Bio-terror: 'Poor man's nuke'
Metcalf interviews Gerry Schumacher on combating anthrax, botulism

Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Col. Gerald Schumacher -- a retired Army officer who had worked on biological and chemical weapons early-detection systems for the Army during the Gulf War -- about the threat of biological weapons of mass destruction, what has traditionally been called "the poor man's nuke."

By Geoff Metcalf

Q: Secretary Tommy Thompson has recently been claiming America is prepared for biological warfare. What does that mean?

A: We know that they have a number of what they call "PUSH" packages. They have eight of these with enough antidotes and antibiotics to treat about 10,000 people per PUSH package.

Q: OK, but that wasn't going to accomplish anything if Ground Zero in New York City had been contaminated.

A: No, that is exactly correct. We've run a lot of tests on it, and literally hundreds of thousands of people could potentially be infected very quickly. I think that 10,000 on a single PUSH package would probably be consumed rather rapidly by doctors, nurses, policemen and anybody associated with them who could get their hands on the antibiotics and the antidotes for biological and chemical attacks. The alternative, I suspect, would be to quarantine the city and then begin to try to produce as much antibiotic as they could.

Q: Let's make a distinction. There are two primary threats that people are talking about. One is chemical, and one is biological. If there is a chemical attack, people are going to know very quickly. But if there is a biological attack, you may not know for 30, 60 or 90 days.

A: I think it would depend in very large measure on the type of biological. Many of them would happen as early as three days. A majority of them would happen and begin to have effects within 10 days, and some yet later. It is very difficult to keep track of how many kinds of biologicals and strains that have been developed. As you know, throughout the '90s there were tens of thousands of scientists working in Russia and elsewhere on developing antidote-resistant biologicals and those kinds of things. The Soviet Union for years had a philosophy, and probably still do, that they will utilize biologicals that were "cocktails," which means they were mixed with multiple kinds of biologicals. It makes treatment extremely ineffective. They were also working (unlike the United States) on biologicals that did not have an antidote for them. Our policy was to work only on biologicals where we could ensure the safety of the workers and have antidotes for them.

Q: A couple of years ago, there was that big flap in the military about the vaccine for anthrax. I was under the impression that there were a series of shots -- not like the old yellow fever shots they used to give us -- and that even then, it was for a specific strain of anthrax and probably wouldn't work against whatever nasty bug the bad guys put out there.

A: That's interesting, because I worked on a project to attempt to detect anthrax, botulism and other agents that Saddam had. We looked at that anthrax vaccine, and we knew there were no test results on the inhaled version of anthrax. The only results we had that showed any effectiveness with the vaccine were from the blood of contaminated animals and that sort of thing. So we had no experience on how humans would respond to the vaccine. I personally did not have a high confidence level, and I don't know of anyone I worked with on that team that went out of his or her way to get vaccinated.

Editor's note: This interview was conducted the day the first Florida victim came down with anthrax, which eventually proved fatal.

Q: When that 63-year-old photo editor was diagnosed with [pulmonary] anthrax in Florida, Tommy Thompson said it was very, very rare. There hadn't been a case since 1976. If there is a subsequent inhaled variant of anthrax that is contracted by someone (and eventually there was; as of this writing there have been three cases confirmed) are we even going to hear about it?

A: I'm certain there would have to be. Let me clarify something here -- you are referring to an actual intentional dispersal?

Q: Yeah.

A: We'd certainly hear about it if 10 or 15 people came down with anthrax. I hear a lot of experts on the media saying that it's difficult to disperse, that it wouldn't affect very many people. As I see it, I don't think that really matters a whole lot.

Q: How so?

A: If they release one canister, one Coke can of anthrax in an auditorium, at an amphitheater, in an air conditioning system, and we have even 10 or 20 people come down with anthrax simultaneously, I think the psychological factor on the country would be devastating. Once we recognize that that potential exists and have in fact experienced an attack, how is that going to affect our entire population's view about going out to any place where it could be dispersed?

Q: What are these lapsed time detectors that the Army uses?

A: That's the BIDS system. That's an acronym for Biological Integrated Detection System.

Q: Is that the thing you were working on during the Gulf War that never got deployed?

A: No. Actually, the BIDS was still a cultivating-type system where they take air samples and cultivate them. They have some ability to detect if they determine something is lethal, but they don't know what kind of agent it is. They would sound an alarm.

Q: But it's not in real time, is it?

