The Nuts, Bolts and Crimes of Biological Warfare
by Mark Sanborne
In Part 1 of this series, which ran in our December issue, journalist and researcher Mark Sanborne noted how the media-fueled fear of microbes—with waves of “bionoia” over anthrax, SARS and now bird flu—has been used as a new justification for the national security state, even as the Bush administration has sought to erode the Biological Weapons Convention. This month, we take a look back at how the US has actually spearheaded the development of biological weapons—and their use against civilian populations. Part 3, to come next month, will explore the survival of the secretive Cold War biowar apparatus in both the US and Russia, and its links to the new wave of biological threats.
BIO-WARFARE: A BRIEF HISTORY
Bionoia may be a new concept, but biowarfare certainly is not. In its crudest form, it can be traced as far back as Neanderthal man, who rubbed feces on his spear points to add infection to his prey’s wounds, while in the sixth century BC, Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot, an hallucinogenic. Most famously, Tartars in 1346 catapulted bubonic-plague infected corpses into an Italian trade settlement in Crimea, which possibly helped jump-start the Black Death pandemic that eventually killed a third of Europe. And in our own backyard, first British and later American agents pushed the process of genocide along by deliberately spreading smallpox among Native Americans
In the early 20th century, major European powers began seriously dabbling in biological warfare research. While it wasn’t used on the battlefields of World War I, there is evidence that German agents infected horses and cattle in the U.S. with glanders disease before they were shipped to France, though this fascinating escapade had no appreciable effect on the war effort.
By the start of World War II, the U.S. was the only major power not to have a biowar program, though Germany, Britain, and the USSR were wary of using such weapons due to the threat of retaliation in kind. By 1942, the British were testing anthrax weapons at the 520-acre Gruinard Island off northern Scotland, which became so contaminated with deadly spores that it was quarantined for nearly half a century. That same year, pushed to the wall by the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Soviets reportedly made effective use of Tularemia against the Germans near Stalingrad, though the disease spread to Russian soldiers and civilians as well. Washington finally decided to catch up when confronted with the German threat, and more importantly because of Japan’s massive biowar campaign in China, which began with its invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s.
The infamous Unit 731, led by radical nationalist Shiro Ishii, developed plague weapons that may have killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese throughout the war, and conducted Mengele-like experiments that killed thousands of prisoners of war, including some Americans. Despite that grisly record, after the war U.S. authorities granted freedom to Ishii and all his cohorts who shared their research data. (The USSR convicted and executed those Japanese biowar researchers it got its hands on, as their weapons had reportedly been used against Soviet troops when they invaded Manchuria in 1945.)
Meanwhile, some of Ishii’s now-respectable associates went on to found pharmaceutical companies in Japan. (Shades of the “reformed” Nazi industrialists in Germany.) His successor as Unit 731’s commander in the final months of the war, Masaji Kitano, founded the Green Cross blood products firm, and even published postwar research articles based on Unit 731’s experiments—but called the subjects monkeys rather than humans.
The U.S. promptly moved on from coddling war criminals to launching its own biowar program in earnest in the post-war period, endeavoring to catch up to the capabilities of the Russians. Fort Detrick in Frederick, MD, became the headquarters of Pentagon’s effort under a command that was later dubbed the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). Other key facilities included the Dugway Proving Grounds test center in Utah and the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas.
In the “golden years” of the 1950s and ’60s, these secret facilities churned out tons —yes, tons—of “weaponized” anthrax, botulinum toxin, and our new friend Tularemia (rabbit fever), meaning they could be effectively delivered to our enemies by bombs, missiles, artillery, drone spray-planes, or other means. Plans were also developed to hurt the Soviet economy by killing horses, cattle and swine with germs and viruses cultivated at the secretive Plum Island installation off the north coast of Long Island, N.Y.
Even more ominous is the evidence that has since emerged of widespread testing of biowar agents or supposedly safe facsimiles on unsuspecting U.S. citizens. (As in the case of the extensive radiological experiments performed on Americans during this same period, the facts were only admitted by the government many years after the events.) In one of the few cases of semi-informed consent, code-named “Project Whitecoat,” Fort Detrick scientists exposed some 2,700 Seventh-Day Adventist volunteers to a variety of infectious agents between 1954 and 1973, though allegedly no one died in the experiments.
There was also a huge airborne test of deadly bio-agents (probably anthrax) near Johnston Atoll in the Pacific in 1968 involving a fleet of Navy ships stocked with Rhesus monkeys, over half of which died. Though shifting winds may have exposed some sailors to toxins, the exercise convinced skeptical U.S. planners that bio-weapons could be delivered effectively against enemy troops.
Numerous other tests in the 1950s and ’60s targeted both unknowing service members and civilians for mock attack on a mass scale. The most famous was the dousing of New York City’s subway system in 1966 with Bacillus globigii, or BG, an allegedly noninfectious stand-in for anthrax, to study dispersal patterns. (The bacteria was contained in light bulbs that were dropped onto train tracks in midtown Manhattan.) However, it turns out that BG can infect people with weakened immune systems. Though no casualties were documented in the New York case, it’s not clear that anyone at the time would have noticed a slight increase in unknown infections among the elderly, infants, and immune-compromised adults.
