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Tracing the Source of Anthrax

As public officials struggle to make sense of anthrax-laced letters, conflicting information is leading to considerable confusion, which may be exactly the intention.

"They want to push us into a corner," Dr. Kenneth Alibek tells 48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarity. "They want to make us scared--fearful. They want to make us isolated."

He doesn't know who's behind the letters, but he knows about the substance they contain. Before he defected in 1992, Alibek ran a secret program in the former Soviet Union that produced powerful biological weapons--weapons that that were designed to kill Americans .

Born in 1950 in the early days of the Cold War, Alibek--then Alibekov--grew up believing that America was the Soviet Union's worst enemy.

As a young army doctor, he turned anthrax--and other bacteria and viruses--into deadly weapons that were also drug resistant. How does a doctor who is trained to save people go into an industry that makes weapons that kill people?

"First, you are a military officer," he says. "Second, you're a physician."

After almost 20 years of making weapons of mass destruction, Alibek defected.

Today, he may be one of this country's best hopes for finding ways to defend against them. In the case of the letters, DNA tests will be needed to pinpoint exactly where the anthrax came from but Alibek suspects they are connected in some way to the September 11th terrorist attacks and the people who planned them.

"In my opinion," he says, "they have been able to develop a series of possible waves of terrorist attacks. And what we see now is the second wave."

Clearly, the development and use of biological weapons was part of the training manual that was used by the Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda network.

According to former UN weapons inspector Richard Spertzel, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the same men who participated in last month's attacks had an interest in biological weapons as well. There were reports that lead hijacker Mohamed Atta and others inquired about the purchase of a crop duster. Biowarfare instruction manuals and booklets were found in the New Jersey apartment of the some of the hijackers. In April, Atta made a trip to Prague to meet with an Iraqi intelligence agent.

"Atta may have brought back the strain from that meeting in Prague," Spertzel theorizes. "That would be possible because the initial material would be a very, very small quantity. And that could be contained in a vial as small as your little finger."

But Iraq isn't the only source for anthrax. The bacteria can be found in labs in the United States and in countries all over the world . . . and on an island in the Aral Sea. When the Soviet Union dismantled its bioweapons program in the late 1980s, anthrax weapons were buried here.

"The entire island is contaminated," says Alibek, adding that live active anthrax spores are still on the unguarded island. "There is a lot of anhrax on that island and if someone wants to get a sample, it wouldn't be a big problem."

The deadly form of anthrax that Dr. Alibek helped to develop is buried here as well.

"Somebody doing a really through study would be able to find the genetically engineered antibiotic-resistant anthrax," he says.

While there is no evidence that any terrorist group has obtained a drug-resistant form of anthrax, a person committed enough to learn how to fly a wide-body jet could learn how to process anthrax just as well.

"If you go to Russia and start reading Russian scientific journals published in the early '90s," Alibek says, "you would find dozens, even hundreds, of articles on how to grow viruses. The Soviet Union spent billions of dollars to develop the best techniques of this production. Now this information is available for the cost of a translator."

What's more, many of the scientists once working for Dr. Alibek found themselves out of a job when the Soviet Union colapsed. Nobody knows where these scientists, who were getting paid just $50 a week, are working today.

You can imagine what would happen, says Alibek, "if somebody comes to you and says, 'Okay, let's have a deal. I'll give you $10,000 or $20,000, and all you have to do is write a procedure. It's going to take you two three nights to do this and that's it. And then you'll forget me and I'll forget you."

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