Microbiology: Applications to Espionage, Intelligence, and Security

Microbiology: Applications to Espionage, Intelligence, and Security


Microbiology is concerned with the study of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and algae. There are many facets to the science, ranging from basic studies of organism structure and genetic arrangement, to the development of methods or treatments against those microorganisms that cause diseases in humans, animals, and other living things. A classic example of a strategy against a pathogen (disease-causing organism) is the development of a vaccine. The stimulation of the immune system by the exposure to a component of the particular bacterial or viral strain, or to a weakened, but living version of the virus can confer protection against subsequent exposure to the disease causing bacterium or virus. Microorganisms can also be used for offensive purposes (i.e., biological weapons). The use of recombinant DNA technology—where a gene that specifies the protein of interest can be removed from the genetic material of one organism and added to the genetic material of the target organism—has enabled the design of biological weapons of frightening potency. For example, the former Soviet Union investigated the insertion of the gene for cobra venom into the genetic material of the influenza virus. The combination of the poison and an easily transmitted virus could have caused swift, catastrophic effects upon its intended population. The science of microbiology contributes in fundamentally important ways to national security, and even influences the gathering of intelligence and espionage activities.

Microorganisms and Security

The most urgent threat posed by microorganisms to national security is the development of an epidemic. An epidemic is an infection that, because of its ease of transmission from person to person (directly or via an intermediate) affects a large number of people within a very short period of time. The human toll and strain on the health care infrastructure due to naturally occurring epidemics such as influenzae are well known. In the past few decades, the emergence of diseases such as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and the re-emergence of tuberculosis has further strained the economies of even nations as wealthy as the United States.

The specter of the deliberate use of microorganisms as a weapon—biological warfare—while historically ancient, has taken on new importance in recent years. In the United States, the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, were followed by a spate of incidents involving the deliberate release of spores of Bacillus anthracis , the bacterium that causes anthrax. While the consequences of these biological attacks were minimized due to a rapid response to track and contain the source, five people died from anthrax, and the incident illustrated the vulnerability of a population to infection.

Even more ominously, evidence indicates that the terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks made serious enquiries about the piloting and rental of crop dusting planes. Scenarios envisioning the aerial dispersal of anthrax spores over a major urban center via such a plane indicate that even 100 kilograms of spores carry the potential to kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of people within a few days.

The security threat posed by biological warfare is also ancient. Centuries ago, the decaying bodies of cattle that had died of infections were dumped into wells to poison the drinking water. Even deceased people provided the seed for the spread of infection to an enemy encampment, when the bodies of human victims of anthrax were catapulted over the walls of fortified communities. This military use of microorganisms became frighteningly refined in the twentieth century. Both sides of the conflicts of World Wars I and II researched the development of weapons that would deliver anthrax spores. During World War II Britain produced millions of anthrax "cakes" that were to be parachuted into Germany. The intent was to decimate the population as well as the food chain.

Other microorganisms, equally as ancient as anthrax, continue to be security threats because of their natural potential to cause massive disease outbreaks, and because of their potential as biological weapons. One example is the disease known as plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis . Another example is smallpox, a disease that is caused by a virus.

The tremendous infectivity of anthrax, plague, and smallpox have caused millions of deaths throughout history. This destructive potential did not escape the attention of governments, such as that of the former Soviet Union, which were interested in developing weapons. Indeed, the microorganisms that cause anthrax, plague, and smallpox have been included in the list of weapons that are strategic weapons. Strategic weapons are those weapons that are capable of destroying entire populations. This puts these microorganisms on the same lethal level as nuclear weapons.

The security threat posed by microorganisms took on an added urgency in the last two decades of the twentieth century, when their potential as a terrorist weapon was recognized. In contrast to bombs and other such munitions, the manufacture of lethal payloads of microorganisms does not require huge manufacturing facilities or large numbers of people. Moreover, the scientific and manufacturing expertise for the development of biological weapons is not beyond the typical microbiologist.

Likewise, the transport of infectious microorganisms can be disguised. Microorganisms can be transported anywhere people can travel. A quantity of anthrax spores that would circulate through the ventilation system of an office building can be contained in a vial carried in someone's pocket. The ease by which microorganisms can be transported and released (i.e., by a small aircraft) is redefining the nature of security. Methods that are successful in detecting missile silos and troop movements are useless against the deliberate use of microorganisms by a few individuals.

The refinement of genetic engineering technologies has made possible the tailoring of bacteria and viruses to make them more lethal. Microorganisms can normally be rapidly detected using antibodies that recognize a surface antigen. Redesigning a pathogen via genetic engineering so that the surface antigen is different and therefore no longer recognizable to the antibody thwarts the test.

Natural infections. A variety of contemporary examples have shown how vulnerable even developed countries are to the spread of infections. From only a few cases in New York City in 1999, the virus that causes West Nile fever has spread through the U.S. and Canada. Thousands of people have contracted West Nile, and the infection shows no signs of abating. Other examples of naturally-occurring infections are legionellosis in Australia, yellow fever and Creutzfeld-Jacob disease in Europe, and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome and cryptococcosis in North America.

