Did the US Start Germ Warfare?

By Pringle, Peter | New Statesman (1996), October 25, 1999 | Go to article overview

Did the US Start Germ Warfare?


Pringle, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


When flies spread fever in New York, Saddam gets blamed. But America may know more than he does about biological weapons, writes Peter Pringle

At first, it was comforting to learn, via the New Yorker magazine, that the Central Intelligence Agency had a "whiff of concern" about Saddam Hussein's possibly, but not probably, having a hand in spreading West Nile-like fever over New York last summer. It was nice to know the spies were worried on our behalf.

Five people died from this virus, which can cause encephalitis, or uncontrolled inflammation of the brain. To protect us New Yorkers, our permanently concerned mayor, Rudy Giuliani, ordered us to be sprayed with mosquito-specific insecticide from helicopters as we slept, because mosquitoes can spread the virus. Prevention is the mayor's byword.

According to the New Yorker, the CIA's bioterrorist sleuths "suffered a lurch of uneasy recognition" about the West Nile fever, recalling an excerpt from a book last April in the Daily Mail by a supposed (unidentified) Iraqi defector, who claimed Saddam once told him he had a strain of West Nile virus "capable of destroying 97 per cent of all life in an urban environment". Suddenly, I felt uneasy myself, knowing that the CIA relies on reports in the Daily Mail for even a "whiff of concern", let alone an official "assessment" of the New Threat of Biological Terrorism.

Whether it be the CIA, or the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Pentagon, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (the kindly souls who are supposed to get us out of the area when the "bioterrorist" strikes), the "assessment" of the threat can be the difference between life and death for these bureaucracies, just as it's always been. Identify a good threat and you get big bucks from Congress.

Each of the above government agencies is now receiving lots of dough for bioterrorism - $10 billion in total next year.

All it requires to raise the alarm is a "whiff of concern" about a disease that most scientists seem to think was spread by migrating birds. Abracadabra, we have a Middle East dictator about to destroy us all as we sleep. Hopefully we should know more when the birds come back next year, if they do.

In the meantime, it is tempting to look for other explanations, or dare I say motives, for this hype about "bioterrorism". Last year, if you recall, it was all about anthrax, and the result so far has been millions, if not billions, of dollars spent on several hundred hoax calls by pranksters saying anthrax was put into this shopping mall, that courtroom or that school.

Strangely there has been one explanation for this furore sitting on the doorstep, as it were, for years, but no one has paid much attention until recently.

I refer to Britain's and America's shameful past with "bio-weapons". All the charges about "rogue" states making these nasty poisons tends to steer us away from past deeds. No one mentions that, in 1944, Churchill wanted to finish off the Germans with anthrax bombs but was dissuaded by his generals; or that the Americans secretly gave immunity to Japanese second world war criminals who experimented with biological agents on Chinese prisoners - and used the results for developing US germ weapons. And the half-century-old charges by the Chinese that the United States actually used biological agents in the Korean war are repeatedly glossed over.

And yet it may soon be harder for the special relationship's murky past in this department to escape deeper scrutiny. Two historians at York University in Toronto, Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, recently published The United States and Biological Warfare: secrets from the early cold war(*) - the most convincing attempt so far to suggest that the US used these weapons.

The US has always dismissed the Korean war charges as communist agitprop, but serious questions remain. American pilots who became prisoners of war confessed to the Chinese they had used biological weapons - dropped fleas infected with plague and turkey feathers coated with toxins. …

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