plague war
Interview: Dr. Daan Goosen
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Dr. Daan Goosen was managing director at Robdeplaat Research Laboratories.

How were you recruited to Robdeplaat Research Laboratories?

In early 1982, I was approached by Dr. Wouter Basson. He was then an army captain in the medical services and we had associations on a normal medical research line that I was involved in for the surgeon general.

Initially, we were involved in research projects on trauma and traumatized patients. Then it became more involved with some clandestine projects and he approached me [to see] if I would be willing to assist them in biological agents for warfare.

Were you surprised when he mentioned that?

No, not really ... Everyone in South Africa was involved in the military and the war effort, so it was quite natural discussing the war ... and ways of handling the war, etc.

Did he indicate whether this would be a defensive or offensive program, or both?

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. Yes ... the initial approaches were very superficial. [Since] I was involved in medical research at the university, I initially was involved only in research projects on non-human primates. Then I was asked if I could assist in supplying him with some toxins or poisons coming from bacteria, that they had specific targets in mind, and what would my feeling be in this. So, initially, the involvement was just out of my presence, of my civilian position, and when things progressed, I wasn't really surprised.

What were the targets?

The targets were not specific at the time because we were in a war situation. We know that ... the terrorists and political figures were the targets on the ANC side.

Did you realize that you were involved in helping Basson in a biological warfare program that would be used to kill people?

Yes, when the program and the negotiations between him and myself progressed it was spelled out that it would be a biological chemical weapons program [and that] it would be offensive. We initially spent a lot of time on the ethical use of these things, and I was convinced that the products would be used in a war sense, very ethically. There isn't much of a difference if you use a gun to kill someone or if you use a more refined product to do that.

What products are we talking about? Can you name them?

We were suppose to establish a complete biological and chemical weapons ability for the South African government. This included [not only] offensive programs, but also defensive programs. On the offensive nature, we were supposed to cover the whole range of developing some chemical products and some biological products. The program was to design new biological projects in two categories--one was for more sophisticated mass destruction weapons and the other one was what we called a "dirty tricks" sort of program, where products could be supplied for individual assassinations. These were composed out of toxins in chemical and in plant and in biological nature.

Can you name, first of all in the official program, what kind of agents you were working with?

The agents we worked with were mostly standard toxins ... there wasn't much sophistication in it, and this is for the dirty tricks sort of operation where products were developed to take out individuals ... the bacteria we were working on was very run-of-the-mill bacteria, but it's commonly known in the bacterial warfare field. It was anthrax, cholera, the food poisoning ones, the salmonellas, tetanus, many of those bacteria.

Did you work with anthrax?

On the biological side we worked with toxins, not so much anthrax, but on individual organisms producing specific toxins which can be very toxic to an individual. This was the food poisoning type of drugs ...botulism ... all the standard type of organisms which grow quite easily. We were involved with working with a wide variety of bacteria, and anthrax was one of them, [however] it was not really produced on a scale for biological weapons.

Did you work on HIV?

No, we did not work on HIV although we planned to do some work, but that was legitimate work for a European pharmaceutical company.

When you say you were working with them, were you testing them, and who were you testing them on?

We basically established teams of scientists of very high quality, standards and abilities, and we supplied these scientists with very sophisticated laboratories to do sophisticated programs on biological products. These laboratories were capable of growing specifically bacteria, we didn't really develop any viruses. It could extract toxins from plants, and it could sensitize chemicals on its own. And we were involved in developing or producing these substances and then testing them. There is specific ethical and dosages, etc., [to be used] on animals.

Which animals?

We used basically non-human primates, baboons and monkeys, but also the normal laboratory rodents were used in this.

These animals were sacrificed in the tests were they?

These animals were sacrificed in the tests. As I've said the level of sophistication of this work was really high. We believed that if you are involved in using biologicals for weapons then you need to do it properly, and to do it [with] below standard facilities and below standard scientists, is in fact, very unethical and could lead to misuse of the products.

Did you do any tests on humans at all?


Was that ever discussed or planned?

No, that was definitely not for us.

You worked on a drug that would induce infertility in people. Tell me about that and who were supposed to be the targets.

The targets were supposed to be the black population because the most serious problem as told to us [was] the birth rate of the black population and that it would outgrow the resources of the country and it was very important that this be brought under control. There was no doubt about that. This was given to us by Basson, by the surgeon general ... it was very clear that this was the most important project we had to work on.

And what was it?

We tackled the problem from various sides ... developing a vaccine for males and, on the other hand, [one] for females. This contraceptive research is worldwide research, so it was an easy area to tap into and get basic information.

But the vaccine would have been given to these people surreptitiously or under pretext.

Yes, we had to work on a product that could have been given without the knowledge of the person receiving it, either orally or in some sort of injection.

Did you have a view about that?

As I have said, our views were the ones being indoctrinated ... that it was the biggest problem for the white South Africans in South Africa.

Was that your personal view, too?

That was my personal view at the time, yes.

Was General Knobel, the Surgeon General, aware of this?

Yes ... General Knobel was aware of this when we started [or] soon after we started. General Knobel was taking over from me and he was fully aware of the problem.