A: No, it's not real time. The systems we worked on during the Gulf War -- I worked closely with Stanford Research Institute. We had designed two different kinds of systems using mercury vapor lamps and pulse lasers and strobes where we would basically suck in an air sample at tremendous speed so that we could concentrate that sample. It would be sent through a mass spectrometer and would give us a real-time alert. The technology was running at a hectic pace at the time because there had been very little work done on it prior to the Gulf War. The systems needed to be cleaned up for false positives. Basically, they had to be calibrated for the environment that they were in, so you'd need to take these boxes to the Gulf, to San Francisco, to New York. The boxes were about two feet by two feet, and there was another box that was about two feet by three feet high, like a small cabinet. You need to calibrate them in their local area so they don't give false positives for some biological that would not otherwise be lethal.

Q: Please explain to our readers what you did during the Gulf War.

A: I headed up the military side of a composite team that was made up of scientists from Stanford Research Institute and soldiers whom I hand selected. We worked at both Dudway Proving Grounds and Yuma Proving Grounds to design real-time detection equipment for biological agents.

Q: Do you know Dean A. Wilkening? He's a physicist at Stanford.

A: Not offhand.

Q: He's apparently a physicist with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. He was quoted in WorldNetDaily last week basically saying, don't worry about it.

A: I wonder where he gets his confidence level. We know that biologicals can be made in the basement. We know that not just Saddam has made biologicals. Many of the countries in that region have made biologicals.

Q: He said, "It's not that easy to release biological agents so that they are infective, so that they can be inhaled." I personally think he overlooks the incredible psychological impact it would have if, as you said, even a small incident were successful.

A: That's correct. When they say it's ineffective, quite frankly, they are basing that on some mistakes that previous terrorist organizations made in trying to apply biologicals. The terrorist organization out of Japan that eventually used the nerve gas ...

Q: The sarin release!

A: Yeah, the sarin release, the nerve gas in the subway system there. They had made attempts with aerosol spray and forgot to invite a meteorologist along. The conditions were generally ineffective. But a biological used in a closed building or in an air conditioning system, or under the right meteorological conditions, is horribly effective.

Q: Some potential bad guys have been putting the pieces together to use this stuff.

A: Countries like Iraq have gone ahead and purchased over 40 of these biological sprayers -- agricultural-type sprayers specifically designed with an o-ring system that will protect the operator -- with the sole purpose of dispersing biologicals. Now, if potential enemies of this country are producing biologicals, cultivating samples, making sprayers, it seems to me they are headed in the direction that they intend to use them.

Q: Everyone is getting hinky about when and where, but maybe even more significant is what.

A: Let's cut to the issue, Geoff. What biological are they releasing? Before I say this, I've got to preface it by saying that smallpox was only at two locations in the world -- a lab in Russia and a lab in the United States. But there is some reason to believe it was not well-controlled and that there were some secret projects where smallpox moved on to other sites within the Soviet Union.

Q: And that it had been hybridized. I read a piece where some guy who was in a hurry for some results in a test combined smallpox with some mouse virus and came up with something no one was expecting that was devastating.

A: They've done a lot of those hybrids. So I ask you, how effective do you have to be if you get 10 people infected with smallpox? Smallpox takes about 10 days to incubate. The calculations on those are just disastrous.

Q: OK, so folks are concerned about the "what." Are our enemies going to use anthrax, smallpox, Ebola? Is it going to be some hybridized bastardization mixed up in a cocktail of multiples? If or when the nefarious "they" use something, what about vaccines or antidotes? Or are we just out of luck?

A: I think if you are one of the very fortunate ones to be diagnosed very early and if they can accurately diagnose what biological it is -- because so many of these biologicals have similar initial symptoms -- you might have half a chance. But I think the population on the whole is not going to have much of a chance.

There was a [biological terrorism test] operation that was run called Dark Winter.

Q: Yeah, June 22-23 of this year. We discussed it on the radio just recently.

A: You may want to refresh my memory on this, but something like 25 million people [in this test] were potentially infected in a period of three or four days. I've seen lower numbers where the New York City subway system potentially infected 500,000 people. These numbers are staggering. I believe the New York subway-system test, as I recall, was run with something no bigger than a vacuum light bulb filled with agent during rush hour. So how much agent do we need? These agents are easy to conceal and get into the country. This is not something our security forces in general would be prepared to look for. I think the opportunity to do it is great, and the impact is horrific.

Q: The government is trying to make everyone comfortable and blissful in his or her ignorance. They claim they can handle anything and tell us not to worry about it, but at the same time they are finally acknowledging the bad guys are developing this stuff, and when they get their hands on it, they will use it. They aren't going to stick some killer bug in an arsenal and tell us to do something "or else" they will release a plague on you. They'll just do it and then tell us ... maybe.

A: That's a frightening scenario, and it's a scenario in which they have all kinds of options open to them in terms of how readily they may want to take the claim for having done something like that.

