Buried Secrets Of Biowarfare

During the Cold War, top Army scientists toiled stealthily in rural Maryland to make covert weapons coveted by new enemies.

Fort Detrick

August 01, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

For years, in total secrecy, they studied the black art of bioterrorism.

They designed deadly, silent biological dart guns and hid them in fountain pens and walking sticks. They crunched lethal bacteria into suit buttons that could be worn unnoticed across borders. They rigged light fixtures and car tailpipes to loose an invisible spray of anthrax.

They practiced germ attacks in airports and on the New York subway, tracking air currents and calculating the potential death toll.

But they weren't a band of al-Qaida fanatics -- or enemies of any kind. They were biowarriors in the U.S. Army's Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick.

From 1949 to 1969, at the jittery height of the Cold War, the division tested the nation's vulnerability to covert germ warfare -- and devised weapons for secret biological attacks if the United States chose to mount them.

A few years ago, its story -- never before told in detail -- would have seemed a macabre footnote to U.S. history.

Now, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the anthrax mailings and a steady stream of government warnings on terrorism, the fears of the 1950s have returned -- and the experiments of Fort Detrick's covert bioweapons makers suddenly resonate in a new era. In the biological realm, there is little that any terrorist group could concoct that Fort Detrick's "dirty tricks department," as veterans call it, didn't think up decades ago.

But because of the division's scant recordkeeping and the fast-disappearing ranks of its aged scientist-warriors, the knowledge it acquired is being lost to history.

One of the few survivors is Wallace Pannier, 76, who remembers standing in a Frederick County field watching sheep shot with what the Army called a "nondiscernible bioinoculator" -- a dart gun. The bosses demanded a dart so fine that it could penetrate clothing and skin unnoticed, then dissolve, leaving no trace in an autopsy.

"If the sheep jumped, that meant people were going to jump, too," said Pannier, now living a quiet life tending his flowers and shrubs in Frederick.

Once perfected, the dart gun astonished those who saw it in action. Charles Baronian, a retired Army weapons official, recalls a demonstration at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

"Twenty-five seconds after it was shot, the sheep just fell to the ground," said Baronian, 73. "It didn't bleat. It didn't move. It just fell dead. You couldn't help but be impressed."

The rest of the Army's offensive biological weapons program thought big: 500-pound anthrax bombs that could contaminate entire cities. But the Special Operations Division -- known at Fort Detrick by its initials, SO -- studied biowarfare on a more intimate scale, figuring ways to kill an individual, disable a roomful of people or touch off an epidemic.

`Army has no records'

The existence of the SO Division was revealed only six years after it shut down, in a 1975 Senate investigation into CIA abuses. Senators wanted to know why the CIA had retained a lethal stock of shellfish toxin and cobra venom after President Richard M. Nixon's 1969 order to destroy all biological weapons stocks. They found that the poisons had come from the SO Division under a CIA-Army project code-named MKNAOMI.

But records show that even CIA bosses were stymied as they tried to get the facts on the SO Division. "The practice of keeping little or no record of the activity was standard MKNAOMI procedure," a CIA investigator wrote. The military offered little help, he added: "The Army has no records on MKNAOMI or on the Special Operations Division."

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Sun, the Army said no records of the Special Operations Division could be found. Nor is there any mention at the National Archives, which reclassified Fort Detrick's old biowarfare records after the Bush administration ordered agencies to withhold anything that might aid terrorists.

Few SO Division veterans are still alive. Fewer still are willing to describe their work. They are not sure what is still classified and don't relish leaving biological horror tales for their grandchildren.

"I just don't give interviews on that subject," said Andrew M. Cowan Jr., 74, the division's last chief, who is retired and living near Seattle. "It should still be classified -- if nothing else, to keep the information the division developed out of the hands of some nut."

But it is possible to assemble a patchwork portrait from documents obtained by The Sun under the Freedom of Information Act, Senate investigative files and private document collections, including the National Security Archive in Washington and even the Church of Scientology, which long collected material on government mind-control research.

And a few Detrick retirees who worked in the SO Division or collaborated with it spoke sparingly about what they know. Most are proud of their work, pointing out that the Soviet biological program was much larger and also developed assassination tools.

Unsuccessful attacks

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