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137. Telegram From the Embassy in the United Kingdom to the Department of State1

19227. Subject: (S) U.S./UK Consultations on Sverdlovsk Anthrax Outbreak. Ref: State 219868.2

Secret—Entire text

1. Summary: U.S.–UK consultations on the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak were held in London on September 10. U.S. team, headed by Amb. Ralph Earle, presented U.S. assessment of what happened in Sverdlovsk, summarized U.S.-Soviet diplomatic exchanges, and suggested that next step be a UK démarche to the Soviets. UK team concurred in U.S. assessment and outlined alternative possibilities for the next step. The two sides also explored possible strategies for multilateral involvement at a later stage. In subsequent meeting, Douglas Hurd (FCO No. 3) told Amb. Earle that he would recommend to Foreign Secretary Carrington that UK make a bilateral démarche to the Soviets. End summary.

2. U.S. team, headed by Amb. Ralph Earle, Director, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, met with UK officials from FCO and MOD for consultations on the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak. UK team was headed by Sir Antony Acland, Deputy Undersecretary, FCO. (Delegation lists contained para 15 below.)

3. Earle began by summarizing U.S. assessment of what had happened in Sverdlovsk and U.S.-Soviet diplomatic exchanges over the outbreak:

A. What happened:

—We are confident that there was a serious outbreak of human anthrax in Sverdlovsk in April 1979. However, we have been unable to determine with confidence what caused the outbreak. In particular, we have not concluded that the Soviets have violated the Biological Weapons Convention.

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—The information available provides a basis for serious concern about the possibility of an accident at a BW-related facility, the nature of activities at such a facility, and whether those activities were inconsistent with obligations under the BW Convention.

—These concerns are based on judgments that the outbreak involved the inhalation form of anthrax, not the intestinal form as asserted by the Soviets and that the outbreak occurred in the immediate vicinity of a military facility which has been suspected for some time of BW-related activities.

—The possibility that the outbreak resulted from airborne contamination produced by an accident related to protective or prophylactic work with biological agents permitted under the convention cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, there clearly is a basis for concern that activities not permitted by the Convention may have been conducted at Sverdlovsk and this is the basis for the U.S. proposal for consultation.

B. Diplomatic exchanges:

—Since March of this year we have raised the Sverdlovsk case with the Soviets on a number of occasions.

—In these exchanges, we have stressed four major points:

1. There is sound reason to question the cause of the outbreak of disease in Sverdlovsk;

2. This issue could be discussed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in a setting similar to the one that has been so practical under SALT;

3. Resolution of this problem would be a positive development for arms control, but failure to deal with it in a mutually satisfactory way could have serious implications for arms control and further complicate U.S./Soviet relations; and

4. This issue will not go away.

—So far, the Soviets have been quite unresponsive to our concerns.

4. Earle said that the Soviet explanation that the outbreak was due to meat from anthrax-infected cattle seemed quite unlikely. It is also disturbing that the Soviets have denied that our concern in any way obligates them to hold consultations to clarify the disease in Sverdlovsk is not related to the Biological Weapons Convention. So, beyond questions relating to compliance with Article I, Soviet behavior poses a serious question with respect to their compliance to Article V of the Convention and to their attitude on the importance of consultative undertakings more generally.

5. Present USG assessment, Earle noted, was that further U.S. démarches were unlikely to produce a more satisfactory Soviet response. However, U.S. will continue to press them. In the USG view a UK bilateral approach to the Soviets had some slight chance of leading to constructive discussions; it thus seemed to be the most desirable next step.

6. Acland responded that a UK intelligence review, completed in April 1980, had reached conclusions very similar to those arrived at by the U.S. UK shared U.S. concerns about the cause of the outbreak and [Page 300]about Soviet unresponsiveness. Present UK assessment of diplomatic situation was that Soviets were unlikely to change their attitude toward U.S. bilateral démarches and that other approaches now had to be considered.

