Dead Hand (which is a disturbing and fascinating read in and of itself, and well-deserving of its Pulitzer), and from an association I had with Matthew Meselson as a graduate student at Harvard, but the reviews hinted that there was a lot of new stuff here.

So I was pretty excited to snag an invitation to hear Milton Leitenberg speak at the Wilson Center, at a small talk last Friday afternoon, organized by my friend Kathleen M. Vogel. I was one of maybe four "academics" in the audience; the rest of the people there were affiliated with the intelligence community in one way or another — I didn't ask for details, but it was not a classified talk (obviously, or they wouldn't have let me in there).1 Below are some of the things that really grabbed me about Leitenberg's talk, with a preface that I'm working from notes here, and biology isn't really my strongest suite, so if I write something outlandish, blame me, not the book.2

Two generations of BW

Leitenberg and Zilinskas periodize the Soviet biological weapons program into two phases. The first generation was from 1928 through 1971, and used classical genetic selection techniques — Mendelian selection and its subsequent variations. The very early program was an outgrowth of a chemical weapons program, and made the USSR the only country in the world at the time (the first?) to have a devoted BW program. (France may have had one at the same time; Japan would start its own up soon after.) In 1939 the Soviet BW program was taken over by none other than Lavrenty Beria, the security chief/rapist/executioner who also later ran the Soviet atomic bomb project.

"Inside the biological weapons factory at Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union was prepared to make tons of anthrax if the orders came from Moscow." Via National Security Archive/Andrew Weber

The second generation program, from 1972 until 1993, is the really interesting one. This one used new molecular genetics techniques — genetic engineering. The goal was to produce better and different "bugs" — with a high priority placed on changing the surface properties of the bacteria and viruses, so that not only would pre-existing antibiotics and vaccines not work, but even the detection methods would be erroneous.

What makes this especially surprising is that the USSR wasn't exactly known as a genetics powerhouse, a inevitable result of their long foray with Lysenkoism. Leitenberg says that the second generation program was pushed by the biologists, who saw it as the way to quickly reboot Soviet genetics post-Lysenko. A new, high-tech BW program was seen as a way to re-build Soviet biology after a generation of persecution.

Twelve "recipes"

As with most Soviet R&D, the strategy was first copy whatever the US was doing, and then move forward with their own lines of research. It's not a bad strategy in a world where you do know there's a country that is throwing gobs of money at a scientific program. It was a strategy made somewhat easier because of the relative openness of the US; when the US declassified and published designs for biological bomblets, the USSR copied them and used them for their own program.

The US E120 biological bomblet, which was apparently copied by the USSR after it was declassified.

I would just note that we often, in this literature, making "copying" seem like an easy thing, but it's really not — a huge amount of work still goes into replicating a basic design. In any case, I'm always surprised that we Americans acted personally offended when the USSR copied US technology — as if it were a form of high-stakes academic plagiarism or piracy. Hey, they were just going after solutions that were known to work, and it's a pretty high compliment, is it not? I don't think we should take this sort of thing personally.

The Soviet BW program had five major subprograms: 

  • Bonfire, the main program, which succeed in making multi-antibiotic resistance for bacteria and modified antigenic structures for viruses (bad things)
  • Factor, which sought higher virulence out of existing agents, as well as higher stability and new outcomes — which are basic goals for any BW program, but again, were being done with molecular genetics methods for the most part
  • Hunter, which attempted to make hybrids of bacteria and viruses — apparently they were trying to come up with agents that were essentially bacterial, but if you used antibiotics to kill the bacteria, they would then release viruses into the system, which sounds like something from a movie
  • Chimera, which were working on "exotic viral genes" (i.e. making better Ebola)
  • Flute, which were trying to attack neuropeptide regulators, bioweapons meant for targeted assassinations

All together they produced twelve "recipes," as they called them, which were "type-verified" and ready to produce. Some of these were mass produced to the tune of hundreds of tons. Leitenberg and Zilinskas were able to identify eleven of them, and they're scary — anthrax, plague, tularemia, and Marburg virus, to name a few ones that even I recognized — but the identity of the last one is still a mystery to them.