I just think we have to be proactive in intercepting it. We've got to stop the cultivating samples. We've got to have real-time detection systems. There are some versions of what I worked on at Stanford Research Institute that have been fielded, but the technology has been slow in development. In cases where they want to protect a 200 by 300-foot area, they need multiple detectors, and there are only a couple of agencies that have those.

Q: I don't mean to intentionally devastate the surplus business, but let's give our readers the reality check. New Yorkers are running out and buying gas masks, but they don't know how to fit them or wear them. They don't know how to check the filters. Give us the down and dirty.

A: Gas masks are really difficult to function in, in either cold temperatures or hot temperatures. I've parachuted in with a mask on in arctic conditions and just had them fog up and become almost inoperable. In extreme heat conditions, the MOPP suits are terrible to work in. Trying to eat, sleep, complete "natural functions," knowing when it might be safe to remove a gas mask, knowing how to decontaminate. Anthrax spores, for example, can live as long as 40 years. If you are sprayed with anthrax, when do you take off your MOPP suit? And how do you decontaminate it? Where are the spores living? I think the concept of living, let alone fighting, in the current level of protective gear is just archaic. It's bad medicine. The money just has not been put into the technologies.

Q: Back on Sept. 7, I asked Col. David Hackworth to prioritize military threats. He said it wasn't a Taiwan dust-up with the Chinese or Russia, but that it was "international terrorism brought to the continental United States in New York and Washington ..." I'd like you to prioritize the specific types of threats for us: chemical, biological, nuclear or cyber? What's next?

A: Biological, chemical, and then it's a toss-up between nuclear and cyber. I think the access to making the nuclear equipment is somewhat difficult. There has been a lot of effort, and a lot of components have been put together. I think cyber will be onboard with nuclear. But I would expect we are going to see biological real soon.

Q: Because it's cheapest?

A: It's the cheapest, and it's easiest to conceal. It has tremendous psychological bang for the buck from the terrorist standpoint. I talked with William Lind back in Washington five or six years ago. He's one of these think-tank experts. He saw this non-nation state using biological weapons as one of the leading threats our nation was facing. I think it's almost a no-brainer that they are going to attempt to do it. I think if we have the detectors out there and start aggressively putting them out of business, we might have half a chance.

I'm hoping that the psychology going through various terrorist organizations where they want to bring the plague to America is that they are psychologically afraid of using the plague themselves and possibly becoming contaminated. But I'm not optimistic that will stop them from using it.

Q: There is also the potential negative blowback of contaminating their people here. If this is being packaged and sold to the masses as a jihad and you are in effect killing tens of thousands of Muslims in America, they may have a problem there.

A: They didn't consider that when they hit the New York Trade Center, they killed quite a few Muslims there. I think they separated their identity from Muslims in America.

Q: So if bio is at the top of the pecking order, what might we see? Is the easiest thing for them to get their hands on some kind of a weaponized anthrax?

A: Weaponized anthrax or botulism. Those are the two primary production agents that Saddam Hussein has been using. We know he has been supporting various terrorist organizations. I would expect those above and beyond the others ... also because of the lasting effect of anthrax. Anthrax is a very hearty spore, and areas would be contaminated for a long time to come.

Q: The good news is, unless you inhale it, you can survive it.

A: That is correct. And it's not something that is highly contagious. There are some ways you could pick it up from a carrier, but that's not likely.

Q: The only variety I'm aware of that cannot be treated after the fact is the inhaled variety that gets into your lungs. Cipro is touted as the drug of choice right now. Should people be preparing some kind of 'bug-out' kit?

A: I suspect anthrax and botulism, being the two primary ones we are concerned with, I suppose if you can afford to do it for your whole family it's not a bad idea. But knowing you have it, and being diagnosed, and treating yourself -- those are all questionable issues.

Q: "Dark Winter" was conducted back in June of this year. I would hope the lessons learned from that after-action report would generate additional actions. What is the forecast for the future?

A: I'm not privy to that, but when you look at the results from "Dark Winter," that was not the first time we had run possible bioterrorism attacks on the United States. We have run those over many, many years and seen similar levels of disaster possibly striking this country. But it never motivated our government to put the money into protective measures on it.

Q: In "Dark Winter" and its predecessors, one of the lessons they come up with is, "Government currently lacks adequate strategies, plans, and information system to manage a crisis of this type or magnitude." And the obvious question is: Knock-knock, what does it take, guys?

A: I've been asking myself that for at least 10 years now, since I was confronted with the reality of what Saddam Hussein had and when I studied what the Russians were doing. The reality has been in front of me for some time. As you know, I went public with some of this information and attempted to push senators and congressmen.

Q: And what was the response?

A: I found myself getting basically just lip service. I've always felt that you know what you are preparing for when it comes to war, and it's where you put your money. And the money has not been put into NBC -- nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Q: Individual reaction to possible bio attack -- you've got some ideas on a sensible approach on what, where and when to take a response if you think you've been affected.

