Let’s hop on the Way Back Machine for just a minute. Recall with me, if you will, the weeks immediately following the disastrous events of September 11th, 2001. We were all scared. We were all waiting for the next attack to come. And then it did.
On Tuesday, September 18, 2001, one week after the September 11 attacks. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two Democratic U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others. According to the FBI, the ensuing investigation became “one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement”. The FBI named the case Amerithrax.
As we waited for the investigation to find the perpetrators, we all wondered if this was yet another terrorist attack. Was it possible that the terrorists had finally gotten biological weapons from one of the middle eastern dictators like Saddam Hussein or Bashar al Assad? Was it possible that terrorists had finally gained the skill to weaponize anthrax from these dictators, who we were told were a national security threat to us because this very thing might happen?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding NO. When our scientists finally found the chemical fingerprint in the anthrax used, it became painfully clear where THIS terrorist had gotten his hands on biological weapons. He had gotten them from us. Because he WORKED for us.
The very sophisticated, weaponized anthrax used in these attacks was, without a doubt, from OUR OWN STOCKPILES of weaponized anthrax. And the suspected perpetrator of the crime was a government employee who worked in our own chemical weapons labratory. Shocking? Not if you know about the existence of Fort Detrick, Maryland.
I will borrow liberally from a few sources to give you a brief history of Fort Detrick and their mission.
On 9 March 1943, the government purchased 154 acres (62 ha) encompassing the original 92 acres (37 ha) and re-christened the facility “Camp Detrick”. The same year saw the establishment of the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories (USBWL), responsible for pioneering research into biocontainment, decontamination, gaseous sterilization, and agent purification.
During World War II, Camp Detrick and the USBWL became the site of intensive biological warfare (BW) research using various pathogens. This research was originally overseen by pharmaceuticals executive George W. Merck and for many years was conducted by Ira L. Baldwin, professor of bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin. Baldwin became the first scientific director of the labs. He chose Detrick Field for the site of this exhaustive research effort because of its balance between remoteness of location and proximity to Washington, DC – as well as to Edgewood Arsenal, the focal point of U.S. chemical warfare research. Buildings and other facilities left from the old airfield – including the large hangar – provided the nucleus of support needed for the startup. The 92 acres (37 ha) of Detrick Field were also surrounded by extensive farmlands that could be procured if and when the BW effort was expanded.
The Army’s Chemical Warfare Service was given responsibility and oversight for the effort that one officer described as “cloaked in the deepest wartime secrecy, matched only by … the Manhattan Project for developing the Atomic Bomb”. Three months after the start of construction, an additional $3 million was provided for five additional laboratories and a pilot plant. Lt. Col. Bacon was authorized 85 officers, 373 enlisted personnel, and 80 enlisted Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) members under two WAAC officers. At its peak strength in 1945, Camp Detrick had 240 officers and 1,530 enlisted personnel including WAACs.
The elaborate security precautions taken at Camp Detrick were so effective that it was not until January 1946, 4 months after VJ Day that the public learned of the war-time research in biological weapons.
Two workers at the base died from exposure to anthrax in the 1950s. Another died in 1964 from viral encephalitis.
There was a building on the base, Building 470 locally referred to as “Anthrax Tower”. Building 470 was a pilot plant for testing optimal fermentor and bacterial purification technologies. The information gained in this pilot plant shaped the fermentor technology that was ultimately used by the pharmaceutical industry to revolutionize production of antibiotics and other drugs. Building 470 was torn down in 2003 without any adverse effects on the demolition workers or the environment. The facility acquired the nickname “Fort Doom” while offensive biological warfare research was undertaken there. 5,000 bombs containing anthrax spores were produced at the base during World War II.
From 1945 to 1955 under Project Paperclip and its successors, the U.S. government recruited over 1,600 German and Austrian scientists and engineers in a variety of fields such as aircraft design, missile technology and biological warfare. Among the specialists in the latter field who ended up working in the U.S. were Walter Schreiber, Erich Traub and Kurt Blome, who had been involved with medical experiments on concentration camp inmates to test biological warfare agents. Since Britain, France and the Soviet Union were also engaged in recruiting these scientists, the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) wished to deny their services to other powers, and therefore altered or concealed the records of their Nazi past and involvement in war crimes.
