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South Africa’s Dirtiest Spy Tricks

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The dirtiest secrets of South Africa’s apartheid regime are now spillingout in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. It’s a pitythat the chilling stories haven’t been made much of a ripple here in theUnited States, whose own intelligence agencies have, down the years, traveledalong the same path and possibly offered useful signposts to their SouthAfrican colleagues.

Back in 1997 a South African agent admitted to smuggling drugs to raisemoney for terror schemes including chemical experimentation on blacks. Hesaid he had done this on behalf of the Directorate of Covert Collections,a super-secret unit within South Africa’s military intelligence apparatus.The drugs — Ecstasy and Mandrax — were manufactured in labs run by DrWouter Basson, one of the chieftains of South Africa’s chemical and biologicalweapons program. Basson was arrested in 1997.

Last week’s hearings at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offeredvivid insights of what went at Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, a militaryinstallation near Pretoria, where Basson (a cardiologist by profession,who numbered former president PW Botha among his patients)oversaw productionof infamous materials. A veterinarian, Dr Schalk van Rensberg, testifiedthat “The most frequent instruction” from Basson was for developmentof a compound that would kill but make the cause of death seemingly natural.”That was the chief aim of the Roodeplaat Research Laboratory.”

The Laboratory manufactured cholera organisms, anthrax to be depositedon the gummed flaps of envelopes and in cigarettes and chocolate, walkingsticks firing fatal darts that would feel to the doomed victims like bee-stings.Van Rensberg took his riveted audience painstakingly through what he called”the murder lists” of toxins and delivery systems. These included32 bottles of cholera which, one of the lab’s technicians, Mike Odendaal,testified, would be most effectively used in the water supply.

There were plans to slip the still imprisoned Nelson Mandela covert dosesof the heavy metal poison, thallium, designed to make his brain functionbecome “impaired, progressively”, as Van Rensberg put it.

In one case lethal toxins went from Roodeplaat to a death squad detailedby the apartheid regime to kill one of its opponents, the Reverend FrankChikane. The killers planted lethal chemicals in five pairs of his underpants,expecting him to travel to Namibia, where they reckoned there would be “verylittle forensic capability.” Instead Chikane went to the United Stateswhere doctors identified the toxins and saved his life.

The big dream at Roodeplaat was develop race-specific bio-chemical weapons,targeting blacks. Van Rensberg was ordered by Basson to develop a vaccineto make blacks infertile. He told the Truth Commission that was his majorproject assigned to him by Basson. There were plans to distribute infectedT-shirts in the black townships to spread disease and infertility.

Americans need not entertain any feelings of moral superiority. Backin 1960, in the course of one of the Agency’s frequent attempts to assassinateFidel Castro, the CIA planned to put thallium salts in Castro’s shoes andon his night-table when he was visiting New York to address the United Nations.The scheme collapsed only at the last moment. Years later, a CIA-suppliedteam tried to assassinate Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Miguel d’Escoto,by giving him a bottle of Benedictine, laced with thallium. (Illustratingof the like-mindness of government assassins everywhere, Saddam Hussein’ssecret police also tried to assassinate one of its prime foes with thallium.)

Race specific onslaughts were made by US army researchers into bio-chemicalwarfare in the 1950s. In the early 1990s it was reported that psychiatristsat the National Institute for Mental Health were testing new medicationsto try to correct what they supposed to be chemical imbalances allegedlyfound in both violent monkeys and men. This disclosure came shortly aftergovernment psychiatrist Fred Goodwin created an uproar by comparing violentinner-city youths with “hyper-aggressive monkeys”. Goodwin wasduly installed as the boss of NIMH.

One of the investigators for the South African Truth Commission, ZhensileKholsan, has said that there is a strong suggestion that, in the words ofone South African press report in the Johannesburg Sunday Times, “drugswere fed into communities that were political centers, to cause socio-economicchaos.” Black communities in the United States have expressed similarsuspicions, particularly about the arrival of crack in South-Central LosAngeles in the early 1980s, imported by CIA-sponsored Nicaraguans raisingmoney for arms. On March 16 of this year CIA Inspector General Fred Hitzfinally conceded to a US Congressional committee that the Agency had workedwith drug traffickers and had obtained a waiver from the Justice Departmentin 1982( the beginning of the Contra funding crisis) allowing it not toreport drug trafficking by its assets.

Back in the 1950s CIA researchers were investigation the consequencesof putting LSD and other chemicals in reservoirs. Was the lethal arsenaldeployed at Roodeplaat assembled with useful advice the CIA and other USagencies? There were most certainly close contacts down the decades. Itwas a CIA tip that led the South African secret police to arrest NelsonMandela. Another Truth Commission here wouldn’t do any harm. In fact weshould have it in permanent session. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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