Lethal Legacy: Bioweapons for Sale
U.S. Declined South African
Scientist's Offer on Man-Made Pathogens
By J. Warrick and J. Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 21, 2003; Page A01
A Guest Document
Second of two
PRETORIA, South Africa – In three days of secret meetings last July,
the man known throughout South Africa as "Doctor Death" astounded U.S.
law enforcement officials with tales of how the former white-minority
government carried out unique experiments with chemical and biological
Wouter Basson, the bearded ex-commander of South Africa's notorious 7th
Medical Battalion, spoke candidly of global shopping sprees for
pathogens and equipment, of plans for epidemics to be sown in black
communities and of cigarettes and letters that were laced with anthrax.
He revealed the development of a novel anthrax strain unknown to the
U.S. officials, a kind of "stealth" anthrax that Basson claimed could
fool tests used to detect the disease.
But most disturbing was the question Basson could not answer: Who
controls the microbes now?
Nearly a decade has passed since the last South African president under
apartheid, Frederik W. de Klerk, dismantled the top-secret biological
and chemical weapons program known as Project Coast, of which Basson
was the director. In 1993, South Africa declared all the weapons,
pathogen strains and documents destroyed. Since then, South Africa has
been held up as a model – an example for Iraq and other nations of
"what real disarmament looks like," as Secretary of State Colin L.
Powell said in a speech in January.
But in reality, Project Coast's legacy continues to haunt South Africa
in ways that bode poorly for countries seeking to roll back programs
for weapons of mass destruction, according to government officials and
weapons experts. South Africa is still struggling to answer basic
questions about the kinds of weapons developed in the program, how they
were used and what happened to them, the officials said. Bacterial
strains that supposedly were destroyed continue to turn up in private
hands. Law enforcement officials remain concerned that former weapons
scientists may share secrets with extremist groups or foreign
The lingering threats from Project Coast attest to the existence of a
gray zone, the combination of weak states, open borders, lack of
controls and a ready market of buyers and sellers for weapons of mass
"So many of the past problems occurred because there weren't enough
checks and balances in the system," said Torie Pretorius, one of two
lead prosecutors in the state's case against Basson on murder and fraud
charges stemming from Project Coast, of which he was acquitted. "Are
those checks and balances any better today? I don't think so," he said.
"The rollback in South Africa is incomplete," said Milton Leitenberg,
an arms control expert and senior research scholar at the University of
Maryland's School of Public Affairs. "It's unclear that the government
ever wrapped these programs up, and they need to wrap them up. The fact
that you've got a guy with a walking collection of bacteria traveling
around the world is just more evidence of that."
Project Coast was a closely guarded state secret, created as a unit of
the South African National Defense Force (SADF) in 1981, at a time when
the white-minority government saw itself under siege from all sides –
from communist-led insurgencies in neighboring countries and from an
increasingly restive majority black population within its borders.
"The SADF viewed the liberation movements as terrorist organizations, a
view that held that every white South African was a potential target,"
South African researchers Chandre Gould and Peter Folb wrote in a major
study on Project Coast released in January for the United Nations.
The first authoritative accounts about Project Coast surfaced only in
1998 when Basson and other top scientists were called to testify before
South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. In 1999,
state prosecutors began a 21/2-year trial of Basson on murder and fraud
charges, alleging that he had directed the use of weapons in
assassinations and misused state money. The trial resulted in the
release of thousands of pages of documents, and produced sensational
disclosures about South Africa's use of chemicals and pathogens. In a
stunning rejection of the state's case, a South African judge acquitted
Basson on all counts last April, finding that Basson did not break any
laws. Prosecutors are appealing the case.
Testimony in the trial portrayed Basson as a skillful and wily manager
who built a sophisticated weapons program on a modest budget with
little oversight from the country's political and military leadership.
Unlike the vastly larger Soviet weapons program, Project Coast produced
no warheads or missiles and no "weaponized" agents that would be
considered militarily significant. Instead, it focused entirely on
small-scale, custom-made weapons intended to terrorize, weaken and kill
opponents of the apartheid government, testimony and documents showed.
