Did U.S. Use Germ Warfare Against DC Peace March?
Or Are We Just Being Bionoid…?
by Mark Sanborne
“Bionoia… Catch It!”
There’s something uniquely scary about germs. Along with making us sick, they’re the things that put the “B” in ABC (Atomic, Biological, and Chemical) warfare. Sure, there’s been some stiff competition on the fear-o-meter: Cheney warning that a WMD attack on a U.S. city was inevitable, ongoing chatter about dirty bombs, a government report that an attack on chemical plants in New Jersey could send a “lung-melting” cloud over New York, killing over a million. Still, the prospect of lab-bred bacteria and viruses causing mass indiscriminate sickness and death holds a special horrid fascination for many people.
This is not surprising. Fortunately, exposure to atomic blast, radiation, and poison gas are hypotheticals for most of us, but we all have personal experience fighting infections and disease, and our species has a long genetic and cultural memory of such ills. And unlike the relatively site-specific nature of nuke and chemical attacks, biological pandemics—be they man-made or “natural”—have the potential to spread their devastation across the country and globe in a matter of weeks or months.
With the latest “regular” flu season and its attendant vaccine shortages upon us, and the specter of deadly bird flu suddenly being trumpeted by the media-medical establishment, it’s no wonder that public paranoia has been whipped up. These fears follow a well-worn groove dating back decades: AIDS, of course, and the emergence of other frightening “hot zone” diseases like the Ebola and Marburg viruses from the jungles of Africa, and their potential dissemination via globalization and worldwide air travel: the “revenge of nature” scenario. Domestically, there have also been “outbreaks” like Lyme’s and Legionnaire’s disease, West Nile virus, and more recently SARS, which supposedly was spawned in the unsanitary condition of China’s exotic cuisine market. Then there’s the talk of flesh-eating bacteria in our hospitals and other scary diseases-of-the-week.
Fear of “bioterrorism” has been a parallel track running in the public consciousness. For decades there have been warnings from “experts” about the looming threat of biowarfare attacks by terrorists, a menace that became the staple of countless mass-market books, TV shows, and Hollywood thrillers. But who, exactly, are the “bioterrorists?”
A common motif—and still a current favorite—involves terrorists buying black-market plague weapons from disaffected and/or mercenary ex-Soviet or Third World scientists. (Of course, the main real-life example of this trade was the transfer of U.S. bio-agents to Iraq in the 1980s.) This cliched script point found a real-life echo in reports from Afghanistan, after the U.S. invasion in 2001, of documents in a supposed al-Qaeda safe house indicating elaborate if not fantastical plans for aerial anthrax attacks against unnamed targets.
That presumably is the kind of bioterrorism that we’re supposed to fear, and for which billions of new homeland-security dollars are currently being spent. But it also raises what should be an obvious question: if the Russians and certain Third World dictators have dangerous biowar programs—what about the U.S.?
Many Americans, sadly, would probably be surprised to discover that the U.S. does indeed have a very robust biological warfare capability, despite the fact that President Nixon ordered a halt to the U.S. biowar program in 1969 and signed the 1972 International Biological Weapons Convention banning their production and use. The BWC was ratified by the Senate in 1974 and to date has been ratified by 143 other nations. Unfortunately the landmark treaty had no enforcement protocol whereby suspicious sites could be inspected, and the U.S. has endeavored mightily ever since to keep it that way.
Most recently, the task fell to that most belligerent of necons, John R. Bolton, who was shoehorned into his U.N. ambassadorship in an Aug. 1 recess appointment by Bush. (The appointment technically lasts until a new Congress convenes in January 2007.) Back in December 2001, when he was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security (!), Bolton single-handedly scuttled an international conference in Geneva aimed at finally implementing a BWC enforcement protocol, saying it was “dead is not going to be resurrected.”
The U.S. was the only signatory to object to the protocol, claiming countries like Iraq and Iran were cheaters, and that inspections could reveal biowar trade secrets of the U.S. military and its partners in the private sector—research with potentially huge commercial value in the pharmaceutical and vaccine industries. Presumably, the fear is that international inspection teams could be infiltrated by foreign intelligence agents—as the U.S. and Britain did in the case of Iraq from the 1990s up until the recent war.
But the larger reason for Washington’s adamant if lonely opposition may have more to do with the treaty’s other fatal loophole: the “defensive” research exception. The convention’s signatories pledge not to develop, produce, stockpile, or acquire biological agents or toxins “of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, and other peaceful purposes.” Unfortunately, that has been interpreted as allowing countries to continue developing ever-more-deadly pathogens, as long as it’s done in small amounts and only for the purpose of developing countermeasures, like drugs and vaccines.
That exception allowed the U.S. and others—principally Britain and the Soviets—to continue business as usual by labeling their biowar programs as now being defensive in nature. The U.S. junked its germ stockpiles from the early Cold War period and launched a new generation of biowar research, using cutting-edge advances in recombinant DNA to devise new versions of already virulent diseases. Over the years more and more of that work has been farmed out to spooky “defense” contractors like Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) and the Battelle Memorial Institute. Never mind international inspectors, it’s not clear that anyone—and certainly not Congress—is overseeing this sprawling bio-industrial complex to ensure it’s in compliance with international treaty and domestic law.
Here is a vast underground empire, hiding in various government and private labs around the country, sucking up billions of dollars in secret funding, dedicated to creating the very things we fear most, and marred with a long, well-documented history of covert biowar experiments on U.S. citizens and attacks on foreign enemies. Yet those facts and that history are verboten in polite media discourse; instead the talking heads work overtime to keep our post-9-11 fears focused on “terrorists” and “rogue states.”
