The secrecy of science

When the former director of a biological warfare facility, in a new incarnation, chooses to establish a sophisticated laboratory where dangerous biological agents are to be kept and analysed, as Dr Daan Goosen has done, South Africans citizens would be justified in expecting vigilance from the authorities responsible for upholding the international treaties and national laws that cover the use and proliferation of chemical and biological agents.

Goosen, former head of the biological warfare facility Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL), was one of the scientists to have volunteered information about the abuses of Project Coast to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In 1998 he testified in the public hearing about the work done at the RRL, which included the use of biological agents in the development of assassination weapons.
Goosen advised the TRC of the dangers inherent in secret projects of this nature, particularly the dangers that secrecy poses to good science.

When, in 1997, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) recovered trunks containing top secret research reports from the RRL, Goosen assisted the NIA in making sense of the documents. It was his willingness to work for the post-1994 government that led to his close relationship with the NIA between 1998 and the present. It is, however, the combination of the establishment of a high-tech laboratory run by Goosen and his relationship with the NIA that gives reason for concern.

In 1972 South Africa signed the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention, the international agreement that banned the development and use of biological agents for hostile purposes. Article 1 of this convention states that: “Each state party to this convention undertakes never, in any circumstances, to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1) microbial or other biological agents, or toxins, whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.”

Article III commits states to: “not transfer to any recipient whatsoever, directly or indirectly, and not in any way to assist, encourage or induce any states, group of states or international organisations to manufacture or otherwise acquire any of the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment or means of delivery specified in Article I of the convention”.

The fact that the apartheid government had signed and ratified this international agreement did not prevent it from violating the agreement when it decided to establish the RRL.

The scientists who worked at the RRL were chosen for their scientific expertise and loyalty to the government of the day. Few, if any, of those scientists had heard of the convention, or spent time contemplating that through their activities they might be violating the agreement.

One of the research projects undertaken at the RRL was the development of a genetically modified organism. One of the researchers, a veterinarian, genetically modified the E. coli bacterium (responsible for the symptoms of food poisoning), which has the ability (when transected) to produce the deadly epsilon toxin of the organism Clostridium perfringens.

According to last week’s report in the Mail & Guardian (”SA general touted anthrax abroad”), it was this genetically modified organism that was one of the items promoted by Goosen for sale to a foreign intelligence service.

Why Goosen, who claims to have informed the NIA of all his plans and activities, had in his possession freeze-dried quantities of this lethal organism is a question that needs to be answered.

Indeed, Goosen had no right to retain a quantity of the anthrax anti-serum developed at the RRL, and this is a matter of concern. Does it mean that other biological agents that were produced or collected at the RRL are in the hands of individual scientists? These are matters that demand urgent clarification by the non-proliferation unit of the NIA and the Council for the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The biological and chemical agents of Project Coast should have been destroyed when the programme was officially ended in 1995. It now appears that this has not happened. Had the present government acted on the TRC’s recommendation for an open inquiry into the unanswered questions of Project Coast, including the whereabouts of the chemical and biological agents produced by the secret project, a situation in which one of the scientists has attempted to peddle his wares would have been avoided.

Neither the TRC hearing nor the trial of Dr Wouter Basson have reduced the need for such an inquiry. South African citizens are entitled to answers on matters of such national and international importance. The government needs to consider the establishment of such a commission of inquiry, as proposed by the TRC, not only to set the minds of all South Africans at rest, but also to assure the world that South Africa takes its non-proliferation commitments seriously.

One would have hoped that alarm bells would have been set ringing in the corridors of the NIA and the non-proliferation council when Goosen established a working relationship with former South African Defence Force General Tai Minaar, or when he announced (as he claims) to the NIA that he intended conducting a deal that involved the sale of the genetically modified organism and an anthrax anti-serum to a foreign intelligence agency. The fact that the agency in question was the CIA should have been reason for additional concern.

The NIA has failed to act openly and responsibly, and the non-proliferation council has been inadequate in implementing the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention, which has been on the South African statute books for a number of years. South Africa is in urgent need of an effective, competent and responsible non-proliferation strategy.

Over the past eight years South African foreign affairs officials have played a significant role in the negotiation of mechanisms to strengthen the convention. In 2001 the United States withdrew from these negotiations thereby preventing the acceptance of mechanisms to verify states’ compliance with the treaty. South Africa has remained a key participant in attempts to keep discussions on track to strengthen the convention.

We have recently been referred to, by a US spokesperson, as a leading example of willing, effective disarmament with regard to our nuclear programme.

Activities such as those in which Goosen and Minaar have engaged undermine any positive work and the credibility the South African government has achieved in this field and bring into question our commitment to non-proliferation.

A clear explanation is owed to the South African public.

This incident reminds us again of the need for scientists to be properly informed about the dangers of proliferation, of chemical and biological warfare products and about the international treaties to which South Africa is signatory. Goosen can be expected to have known better.

After having been through the TRC hearing in 1998 and having attended meetings organised by the Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Frederick Ebert Stiftung aimed at drawing lessons from the mistakes of the past, he might have thought more carefully about the implications of his actions. His failure to do so, and the inadequacy of the NIA and the non-proliferation council, emphasises the need for independent, open, civilian oversight and monitoring of the activities of scientists, particularly those who are in a position to exploit the previous chemical and biological warfare programme.

Chandré Gould is a researcher at the Centre for Conflict Resolution and co-author of Project Coast: Apartheid’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme, published by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the centre

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  • SA general touted anthrax abroad 24 January 2003

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