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Last Updated

31 Jan 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2003


South Africa's Surrender Was Only Half the Battle


U.S. officials recently touted South Africa as a nation that willingly gave up its weapons of mass destruction. But the story isn't over: The fate of South Africa's chemical and biological warfare program remains a source of international contention eight years after it was officially decommissioned.

U.S. and British officials, as well as nonproliferation experts, are alarmed by mounting evidence that germs and other substances developed by apartheid-era scientists are still being stored -- and possibly transferred out of the country -- in violation of South Africa's treaty obligations. The difficulty of tracking these agents illustrates the perils of existing stocks not just in South Africa, but also in Iraq and other countries that possess such programs.

The tale of how one South African doctor was entrusted with disposing dangerous chemicals, and how a South African scientist offered anthrax-related serum to a virtual stranger, shows the enormity of the disarmament task -- even in a country willing to do so.

South Africa's chemical and biological weapons program, dubbed "Project Coast," was designed to limit civilian interference; even senior politicians were not fully informed about the program or distanced themselves from it. The program was officially closed down in 1994 and its CBW products were supposedly destroyed to comply with international treaties. But few scientists and researchers believe the claim, saying there has never been independent verification of the destruction of South Africa's stocks of chemicals, like BZ gas, a dangerous hallucinogen, or its freeze-dried stores of pathogens, like plague and naturally drug-resistant strains of anthrax.

In a new book about Project Coast published by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, authors Chandre Gould and Peter Folb found that "no records are available to confirm that the biological agents were destroyed." This stands in sharp contrast to South Africa's nuclear-weapons program, in which detailed records of enriched uranium and bomb-making equipment was submitted to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.

The decision to dismantle South Africa's seven nuclear bombs was made in 1989 by former President F.W. de Klerk in order to end the country's international isolation. In a 1993 speech announcing disarmament, Mr. De Klerk said the nuclear devices constituted a deterrent and South Africa never intended to use them offensively. South Africa's bio-chem program, however, was used in crude forms to assassinate anti-apartheid activists.

The order to destroy the bio-chem program fell to Wouter Basson, a cardiologist and senior military officer who ran Project Coast. Dr. Basson supposedly dumped tons of dangerous chemicals into the Indian Ocean and destroyed stocks of pathogens "with bleach and heat." The integrity of the process rested solely on Dr. Basson's honesty. In 1997, Dr. Basson was arrested on charges of murder, fraud and drug trafficking in connection with Project Coast. He was acquitted last year by a single judge, who said the state had failed to prove its case.

South African authorities have never disclosed what weapons the program developed and whether any were ever used. Most of the information about Project Coast comes from 1998 hearings by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated apartheid excesses, and from Dr. Basson's trial.

From the testimony of former program scientists and government agents, it appears that Project Coast yielded mostly dangerous science rather than stocks of weapons of mass destruction. Among its top achievements was a genetically modified household bacterium, E. coli, altered to secret a toxin capable of causing illness in people and animals.

For years, there were unconfirmed reports that many of the scientists involved in Project Coast removed freeze-dried samples of germs for further work before they could be destroyed. No proof of this has emerged until recently.

Last summer, U.S. and British officials became aware that a former apartheid-era scientist, Daan Goosen, who now runs a laboratory on behalf of the South African National Intelligence Agency, was peddling a serum that he said could be an antidote for anthrax. Dr. Goosen says he gave the serum to a shadowy individual named Bob Zlockie, who Dr. Goosen believed worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. U.S. officials have declined to comment on whether Mr. Zlockie works for American intelligence or any branch of the U.S. government. South African intelligence officials say Dr. Goosen wasn't authorized to make private deals with foreign governments.

Dr. Goosen wanted U.S. sponsorship to research the serum made from goats' blood that he says he "rescued" from South Africa's old biological warfare research program. He said Mr. Zlockie talked about $5 million to fund development of the serum but that he needed authorization from his superiors in Washington. It was then that Dr. Goosen says he gave Mr. Zlockie a five-milliliter sample of the serum and two milliliters of freeze-dried genetically modified E. coli.

Dr. Goosen says he gave Mr. Zlockie the bug so he could show his superiors "that they were not dealing with charlatans." Dr. Goosen said no deal with the Americans ever materialized. What happened to Mr. Zlockie and the samples and why he might have taken them is unknown. Attempts to reach Mr. Zlockie at the Islamorada, Fla., phone number listed on his business card were unsuccessful.

Senior U.S. officials say a tip from British diplomats made them aware that a South African scientist was peddling genetically modified bacteria last June. Barry Gilder, the deputy director general of South Africa's National Intelligence Agency, says the country runs sting operations to protect its scientific expertise and substances from falling into the wrong hands. However, he said South Africa would never sting America.

The incident has raised numerous questions. Among the chief concerns of U.S. officials and scientists working against biological weapons proliferation is that the substances that Dr. Goosen was handing out should not even exist. It also raises doubt about the wisdom of having U.N. inspectors look to Iraqi scientists for reliable information about Baghdad's weapon projects. The South African government has announced this week that it is investigating the matter.