Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ken Alibek: Honest Scientist or Self-Serving Fabricator?

[U.S.] Officials still value his seminal depictions of the Soviet [biological warfare] program. But recent events have propelled questions about Alibek's reliability--L.A. Times (7-1-07)

Soviet biological weapons expert Ken Alibek defected from Russia in the Fall of 1992, about a year after the fall of the U.S.S.R., and became an advisor to the U.S. government. After 9-11, his stock went up. However, some scientists have expressed reservations about Alibek's reliability. Below is one skeptical article. It's really hard to know what is true.

The L.A. Times (7-1-07) reports:

FEAR INC. -- A TIMES INVESTIGATION - Selling the threat of bioterrorism - A scientist defected, warned of epidemics, helped shape policy and sought to profit.

By David Willman, Times Staff WriterJuly 01, 2007

WASHINGTON — In the fall of 1992, Kanatjan Alibekov defected from Russia to the United States, bringing detailed, and chilling, descriptions of his role in making biological weapons for the former Soviet Union.

As a doctor of microbiology, a physician and a colonel in the Red Army, he helped lead the Soviet effort. He told U.S. intelligence agencies that the Soviets had devoted at least 30,000 scientists, working at dozens of sites, to develop bioweapons, despite a 1972 international ban on such work.

He said that emigrating Russian scientists and others posed imminent threats. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he said, several specialists went to Iraq and North Korea. Both countries, he said, may have obtained anthrax and smallpox. The transfer of smallpox would be especially ominous because the Russians, he said, had sought to genetically modify the virus, posing lethal risk even to those who had been vaccinated.

His expertise, combined with his dire pronouncements, solidified his cachet in Washington. He simplified his name to Ken Alibek, became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, and emerged as one of the most important voices in U.S. decisions to spend billions of dollars to counter anthrax, smallpox and other potential bioterrorism agents.

"It was Alibek's revelations, when he defected, that really provided the first information about the scope" of both the Soviet program and the possible proliferation to Iran and Iraq, said Dr. Thomas Monath, who was a top biodefense specialist for the U.S. Army.

Monath, who later led a group of experts that advised the Central Intelligence Agency on ways to counter biological attacks, said Alibek's information resonated at high levels of the U.S. government and was "amplified by 9/11."

"I think he influenced many people who were in position to make some decisions about response," Monath said, adding, "Concern about smallpox, in particular, was driven by Alibek."

Dr. Kenneth W. Bernard, who served President Bush as a special assistant for biodefense, agreed, saying that Alibek "had a substantial and profound effect."

Having raised the prospect that Iraq had acquired the ability to wield smallpox or anthrax, Alibek also was outspoken as the U.S. went to war in early 2003, saying there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Officials still value his seminal depictions of the Soviet program. But recent events have propelled questions about Alibek's reliability:

No biological weapon of mass destruction has been found in Iraq. His most sensational research findings, with U.S. colleagues, have not withstood peer review by scientific specialists. His promotion of nonprescription pills -- sold in his name over the Internet and claiming to bolster the immune system -- was ridiculed by some scientists. He resigned as executive director of a Virginia university's biodefense center 10 months ago while facing internal strife over his stewardship.

And, as Alibek raised fear of bioterrorism in the United States, he also has sought to profit from that fear...

Dr. Philip K. Russell, a retired Army major general and physician who joined the Bush administration from 2001 to 2004 to confront the perceived threat of smallpox, said he was convinced that Alibek had solid firsthand information about the former Soviet Union's production of anthrax. But regarding other threats, such as genetically engineered smallpox, Russell said he "began to think that Ken was more fanciful than precise in some of his recollections."

"He would claim that certain things had been done, and then when you came right down to it, he didn't have direct knowledge of it -- he'd heard it from somebody. For example, the issue of putting Ebola genes into smallpox virus. That was viewed, at least in many of our minds, as somewhat fanciful. And probably not true."

Alibek told The Times that the comments in question were based on articles he read in Russia's "scientific literature"...

By the late 1980s, with the Cold War ending, teams of U.S. and Soviet biological warfare experts prepared to visit each other's laboratories to see for themselves.

On Dec. 11, 1991, Alibek and his Soviet colleagues traveled to Ft. Detrick, Md., home to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where researchers studied how to protect troops from germ warfare, work that was allowed under the 1972 agreement. And Alibek began making personal connections that would soon ease his transition to American life.

None would prove more important to him than his rapport with USAMRIID director Charles L. Bailey, an entomologist and U.S. Army colonel.

Within a year, Alibek resigned from Biopreparat and fled to the U.S. with his wife and three children. Bailey retired from the Army but stayed at Ft. Detrick as an analyst with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

Bailey's job was to assess what the Russians were up to.

This gave him a close view of Alibek's confidential debriefings with U.S. intelligence agents. The debriefings, Bailey said, provided "very valuable" information about the Russian program. Alibek described threats beyond the Russian borders.

"Alibek thought that every country that had anthrax" also had smallpox, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, Bailey said...

In 1997, the two worked together for Battelle, a large nonprofit research and development organization. Next, they moved to Virginia-based Hadron Inc., another firm that had ties to U.S. intelligence agencies. Alibek also circulated among government officials. He privately briefed Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, then vice chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, the nation's second-highest military officer...

Alibek's public profile rose after the Sept. 11 attacks and the mailings of anthrax a month later that killed five people.

Appearing before a House subcommittee on national security in October 2001, Alibek said that earlier "attempts to wipe out Iraq's biological weapons capability were probably not successful." He also told the subcommittee that Russian biological weapons experts had "emigrated to rogue nations such as Iraq." As the U.S.-led war got underway in March 2003, Alibek said during an online discussion hosted by the Washington Post: "There is no doubt in my mind that [Saddam] Hussein has WMD." [Full text]

3 Comments:

Anonymous furniture in Toronto said...

Hi. Thanks for this article. I had not known much about Alibek before I read this article. However, as you said, it is hard to know what is true. But my feeling about him is much more bad than good. I don't know why but the first impression is important and Alibek doesn't seem to me agreeable.

Best regards,
Ella

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. Alibek now works in Astana, Kazakhstan and conducting very doubtful studies on therapy of late stage oncologic diseases.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He deceived many in the US, Ukraine and now he is fooling the government of Kazakhstan. Alibek calimed that he developed a new cancer treatment and made the government to beileve. They invested millions $ to his "research". The Kazakhs are so naive. Alibek now leads the national cancer research program londering millions dollars.

4:30 PM  

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