The history of bioweapons research in the United States is a history of illicit–and illegal–human experiments.
From the Cold War to the War on Terror, successive American administrations have turned a blind eye on dubious research rightly characterized as having “a little of the Buchenwald touch.”
While the phrase may have come from the files of the Atomic Energy Commission as Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome revealed in her 1999 book, The Plutonium Files, an investigation into secret American medical experiments at the dawn of the nuclear age, it is as relevant today as the United States pours billions of dollars into work on some of the most dangerous pathogens known to exist in nature.
That Cold War securocrats were more than a little concerned with a comparison to unethical Nazi experiments is hardly surprising. After all, with the defeat of the Axis powers came the triumphalist myth-making that America had fought a “good war” and had liberated humanity from the scourge of fascist barbarism.
Never mind that many of America’s leading corporations, from General Motors to IBM and from Standard Oil to Chase National Bank, were sympathizers and active collaborators with the Third Reich prior to and even during World War II, as documented by investigative journalists Charles Higham in Trading With The Enemy, and Edwin Black in IBM and the Holocaust. Like much else in American history, these were dirty little secrets best left alone.
Soon enough however, these erstwhile democrats would come to view themselves as mandarins of a new, expanding American Empire for whom everything was permitted. In this context, the recruitment of top German and Japanese scientists who had conducted grisly “medical” experiments whilst waging biological war against China and the Soviet Union would be free of any moralizing or political wavering.
As the Cold War grew hotter and hotter, America’s political leadership viewed “former” Nazis and the architects of Japan’s Imperial project not as war criminals but allies in a new undertaking: the global roll-back of socialism and the destruction of the Soviet Union by any means necessary.
This tradition is alive and well in 21st century America. With the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax mailings as a pretext for an aggressive militarist posture, the national security state is ramping-up research for the production of genetically-modified organisms for deployment as new, frightening weapons of war.
According to congressional testimony by Dr. Alan M. Pearson, Director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, with very little in the way of effective oversight or accountability, tens of billions of dollars “have been appropriated for bioweapons-related research and development activities.” Pearson reveals that approximately $1.7 billion “has been appropriated for the construction on new high containment facilities for bioweapons-related research.”
By high containment facilities I mean facilities that are designed for work with agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal disease through exposure to aerosols (called Biosafety Level 3 or BSL-3 facilities) and facilities that are designed for work with agents that pose a “high individual risk of life-threatening disease, which may be transmitted via the aerosol route and for which there is no available vaccine or therapy” (called Biosafety Level 4 or BSL-4 facilities).
Prior to 2002, there were three significant BSL-4 facilities in the United States. Today twelve are in operation, under construction, or in the planning stage. When completed, there will be in excess of 150,000 square feet of BSL-4 laboratory space (as much space as three football fields). The number of BSL-3 labs is also clearly growing, but ascertaining the amount of growth is difficult in the absence of accurate baseline information. There are at least 600 such facilities in the US. (Alan M. Pearson, Testimony, “Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States,” House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, October 2007)…