Unclear motivations

The million dollar question, though, is why the Soviets were doing it in the first place. I mean, post-1972 they were violating their own commitments to the Biological Weapons Convention — a treaty with no verification methods, but still a treaty. They were also completely convinced that the US must be doing their own BW work and violating the treaty themselves. Why? Because it's what they'd do. (A nice illustration of the errors of assuming the enemy thinks like you do.)

"The inside of a 20,000 liter fermentor at a plant in Kazakhstan." Photo via Center for Cooperative Threat Reduction.

But also, apparently, they were egged on in this idea by a collaborative Army-FBI operation in the late 1960s that fed them disinformation. Apparently the Soviets witnessed a test of a biological agent  near Johnston Island, in the Pacific Ocean, sometime in the 1960s, and the Army-FBI operation decided that would really throw them off if they, through a double-agent, made them think that it was the test of a different biological agent, and added on to that -- oddly enough -- the line that the US was continuing a vigorous biological program. In the early 1970s, when SALT and the BWC were on the table, someone finally realized that this was a very bad idea, and they "cancelled" the disinformation effort. But how do you withdraw disinformation? Issue a statement that says, "sorry, that part of your intel was totally fabricated?" Who is going to believe that?

Even more strange, though, is that the USSR apparently didn't have any strategic delivery mechanisms for the BW program. That is, they couldn't actually target them on the US, according to Leitenberg and Zilinskas. They couldn't fit them on ICBMs (they looked into it, but the program went nowhere), and the only planes that could disperse them were slow and wouldn't last five seconds in NATO airspace. And apparently they weren't thinking about using them on the Chinese, either.

So who was the BW program for? What was it for? Why have a secret BW program that you couldn't use? Why keep a BW program through the 1980s and even early 1990s? Leitenberg isn't really sure.

A few obvious possibilities stand out 1. maybe they did have strategic delivery and L. and Z. are just wrong on that; 2. maybe they just thought they'd work that out later (in the same way that the US put off serious work on the nuclear waste issue for the future); 3. maybe they were planning to use them in a way we really aren't considering (e.g. tactically, though Leitenberg says there weren't any tactical munitions); 4. maybe it was just bureaucracy run amok, egged on by scientists and generals who were ever eager to keep the funding flowing. I'd like to believe number four, because it would be the most amusing to me, but that doesn't really pass logical muster.

The program even persisted into Gorbachev's time, and Gorby himself apparently lied his pants off to the United States on this point. During the Gorbachev era, apparently only four people in the higher echelons of the Soviet government knew the "full story" about the BW program. George H.W. Bush apparently didn't push Mikhail on this point, even though he had intelligence which said, straight up, that Gorbachev was lying. Leitenberg describes this as a "terrible" thing to have done, to avoid that confrontation. (Leitenberg says that he thinks Gorbachev would have liked to mothball the BW program, but found his hands pretty full with everything else that happened during the USSR's endgame.) The flagrant violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, though, created all sorts of diplomatic complications for the late USSR — even though the BWC lacked verification, and thus was easy to cheat, it did create huge headaches to be caught out in 20 year lie.

Lessons learned

The real take-aways, for me, were:

  • Treaties without verification are not worth the paper they are written on, but before violating one, keep in mind how much of a bind you'll put your future, reforming leaders when they find out about it.
  • Disinformation that makes you out to be more scary than you are is a really bad idea.
  • Even though your country may not be weaponizing the coolest, newest scientific techniques (like genetic engineering), someone else might be. Be aware of that before proclaiming your field of research totally unnecessary for regulation.
  • Soviet WMD history seems like a super hard thing to do — a mixture of US intelligence reports, interviews with former participants who may or may not be interested in telling you the truth, and the occasional smuggled/given document which may or may not be true. In my experience, anyway, US WMD history is much more straightforward — there's a real culture difference.

Anyway, it sounds like the Leitenberg and Zilinskas volume will bring a lot of enlightenment to our discussions of the Soviet biological weapons program, even while it raises deeper mysteries.

