Legacy: Bioweapons for Sale
U.S. Declined South African Scientist's Offer on Man-Made Pathogens
By J. Warrick and J. Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 20, 2003; Page A01
A Guest Document
First of two articles
PRETORIA, South Africa -- Daan Goosen's calling card to the FBI was a vial of bacteria he had freeze-dried and hidden inside a toothpaste tube for secret passage to the United States.
From among hundreds of flasks in his Pretoria lab, the South African scientist picked a man-made strain that was sure to impress: a microbial Frankenstein that fused the genes of a common intestinal bug with DNA from the pathogen that causes the deadly illness gas gangrene.
"This will show the Americans what we are capable of," Goosen said at the time.
On May 6, 2002, Goosen slipped the parcel into the hands of a retired CIA officer who couriered the microbes 8,000 miles for a drop-off with the FBI. If U.S. officials liked what they saw, Goosen said he was prepared to offer much more: an entire collection of pathogens developed by a secret South African bioweapons research program Goosen once headed.
Goosen's extraordinary offer to the FBI, outlined in documents obtained by The Washington Post and interviews with key participants, promised scores of additional vials containing the bacteria that cause anthrax, plague, salmonella and botulism, as well as antidotes for many of the diseases. Several strains, like the bacterial hybrid in the toothpaste tube, had been genetically altered, a technique used by weapons scientists to make diseases harder to detect and defeat. All were to be delivered to the U.S. government for safekeeping and to help strengthen U.S. defenses against future terrorism attacks.
U.S. officials considered the offer but balked at the asking price -- $5 million and immigration permits for Goosen and up to 19 associates and family members to come to the United States. The deal collapsed in confusion last year after skeptical FBI agents turned the matter over to South African authorities, who twice investigated Goosen but never charged him.
Participants in the failed deal differ on what happened and why. But they agree that the bacterial strains remain in private hands in South Africa, where they have continued to attract attention from individuals interested in acquiring them.
The episode throws new light on the extraordinarily difficult task of preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. South Africa, which built nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals under apartheid, renounced its weapons in 1993, and sought to destroy all traces of them, including instruction manuals and bacterial seed stocks. But like other countries that have attempted such a rollback, such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan, South Africa finds itself in a gray zone where weapons of the past pose serious dangers for the present.
"The weapons programs were ostensibly terminated, yet clearly they weren't able to destroy everything," said Jeffrey M. Bale of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which is carrying out a study of South Africa's weapons programs. "The fact that Goosen and others are providing samples and being approached by foreign parties suggests that these things never really went away."
To disarmament experts, the case is especially troubling because of the kinds of terrorist-ready weapons produced by Project Coast, a top-secret biological and chemical program created by South Africa's white-minority government, which came to light in the late 1990s. Unlike U.S. and Soviet programs that amassed huge stockpiles of bombs and missiles for biological warfare, Project Coast specialized in the tools of terrorism and assassination -- including "stealth" weapons that could kill or incapacitate without leaving a trace. The program's military commanders also researched anti-fertility drugs that could be clandestinely applied in black neighborhoods, and explored -- but never produced -- biological weapons that would selectively target the country's black majority population.
Even if all of Project Coast's bacterial strains are secured, the know-how and skills acquired by dozens of its scientists may be impossible to contain, South African officials acknowledged in interviews. Several key scientists have pursued business interests overseas since the program was disbanded shortly before South Africa's transition to democracy. Others, including Goosen, have acknowledged they were approached by recruiters claiming to represent foreign governments or extremist groups. While the United States has spent tens of millions of dollars to re-train and re-employ weapons scientists in the former Soviet Union, many Project Coast scientists have been shunned by their peers and left to try to support themselves any way they can.
"It would have been galling to most South Africans to see their government take care of these scientists, after all the revelations about them," said Chandre Gould, an investigator for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s and now the co-author of an official United Nations study on Project Coast. "They were part of a program that tried to kill people in this society."
The FBI and CIA, which were jointly involved in the encounter with Goosen, declined to speak about it on the record. However, U.S. government officials, who asked not to be identified by name, have provided details of the negotiations. They say the agencies were troubled by Goosen's claims but suspected the scientist and his partners were more interested in cashing in than helping out. They viewed Goosen and his partners as naive, at best, for expecting to be rewarded for turning over what they viewed as 1990s-vintage biological material -- products that could be duplicated in any well-equipped, modern microbiology lab.
"If they thought we were going to put out good money for that kind of stuff, they came to the wrong group," said one U.S. law enforcement official who reviewed Goosen's proposal. "Thanks for being good citizens, but no thanks."