The U.S. General Accounting Office issued a report on September 28, 1994, which stated that between 1940 and 1974, DOD and other national security agencies studied hundreds of thousands of human subjects in tests and experiments involving hazardous substances.
The quote from the study:
Many experiments that tested various biological agents on human subjects, referred to as Operation Whitecoat, were carried out at Fort Detrick, Maryland, in the 1950s. The human subjects originally consisted of volunteer enlisted men. However, after the enlisted men staged a sitdown strike to obtain more information about the dangers of the biological tests, Seventh-day Adventists[SDAs] who were conscientious objectors were recruited for the studies.
Doctor Jeffrey Alan Lockwood claims that the biological warfare program at Ft. Detrick began to research the use of insects as disease vectors going back to World War II and also employed German and Japanese scientists after the war who had experimented on human subjects among POWs and concentration camp inmates. Scientists used or attempted to use a wide variety of insects in their biowar plans, including fleas, ticks, ants, lice and mosquitoes – especially mosquitoes that carried the yellow fever virus. They also tested these in the United States. Lockwood thinks that it is very likely that the U.S. did use insects dropped from aircraft during the Korean War to spread diseases, and that the Chinese and North Koreans were not simply engaged in a propaganda campaign when they made these allegations, since the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense had approved their use in the fall of 1950 at the “earliest practicable time”. At that time, it had five bio warfare agents ready for use, three of which were spread by insect vectors.
Camp Detrick was designated a permanent installation for peacetime biological research and development shortly after World War II, but that status was not confirmed until 1956, when the post became Fort Detrick. Its mandate was to continue its previous mission of biomedical research and its role as the world’s leading research campus for biological agents requiring specialty containment.
On Veterans Day, November 11, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon asked the Senate to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons. Nixon assured Fort Detrick its research would continue. On November 25, 1969, Nixon made a statement outlawing offensive biological research in the United States. Since that time any research done at Fort Detrick has been classified as defensive in nature, focusing on diagnostics, preventives and treatments for BW infections. This research is undertaken by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) which transitioned from the previous U.S. Army Medical Unit (USAMU) and was renamed in 1969.
Many former laboratories and some land made available by the disestablishment of the offensive biological warfare program were ultimately transferred to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services during the 1970s and later. The National Cancer Research and Development Center (now the National Cancer Institute-Frederick) was established in 1971.
USAMRIID had been the principal consultant to the FBI on scientific aspects of the 2001 Anthrax Attacks, which had infected 22 people and killed five. While assisting with the science from the beginning, it also soon became the focus of the FBI’s investigation of possible perpetrators (see Steven Hatfill). In July 2008, a top U.S. biodefense researcher at USAMRIID committed suicide just as the FBI was about to lay charges relating to the incidents. The scientist, Bruce Edwards Ivins, who had worked for 18 years at USAMRIID, had been told about the impending prosecution. The FBI’s identification of Ivins in August 2008 as the Anthrax Attack perpetrator remains controversial and several independent government investigations which will address his culpability are ongoing. Although the anthrax preparations used in the attacks were of different grades, all of the material derived from the same bacterial strain. Known as the Ames strain, it was first researched at USAMRIID. The Ames strain was subsequently distributed to at least fifteen bio-research labs within the U.S. and six locations overseas.
Chemical weapons are a dirty business. A dirty business we are as guilty of engaging in as many other nations. A dirty business that has killed our OWN citizens with our OWN biological weapon.
So as you listen to our politicians pontificate about the immorality of chemical and biological weapons, think of Fort Detrick. As you listen to our politicians talk about our commitment to the Geneva Convention, think about Fort Detrick. And as you think about our “obligation” to uphold the Geneva Convention, think about how we blatantly and conveniently disregarded it with our “enhanced interrogations”. Nobody has clean hands, least of all us.
What is happening in Syria is wrong. But for us to act rashly, ineffectively, and unilaterally would be wrong too.
Peace and Love, Yall.