A: I think the first thing to look at is to see if you have any number of people coming down with flu-like symptoms that attended the same event or at the same place. Normally these biologicals incubate over a period of time, but if you are all coming down with it simultaneously and you all attended the same event, I think that is an early indicator. There are a lot of other indicators. I don't think the gas masks and the MOPP suits for the general public are going to be a sound idea because we don't have real-time detection.

I think people should lobby Congress and the Senate to move the technology that we developed back in the early '90s on real-time detection into a state-of-the-art where everyone has it. If bioterrorists were aware that we had that kind of equipment and that we would know if they were releasing it, we could administer antidotes early, keep it under control before people dispersed into the population. I don't think that we have an option to panic. We are going to have to snuff out the biological labs. We are going to have to snuff out countries' operations that make biological weaponry. It has to be something that we put out of existence. And it has to be something that we put money into.

Q: I remember when the Israelis were concerned that Iraq was getting close on the development of some nuclear-weapons technology. They didn't waste any time negotiating or talking; they went and bombed the hell out of the target and reduced it to a charred, smoking hole in the desert.

A: Well, I suspect if we should encounter something here in the future where we lose 10,000-20,000 to a biological attack, we will get the wake-up call and we will stamp it out once and for all.

Q: Hellfire and damnation, man -- how much more of a wake-up call do we need after Sept. 11?

A: You see what's happening in our country even now. There are people who do not understand. They don't even want to use the word "war."

Q: Reuters doesn't even want to use the word "terrorist."

A: Any group of people that has the ability to wipe out civilization as we know it constitutes a war state, a non-nation war state, albeit, but nevertheless it's a war. And if we have to use the military to eliminate their effectiveness -- if they would rather call it a major police action, that's fine with me.

Q: It's not fine with me. I'm ticked off that Congress has once again wussed out and has given the president the authority to "wage war" but won't "declare war." I think they need to declare war. We did it against the Barbary Pirates, and we could do it against these dirt bags. There are certain consequences to a declaration of war that I think are needed at this point.

A: Geoff, I couldn't agree with you more. I've given a lot of thought to that, and when Congress first started convening the day after the World Trade Towers, I spoke of this often that we haven't had the guts to declare war since the end of World War II. Congress seems to take the position that we'll let the president take that responsibility. If it goes sideways, we didn't vote for it; if it works fine, we'll take the credit for it. That's just a cop out. We elected these people. I spent 32 years in the military, and I said over and over again that we ought not to be going to a war that our elected officials have not openly acknowledged is necessary by putting their name on the dotted line. Their failure to do that was also a great disappointment.

Q: If they declared war, that entire progressive caucus of the liberal left in Congress would all be guilty under Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution of treason. So maybe they are trying to cover their skirts. I feel very strongly about that.

A: I share your emotions, Geoff, and I just feel that it would have been a major statement for our military, for our people, for the level of commitment. It would have been a message to our allies and adversaries alike that we have the fortitude as a nation to come together and recognize this as a war.

Q: OK, Gerry, you have probably successfully scared anyone who has read this far. However, you claim the glass isn't half empty and that there is a positive note on which to end this discussion.

A: I think the most positive spin I can put on this is that when we examine why Saddam didn't use biological and chemical weapons against us during the Gulf War, my personal opinion -- and this is just Gerry Schumacher's opinion here -- is that his field commanders were afraid to turn on the agricultural sprayers that would have sprayed the biological agent. I think that if they can understand that any plague they release on us is very likely to backfire and come into their own country amongst their own people, and will not be isolated to the United States. That we live in an international community where it will be out of control very fast -- that by itself will be a deterrent.

Secondly, the detection technology has gotten better. We are getting it there. And if they know they are going to be ineffective ... another component of the Gulf War was that we announced to the world that our people were vaccinated against anthrax. Albeit that was a far stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless we were communicating the perception that it would be ineffective.

So when you weigh the consequences of launching a biological against the idea that it may be ineffective, and it may backfire on you and you are going to have the wrath of a country such as you have never seen before -- we need to communicate that message solidly. I think if you put those together with some common-sense vigilance with what biological agents look like, we'd know the signs to look for that the terrorists were creating it. You put those elements together and I think we've got half a chance here to keep this from happening in our country. Or if it does happen one time, we have to react with complete destruction of every biological, pharmaceutical facility that we know of in existence.

Q: Partner, if that's your positive note, you don't make me feel warm and fuzzy. What I really hope is that Congress has received the wake-up call and that someone will just grab them by their lapels and shake some sense into them, and they will focus on this as a significant threat to our national security.

A: If they don't now, we are doomed to suffer a bad experience.