In a remote corner of the Nevada desert, a highly restricted area once used to test nuclear bombs, the U.S. government has been running a secret experiment called Project Bachus.
It is a small germ warfare factory, set up inside an abandoned government building. U.S. officials say they built it to better understand how to detect similar operations in places like Iraq or Afghanistan or even by terrorists here at home.
The factory, built by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, has been brought to full production for several weeks on two occasions, in 1999 and again in 2000. Technicians grew several pounds of a harmless bacterium with characteristics similar to deadly anthrax.
“A terrorist could easily grow anthrax in a facility like this,” Jay Davis, who was DTRA director at the time the factory was built, said in an interview at the one-time classified facility, “and produce enough quantity in a covert delivery to kill, say, 10,000 people in a large city.”
The DTRA team bought all materials for the small-scale laboratory from local hardware stores and the Internet. Included in their shopping list was a 50-liter fermenter purchased “used” from overseas. “Commercial item. Off the shelf,” Davis said. “Easy to find.”
At no time did any of the purchases cause law enforcement to be suspicious, Davis added.
Asked if this was how a terrorist group might put together such a laboratory, Davis said: “A terrorist group would choose to do this, yes . This is the size of thing you would be afraid a non-state group would do, either people in our country or people in some other country. This is fairly concealable.”
The primary reason for conducting the experiment was to place sensors outside of the building to create what the intelligence community calls a “signature,” according to intelligence sources. Once in operation, technicians measured heat changes, emissions that could be sampled in the air and soil as well as patterns of energy consumption.
“The ultimate product is knowledge,” Davis said. Other officials say the primary customers for the knowledge were the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, both agencies responsible for detecting an operation like this in other countries. Officials say the FBI also was given data from the project.
And according to officials who supervised the project but asked not to be identified, what is so frightening about this top-secret project is that it shows that with the right technical knowledge, it is surprisingly easy to build and operate a small germ warfare factory. And worse, even with the most sophisticated sensors, it is extremely difficult to detect.
The project was conducted in such extreme secrecy that some worry it might be misunderstood and seen as a violation of the international treaty that bans making germ weapons.
“I think there is a very delicate line that has to be drawn between the need to keep some kinds of information secret and the need to allay suspicions about what the country is up to,” said co-author of a new book on biological warfare called Germs.
“People overseas will think that the United States may be secretly conducting an offensive weapons program, that we may be secretly trying to develop biological weapons,” she said.
As for the Bush administration, Miller said: “I think that this administration wants to not only expand these projects, but intends to keep most of them secret.”
Miller and other experts on biological weapons have been concerned that the super-secret U.S. projects would be misunderstood by other governments and might lead those governments to develop offensive biological weapons.
But the Pentagon agreed to show this once-secret project. Sources say it’s part of an effort to anticipate a threat that has the potential to kill on a scale only nuclear weapons could match.