This post was updated later in the day to clarify a few points after a communication from Leitenberg.

  1. Note to future self: the dress code for summertime, lunchtime talks with intelligence community folks in DC is slacks, shirt, open collar, no tie, no jacket. I wore a tie and was conspicuously overdressed — a rare thing for unfashionable me! []
  2. None other than Raymond A. Zilinskas himself once got on me at a talk I gave when I conflated the terms "mutated" and "genetic engineered" — which was helpful, in a way, because I won't make that error again! []

The Ivy MIKE leak

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

On November 1, 1952, the United States detonated the world's first hydrogen bomb.1 Shot MIKE of Operation Ivy was the culmination of nearly a decade of work on developing thermonuclear weapons, and it released an explosive force equivalent to 10.4 million tons of TNT — some 800 times the explosive force of Hiroshima, capable of setting fire to an area of over a thousand square miles. 

The world had entered the megaton age, but the United States didn't want anybody to know about it.

Which is an odd thing, if you think about it. It's true, the first atomic bomb test — "Trinity" — had been kept a secret at the time. But only because the U.S. planned to use it on Japan quickly and wanted it to be a surprise. There was no "operational" reason for keeping the MIKE test a secret, except for the fact that, well, it wasn't actually really ready for prime-time, as far as weapons went. MIKE was a big, clunky cryogenic test apparatus that weighed over 50 tons. It had been designed (by Dick Garwin) to prove a point, not to fit on an airplane. They did manage to scale it down a bit as five "Emergency Capability" weapons (the "Jughead" bombs), but these required specialized plane modifications to field (and only one plane was so modified), and even then, one wonders how reliable they were considered. (And even these weren't produced until 1954, shortly before the U.S. developed more easily weaponized solid-fuel hydrogen bombs.)

Still, one might ask again why the U.S. tried to keep it secret, and from whom. The thing is, keeping it secret from the USSR just wasn't an option: when you set off 10 megatons in the Pacific Ocean, people are going to notice. Now, it's true that the Soviets later claimed that they botched their fallout monitoring program at that stage of things (and thus apparently were unable to analyze the MIKE fallout to the degree that would have revealed fundamental design information, thus saving Soviet dignity when they came up with the same idea independently!),2 but it's clear that they were aware that something big had happened in the Pacific Ocean. And the only thing that big would have been an H-bomb.

When your nuclear test involves vaporizing an entire island, it's a bit hard to keep it secret.

The secrecy of the H-bomb has long been an interest of mine, because it was instituted so early (Truman put the AEC under a "gag" on discussing H-bomb topics in 1950, which they struggled to get reversed), and persisted for a relatively long time (the US didn't officially admit to having H-bombs until 1954, after the Castle BRAVO accident) despite the weighty subject matter. Information on the Ivy Mike shot wasn't released until nearly two years after it was detonated, which is a long time to try and keep something that big secret!

Who were they trying to keep it from? Well, everybody. The timing and circumstances of MIKE were not politically ideal. It was detonated just days before the 1952 Presidential election, and there was considerable question to whether it should be delayed until after the election took place. In the end it was decided that delaying it would be a politically tricky thing, so they just went ahead with it when they were ready. Truman didn't make it a political issue, though he easily could have. When President-elect Eisenhower was briefed on it, he was relieved that the AEC hadn't told anybody, because he didn't want to tip off the Russians to anything whatsoever.3 All that was immediately let out was a terse statement that admitted that the test series "the test program included experiments contributing to thermonuclear weapons research" — the same thing they had said after Operation Greenhouse. From that point until the Operation Castle debacle it just never seemed like the right time to say anything.

Of course, as I said, you can't really keep something that large truly secret. And indeed — Ivy MIKE leaked almost immediately. Thus we turn to this week's document, a series of AEC correspondence by Morris Salisbury, their public relations officer, Gordon Dean, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and J. Edgar Hoover, infamous head of the FBI.4

Click for PDF.

Only a few hours after the first H-bomb detonation, the AEC public relations man got a call from someone at the Department of Defense who had got off the phone with Clay Blair, Jr., at Life magazine wanting to confirm that the US had indeed just detonated a hydrogen bomb. Just prior to that, they had gotten another phone call from Time magazine:

Hobbing [Time]: Is this the big day?
Thompson [AEC]: Why don't you tell me? What are you talking about?
Hobbing: We understand that the H-bomb has just been set off.
Thompson: We have a standard policy of no comment about weapons tests. We haven't anything to say in that field.
Hobbing: Aren't you getting out a release, don't you usually issue releases after you have made a shot?
Thompson: We have at times issued releases or statements after a shot in Nevada. We have never followed such procedure on tests at Eniwetok.
Hobbing: Don't you have any releases coming out there this afternoon?
Thompson: I don't know offhand. I'll have to check.
Hobbing: I mean about H-bombs.
Thompson: No.

A not entirely compelling performance on behalf of the AEC representative, there. Dean opted to have the FBI try and track down the source of the leak — the exact place and time of the shot was considered extremely sensitive information (because it would help the Soviets reconstruct information from the fallout), and the fact that it involved an H-bomb at all meant that it was "restricted data" (the unauthorized dissemination of which could even carry the death penalty).

Over the course of the week the story made its way into the press — and the AEC's secrecy on the issue itself became a main part of the story.

Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1952 — The story starts to rear its head (center page).

"The United States may be keeping secret an explosion of the world's first full-scale hydrogen bomb." (L.A. Times, November 7, 1952)

Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1952

" 'No Comment' was the only reply from the commission to inquiries based on an H-bomb story story in a Los Angeles newspaper today." (L.A. Times, November 9, 1952)

Finally the AEC release the terse statement I mentioned earlier, which, when paired with the rumors, and several "first-hand accounts" made the H-bomb test a fairly "open secret."

New York Times, November 17, 1952

It's still worth wondering, why try to keep it so secret? I mean, as we've seen from the film (released later), Operation Ivy was no small affair. (Interestingly, and this was news to me, an Air Force pilot actually died while taking fallout samples. Not from the radiation, mind you, but because he ran out of fuel and crashed the plane.5 This is the only acute, immediate death I've ever heard of during a U.S. nuclear test. Are there more?) Over 2,500 people were present at the test site, and the bomb itself was pretty conspicuous. As far as I know, nobody was ever charged with "leaking" the news about the MIKE shot.

A short version is to say that by this point, the AEC was taking all of its guidance on public releases relating to the H-bomb from the National Security Council, who saw no benefit to transparency. There's more to this story, but we'll leave it at that for now.

A few parting observations:

  • In all of the news coverage, notice that it is the AEC who gets the blame for the secrecy. This isn't exactly true — the "no comment on the H-bomb" policy had been decided before the shot by the National Security Council, and the post-shot silence was dictated by both Truman and Eisenhower. But the very secrecy of the matter obscures the source of the secrecy.
  • In a sense, one could see the U.S. as participating in a form of "strategic opacity" regarding its possession or non-possession of a hydrogen bomb between 1952 and 1954. Like Israel today, the U.S. then derived some advantage from its vagueness — if everyone "knew" that the U.S. had an H-bomb, but the U.S. didn't announce it, it could help avoid troublesome international issues (like criticism from allied countries who decried the H-bomb effort) while also avoiding several acute strategic weaknesses (like the fact that their "H-bomb" was not yet really a deliverable military weapon).
  • On the other hand, the H-bomb issue as a whole was one of the real turning points with respects to the AEC and the press. It was in the 1950s that the AEC's relationship with the press soured in a bad way, and when it got its most fearsome reputation as an agent of censorship and an enemy of disclosure. Some of this was deserved, but some of this was not. As pointed out, a lot of that secrecy didn't derive from the AEC at all, but other sources of power it was beholden to.

Ultimately, like so much regarding the hydrogen bomb (more on this in a future post), one has to wonder what it all added up to. The AEC was already in a pretty prime strategic relationship with regards to the arms race, and it didn't have any great reason to assume otherwise. I don't think it got them very much to be secretive, but I do think it hurt them. Then again, it wasn't entirely up to them what was secret and what wasn't — a case of "gambling with other people's money," or, more correctly, "gambling with other agency's reputations," on behalf of the NSC.