Goosen acknowledged that he had hoped to benefit financially, and sought permission to work in the United States, where he wanted to start a new business. But he says the FBI misjudged both his intentions and his ability to help them defend against future bioterrorism.
"At minimum, they should have copies and DNA fingerprints for each of the strains from Project Coast," he said. "If one of the strains were to turn up in Iraq, at least they would know where it came from."
Goosen, an affable 51-year-old who became a veterinarian like his father, was picked in 1981 as the founding director of Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, the bioweapons research arm of Project Coast.
Project Coast's notorious military commander, Wouter Basson, used the lab to create novel weapons for use against anti-apartheid activists and the black communities that supported them, according to documents and testimony in a murder and fraud case that ended last year in Basson's acquittal. One of Goosen's first assignments, he has said, was to harvest highly lethal venom from the black mambo snake for use in secret assassinations. Fangs from a dead snake were used to make impressions in the victim's skin so the death would appear accidental.
A widening rift between Goosen and Basson over the lab's direction ended with Goosen's resignation in 1986. But he continued to work as a consultant for the lab and maintained close ties with its scientists, some of whom would later work for him in his private laboratory. After Project Coast was disbanded, Goosen was among the first scientists to publicly acknowledge and condemn its offensive weapons research.
South African officials claimed to have destroyed all of Project Coast's biological materials in 1993, several months before the outgoing government of Frederik W. de Klerk revealed the secret program to Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. But Goosen says many scientists kept copies of organisms and documents in order to continue work on "dual-use" projects with commercial as well as military applications. Goosen's vaccine production lab ended up with hundreds of strains, at least half of which were from Project Coast. At his home in Pretoria, he showed a visiting reporter two trays of what he described as vaccine strains that he kept in a freezer.
"The products should have been destroyed. The products were not destroyed," he said.
After the U.S. anthrax attack in October 2001, at the urging of American friends, Goosen approached the U.S. Department of Defense with an offer of "open cooperation" in sharing Project Coast's extensive research in anthrax vaccines and novel antidotes known as antiserums. The Pentagon was sufficiently interested to arrange a meeting in January 2002 between Goosen and Bioport Corp., the Michigan company that produces anthrax vaccines for the military. But interest from the U.S. side evaporated quickly, to Goosen's amazement.
"At that time there was a massive amount of good will toward the United States, and a feeling that we could contribute," Goosen said. "My thinking was: If George Bush had contracted anthrax, our technology could have cured him."
One of the men, retired South African Maj. Gen. Tai Minnaar, was a former military intelligence officer who had worked undercover for the CIA in Cuba in the 1970s, according to his resume. After Goosen's unsuccessful meeting with Bioport, Minnaar phoned Goosen, offering to put him in touch with U.S. officials who would appreciate the value of his work. And, Minnaar said, the Americans might be willing to pay money -- perhaps tens of millions of dollars, Goosen recalled.
Minnaar's first call was to Mayes, the former CIA operative, whom he had met and befriended during Mayes' frequent business trips to South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. On March 4, Minnaar wrote to Mayes warning that dangerous biological material from Project Coast still existed in South Africa and posed unacceptable risks.
"With the current situation here at present, we need to ensure that the technology as well as 'stock in hand' (at present stored safely in a private facility) are safeguarded from finding its way to the people on the wrong side of the fence," Minnaar wrote in an e-mail to Mayes. "This is a very real danger, as some of the other technology we fear has already been sold."
Mayes, 64, a missiles expert who had built a career out of making clandestine deals to acquire foreign-built weapons and air-defense systems for the CIA, said he became quickly convinced that Minnaar was right. Within three weeks, he arranged the first of a series of meetings with FBI and CIA officials to discuss the feasibility of bringing Goosen and his bacterial collection to the United States.
Mayes said that he sought "not a penny" of compensation for himself because "it didn't seem like the patriotic thing to do." Mayes acknowledged he was hoping to shore up his reputation with the U.S. intelligence community following a series of highly publicized legal troubles in the late 1990s. Mayes had been investigated for alleged offenses ranging from the mishandling of classified documents to violating export regulations. Two separate grand juries found no evidence that Mayes had broken the law. His ex-wife made the allegations during a difficult divorce.
To remove the bacterial strains from South Africa, Mayes and an associate, Robert Zlockie, a former CIA officer, drew up an extraction plan in the event an agreement was reached to sell the pathogens to the United States.
