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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ALEXANDER COCKBURN

South Africa's Dirty Secrets Have Echoes

Tales of biological warfare against its blacks are appalling, but the U.S. record isn't clean.

June 21, 1998|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn is coauthor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press," to be published next month by Verso

The dirtiest secrets of South Africa's apartheid regime are now spilling out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Cape Town. It's a pity that the chilling stories haven't made much of a commotion in the United States, whose own intelligence agencies have traveled along the same path.

In 1997, press reports detailed a South African agent's description of drug smuggling to raise money for terrorist schemes, including chemical experimentation on blacks. He said he had done this on behalf of the Directorate of Covert Collections, a super-secret unit within South Africa's military intelligence apparatus. The drugs--ecstasy and mandrax--were manufactured in labs run by Wouter Basson, one of the chieftains of South Africa's chemical and biological weapons program. Basson was arrested in 1997.

Hearings this month at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered vivid insights of what went on at Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, a military installation where Basson oversaw production of infamous materials. Dr. Schalk van Rensburg testified that "the most frequent instruction" from Basson was for development of a compound that would kill but make the cause of death seemingly natural. "That was the chief aim of the Roodeplaat Research Laboratory."

The laboratory manufactured cholera organisms, anthrax to be deposited on the gummed flaps of envelopes and in cigarettes and chocolate, walking sticks firing fatal darts that would feel like bee stings. Van Rensburg took his riveted audience painstakingly through what he called "the murder lists" of toxins and delivery systems. These included 32 bottles of cholera that, one of the lab's technicians testified, would be most effectively used in the water supply.

There were plans to slip the still imprisoned Nelson Mandela covert doses of the heavy metal poison, thallium, designed to make his brain function become "impaired, progressively," as Van Rensburg put it. In one case, lethal toxins went from Roodeplaat to a death squad detailed by the apartheid regime to kill one of its opponents, the Rev. Frank Chikane. The killers planted lethal chemicals in his clothing, expecting him to travel to Namibia, where they reckoned there would be "very little forensic capability." Instead, Chikane went to the U.S., where doctors identified the toxins and saved his life.

The big dream at Roodeplaat was to develop race-specific biochemical weapons, targeting blacks. Van Rensburg was ordered by Basson to develop a vaccine to make blacks infertile. Van Rensburg told the truth commission that was his major project. There also were plans to distribute infected T-shirts in the black townships to spread disease and infertility.

Americans need not entertain feelings of moral superiority. In 1960, in one of the CIA's frequent attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, the agency planned to put thallium salts in Castro's shoes before he addressed the United Nations. Years later, the Nicaraguan government reported that a CIA-supplied team tried to assassinate its foreign minister by giving him a bottle of Benedictine laced with thallium.

U.S. military researchers of biochemical warfare in the 1950s conducted race-specific experimentation. In 1980, the U.S. Army admitted that Norfolk Naval Supply Center was contaminated with infectious bacteria in 1951 to test the Navy's vulnerability to biological warfare attack. The Army disclosed that one of the bacteria types was chosen because blacks were known to be more susceptible to it than whites.

One of the investigators for the truth commission, Zhensile Kholsan, has been reported as saying that there is a strong suggestion that "drugs were fed into communities that were political centers, to cause socioeconomic chaos." Black communities in the U.S. have expressed similar suspicions, particularly about the arrival of crack cocaine in South-Central Los Angeles in the early 1980s, allegedly imported by CIA-sponsored Nicaraguans raising money for arms.

In March, CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz finally conceded to a U.S. congressional committee that the agency had worked with drug traffickers and had obtained a waiver from the Justice Department in 1982 (the beginning of the Contra funding crisis) allowing it not to report drug trafficking by agency contractors.

Was the lethal arsenal deployed at Roodeplaat assembled with advice from the CIA and other U.S. agencies? There were certainly close contacts over the years. It was a CIA tip that led the South African secret police to arrest Nelson Mandela.

A truth commission here wouldn't do any harm.

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