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Bioterrorism Hits Home

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And what is one to make of the new documents from the Soviet presidential archives? The dozen that surfaced in January 1998 in the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun were purportedly obtained by its Moscow-based reporter. They concern the byzantine power struggle within the Soviet leadership in the first months after Stalin's death in 1953--in particular, the efforts of Lavrenti Beria, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, the official in charge of security police affairs for the Communist Party and a possible successor to Stalin, to remove Semen Ignatiev, a Khrushchev protégé, from his post as Minister for State Security. As it turned out, Beria himself fell afoul of the new order and was tried and executed for being a spy--but not before he had charged Ignatiev with conspiring with the Chinese to accuse the United States falsely of using biological weapons in North Korea.

About the Author

Peter Pringle
Peter Pringle is the author, with Philip Jacobson, of Those Are Real Bullets: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972.

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In the documents, Beria claims that Ignatiev participated in a plot to prepare "two false areas of exposure" of plague and cholera in North Korea, and to tellDr. Needham's visiting International Scientific Commission that the infectious agents had been dropped from US planes. (Yet reports in the Chinese archives, from China's own medical mission, say plague was found in thirteen places during February and March of 1953.)

But the provenance of the twelve Soviet-era documents is strange, to say the least. Outside researchers have not, as a general rule, been granted access to the presidential archives in the Kremlin, and even Russian researchers are still not allowed to make photocopies. The twelve documents in question were copied by hand by an as-yet-unnamed Russian researcher, then typed up in Russian and given to Sankei Shimbun, which translated them into Japanese before publishing them.

Russia historian Kathryn Weathersby, a Korean War expert who works in Washington at the Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project, has seen other documents from the presidential archives in Moscow. She thinks the content of those from the Japanese newspaper constitute such a complex and interwoven story that it would have been extremely difficult to forge them. "The specifics of persons, dates and events are consistent with evidence available from a wide array of sources," she says. However, there are no telltale signs of authenticity, such as seals, stamps or signatures--or even archive citations. The documents, therefore, can only be termed suggestive, not proof that the charges against the United States are false. As Weathersby says, "Far more documentation, particularly from China, is needed to give a full account of this massive propaganda campaign"--if that is what it was.

What is as strange as the emergence of the Russian documents is the apparent absence of any diplomatic pressure by the United States to persuade the Russians to open up this still-secret section of their presidential archives, so that the documents in question can be properly authenticated--assuming they are there. At the same time, the Pentagon could be providing missing pages from US military archives--or perhaps it cannot because those documents have also been destroyed. In the absence of such evidence, suspicion will remain strong that the United States did indeed experiment with biological weapons.

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