Modern technology has unexpectedly aided the spread of disease. The classic example is the development of resistance by bacteria to antibiotics. Antibiotics were considered to be "wonder drugs" as recently as the 1960s. However, they have proved to only provide selective pressure for the development of bacteria that are even hardier and more capable of causing disease.

A report issued in 2000 by the U.S. National Security Council warned of the security threat posed to the U.S. in the twenty-first century by epidemics of natural infections in underdeveloped, politically volatile countries. The decimation of the next generation of these countries could exacerbate feelings of hostility towards the wealthy nations of the West, putting the U.S. and other developed nations at risk. In 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush pledged 15 billion dollars worth of American aid for the delivery of antiretroviral drugs to African citizens in the effort to halt the spread of AIDS, a naturally occurring infection that affects up to one half of some African populations.

Microbiological Techniques Relevant to National Security and Intelligence

Various microbiological techniques have long assumed a security role, principally in the detection of infectious microorganisms or toxic components. The ability to rapidly and accurately sequence genetic material came about in the 1990s, largely because of the demands of the Human Genome Project. So did the development (which continues) of software capable of processing the vast amount of genetic data into information that can be used to derive the composition and three-dimensional structure of proteins (i.e., the disciplines of bioinformatics and proteomics). The modeling of protein structures, for example, is important in the development of vaccines that act by blocking the action of some vital bacterial or viral protein.

The lessons learned from the Human Genome Project have been applied to security issues. For example, genetic material can be rapidly isolated from complex samples such as soil and even air (after the air has been filtered to trap the microorganisms on a solid support), and the identity of the microorganism can be determined by the sequencing of the material. The identification is so sensitive that one type (or strain) of bacterium can be distinguished from another. Such analyses were used to show that the strain of Bacillus anthracis used in some of the anthrax terrorist attacks of 2001 in the U.S. originated from the government's Army Medical Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID).

Other technologies permit the rapid detection of bacteria or viruses. For example, the binding of an antibody to the specific antigen it recognizes can trigger a color development reaction, which is used in test kits to test for the presence of a particular microorganism. Also, genetic amplification techniques like the polymerase chain reaction, or the detection of microorganisms based on target genetic sequences (i.e., amplified fragment length polymorphism analysis, single nucleotide polymorphism analysis) can detect the presence of target sequences of genetic material in samples. The Joint Genome Institute at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for example, has catalogued characteristic genetic sequences from a variety of bacterial pathogens.

Other U.S. government laboratories are also developing techniques aimed at thwarting the use of biological weapons. For example, the Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed the Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System (BASIS), which is intended to provide an early warning of biological incidents. BASIS consists of a series of sampling sites clustered around another site that has been identified as a potential target of sabotage or terrorist/military action. Regular sampling from the sites and analysis of the samples will reveal the presence of a microorganism. The intent is not to prevent the deliberate release of microbes. Rather, the prompt detection of an incident, and subsequent response and mobilization of medical resources is intended to help alleviate the spread of an infection.

Microorganisms and intelligence. The national security concerns of microbiology influence intelligence gathering. This influence is two-pronged. First, the need to understand the nature of microbial behavior for the development of defensive strategies such as vaccines requires an open exchange of information and unrestricted research opportunities. However, the sensitive nature of some information, particularly if used by an enemy, can limit the exchange.

The heightened security climate in the U.S. since the terrorist attacks of 2001 has produced a call for limits to information exchange. In March 2002, the chief of staff warned against the open exchange of information concerning scientific advancements that could be utilized in the development of weapons of mass destruction. This issue is contentious, as it goes to the heart of the openness of inquiry that is the hallmark of research science.

Microbiology can also contribute to intelligence by being a direct source of information. It has been successfully demonstrated that messages can be programmed into deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—the genetic material that provides the information blueprint for many living organisms—through the arrangement of the components of the DNA. By assigning letters or grammatical symbols to triplets of the components, a section of DNA can be artificially constructed that contains a sequence that, when decoded, yields a message. The artificial sequence can be "spliced" into the DNA sequence of an organism, or even simply blotted onto a pre-determined region of a letter. The recipient who knew the location of the DNA, could retrieve it and decipher the message.

Microorganisms and espionage. The ability to covertly transmit information via genetic sequences also has implications for espionage. Unless someone has knowledge of the means being used to transmit the information, and the technical means to acquire the genetic material and decipher the message, the message will remain secret. Microorganisms also have more traditional uses in espionage; for example, food and water can be deliberately contaminated to make someone ill, so as to compromise a project or a mission.



Preston, Richard. The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story. New York: Random House, 2002.


Atlas, R. N. "National Security and the Biological Research Community." Science. no. 298 (2002): 753–754.

Walter, K. "A Two-Pronged Attack on Bioterrorism." Science & Technology. (June 2002): 4–11.


Central Intelligence Agency. "The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States." January 2000.< http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/nie/report/nie99 –17d.html> (November 22, 2002).


Anthrax Weaponization
Biological and Biomimetic Systems
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention
Biological Warfare
Biological Warfare, Advanced Diagnostics
Biological Weapons, Genetic Identification
Bioterrorism, Protective Measures
CDC (United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Infectious Disease, Threats to Security

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