How did you know he was fully aware?

I had personal discussions with him several times ... I briefed him on this.

Was General Knobel aware of the assassination dimension of the biological warfare program?

I can't be too sure about that. He was certainly aware that we were developing some of the projects. He was present at scientific meetings where this was discussed. The specific application in the field had specific targets, and how much he was aware about that, I can't say.

But if General Knobel were to say, or if he has already said, that this was a purely defensive program aimed at defending the Republic of South Africa in case of the event of biological warfare attacks, that would not be according to you the full truth?

Most certainly not. There's no doubt in my mind about that.

Tell me about Basson ... what kind of man is he?

Basson is a very interesting individual. He is clever ... and he is very knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, but he has the ability of manipulating people for his own specific goals. He has the ability to influence and speak easily with people from very high rank and high standing--politicians, army officials, scientists, and even the lower ranks of operators within the army. He's very capable of influencing people and manipulating people to do whatever he wants them to do.

Some people say he should receive a medal for the work he did for the Republic of South Africa, other people compare him to Dr. Josef Mengele. Was the Basson you knew something in between?

The Basson I knew was something in between. Of course, initially when we started our associations we had very positive associations, and he always seemed to be a very sophisticated and patriotic type of person. Later on in the program I learned differently and at the very least, became aware that he had very hidden agendas ... and he was very hard on people, he tended to use people, discarding them when he had finished with them and had no real feeling for people.

What was it about Basson that suddenly turned you off him? You were prepared to work for him and with him and then suddenly you weren't. What was it that changed you?

... Basson was really the central figure in coordinating the funds and the whole program. He was the contact between us, the scientists, and the authorities, which was the army and the government sponsoring it. We operated on a basis of trust and initially this trust, seemed to be, after some time, more one-sided and that they started to mistrust me. And this developed ... when I wanted to implement high standards in the development in the research we were doing and they were not interested in that. They only were interested in obtaining superficially produced and concocted products, which I was very much against. We had a dispute around that, which led subsequently to a breakdown in our relationship, and I experienced the other side of Basson, which was very negative.

Did you get official visits from Britain and from the United States, and did any of those people help the Republic of South Africa with its biological warfare program?

No. When I was managing director we were still establishing this stuff and we had contact with consultants, some of whom were from Europe and from the United Kingdom, and even some of them from America. We had no direct assistance and no aboveboard assistance that I know of.

Do you think the British visitors knew that you were working on a biological warfare program?

I doubt it.

Did you try to disguise it from them?

I doubt [that] we tried to disguise it from them, we were busy before this program on the same type of laboratories--P4 laboratories--and it might have been a continuation of this.

Did you work on a project that would possibly induce heart attacks in people?

That was some of the toxins extracted from plants [that] could have caused heart attacks in people ...

Were they tested on the baboons?

Yes ... they were tested on the baboons.

Did the baboons have heart attacks?

Some of them had slight effects.

Did you ever know who the targets might be for biological warfare assassination?

No, I never knew the exact targets. We had a lot of discussions around the leadership of the ANC at that time, and the discussions always included to get some[one] to take Mandela out, etc. But it was always nonspecific sort of discussions.

Did you ever feel a personal moral repugnance about what you were doing? Did there come a moment when you thought, "This is not for me?"

We had many thoughts about this and doubts about what we were doing, but the politicians of the time had created the climate. I think the politicians need to be blamed for a lot of the misuses of the program because they created the climate in South Africa of the total onslaught and take-over by communism and the overwhelming enemy and desperat[ion] for the survival of the South Africa that we do extraordinary things.

Why did you decide to blow the whistle on the whole thing?

What worried me in the beginning and in the end was when I saw that Basson and the contacts we had were not interested in using properly designed and developed products. Then I realized that if they are using products that are not refined and properly tested it could be very harmful to innocent bystanders. I then became convinced that they were not serious about the ethical side of biological warfare as we understood to be doing it.

People hearing that answer may accuse you of some hypocrisy given that there is really an ethical dimension to biological warfare assassination. You seem to have made a distinction, which was that if biological warfare assassination were ethical it was OK, if it was done in an unscientific and messy way it wasn't OK.

Yes ... that's if it were done in an unscientific and messy way it was completely out for us, and as I've said we were worrying [that] what we were doing should be controlled and used only in a controlled manner at the very least, and when it became clear to me that this was not the case, then I was unhappy about the situation.

Are you saying that you were ethically happy to take part in a biological warfare offensive assassination program, but when it got messy, or when it didn't go the way you wanted it to go, you blew the whistle? Can you give me one example of what it was that was offending you?

Yes ... I think in the late 70s and early 80s, biological weapons were not as controlled as in the 90s. It was a new area and everybody was in the post-atomic area. Biological weapons was a new field, and it was done all over by all the countries, even England at Porton Down, and the Americans at Fort Detrick. We know they were doing it and we had contact with all that work and the weapons that were developed. So, it was not that much of an ethical issue as we know today it is because of the dangers of the misuses.

But Porton Down and Fort Detrick weren't targeting politicians for murder with biological agents.

