Second of two articles
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 weapons.
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 governments.
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 destruction.
"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 Studies.
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 replica.
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 business partners.
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 in 1995.
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 made.
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 railway.
"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.