Here’s a potential name for the involuntary national interest in bio-terrorism: TEGWAR, or The Exciting Game With Anthrax Rules. It’s a game savage and cruel in which the rules, how the disease is dispensed and dealt with, are made up as you go, always to the detriment of the unfortunate who must endure them. It’s a game where ex-Cold War scientists and their so-called high-level knowledge of bio-terror have proven useless because the attacks, when successful, are always surprises and the defense, containment and treatment, is the burden of the public health system.
Readers may also recall TEGWAR as the card game used to rip off chumps in Bang the Drum Slowly. In the movie, pro baseball players led by Michael Moriarty would set up a rigged match (called TEGWAR for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules) of betting and cards aimed at bilking those who didn’t realize they were entering a contest that could not be won. In the current situation, our bio-terror “defenders”—the scientists of Ft. Detrick, ex-Cold War biological weapons-makers turned consultants, experts at the national labs who are said to have been thinking about biowar for years—are a lot like Michael Moriarty and his band of TEGWAR players. They’re wiseguys who have taken taxpayer dollars and come up with little information, unless one counts the Ft. Detrick achievement of using microscopes and the naked eyeball to distinguish between “Purina Dog Chow” anthrax, a coarse powder, and “floaty,” “non-electrostatic” anthrax, a smooth powder, helpful to the public.
The mainstream news treated the distinction between the two samples of anthrax as if it was informative treasure, the conceit being that our military bio-terror experts at Ft. Detrick or elsewhere were going to be able to use it as part of a key in forensically pinning the anthrax mailings on an enemy nation and thereby try to muster our enthusiasm for a good carpet-bombing.
The New York Times revealed in hushed tone that one unnamed expert said the floaty anthrax spores were surrounded by a brown ring, observable by microscope. The tell-tale brown ring, it was said, could be a “substance called bentonite.” Bentonite was remarkable because Iraq was alleged to have it used it in mixing its anthrax.
Other news sources jumped on the bentonite bandwagon without noticing it is a common material used to absorb moisture in mixed powders. It is, for one thing, found in a variety of cat litters, and therefore cannot be said to be exclusively the biochemical domain of national bioweapons programs. However, by Monday, even the ace bioweapons experts at Ft. Detrick ruled out bentonite as an adulterant of the floaty anthrax. Silica, another extremely common material, was identified as a component of the anthrax dust. Bentonite, nay? Silica, yay?
To understand part of why bentonite was seized upon with such zeal, one must understand that the lore of bioweaponry is as much about myth-making as it is about technology. And one of its best legends is that the secret science of it, as practiced by the United States and Russian bioweapons programs, was brilliant work when just the opposite might have been the case. It asks one to accept the canard that our ex-bioweaponeers (or Soviet defector ex-bioweaponeers, like Ken Alibek) were the acme of scientific know-how. And that the methods developed by a Bill Patrick, the Dr. StrangeBug of U.S. bioweaponry during the early Cold War, to make anthrax into a strategic weapon were innovative enough to require secret patenting. Thus patented, the applications were thought to bare an intellectually unique stamp. This logic was also applied to Soviet and, much later, Iraqi anthrax, leading to the media’s notion that all nation-state secret anthrax programs might be indirectly identifiable through quirks in tradecraft. But recent events seem to prove that the contemptible technology of making floaty anthrax, while not strictly elementary, is far from impossible to duplicate. Its various formulations appear to have proliferated to a degree that even the experts cannot assess.
In American bio-war/bio-defense TEGWAR, the fruit of the tax dollar also continues to result in spectacle. Bio-defense warriors are nothing if not publicity hogs, lending themselves profusely in these worrisome times to whizbang journalism on patents from Hell while delivering noisome trivia on the amount of poisonous powders needed to bring about lethality.
How much powdered smallpox does it take to infect 100 people? It’s not a horrid joke. Dr. StrangeBug knows. It’s one gram, Patrick brags for the press, describing an American smallpox poison worked up during the Cold War as a “beautiful powder,” an achievement that could be lauded only in the odious world of bioweapons development. One gram of beautiful powder for sickening 100 is not the kind of information that contributes anything to the monumental task of formulating a defense to smallpox. This task, of course, would fall to Jeffrey Koplan of the CDC and D. A. Henderson, a man who led the World Health Organization effort to wipe it out.
Our TEGWAR-playing bioterror “defenders” are also good at the art of transforming horrendous careers in professional anti-life into qualification for funding them in public health. Ken Alibek (now called a “patriotic American” in the Washington Post) never misses an opportunity from the media to shill for alleged nostrums he claims to be developing to fight terrorist-deployed disease. The company he works for, Hadron, was awarded, according to a press release, an $800,000 contract from the National Institute of Health, of all places, to “focus on very specific aspects of medical defenses against Anthrax.” The “Iron Your Anthrax Mail” man’s work for Hadron is “proprietary,” unlike the technology for making anthrax weapons—a skill Alibek picked up, according to his book, Biohazard, while earning a Ph.D. during participation in an international treaty-defying off-the-books offensive biowar program.
A wise investment, good for public confidence? Or like taking someone who derived the best scientific method for putting razor blades into apples and giving him a research grant to study how to grow healthy fruit?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 30, 2001