Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Dead Hand

by Ben Small

Are you aware that you almost died the afternoon of September 26, 1983?

Late that evening, Russian time, one of the seven Soviet Union's missile detection satellites reported a massive launch of United States inter-continental ballistic missiles, heading toward Russia. One lone man, Stanislav Petrov, a technician sitting at what stood for a computer terminal monitoring these signals, went frantic. He tried unsuccessfully to contact members of the Politburo, seeking a decision. Petrov knew that if the satellite signals were authentic, the Soviet Union had only twenty to thirty minutes to launch their own strike before their state and their own missiles would be destroyed by nuclear explosions the likes of which mankind had never seen... and might not survive.

Petrov also knew that Soviet technology was unreliable, especially the satellites monitoring nuclear launches. These satellites tended to last only one week, and new ones were launched almost daily to keep something working in space.

Petrov had the capability to push the button, to launch the Soviet Union's missiles. His finger hovered, twitching with nervous energy. Seconds, then minutes ticked by as Petrov sought the advice of co-workers and pondered the weight of his decision. Finally, he decided the satellite signals must be mistaken, or maybe he chickened out. He waited for immanent explosions, for his life to melt in a blast from the sun.

Nothing happened. The satellite warnings were false.

The Dead Hand, by David E. Hoffman, a Washington Post contributing editor, is one of the most powerful and frightening books I've read. It's the untold story of the arms race during the Cold War, a story of mis-perceptions, deceit, distrust and treachery. Hoffman spent years interviewing participants, leaders and scientists, and he obtained access to formerly secret Soviet documents which are both illuminating and chilling, much more so than any work of fiction. For the aging Russian leaders were paranoid about the intentions of the United States. They firmly believed the Americans were just waiting for the right strategic time to destroy the Soviet Union. Their leaders understood that the Soviet Union could not keep up with American technology. While the Americans were advancing computer technology, making smart-chips faster and smaller, the Russians were dealing with circuit boards unsuitable for an Apple IIe. So the Soviets bluffed, puffed their chests and bragged about capabilities they didn't have. Yes, they had nuclear warheads and plenty of enriched uranium, and they had delivery systems. But they had nothing to compare with American Pershing missile systems, and Soviet Command and Control systems and technology were seriously lacking. So the Soviets created a Doomsday device, called it "Perimeter." Perimeter was a semi-automatic system that when triggered, would launch everything the Soviets had.

And the button which would launch Perimeter sat in front of Stanislav Petrov, who watched his missile detection system telling him the Americans had launched.

Scary stuff, eh?

Well, it gets worse...

Even more frightening were the biological/chemical weapons systems being designed, developed and made operational by Soviet scientists and military personnel, all in secret and in knowing violation of a treaty with the U.S.

By mandate from Richard Nixon in 1969, the U.S. shut down its biological and chemical weapons system development programs. The theory was that if we had nukes, we didn't need these weapons.

The Russians felt otherwise. And despite signing a treaty with the U.S. in 1972 to not develop or implement such systems, the Soviets immediately undertook a top secret bio/chemical weapons development and implementation program to do just that. The scientists working on these systems were stationed all across the country, in rural outposts mostly, surrounded by forests or wasteland. The developers were kept separate from the implementers, those people who would take the biological and chemical materials and put them into hundreds of missiles or other dispersal systems. Plague, smallpox, nerve gas, weapons-grade anthrax and new forms of viruses and bacteria were developed and installed in missiles, the scientists who developed and implemented them given special food supplies and living arrangements not available to the general Soviet population.

They were rock stars, the Soviet Dream Team.

Every Soviet leader from Andropov through Gorbechev and Yeltsin knew about these programs and lied about them. When Reagan called the Soviet Union "The Evil Empire," he was spot-on, but had no idea just how evil they were. The Russians disguised their bio/chemical factories, claimed they were being used for vaccine production, and when inspections were finally agreed to, the factories to be inspected were made mobile or cleaned up for the inspectors, only to be made fully operational again once the inspectors departed. Tons and tons of these materials were produced, and delivery systems were made operational. Hundreds of missiles were retooled to carry these toxins to every part of the globe, and vaccines were developed to shield those in the Soviet populace deemed worthy of saving.

In April, 1979, weapons-grade anthrax leaked through exhaust systems in the Soviet industrial city of Sverdlovsk. Death came quickly to both cattle and people. At least forty-five people died, hundreds were hospitalized and over forty thousand residents vaccinated. And as fast as the anthrax struck, so did the cover-up. The Soviets claimed, when word of the Ural Mountain disaster leaked out, that contaminated hay from natural anthrax had been fed to cattle, resulting in infections to those who'd eaten the meat.

Yes, Gorbechev and Reagan, who became friendly, agreed to missile reduction programs. But Biopreparat, the Soviet secret biological/chemical weapons programs, continued, unknown to the West.

Most people believe that Reagan's Star Wars program killed the Soviet Union. That's not true. The Soviet response was to be an asymmetrical one: build so many biological/chemical and nuclear missiles, no defensive system could withstand the onslaught. Reagan and the CIA believed the Soviets were developing their own, cheaper laser systems as a defensive mechanism. In fact, Soviet lasers were so weak, they couldn't even reach a missile.

What in fact killed the Soviet Union was falling oil prices, debt and a dropping currency exchange rate. The Russians couldn't keep up. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, the scientists working on their nuclear, biological and chemical weapons systems were left stranded. No food, no money, no way to earn a living.

They began to barter. It's known that over seventeen hundred pounds of nerve gas were sold to Syria. When U.S. scientists were finally let into the Soviet Union to investigate nuclear, biological and chemical weapon plants during the late 1990s and early 2000s, they found many of them unguarded, found boxed up weapons and weapon materials ready to be shipped to addresses in Tehran, Iran. They also found communications from Osama bin Laden, who wanted suitcase and dirty bombs and was willing to pay for them.

The Americans, realizing the scope of the problem, offered jobs to the Soviet scientists, and many of them reside today in the United States. But much of the nuclear, bio/chemical materials they designed and developed have not been found, especially those which were stored or buried in former Soviet states.

As some of these Soviet scientists have stated, and the CIA has agreed, it's just a matter of time before some of these materials find their way into the hands of terrorists.

David Hoffman's The Dead Hand is a book that will keep you up at night and give you nightmares. Deservedly so. And his book also may give you cause to reconsider whether or not we need to secure our borders.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Interesting article, Ben. Particularly their apparent faith in a few to guard their missiles. Thankfully the US has far more security. (I won't provide those details.)

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks for your article, Ben. I'm thankful I live on a remote mountaintop. Maybe an underground cave would be better. :)

Ben Small said...

Just today, according to Reuters, Russia is reporting terrorists are seeking nuclear and biological/chemical weapons throughout Russia. Here's the link: