The dirtiest secrets of South Africa's apartheid regime are now spilling out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. It's a pity that the chilling stories haven't been made much of a ripple here in the United States, whose own intelligence agencies have, down the years, traveled along the same path and possibly offered useful signposts to their South African colleagues.
Back in 1997 a South African agent admitted to smuggling drugs to raise money for terror schemes including chemical experimentation on blacks. He said 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 Dr Wouter Basson, one of the chieftains of South Africa's chemical and biological weapons program. Basson was arrested in 1997.
Last week's hearings at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered vivid insights of what went at Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, a military installation near Pretoria, where Basson (a cardiologist by profession, who numbered former president PW Botha among his patients)oversaw production of infamous materials. A veterinarian, