plague war
Interview: FW deKlerk
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de Klerk was president of South Africa from (1989-1994)

When and how did you learn about South Africa's chemical and biological warfare program?

I was briefed shortly after I became president, by the surgeon general, who was then heading the program ... a man in whose integrity I still have the highest faith. The briefing essentially said that the program was aimed at developing our defensive capability against chemical warfare ... I was told that we had reached the stage where we could start to wind down the program, to privatize the front companies that were involved ... and I authorized that. I said that's the direction we should go, we want to become part of the [Biological and Toxin Weapons] Convention, we want to play our full role within the framework of my policy that we return to the international community. One must remember that I was the first and up to now the only head of a government and state that decided to destroy our nuclear capability--we had seven devices--in order to accede to the non-proliferation treaty ... in the same spirit, on the chemical side, we wanted to become fully part of the international community's approach towards this problem.

The DoD concluded recently that the biological warfare threat was  one area in which the US has found itself to be the most vulnerable. This was said repeatedly at a symposium on the subject  held in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 1998. More than 2,000 delegates from 70 countries were present, many of them military officers. Were you surprised when you learned that South Africa had developed a covert biological warfare program and did you have any moral dilemma about it at all?

Within the framework of the assurances that I had been given--that it was never intended to be used aggressively--it didn't bother me so much. Within the framework of the assurances that I was given that everything would be destroyed and that the data would be properly put under a net of security, I was happy that we were doing the right thing at that time. ...

Why did you commission a state report? What was it that worried you?

What really triggered it was ... the discovery by Judge Goldstone, whom I appointed to investigate allegations of unacceptable criminal behavior by undercover agents of the military intelligence and the police, which made me believe that there was some truth in many of the allegations.

I then appointed [General Pierre] Styen in order to ensure that we root out any such elements. His report then resulted in me calling the head of the defense force and some of the senior generals together and confronting them with the essence of what Styen had briefed me about. I didn't have a written report from him at that stage. Taking immediate steps, [I asked] for the suspension and in some instances the firing of a whole list of people. I didn't supply the names, they, in interaction with Styen, came up with a list of names.

What was your reaction when you learned from his report that there were abuses of the biological warfare program?

It wasn't very detailed [in] his report, but it was part of what he said. I was deeply shocked to hear that we might have been involved in assassinations and the like. I've never been part of any policy decision that said it would be OK to commit these heinous crimes and gross violations of human rights. I was accused of overreacting by clamping down in the way in which I did ... today, I'm glad that I did it.

What was your reaction when you discovered in recent months that the project officer appeared to have abused the program? That papers that should have been destroyed were found in trunks in his home?

I was deeply shocked. I'm not in a position to test such allegations or such evidence. What happened with regard to the real program is that at a certain stage, General Knobel came to me with a letter in which he provided me with a key to a safe, which can only be unlocked by two keys and one of the two keys was given to me as president ... [He] assured me that nobody could get to that information without that formula for the safe and the key. I recently formally delivered that key and the formula to Deputy President Mbeki for further safe keeping. The real worry I think that existed was not so much about the scientific data as documented because I was satisfied that in terms of the arrangements that was under proper lock and key. The real worry, also from the American and the British government when they approached me shortly before the 1994 election, was the knowledge in the minds of people. The knowledge in the heads of certain specific individuals and whatever notes they might have made that were not put under control.

A specific name came to the fore, a certain Dr. Wouter Basson. He is in court at the moment in South Africa and I think it would not be proper for me to expand with regard to him personally.

London and Washington made official démarches to you because they were deeply worried about the biological warfare program. What did they demand?

They were initially quite aggressive. They had a long list of demands and I said that because I could give them certain assurances, that we could not accede to all sorts of demands; that I was concerned as they were that we should prevent the knowledge that had been achieved in South Africa to spread [and] be used elsewhere; that already preventative steps had been taken in that regard and that they could be assured, therefore, that we would deal with integrity within the framework of our sovereignty and we would not allow all sorts of inspections by representatives of other countries; [that] they must accept my word. I got the impression that they were actually quite happy, they knew by then that the program had been canceled, had been wound down ... but their main concern was the knowledge in the minds of certain individuals who might become ... loose cannons, using that information in other parts of the world.

There was a second démarche. How did that go?

The second démarche was after the election when President Mandela was then president of the country. I was one of the two deputy presidents, so the ball is really in his side of the court on this specific issue. But I was present at more than one briefing after I became deputy president where President Mandela was fully briefed ... and then from there onwards how the matter was handled was in the hands of the president, the two deputy presidents, the minister of justice, the minister of defense and they continued to ensure that this capacity would not be reawoken again.

When President Mandela was briefed on this program, what was his reaction?

We were in agreement. We never argued about the need that it should be managed to ensure that South Africa would be in step with the rest of the world on this issue. And I personally believe that chemical weapons are atrocious.

Biological weapons too?

Biological weapons. I'm against them ... I am so glad that we have succeeded in becoming fully part of the convention, that at the moment, according to my information, South Africa is playing a constructive, cooperative role and it is now in step with the rest of the world.

Certain people were relieved of their positions as a result of the Steyn Report, a report you took seriously and acted upon. Were you surprised when one of the key people was rehired by the new administration?

I was somewhat surprised, on the other hand there might have been a theory that [it] would be a way of ensuring that a person with intimate knowledge would remain sort of part of a system. At that stage, however, I also believe that the long investigations, which I ordered when I was still president, had not yet come up with sufficient evidence to provide sufficient grounds for a court case. Since then, there's been other developments and there are court cases pending now.

Do you think, in terms of biological warfare, the genie is out of the bottle now?

I think that what is happening across the world in this regard is extremely important I don't have any reason to believe that the research that has been done here has actually lead to transfer of full details to any source. We're back in the crowd together with the rest of the world in saying "no" to chemical warfare, in saying "no" to biological warfare. I'm quite happy that, in as far as it was possible, we are achieving as a country the goals which I've set for myself with regard to issues such as this, how do we join the rest of the world in preventing this type of warfare which no civil society can accept and support.

If it were to be sure that there was an abuse of the biological warfare program well before your presidency and that it had been used in border warfare on people, what would be your reaction?

I would be shocked. I would be extremely unhappy about it and I would distance myself from that.

Is it perhaps an inevitable outcome of having a biological warfare program that there might be some hemorrhage? Do you think you can control these things?

Well, we've had atom bombs in many countries and so far that has been fairly successfully controlled, so it is possible to control such things, but it is best not to have them.

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