7. In UK view, the objectives of future steps should be to:

—Maintain the credibility of the Convention;

—Make clear to the Soviet Union that compliance with the Convention was being carefully monitored;

—Demonstrate domestically and internationally that the Sverdlovsk issue was being pursued seriously;

—Stress the importance of verification provisions in agreements under negotiation.

8. Acland said UK tends to favor a process of slow escalation of diplomatic steps. Alternatives of simply dropping the issue or continued U.S. bilateral démarches would not promote satisfactory resolution. UK will consider U.S. suggestion that next step be a UK démarche to the Soviets. Other possibilities include parallel bilateral démarches by the U.S. and others (perhaps by a neutral country such as Sweden) or a proposal for a meeting of the three depositaries (U.S., UK and USSR). Earle reiterated U.S. preference for a démarche by the UK.

9. Both sides agreed that once bilateral (or trilateral) approaches had been exhausted, convening a consultative meeting of states parties was the logical next step. Palmer (U.S.) outlined preliminary U.S. thinking about such a meeting. He said that the purpose of a meeting would be to conduct a thorough and responsible analysis of available information by qualified experts in order to clarify the cause of the outbreak. Even if this effort were unsuccessful, the meeting would provide us with an opportunity to achieve a much wider understanding within the international community on the nature of the problem. This step would entail certain risks. Some of the risks are procedural since there is no established practice for raising this type of compliance issue under the BW Convention. Other risks relate to our ability to persuade others that a serious issue is involved. It would also be desirable to approach such consultations in a way that might set a valuable precedent for improving the future operation of the treaty, including the possibility of periodic consultative meetings, and which would in general strengthen the credibility of the multilateral arms control process.

10. Palmer stressed that before committing ourselves to seeking a consultative meeting, it would be important to take soundings with key states to ensure that a proposal would be broadly supported. In view of the seriousness of the issue, U.S. believes that it would be important to engage a significant number of concerned BWC parties, particularly Non-Aligned, in the consultative process. The views of Sweden would be particularly important because of their past advocacy of a BWC con[Page 301]sultative committee and of their influential role in the neutral/non-aligned group. The U.S. would prefer to have Sweden take the lead in calling a consultative committee meeting.

11. A discussion of the timing of the next steps ensued. Earle noted that if Lord Carrington planned to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko at the beginning of the UNGA session later in September, this could provide an opportunity for a UK démarche. He said U.S. believes that next step should not be delayed too long. It is important that Soviets not get the perception that the issue is being dropped.

12. Acland asked U.S. views on foreshadowing to the Soviets what future steps were being considered and also on public release of a “white paper”. Earle responded that U.S. had already indicated to the Soviets that multilateral involvement was a possibility, but that being more explicit could lead to Soviet efforts to block the steps we had in mind. Regarding a “white paper”, the U.S. believes it important for the near term to maintain as much confidentiality as possible. We might well provide a classified background paper to others in the near future, but we see public release as something for a later stage. (Comment: UK team appeared satisfied with these responses and did not press either point. End comment).

13. Acland concluded by expressing UK concern about the Sverdlovsk issue and emphasizing usefulness of USUK consultations. UK will consider U.S. suggestions and views and respond as soon as possible.

14. In a subsequent meeting, Douglas Hurd (FCO No. 3) told Amb. Earle that he would recommend to Foreign Secretary Carrington that the UK make a bilateral démarche to the Soviets to express concern about the Sverdlovsk incident, as the U.S. team had proposed. Hurd promised a prompt UK response.

[Omitted here is the list of participants.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800431–0638. Secret; Priority. Sent for information to Moscow.
  2. In telegram 219868 to London, August 18, the Department of State told the Embassy that ACDA Director Earle had been informed that the Foreign Office believed that the “bilateral process” between the United States and the Soviet Union over the Sverdlovsk incident was “almost exhausted” and that there was “merit in broadening the scope of diplomatic action” to include UK involvement. The Foreign Office also warned that the Soviets “might conclude that there was little risk in taking chances with arms control agreements, and the prospects for a good CW agreement would be worse.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800394–0737)