  1. Note that it was November 1 local, Eniwetok time — in the U.S. itself it was Halloween, which I find appropriate. []
  2. See Hugh Gusterson, “Death of the authors of death: Prestige and creativity among nuclear weapons scientists,” in Mario Biagioli and Peter Galison, eds., Scientific authorship: Credit and intellectual property in science (New York: Routledge, 2003), 281-307, riffing off of the account in David Holloway's Stalin and the Bomb. []
  3. Richard G. Hewlett and Jack M. Holl, Atoms for Peace and War, 1953-1961 (Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley, 1989), 3-4. []
  4. Roy B. Snapp, "Note by the Secretary – Letter to J. Edgar Hoover, Operation Ivy, AEC 483/33," (18 November 1952), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, as document NV0409009. []
  5. Mark Wolverton, "Into the Mushroom Cloud," Air & Space (August 2009). []

Excerpts from the Klaus Fuchs File (1951)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Recently -- sometime in the last year -- the FBI revamped its online FOIA Reading Room and replaced it with a new website called the FBI Vault. Somehow I missed this until just this week. The Vault contains all of the files the old Reading Room had, but adds a huge, new section on the Rosenberg Case. This is pretty great, both for Cold War historians, as well as a potential font for student papers. Along with those of the eponymous couple, these include the files of Klaus FuchsHarry GoldDavid GreenglassGeorge Kistiakowski (misspelled online), J. Robert Oppenheimer (not his entire file), Morton SobellHarold Urey (not his entire file), among many others. Note that in some cases they are not the full files. Oppenheimer's file there is just the parts that were considered relevant to the Rosenberg Case. It's a lot of this-and-that, and not the full file by a long shot. Same with Urey's and Kistiakowski's files. At some point in the late 1970s, it seems that a number of files were either culled or grouped together with respects to a court order, and you can see evidence of this in the files as they have long lists of documents not enclosed, dated from 1978 or so.

Still, the Fuchs file is a full 9,923 pages (760MB!) of FBI-file-goodness, all conveniently in PDF format. It's not quite identical to what I got by FOIAing the FBI a few years ago -- the CD-ROM the FBI sent me had 839 more pages in it -- but it's still pretty impressive. (If you're interested in downloading the files in bulk, I heavily recommend using a download manager, like Download Them All for Firefox. It makes downloading 111 PDF files a lot easier, even though it does still take some fiddling, since the FBI wasn't entirely consistent with how it uploaded these files.)

Of course, the Vault site also contains the files of Groucho Marx, Liberace, and an 119 page file on "Louie, Louie," the song (the FBI, like everyone else, couldn't figure out the lyrics), so there's no shortage of fun to be had there. I've added this resource to my long list of nuclear primary sources on the web.

This week's document comes from the Fuchs file linked to above. Specifically, it's an excerpt of a February 1951 report made by the FBI titled "Summary Brief on Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs," related to "Fuchs' Scientific Knowledge and Disclosures to Russians."1

Click image to view the PDF.

Now this is, to me anyway, a pretty interesting document in and of itself. It compiles a lot of information about what exactly Fuchs claims to have given to the Russians. It's limited, though, in part because of the fact that the British weren't keen on giving the Americans unfettered access to Fuchs.2

Read the full post »

  1. Citation: Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Summary Brief on Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs" (12 February 1951), (Excerpt), in Klaus Fuchs FBI file, FBI Vault version. []
  2. For a really terrific account of the tensions in the FBI-MI5 relationship regarding Fuchs, see Michael S. Goodman, "Who Is Trying to Keep What Secret from Whom and Why? MI5-FBI Relations and the Klaus Fuchs Case," Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 3 (Summer 2005), 124-146. []

J. Edgar Hoover on Fuchs and Lilienthal (1950)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Last weekend I saw Clint Eastwood's new film about the FBI's first director, "J. Edgar." I can't say that I thought it was a great film. Aside from the question of its historical accuracy (which strikes me as, well, dodgy), it was too long, too plodding, and Leonardo DiCaprio, for all of his talents, is just not a very good Hoover. He's miserable with accents, and just doesn't ever cease being DiCaprio-playing-Hoover. I never felt like he "inhabited" Hoover, and I didn't feel he had expanded my understanding of Hoover.

