As Published by The Age - Australia

South African scientist offers to sell FBI deadly bacteria

April 21 2003


By Joby Warrick, John Mintz
Pretoria

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 US.

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," Mr Goosen said then.

On May 6 last year, Mr Goosen slipped the parcel to a retired CIA officer who took the microbes 12,800 kilometres for a drop-off with the FBI. If US officials liked what they saw, Mr Goosen said he was prepared to offer a collection of pathogens developed by a secret South African bioweapons research program he once headed.

Mr 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 weapons scientists use to make diseases harder to detect and defeat. All were to be delivered to the US Government for safekeeping.

US officials considered the offer but baulked at the price - $US5 million ($A8.12 million) and immigration permits for Mr Goosen and up to 19 associates and family members to come to the US. The deal collapsed in confusion last year after sceptical FBI agents turned the matter over to South African authorities, who twice investigated Mr Goosen but did not charge 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 illustrates 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.

"The weapons programs were ostensibly terminated, yet clearly they weren't able to destroy everything," said Jeffrey Bale of the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which is studying 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," he said.

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. Project Coast specialised in the tools of terrorism and assassination - including "stealth" weapons that could kill or incapacitate without leaving a trace.

- Washington Post

Original Article