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25 October 1999updated 12 Oct 2023 11:11am

Did the US start germ warfare?

When flies spread fever in New York, Saddam gets blamed. But America may know more than he does abou

By Peter Pringle

At first, it was comforting to learn, via the New Yorker magazine, that the Central Intelligence Agency had a “whiff of concern” about Saddam Hussein’s possibly, but not probably, having a hand in spreading West Nile-like fever over New York last summer. It was nice to know the spies were worried on our behalf.

Five people died from this virus, which can cause encephalitis, or uncontrolled inflammation of the brain. To protect us New Yorkers, our permanently concerned mayor, Rudy Giuliani, ordered us to be sprayed with mosquito-specific insecticide from helicopters as we slept, because mosquitoes can spread the virus. Prevention is the mayor’s byword.

According to the New Yorker, the CIA’s bioterrorist sleuths “suffered a lurch of uneasy recognition” about the West Nile fever, recalling an excerpt from a book last April in the Daily Mail by a supposed (unidentified) Iraqi defector, who claimed Saddam once told him he had a strain of West Nile virus “capable of destroying 97 per cent of all life in an urban environment”. Suddenly, I felt uneasy myself, knowing that the CIA relies on reports in the Daily Mail for even a “whiff of concern”, let alone an official “assessment” of the New Threat of Biological Terrorism.

Whether it be the CIA, or the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Pentagon, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (the kindly souls who are supposed to get us out of the area when the “bioterrorist” strikes), the “assessment” of the threat can be the difference between life and death for these bureaucracies, just as it’s always been. Identify a good threat and you get big bucks from Congress.

Each of the above government agencies is now receiving lots of dough for bioterrorism – $10 billion in total next year.

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All it requires to raise the alarm is a “whiff of concern” about a disease that most scientists seem to think was spread by migrating birds. Abracadabra, we have a Middle East dictator about to destroy us all as we sleep. Hopefully we should know more when the birds come back next year, if they do.

In the meantime, it is tempting to look for other explanations, or dare I say motives, for this hype about “bioterrorism”. Last year, if you recall, it was all about anthrax, and the result so far has been millions, if not billions, of dollars spent on several hundred hoax calls by pranksters saying anthrax was put into this shopping mall, that courtroom or that school.

Strangely there has been one explanation for this furore sitting on the doorstep, as it were, for years, but no one has paid much attention until recently.

I refer to Britain’s and America’s shameful past with “bio-weapons”. All the charges about “rogue” states making these nasty poisons tends to steer us away from past deeds. No one mentions that, in 1944, Churchill wanted to finish off the Germans with anthrax bombs but was dissuaded by his generals; or that the Americans secretly gave immunity to Japanese second world war criminals who experimented with biological agents on Chinese prisoners – and used the results for developing US germ weapons. And the half-century-old charges by the Chinese that the United States actually used biological agents in the Korean war are repeatedly glossed over.

And yet it may soon be harder for the special relationship’s murky past in this department to escape deeper scrutiny. Two historians at York University in Toronto, Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, recently published The United States and Biological Warfare: secrets from the early cold war* – the most convincing attempt so far to suggest that the US used these weapons.

The US has always dismissed the Korean war charges as communist agitprop, but serious questions remain. American pilots who became prisoners of war confessed to the Chinese they had used biological weapons – dropped fleas infected with plague and turkey feathers coated with toxins. When the pilots came home after the war they retracted their confessions, but under threat of court martial.

Endicott and Hagerman have produced the most impressive, expertly researched and, as far as the official files allow, best-documented case for the prosecution yet drawn. The authors conclude from the circumstantial evidence that the US is guilty – not of waging a prolonged biological attack on North Korea and China, but more likely a limited, covert action; a kind of experimental foray with biological weapons to test the kind of war Washington would have waged, had the Korean conflict led to a third world war.

The US experience in Korea, say the authors, “reveals a military culture that allowed an army to resort to scorched-earth tactics, to incendiarism [in 1952, US forces were using an average of 70,000 gallons of napalm daily], to a strategy of total warfare within the confines of Korea, even to the condoning of war crimes”. Indeed, their book shows in alarming detail how doggedly the US was developing an array of biological weapons for offensive purposes at a time when the American public was being told the arsenal was purely defensive.

During the second world war, the main allied effort in biological weapons was conducted, strange to relate, by Canada. Far away from the threat of war in the wide open spaces of Alberta, where germ weapons could be tested in secret and with a reduced risk of a disastrous accident, Canada secretly developed a series of biological weapons, including anthrax. At the war’s end, the experiments were taken over by the US and further developed into actual bombs at Fort Detrick in Maryland. The US joint chiefs of staff had built biological warfare into emergency war plans and if the Berlin blockade had led to general war, they had intended to use these outlawed weapons.