Thus various commentators have had no difficulty speculating that North Korea may be “weaponizing” avian flu for sale to al-Qaeda, that SARS might have been a bioengineered virus that escaped from a Chinese weapons lab, or that the introduction of West Nile virus into the U.S. in 1999 was a dirty trick from Saddam. But it’s apparently impossible for our intelligentsia to conceive the possibility that “rogue elements” (whatever that means in today’s context) in the U.S. biowarfare community could be responsible for those or other such horrors, whether by clumsy accident or nefarious design. Except, of course, for the 2001 anthrax attacks, which is perhaps why that highly suspicious case has dropped down the memory hole.
But maybe I’m just being…bionoid.
RABBIT FEVER GOES TO WASHINGTON
Or am I? On Sept. 24, 2005, I joined at least 100,000 other people from across the country on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to protest the Iraq war. It didn’t get much press, but here’s something that got even less: on Sept. 30, the federal Centers for Disease Control warned public health authorities that a low concentration of the Francisella tularensis bacteria that causes Tularemia—commonly known as rabbit fever—had been detected by six different bioweapons sensors around Washington that day.
The sensors, run by the Department of Homeland Security’s Bio Watch program, are designed to detect six bio-agents deemed by the government most likely to be used as biological weapons. The little-known rabbit fever is one of them; it takes only 10 of the microscopic bacteria to cause Tularemia, which if left untreated can kill 50% of those infected. (The other favorites include anthrax, smallpox, and plague.) DHS waited three days before informing the CDC, which took another three days to do its own tests before sending out a low-profile alert.
“It is alarming that health officials…were only notified six days after the bacteria was first detected,” House Government Reform chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) wrote in an Oct. 3 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “Have DHS and CDC analysts been able to determine if the pathogen detected was naturally occurring or the result of a terrorist attack?”
“There is no known nexus to terror or criminal behavior,” a DHS spokesman told the Washington Post. “We believe this to be environmental.” A CDC spokesman concurred, saying: “It is not unreasonable that this is a natural occurrence. There are still no cases of Tularemia.”
There are two problems with this bizarrely placid official reaction. One, there are indeed people who say they came down with unknown infections shortly after returning from the protest, though there is as yet no proof that rabbit fever was the culprit. A number of personal accounts of sickness by named individuals were cited on the ProgressiveSociety.com blog for Oct. 8 and on Salon.com Oct. 18.
One person wrote on Progressive Society: “Hi, I wanted to let people know that many people got sick after the march, including myself. Initially, it seemed like the flu, but wasn’t responding to flu treatment. Then I thought to switch to a treatment for bacteria infection, and then started to feel a little better… The incubation time for this bacteria is 3 to 24 days. There are people who came with me from Southern states who are just getting sick now.”
Salon cited four people who said they got sick after attending the anti-war rally. One was Mike Phelps, 45, who traveled there from Raleigh, NC, and said he began getting sick three days after returning home. “It was gross,” he said. “I literally vomited out cup loads of phlegm. Most of it was dark-colored. I’ve never had anything like this before.” His doctor diagnosed pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. When Phelps informed him about the Tularemia scare a few days later, the doctor said he would’ve have prescribed the same antibiotics for rabbit fever.
Salon also interviewed independent experts who scoffed at the idea that a “natural” source of the rabbit fever bacteria somehow ended up in the soil on the Mall and was kicked up into the air by all the protesters. They noted that the six sensors that detected the germs were located miles apart, indicating that a more likely explanation was dispersal from the air. (As at most such protests, there were various helicopters flying overhead all day.)
William Stanhope of the St. Louis University School of Public Health’s Institute for Biosecurity told Salon he was convinced it was a botched terrorist attack. “I think we were lucky and the terrorists were not good,” he said. “I am stunned that this has not been more of a story.”
As for the CDC’s “nature did it” explanation, Stanhope says: “One sensor, I’d say maybe. Two sensors is a stretch. Six sensors? I’m sorry, you don’t have enough money to buy enough martinis to make me believe that it is naturally occurring at six different sites.”
Dr. Steven Hinrichs of the University of Nebraska Center for Biosecurity agreed, telling Salon: “The fact that it happened in six locations would have supported an attack scenario… It could be a failed attack.”
An attack, yes. But perhaps also a devious test that, far from failing, did exactly what it was supposed to do. Which again brings us back to the question: precisely who are the “bioterrorists”?
NEXT MONTH: Anthrax, bird flu, SARS and U.S. biological terrorism
US Mission to the EU, press release on Bolton’s position on the BWC
“Biological alarm in Washington,” by Mark Benjamin, Salon, Oct. 18, 2005
“Tularemia at DC March,” Progressive Society Blog, Nov. 5, 2005
The Sunshine Project
Research and facts about biological weapons and biotechnology
WW4 REPORT #15 on Bolton scuttling the Biological Weapons Convention
WW4 REPORT #15 on the supposed al-Qaeda anthrax threat
WW4 REPORT #45 on infiltration of UN Iraq inspections by U.S. spies
WW4 REPORT #4 on U.S. sale of biological agents to Saddam Hussein
WW4 REPORT #15 on U.S. Army origins of anthrax in the 2001 attacks
WW4 REPORT #24 on FBI probe of U.S. Army facilities in anthrax attacks
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution