The return of Dr Death

Anthrax War is Bob Coen’s engrossing voyage of discovery into the dark world of chemical and biological warfare.

And it doesn’t get much darker than Dr Death, aka Dr Wouter Basson, our own black knight of bioweapons.

Brigadier General Basson was the leader of Project Coast — apartheid South Africa’s top-secret chemical and biological warfare programme that had among its alleged aims the development of assassination toxins that would be undetectable after death and the investigation of genetically sensitive compounds that would affect only Africans — a so-called “black bomb”.

Of course, Basson denies all this, but Coen’s interview with Basson last year in Cape Town — the good doctor has a thriving cardiology practice — is in itself worth seeing the movie for. As Coen comments in his narration: “Nothing could have prepared me for Dr Death’s unrepentant manner…”

Asked about research on this alleged “black bomb”, Basson says with deadpan sarcasm: “That was great, ja, the most fun I’ve had in my life,” before launching into an explanation that what really happened was that South Africa had been asked to conduct research on a sperm vaccine by an unnamed country suffering a population explosion.

This is revealing because in his limited evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Basson denied there was a fertility project that formed part of Project Coast.

In the movie Basson also admits to meeting Dr David Kelly “three or four times”.

Kelly was the British chemical and biological warfare expert who “committed suicide” after being outed as the scientist who blew the whistle on then-prime minister Tony Blair’s “sexed-up” intelligence dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The suspicious demise of a number of scientists working on top-secret bio-warfare projects is one of the themes of the film.

Indeed, the original focus of Coen’s movie was to probe the circumstances of the death of Kelly, through the eyes of a remarkable American forensic investigator named Stephen Dresch.

I had come across Dresch and corresponded with him when he was probing the anthrax attacks in the United States that took place just after September 11 2001.

I was researching a bizarre attempt by one of the former Project Coast scientists, Daan Goosen, to negotiate a deal with US authorities to buy up the project’s legacy stocks of poisons and take on some of its former scientists.

Dresch had some interesting leads on the US connections of one of the casualties of that deal, Tai Minnaar, who died in mysterious circumstances in September 2002 — not long after the FBI pulled the plug on the deal with Goosen.

In addition, someone both Dresch and I were interested in was Dr Larry Ford, an American gynaecologist and virologist who was a friend of Basson’s commanding officer, Neil Knobel, the South African military surgeon general during the time of Project Coast.

There is evidence that Ford collaborated with Project Coast — and travelled to South Africa carrying live organisms.

For the film Coen obtained a copy of Ford’s FBI file, but found that most of it was still blacked out. In the film Basson slyly dismisses any notion of Ford’s serious involvement with Project Coast.

“Larry? Larry was a wonderful fellow, as crazy as a … mad as a hatter. He used to rock up in South Africa, having flown in, intercontinental flights, with a pocket, a trousers-pocket full of goodies, concealed vials that he claimed were new and wonderful organisms and could do the most wonderful things on earth.”

But, Basson claims, these were “mostly junk”.

Ford committed suicide in 2000 when he faced arrest for his involvement in a botched hit on his business partner. Police discovered a weapons cache in his back yard and a stash of organisms in his fridge.

Another strange death — another lead in what Dresch dubbed the “international bioweapons mafia”.

But by the time Coen began filming, Dresch himself was dying — he died in August 2006 — and his role in the film becomes just one of the many strands Coen tries to weave together in his attempt to penetrate this world of shady science, lethal secrets and big business.

And I mean big: Coen points out that since the 2001 anthrax attacks (which were finally blamed, conveniently, on another dead scientist, Bruce Ivins), delivery of anthrax vaccines — and “defensive” bioweapons research in general — has become a $50-billion industry.

Much of this research has been outsourced and privatised, although the main US government facility, Fort Detrick, is undergoing the largest expansion in its history.

Coen’s investigation takes him — and us — on a remarkable journey:

  • To Russia, where some of the most terrifying advances in chemical and biological warfare were made in secret defiance of the international Biological Weapons Convention.
  • To the US, where a secret CIA programme tried to replicate the Russian products — purely for “defensive” purposes, of course — and the unanswered questions about the true origins of the US anthrax attacks.
  • To Britain and the aborted inquest into Kelly’s death — and the continuing speculation about his murder.
  • To South Africa and Basson’s calculated disclosures about the support the apartheid regime received from the West to conduct its own murky projects.

The links Coen draws between these different strands are not always convincing, but it is impossible to dispute his final conclusion: we have to bring this deadly technology — developing largely unmonitored and unchecked — under democratic control and scrutiny.

“Truth is a powerful disinfectant, worth discovering and spreading,” says Coen, quoting his dead friend Dresch. “The truth I have discovered is that, unseen in the shadows, the Death Sciences are spreading like germs across the globe. It’s time to disinfect.”

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