A private aircraft would land at a remote airfield 600 miles from coastal city of Durban. From a waiting camper-trailer on the runway, the bacteria in two cryogenic canisters would be loaded onto the plane along with two of the South African scientists. The canisters were to be labeled "oxygen" to avoid suspicion. One of the canisters was to contain more than 20 liters of antiserum and other antidotes, documents show. The other would contain 200 glass vials of biological material described as "extremely harmful to people and the environment." An inventory later provided to the FBI listed the contents of those vials as more than 150 strains of bacteria, including six that were marked as "genetically modified."
Before the large transfer of pathogens could be made, Goosen first sent a sample to the FBI, which they insistently sought. It was meant to ice the deal and dispel any doubts about Goosen's credentials. Goosen recalled that he thought carefully before selecting a strain and settled on "Escherichia coli 078:K80 (+K60 GM)," a common intestinal bacterium that had been spliced with a toxin-producing gene from Clostridium perfringens. C. perfringens causes several potentially fatal conditions including gas gangrene, a rare and severe form of gangrene in which in bacteria aggressively attack living tissue.
Biodefense experts have long worried about the implications of genetic modification for biological warfare or terrorism. The kind of engineering accomplished by Project Coast could theoretically be used to transfer lethal properties to ordinary bacteria. Or, conversely, it could be used to inoculate people and animals against disease.
The problem of how to transport the sample to the United States was quickly solved by Goosen himself. Microbes can easily be transported, he said, in a sealed glass cylinder inserted inside an ordinary toothpaste tube. A few grams of cooling gel squirted into the tube would ensure a stable temperature for a trip of up to several days.
"I can take it all over the world," Mayes quoted the scientist as saying.
Within days, the bacteria arrived at the Army's top biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md. for scientific analysis. Government biodefense scientists were consulted about the findings, and helped the FBI in assessing the implications. By May 15, the FBI arrived at several conclusions, according to officials who participated in the discussion.
They decided that Goosen's altered bacteria was precisely as the scientist had described it and that the pathogens listed in his collection were likely "legacy" materials from Project Coast, just as Goosen claimed. They also decided that the FBI would not offer a penny for any of it.
"The material was just as advertised, but the hands-down reaction was, 'So what?' " said one law-enforcement official familiar with the assessment.
U.S. officials involved in the decision say they saw no compelling reasons for paying Goosen or for excluding the government of South Africa, a U.S. ally, from an operation affecting the security of biological material in that country. Mayes, in an urgent note to the FBI, pleaded against alerting South African authorities, saying the scientists "have no faith that the material would ever reach" the United States government. But within days of the note, the FBI reported the matter to South Africa in an official letter relayed through the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria. "From that point on, it became a police matter for South Africa," the law enforcement official said.
The FBI also was not convinced that buying Goosen's vials would make Americans safer, the official said. Deadly anthrax and c. perfringens can be found in nature, the official noted. And, while Project Coast's experiments in genetic engineering were state-of-the-art at the time, technology had advanced so rapidly that similar kinds of genetic alterations are now performed by microbiology students "at the graduate or even undergraduate level," the official said.
Other biological weapons experts have criticized the FBI's decision, saying the agency missed the point. While genetic engineering has become increasingly common, there are few known instances where scientists have deliberately tried to adapt organisms for germ warfare. Soviet bioweapons scientists were beginning to produce genetically altered prototypes when their program was shut down in 1992, according Ken Alibek, a former Soviet scientist who defected to the United States.
Back in Pretoria, Goosen heard not a word from the United States after sending his toothpaste tube. But he assumed the deal was off when local authorities obtained a warrant to search his laboratory. Nothing was confiscated, said Goosen, who has never been charged with a crime.
The experience left Goosen embittered and disillusioned, but otherwise little has changed in his circumstances -- except that more people are aware of his bacteria collection and are inquiring about it. In the past nine months, the scientist has been offered money by a German treasure-hunter and a man claiming to be an Arab sheik. Goosen says he turned the offers down, but worries about future bioterrorism.
"A small container of pathogens could kill a million people," he said. "It's hard enough to secure fissile materials, which are large and easy to detect. How do you begin to control a substance that looks like nothing more than sugar?"
Bale, the Monterey Institute researcher, believes U.S. officials should have jumped at the opportunity to secure the South African strains. "Here was a guy who had worked in a former chemical and biological program and was willing to provide information and assistance to the United States," Bale said. "That's worth following up on. If a person like Goosen decides to collaborate with a foreign party, it's far better that he collaborates with us and not with rogue elements in other parts of the world."
Washington Post staff writer Joby Warrick will answer reader questions about this series in a video interview Monday. Submit questions for Warrick at www.washingtonpost.com.