"The most characteristic feature of the South African program was the
development, testing and utilization of a wide array of hard-to-trace
toxic agents to assassinate 'enemies of the state,' " said Gary
Ackerman, a South African weapons expert with the Center for
Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International
Project Coast scientists collected hundreds of strains of deadly
pathogens, including 45 types of anthrax and the bacteria that cause
cholera, brucellosis and plague, according to documents released by the
government. They also developed novel methods for distributing toxins.
A 1989 sales list released by the government provided a partial
inventory: sugar cubes laced with salmonella, beer bottles and
peppermint candies poisoned with pesticide, cigarettes and letter-size
envelopes sprinkled with anthrax spores.
More sinister were the attempts —ordered by Basson— to use science
against the country's black majority population. Daan Goosen, former
director of Project Coast's biological research division, said he was
ordered by Basson to develop ways to suppress population growth among
blacks, perhaps by secretly applying contraceptives to drinking water.
Basson also urged scientists to search for a "black bomb," a biological
weapon that would select targets based on skin color, he said.
"Basson was very interested. He said, 'If you can do this, it would be
very good,' " Goosen recalled. "But nothing came of it."
When South Africa announced destruction of its nuclear weapons program
in 1993, teams of international observers were flown in for
verification that the warheads as well as thousands of pages of
blueprints and documents were destroyed. But the process was different
for biological and chemical weapons – the only witnesses to the
destruction at Project Coast were the program's top managers. Their
claims came into question as early as 1997, when steamer trunks filled
with Project Coast documents belonging to Basson turned up in the home
of an associate. The trunks contained financial and scientific records
as well as a sales list of clandestine weapons.
When questioned by U.S. officials in July, Basson said he could offer
no assurances about the possible existence of other documents, or
bacterial strains and chemicals that he previously claimed were
incinerated or dumped at sea.
"His suspicion was that people working in the labs had probably taken
things with them," said a knowledgeable U.S. law enforcement source.
"As the program ended, an effort was made to destroy or sell off as
many assets as possible. That's because the white leadership didn't
relish the prospect of this technology ending up in the hands of the
new black government."
Goosen acknowledged in an interview that scientists had retained copies
of bacterial strains to continue work on vaccines and antidotes with
commercial applications. Goosen said he ended up with scores of such
strains in his private laboratory, a collection he attempted
unsuccessfully to sell to the United States last May. Goosen did not
destroy them, he said, because he considered them vital to his
continued research and vaccine business.
Documents and e-mails generated as part of that attempted sale to U.S.
officials suggested that additional "replica" copies of Project Coast
strains existed. Tai Minnaar, a retired South African general who
represented Goosen in the attempted sale, wrote to a retired CIA
official describing one such replica that "is in fact a copy of the
original in every way." Goosen said he had no knowledge of such a
Reconstructing what happened to Project Coast materials is made more
difficult because of uncertainties over the identities of outside
companies and institutes that may have provided assistance. Most of
Project Coast's scientists worked for one of two front companies,
Roodeplaat Research Laboratories and Delta G Scientific. But based on
interviews with former South African military leaders, some U.S.
researchers have concluded that other entities were deeply involved.
"There were a number of different research and testing centers at
universities and companies, and scientists in various parts of South
Africa assisted," professors Helen E. Purkitt and Stephen F. Burgess
wrote in a June 2002 article in the Journal of Southern African
Studies. Over time, Basson was able to acquire or develop "pathogens
that had never before been seen," they wrote.
During his trial, Basson boasted of logging many tens of thousands of
miles visiting foreign capitals, from Taipei to Tripoli. According to
his own testimony, his trips included a visit to Iran to acquire
samples of chemical weapons used in the Iran-Iraq war, and a trip to
Russia to purchase sophisticated equipment used in genetic engineering.
Along the way he built a network of foreign contacts who later became
Although weapons experts dismiss many of Basson's claims, travel
records confirm that he made at least five trips in the 1990s to Libya
– a country the CIA believes is attempting to establish a biological
weapons program. The State Department became so concerned about his
visits that a formal complaint was made to the South African government
Other former Project Coast officials have made extended visits to Libya
as well as China, and still others have received visitors from
countries regarded by the United States as proliferation concerns.