J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson lunching in their regular booth at the Mayflower Hotel, 1970. Source: Google LIFE archive.

My favorite fictional depiction of Hoover is, without a doubt, the J. Edgar who inhabits James Ellroy's Underworld USA Trilogy of novels. The Hoover in Ellroy's books has the same voice as the Hoover in the FBI files I've read: precise, curt, with contempt and threat just out of vision, but always present.

In honor of that mindset, and in a shameless movie tie-in, this Weekly Document is a February 1950 memo by J. Edgar Hoover to his Deputy Director, Clyde Tolson, and two other high-ranking FBI employees regarding a phone conversation Hoover had with David E. Lilienthal, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The conversation's topic: the imminent announcement of Klaus Fuchs' role as atomic spy.

Read the full post »


Trinity test press releases (May 1945)

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Let's get this out there: I'm a confessed "Archive Rat." While I may not actually be thrilled while in the archives themselves (which are often dusty, bureaucratic, uncomfortable places), I love the thrill of finding something old, something new, something once secret. I get a lot out of that, and I love having thousands of documents at my fingertips, digitized and easy to search. This is a fortunate thing, because if you want to do the history of the bomb, you'd better love sifting through paperwork — because there's a lot of it. 

OK, so technically this is an FBI facility from World War II, and has nothing specific to do with the bomb. But it's a pretty great image for the modern bureaucratic-security state. Source: Google LIFE image archive. See the bottom of the post for discussion of what's really going on in this photo.

The Big Science of the atomic bomb was accompanied by a Big Bureaucracy, the majority of which was kept in secret. This turns out to be great for historians, even if it was arguably lousy for the nation. As Richard G. Hewlett, put it the first volume of his official history of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission:

The records have survived. For this, scholars can thank two much-maligned practices of the bureaucracy: classification and multiple copies. Classified documents endure; they do not disappear from the files as souvenirs. As for copies in sextuplicate, their survival is a matter of simple arithmetic. If the original in one agency is destroyed, the chances are better than even that one of the five carbons will escape the flames in another.1

What Hewlett doesn't say here is that the reason people don't take them home as souvenirs, or throw them out haphazardly, or lend them to their friends, or accidentally mutilate or staple them, is that because the maximum penalty for doing these sorts of things was death for much of the Cold War.2

In this spirit, once a week I will pick out an interesting or exceptional document from my research database and share it with you here, with a little contextualization and commentary.

I want to start with a favorite: a series of press releases written by William L. Laurence to be sent out after the Trinity test in July 1945. Laurence, as I mentioned earlier this week, was the only newspaper reporter brought in to view the Manhattan Project. General Groves had decided that Laurence, a science journalist at the New York Times, would be useful for writing press releases, newspaper articles, and official statements. (He soon discovered Laurence was lousy at the latter — too "gee-whiz!" — and assigned those duties to Arthur W. Page, the Vice President of Marketing at AT&T and a close friend of the Secretary of War.)

One of Laurence's duties was to compose a series of press releases issuing cover stories for the Trinity test. The Manhattan Project folks knew that Trinity would make a big noise, and so they needed some sort of excuse — an exploding ammunition dump, for example — to give out immediately afterwards to the surrounding area. What they didn't know was how big of a noise it was going to be, so Laurence wrote up a series of escalating press releases depending on how awful the test was.

Read the full post »

  1. Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The New World, 1939/1946: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Volume I (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), on 657. []
  2. In 1969, when the Supreme Court temporarily ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, the Atomic Energy Act was amended to remove the death penalty and make the maximum penalties life imprisonment. It was never added back to the law even when it was made constitutional again. Small miracles, eh? []