Tucker Carlson has led his colleagues at Fox News and across right-wing media in a campaign to inject conspiracy theories about the existence of biological research facilities in Ukraine, parroting the Kremlin’s assertions that they are U.S.-controlled chemical and bioweapon research labs in order to justify Russia’s invasion. Now, Carlson is blatantly twisting comments from a U.S. Defense Department official to lie that the labs are actually conducting “new bioweapons research.”
On March 10, Carlson cited an interview with Robert Pope, director of the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program tasked with aiding former Soviet nations to properly dispose of hazardous material and convert the facilities into civilian laboratories. Carlson suggested to viewers that instead of disposing of hazardous chemicals and Soviet-era bioweapons, Pope had revealed that the labs were now “using them to conduct new bioweapons research — that’s what he said – and not just on strains left over from the Soviet Union.” Carlson removed a portion of Pope’s statement from just before the quote he read on-air, in which Pope stated that “there is no place that still has any of the sort of infrastructure for researching or producing biological weapons.”
Carlson was pulling Pope’s statement from an interview he gave to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which Pope explained the status of the labs in Ukraine and their function. Carlson intentionally omitted important context in his efforts to gin up fear and baseless accusations. Actually reading the article with Pope’s own words provides clarity:
The labs in Ukraine are not bioweapons facilities. The US government maintains that they are public and animal health labs operated by host countries. Although a long-running Russian disinformation campaign has painted a picture of a network of US military labs in Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics involved in bioweapons or risky research, Pope said the labs conduct peaceful scientific research and disease surveillance. Outside experts have also said Pope’s program is not a covert bioweapons operation.
The pathogens with which the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program labs work are generally kept frozen, so they can’t replicate and become infectious. The risk the pathogens pose would increase if a building lost power and suffered damage. “If you lose the electrical power, the pathogens in the freezers warm up,” he said. “If the ventilation system is damaged, or the building itself is damaged, and these now ambient-temperature pathogens are able to escape the facility, then they can be potentially infectious in the region around the facility.”
The invasion could also provide fodder for new disinformation narratives around the labs, Pope feared. The Russians, he said, “could potentially go to one of these facilities and fabricate something that they call evidence of nefarious activity at the facility.”
The pathogens in Ukrainian labs vary by facility, Pope said, but some can be characterized as presenting a concern in the Ukrainian environment. As an example, he cited African swine fever virus, which is highly contagious in pigs and has caused hundreds of outbreaks in Ukraine since 2012. Some labs, he said, may hold pathogen strains left over from the Soviet bioweapons program, preserved in freezers for research purposes.
“There is no place that still has any of the sort of infrastructure for researching or producing biological weapons,” Pope said. “Scientists being scientists, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of these strain collections in some of these laboratories still have pathogen strains that go all the way back to the origins of that program.”
“What we have today and what these countries maintain are small amounts of various pathogens that by and large are things that are collected out of their environment that they need for research to be able to legitimately surveil disease and develop vaccines against,” he said.
This work, Pope said, continued in Ukraine until recently. “They have more pathogens in more places than we recommend,” he said. The program had been helping Ukrainian researchers sift through their frozen pathogen collections, with the goal of persuading the Ukrainians to preserve their genetic information of samples via sequencing before destroying the live samples.
Carlson doubled down on his March 14 broadcast, complaining that The New York Times had written about his mischaracterization and angrily asking if he had also taken Pope “out of context” while repeating his claim that the labs were keeping hazardous materials without any intention to destroy or dispose of them.