WASHINGTON, March 10 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Defense reportedly is weighing a proposal to secure as many as 74 possible Russian bioweapons sites so terrorists cannot obtain possession of the pathogens stored there.
The move ultimately could put out of reach some of the most important Russian weapons facilities, including laboratories in Obolensk and Novosibirsik, as well as Ministry of Defense facilities in Kirov and Sergiev Posad.
The proposal, being made by the International Exchange Group, would begin with a pilot project to secure six specific sites and then expand to other locations if successful. Destruction of pathogens stored at the facilities is a possibility, but that would depend on further negotiations with the Russians, said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a supporter of the idea and part of the group's oversight body.
IEG is a non-governmental organization with offices in Washington and close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin's government. In fact, the group's ability to influence those in authority in Russia is at the center of the proposal. It is supposed to be able to ensure American funds spent on securing the dangerous material are not subject to the fraud and abuse that Weldon said has consumed 25 percent to 30 percent of such U.S. aid to Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union.
The six proposed sites include the State Scientific Center of Applied Microbiology in Obolensk -- a former biological weapons facility where scientists researched bacteria including anthrax, plague, tularemia and glanders.
Also on the list is the State Scientific Center of Virology and Biotechnology, a part of the notorious Vektor Institute.
Vektor had some 4,500 scientists working on bioweapons in 1990, author Richard Preston told Congress in 1998. It also is supposed to be holding Russia's samples of smallpox virus -- supposedly only one of two such sample sets in the world.
The smallpox connection makes the center -- which Ken Alibek has identified as being in Novosibirsik -- particularly interesting. Alibek, a Russian bioweapons expert who defected to the United States in 1992, confirmed to United Press International the center worked on virus-based biological weapons.
The headquarters for Biopreparat -- the Biopreparat Open Joint Stock Co. in the city of Moscow -- also is on the list. Created in 1973, Biopreparat was an umbrella organization for commercial pharmaceutical research and a front for bioweapons activity. Though no research was done there, Alibek said, the site could hold clues to work done at other locations.
"In my time all biological weapons development information was kept in that building," Alibek said.
Other sites on the list include the Scientific and Research Institute of Virology and the Epidemiological and Microbiological Scientific and Research Institute in Moscow. These were not bioweapons sites, said Alibek, but both housed collections of pathogens. The sixth is the Federal Center of Animals Health Protection. The type of work done there and its role are unclear.
The six sites are "absolutely" worth securing, Alibek said, and the expanded list has facilities he thinks gaining access to would be particularly important.
Among the most valuable would be the Scientific Research Institute of Microbiology in Kirov and the Center of Virology at Sergiev Posad. Both were run by the Ministry of Defense and access to the latter has been refused up to now.
Gaining access previously denied is exactly what the proposal is about, Weldon said.
"It is a brand new concept," Weldon told UPI. "They have never done it before. Usually this work is done ministry to ministry. What we are exploring is the use of a non-governmental entity in Russia that is very close to Putin to get access that we haven't been able to get through the traditional channels. This is kind of a whole new process. That is why we are doing two small pilot programs to test it -- to see if it is real."
Weldon, fluent in Russian and a long-time proponent of improving relations between the United States and Russia, co-chairs IEG's Joint Political Council with Alexander Kotenkov, plenipotentiary representative of the president at the Russian Federation at the Council of Federation -- the upper house of the Russian Parliament, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Senate. The two men provide "guidance, consultation and strategic oversight" a company brochure said.
Also looking over IEG's shoulder are a number of seemingly well-placed Russian officials. The group's Board of Guardians includes Victor Zavarzn and Vladimir Vasilev, chairmen of the Duma committees on defense and (homeland) security, respectively.
Also on the board are:
--Aleksander Bortnikov deputy director of the Federal Security Service, which handles internal security and, as of last year, head of FSS's Economic Security Service;
--Yury Baluevsky, first deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation;
--Lubov Sliska, first deputy chairman of the State Duma, and
--Alexey Alexandrov, member of the Council of Federation.
Money for the project, a figure in the low millions of dollars, Weldon said, likely would come from the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, with no further congressional approval required. Work would be done by Russian agency personnel but inspected by the American funders. Work would not be paid for until it was confirmed to be correct and complete, he said.
The proposal is being reviewed, Weldon said, by the office of Douglas Feith and an interagency panel, Weldon noted. Feith is the Defense Department's undersecretary of defense for policy.
Feith's office did not respond to several requests for information on the proposal.
"We haven't had access to all the biological sites or the chemical sites," said Weldon, who has been pushing the idea for the past six months. "The Russians have said if we work through this process we can get access to any site in Russia."