Skip navigationPerils of publication


1. Scientific journals - muzzled!

2. Smallpox toolkit

3. Physical secrets

4. Biowar treasure chest

5. Making the decision


Anthrax spores shown under a microscope. Photo: NASA.


Biowar tricks for sale
Microscope image of dark purple spheres and light purple oblong entities against white background.Ten years ago, the U.S. government was not feverishly trying to stanch the flow of information to bioterrorists. Rather it was trying to unload technical reports from its offensive biowar program, which operated from 1943 to 1969.

As recently as 2000, writes biowar observer Raymond Zilinskas, it was "easy to find information on such topics as: how to grow and propagate the bacterial and viral species listed in the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention's critical agents lists; the dispersal and fate of aerosolized particles; the characteristics of dispersal systems; the meteorological records of cities and regions; and so forth."

Under a declassification protocol that started in 1977 and accelerated under President Clinton, results of old U.S. biowar experiments were sold to anyone trustworthy enough to hold a credit card. When Zilinskas searched the holdings in 1996, he found about 4,500 articles dealing with biological weapons, many of them available to all comers. The stuff is no longer so freely available, Zilinskas says.

While the genetic engineering techniques we've mentioned in current scientific publications might help produce "improved" bioweapons, the U.S. studies addressed nuts-and-bolts issues related to simple effectiveness, Zilinskas writes:

biohazard sign "The technical studies provide, for example, microbiological studies on how to grow and weaponize Bacillus anthracis, engineering details of the manufacture of biological bomblets, characteristics of plant pathogens useful for biological weapons against agriculture, and so forth. They contain, for instance, detailed descriptions of how to: grow Bacillus anthracis in large amounts, including the best media for this purpose; convert cells into spores; increase the virulence of this pathogen; dry wet biomass constitute by spores; load biomass into bomblets, and so on. There are also detailed engineering plans on the specs of biological bomblets developed over many years by the pre-1969 U.S. [biological weapons] program. These sources provide not only information about biological weapons development and manufacture, but also the know-how gleaned from experiences of scientists who worked for years to develop recipes for the biological weapons that constituted the U.S.'s biological arsenal;Black rubber gas mask with large windows for eyes attached to rust-colored metal can by thick tubing. these recipes include descriptions for overcoming the myriads of problems that beset whomever attempts to direct microorganisms to do their bidding. While much of this technical information would be beyond the understanding of most terrorist groups, the few well-endowed groups and, of course, national programs likely would find this information very useful."

Gas masks like these -- the kind issued to military personnel during World War II -- have become all too familiar again. Photo: City of Stoke-Trent, U.K.

But where do we draw the line in scientific publications?

The Why Files

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