By the start of the Korean war in 1950, the five anti-personnel agents and two anti-crop agents – cereal rust and chemical growth regulators – were on the ready-to-go list. The agents were tested in M33 cluster-bombs, each containing 108 aerosol bomblets. In 1952, the US air force requisitioned 23,900 of these cluster-bombs. If a world war had broken out, the plan was to carry atomic and biological bombs in the same aircraft.

Fort Detrick scientists also continued to work with the Canadians on using insects – flies, fleas, lice, mosquitoes and ticks – to spread germs. At the same time, the US air force in the Far East was told by the military chiefs to plan for biological warfare attacks in China.

Exactly what the joint chiefs planned to do with this secret arsenal was so tightly held that besides themselves and the president, who had to give the go-ahead to use germ warfare, only the defence secretary was to be consulted.

There are those who argue that the US could never have used biological agents in Korea because it was against a “no-first-use” policy. But Endicott and Hagerman contend that such a formal national policy was not adopted until 1956; during the Korean war, the use of biological weapons was at the discretion of the president – and they could have been used. Many relevant documents on biological warfare have either been destroyed or lost; others are still classified. The authors found that at least 19 relevant “secret” category communications during 1952 were missing.

The Chinese investigators claimed to have found sudden deaths from plague, anthrax and encephalitis, a deadly virus that invades the cerebral cortex. They also reported eyewitness accounts of US aircraft dropping strange objects, including soybean stalks, feathers and cardboard packages containing live insects, rotten fish, decaying pork, frogs and rodents. Fleas, said by the Chinese to have been found after these air drops, tested positive for plague, which though endemic in north-east China had not been reported in Korea since 1912. Insects, spiders and feathers were reported to be carrying anthrax.

The authors went back to China and interviewed members of the medical team, who stood by their original reports that the US had engaged in some kind of biological warfare.

The international scientific commission that looked into the charges concluded that the US had used biological weapons in China and North Korea – in part because it judged the testimony of the hundreds of witnesses interviewed “too simple, too concordant and too independent” to be doubted. But the commission, led by Britain’s Joseph Needham, came under fire because it contained known sympathisers of the Chinese revolution. Endicott and Hagerman argue that, with the new circumstantial evidence now available, the Needham report should be seen in a different light.

In the end, if the US air force didn’t do it, the authors suggest germs could have been dropped on a covert mission by the CIA. The authors note that, in 1952, the air force special operations division, which “directed and supervised” covert biological warfare, sent a specially trained air wing to the Far East. And in 1952, the division “entered into agreements with the CIA to manufacture and test biological weapons for aggressive applications”. However, here again the authors run into a dead end. Records of the CIA’s biological warfare activities going back to 1952 were “very incomplete”, the CIA director, William Colby, told Congress in 1976, since documents had been destroyed.

Stranger still is the story of the documents from the Russian presidential archives that first surfaced in January 1998 in a Japanese newspaper, Sankei Shimbun, and were purportedly obtained by its Moscow-based reporter. They concern the Byzantine power struggle within the Soviet leadership in the first months after Stalin’s death in 1953; in particular, the efforts of Lavrenti Beria, deputy chairman of the council of ministers, the official in charge of security police affairs for the Communist Party, to remove Semen Ignatiev, a Khrushchev protege, from his post of minister for state security. As it turned out, Beria himself fell foul of the new order and was tried and executed for being a spy- but not before he had charged Ignatiev with conspiring with the Chinese to accuse falsely the US of using biological weapons in North Korea.

In the documents, Beria claims that Ignatiev participated in a plot to prepare “two false areas of exposure” of plague and cholera in North Korea, claiming to Dr Needham’s commission that they had been dropped from US planes.

But are the documents genuine? Outside researchers have not, as a general rule, been granted access to the presidential archives in the Kremlin, and even Russian researchers are still not allowed to make photocopies. The 12 documents in question were copied by hand by an as yet unnamed Russian researcher, then typed up in Russian and given to the Sankei Shimbun, which translated them into Japanese and published them.

Kathryn Weathersby, a historian and Korean war expert who works in Washington at the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project, has seen other documents from the presidential archives in Moscow. She thinks the content of the 12 files from the Japanese newspaper make such a complex and interwoven story that it would have been extremely difficult to forge. “The specifics of persons, dates and events are consistent with evidence available from a wide array of sources,” she says.

Yet Weathersby agrees that “far more documentation, particularly from China, is needed to give a full account of this massive propaganda campaign”. If, indeed, that is what it was.

As strange as the sudden emergence of the Russian documents is the apparent absence of any diplomatic move by the United States to persuade the Russians to open up this still-secret section of their presidential archives so that the 12 documents can be properly authenticated. At the same time, the Pentagon could be providing the missing pages from US military archives – or, perhaps, it cannot because those documents have also been destroyed. In the absence of such evidence, a “whiff of concern” remains that the US did experiment with biological weapons.

* Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman’s book is published by Indiana University Press

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