That is true, but we were in a war situation ... and our people were part of it, and ... the environment we operated in that time we were all in South Africa ... that was the environment.

When you blew the whistle, what did you do, who did you go to and what was the reaction?

It was not so much of running out ... to the press at large and telling them what's going on. I tried to change this internally and tried to get some control back into the program because [I saw that] this program was now getting out of control. I tried to make contact with the surgeon general again and even his superiors. [Contact with them] was denied to me, or when I got to them they were not really happy to listen to what I had to say.

You met General Knobel. What did you complain about and what did he say?

Well, before I could complain about anything, I had been framed ... and victimized by Basson and his associates of being psychologically unstable ... they in fact threatened to put me in jail [if I didn't] leave quietly. In those years, 1988-89, the nationalist government was still very much in power to do anything they wished to do. When I confronted Knobel with this, he said it was out of his hands and he could do nothing about it, which made me realize at that stage that if the second or third highest officer in the defense force was not able to control this, then it is really out of hand. At that stage, I then decided, for my own safety and for my family's safety, that I had to disassociate myself from the program as far as possible, which is what I did in 1989.

You quit?

I was, in fact, forced to quit. But in the end I stopped blowing the whistleu ... and I quit voluntarily.

Were you surprised when Basson was caught dealing in the street in Ecstasy and when top secret biological warfare papers were found in trunks at his home?

Yes, I was surprised ... I had seen money spent on the project that wasn't used for the purpose it should have been used for, and they were skimming off some of the money of the project, so I know they had been financially gaining personally from the project to the extent of millions. So I was surprised that he was still dealing with drugs to sort of make some extra money.

Do you regard him now as a loose cannon in South Africa? A man with great knowledge, a man who is alleged to be a criminal?

No, I don't regard him as a loose cannon. I regard him as very much a fake. He has no real knowledge, I know exactly where he got all the knowledge from because that was our department, and I know who has the knowledge and who doesn't have the knowledge, and it's not Basson. He had to keep the files to have something, on his own he has nothing and I think he is blackmailing some people into some false sort of protection.

How successful, efficient and sophisticated was the biological warfare program, to the best of your knowledge?

The interesting phenomena about the program was that it had the ability to be very, very sophisticated. We established the ability to do genetic engineering and all the fancy type of stuff that would produce good biological products, but nothing was really produced.

But you don't have to produce it, do you? You just have to have the knowledge, the production is easy. You and I could do it in a laboratory in 48 hours.

Yes ... this is one of the so-called myths surrounding biological warfare products, that is to a large extent misinformation. Any vaccines in any normal laboratory are producing tons and tons of the highest potent toxins, and it can be misused. So there wasn't any super biological weapons developed and produced by the program.

What then was it about the program that so worried the British and Americans that on two occasions they went to see F. W. de Klerk, on one occasion they went to see President Mandela, and said "Give this program up." Why were they so worried?

I wish I knew. But as I said again, it had the potential. The facilities were the state-of-the-art facilities. The laboratories, the P4 containments, everything. The scientists assembled there had the potential of developing really new and fancy biological weapons. But it was never done. When we got to the point that we should have produced, there was no support for the scientists to produce. It was very ineffective.

But you produced the knowledge ...

We've produced some of the knowledge, yes.

And some people were assassinated?

Yes ... but the assassinations were of the crude off the shelf products, and that is my point, and this was the sort of thing that worried me, that they were not interested in proper sophisticated products.

How secret was the project?

This project was regarded the most secret project of the then government, a very top secret project.

A lot of people didn't actually know they were working on it did they?

Yes, as I've said earlier, the need to know principle was applied at all levels and lower down it was diluted so much that people don't know the broader picture. ...

How appropriate was the nom de guerre for Dr. Basson, Dr. Death?

I wasn't really involved with that side of him, but from the other side, yes he wouldn't have had any scruples [about] killing anyone. That was told to me by people.

Is Dr. Basson currently being protected? Do you have a sense of that at all?

Well, he was definitely being protected after the so-called dismantling of the program in '92 and '94 and even by the new government of the new South Africa ... Project Coast has been investigated by the Office of Serious Economic Offenses for some time and they were investigated for two years by the new government.

Why do you call it "so-called" dismantling of the program?

The existence of the program was denied for many years, and even in the transition period of government it was denied and even now by the Surgeon General Knobel, it is denied to have been an offensive program. So, as long as they're denying it, there's the possibility that it's not being completely dismantled. That's one aspect. The other aspect I've already explained [is] that the products are easily available, but it's people that must use it and as long as the people are not under control then the program is not under control. And as long as Basson and his associates are still operating in hospitals and in the medical environment, the program can be revived or can still be active any time.

Do you think the full truth will ever come out?

That is a good question. Honestly, I don't know and that is my concern, that the full truth won't come out.

It hasn't come out yet, has it?

It hasn't come out yet.

How do you believe now a biological warfare program should be controlled?

I think it's very difficult to control biological warfare. It's a very controversial subject at the moment. It is no use controlling scientists and laboratories etc., the real control lies in controlling the people who decide where to apply it or not, and that is the politicians. And as long as there is no agreements that can be enforced then you won't control this.

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