Gould and Folb, in their U.N.-sponsored study, describe a visit by a
group of Syrian businessmen to meet with former Project Coast
scientists Andre Immelman and Jan Lourens some time after the program
was shut down.
One of the visitors was "quite open in his request for technology in
the form of documentation or skills," Lourens was quoted as saying. He
said the Syrians returned home empty-handed, and no further contact was
Deciphering the intent of the foreign contacts was a key objective of
U.S. officials who met with Basson during a secret three-day session
last summer. Basson, who did not respond to requests for an interview
for this story, has kept a relatively low profile while awaiting the
outcome of the state's appeal of his acquittal. But in July, he offered
himself to U.S. government officials for questioning at the
fortress-like U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, the capital.
Officials knowledgeable of the meeting agreed to discuss some of the
revelations on the condition they not be identified. They recalled
Basson had requested the meeting, saying he wanted to clear his record
with U.S. law enforcement officials who had tracked his movements in
recent years to determine whether he was trying to sell biological
agents or secrets to other countries. During three days of questioning,
Basson answered questions and told stories with the assurance that none
of his statements could be used against him in any criminal or civil
court, the officials said.
In past statements, Basson told extraordinary tales that later turned
out to be either fabricated or unverifiable. The U.S visitors were not
convinced of his candor on many points, particularly about his foreign
travels. Basson acknowledged the trips but offered innocuous
explanations. For example, he said that in Libya he consulted with
senior government officials about plans to construct a hospital and a
"He was having one hell of a time going all over the world," said a law
enforcement official familiar with details of the embassy meetings. "He
told us about Libya, Iran, Syria, Egypt and Israel. He mentioned
meeting officials from North Korea. And of course, we're convinced he
only told about the things he thought we already knew."
The officials did find disturbingly credible Basson's account of an
unknown "stealth" anthrax strain. South Africa's most tightly guarded
anthrax weapon was a native bacterial strain, known to be lethal to
humans and animals – one of 45 anthrax types in Project Coast's
collection. But the strain achieved a whole new significance, he said,
when his scientists were able to induce a change that rendered the
microbe invisible to standard field tests commonly used in South Africa
and neighboring countries.
"They ended up with an organism that would confound conventional
detection," said one U.S. law enforcement official who reviewed
Basson's claim. "That way, the spread of the disease is not stopped,
and more people would become ill." The official said more sophisticated
anthrax tests commonly used in the United States would not be fooled by
the stealth microbe.
Anthrax experts who learned details of Basson's claim said the reported
accomplishment was possible, but likely not very effective as a weapon.
The alterations described by Basson would likely have severely reduced
the virulence of the strain, said Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax
specialist at Louisiana State University.
"It might make a few goats sick but it wouldn't do very well at killing
people," Hugh-Jones said. "It appears he turned a pathogenic organism
into a nonpathogenic one."
Basson acknowledged to U.S. officials that the modifications stripped
the microbe of some of its virulence, but said Project Coast scientists
remained interested because of the strain's ability to sicken and
debilitate targets without leaving a trace.
Basson also told U.S. officials he had learned the technique from
Israeli government scientists, a claim that could not be independently
verified. Israel has persistently denied having biological or chemical
weapons programs, although many U.S. weapons experts believe such
programs exist. Israel also is widely believed to have assisted South
Africa with the development of its former nuclear weapons program, a
claim Israeli officials also deny. Basson and at least one other member
of South Africa's biological and chemical weapons team made extended
trips to Israel in the 1980s, according to testimony and documents
cited by authors Gould and Folb.
"The two countries at the time shared a similar mind-set: Both saw
groups inside their own borders that threatened the country's
survival," said a U.S. government weapons analyst with first-hand
knowledge of Project Coast and its aftermath, who spoke on condition of
anonymity. "The enemy wasn't another nation-state but pockets of
individuals within their own population."
Washington Post staff writer Joby Warrick will answer reader questions
about this series in a video interview that can be viewed online this
afternoon. Submit questions for Warrick at www.washingtonpost.com.
The M+G+R Foundation
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