Lethal 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
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
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
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
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
"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 failed deal with the South African scientist is documented in
hundreds of pages of memos, contracts and reports. Many of the
documents were provided by Don Mayes, a former CIA operative who acted
as go-between in the deal, and helped arrange for the bacterial sample
to be brought to the United States for testing. Mayes, Goosen, and
several other South African participants were also interviewed at
length for this article.
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."
The two men who finally brought Goosen to the FBI's attention knew
little of germ warfare but were old hands in the shadowy world of arms
trading and secret deals. Goosen had met neither until May 4, 2002,
just two days before the toothpaste tube filled with
genetically-altered bacteria began the journey across the Atlantic.
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
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
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
At 5 p.m. on May 9, 2002, Robert Zlockie, the retired CIA officer who
had couriered the toothpaste tube across the Atlantic, delivered the
package to an agent at the FBI's office in Key West, Fla. In return, he
was given a hand-written receipt on FBI letterhead. "One toothpaste
tube containing one ampul of E. coli genetically coded with epsilon
toxin," it read.
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
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
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.
The M+G+R Foundation
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