BG, Bacillus subtilis, Serratia Marcescens, E. Coli, and other potentially dangerous live bacteria were also loosed upon a variety of other targets: Washington’s National Airport and Greyhound bus station, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and military bases in Key West, California, Virginia, and Hawaii. And way back in 1950, a Navy ship used giant hoses to spray a germ cocktail over the San Francisco Bay area, creating a big enough cloud to theoretically deliver 5,000 “safe” particles into the lungs of each of the city’s 800,000 residents. Eleven cases of pneumonia and one death were linked to the test, which one Wall Street Journal account in 2001 dubbed “the bacterial fogging of San Francisco.” That simulated attack and many others included the addition of fluorescent particles of zinc-cadmium-sulfide—a substance now known to be carcinogenic—to better track the dispersal of the germ cloud.
CUBA: BIOWAR’S GROUND ZERO
All of which begs the question: If that’s how our government treated its own citizens, what did it do to its enemies? It’s largely forgotten today, but during the Korean War, China and North Korea accused the U.S. of engaging in large-scale field-testing of bio-weapons against military and civilian targets. These efforts allegedly included bombs filled with plague-infected fleas, a trick the Americans learned about from their friends in Unit 731. Though the case is “officially” unproven, there is considerable scholarly evidence for the claims. (See The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea by Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, Indiana University Press.)
But the real ground zero for the U.S. use of bio-weapons is Cuba. As early as 1961-62, as part of the CIA’s notorious and wide-ranging “Operation Mongoose” terror campaign, anti-Castro agents used bio and chemical agents to poison cane fields, sickening field workers and contaminating Cuba’s sugar exports. A decade later, in 1971, the island was infected with African swine flu (the first such outbreak in the Western Hemisphere), forcing Cuban authorities to slaughter all of the country’s half-million pigs and depriving it of a staple source of protein. A Newsday report of Jan. 10, 1977 indicated the virus was transported to Cuba from the U.S. base at Fort Gulick, Panama. Swine flu reappeared in 1979-80, and another 300,000 pigs were slaughtered.
Emboldened by such “successes,” anti-Castro Cuban terrorists and their U.S. handlers in 1981 apparently introduced a virulent strain of hemorrhagic dengue fever into the island, infecting over a quarter of a million people and killing 158, including 101 children. (Just prior to the outbreak, according to some reports, all personnel at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay were fortuitously vaccinated against dengue.) A 1982 article in espionage-watchdog magazine Covert Action pointed to Fort Detrick’s experiments with dengue fever and the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads it, and noted that Cuba was the only country infected.
Over the next 15 years, there were unrelenting outbreaks of exotic and previously unknown diseases that targeted everything from sugar and tobacco to citrus, coffee, egg, and dairy production. In 1990-91, just as Cuba was launching programs to export bananas and honey, both sectors were hit with debilitating infections.
In April 1997, Cuba became the first state party of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) to request an investigation of an alleged biowar attack. It claimed that on October 26, 1996, a single-engine U.S. State Department plane en route from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida was seen releasing an unknown substance over Matanzas province. Shortly thereafter, on December 18, the Thrips palmi insect parasite made its first appearance in Cuba – in Matanzas. A group of 12 BWC state parties discussed the Cuban claim, but found the evidence insufficient.
OPERATION “MARSHALL PLAN”
The obvious should be noted: These acts of state bio-terrorism persisted over four decades through alternating Democratic and Republican administrations, continuing up to Clinton. But even all that pales next to what was contemplated if the U.S. had invaded Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.
The magnanimously named “Operation Marshall Plan” called for Havana to be blanketed with a cocktail of Venezuelan equine encephalitis and Q fever that would kill “only” 1 to 2 percent of those exposed. “Teams at Pine Bluff made thousands of gallons of the cocktail, enough to fill a swimming pool,” the now-infamous New York Times reporter Judith Miller wrote in her 2001 book “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War.” The director of Fort Detrick argued that the plan would cut down on combat casualties and thus had “a humane aspect.” Even if the low-ball fatality percentage was accurate, the attack would have killed between 70,000 and 140,000 Cuban civilians.
Since all of this not-so-secret history seems to remain a secret to official Washington, the corporate media exhibits no sense of painful irony when the Bush regime and its think-tank allies regularly accuse Cuba of being a biowar threat. In May 2002, John Bolton made a speech entitled “Beyond the Axis of Evil” charging that Cuba has “at least a limited offensive biological weapons research and development effort” and had “provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states.” That same month, back on more familiar disinformational territory, Judith Miller, a friend of Bolton’s, wrote in the N.Y. Times that “administration officials” believed “Cuba has been experimenting with anthrax.”
The biotechnology that Cuba most evidently shares with the impoverished nations of the world are such things as hepatitis B and meningitis vaccines developed by its world-class pharmaceutical industry. Of course, the country has had plenty of practice defending itself against diseases—though we are meant to ignore the fact that many of them are apparently made in the U.S.A.
Next Month: Anthrax, SARS, bird flu, monkey pox and the new bionoia
“Years Ago, the Military Sprayed Germs on US Cities,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 22, 2001
“Decades of US Biowarfare Against Cuba,” The Internationalist, May 2003
“Cuba Making Bio-Arms?” WW4 REPORT #34
“‘Axis of Evil’ Expands,” WW4 REPORT #39
“Bionoia,” Pt. 1, WW4 REPORT #116
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Feb. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution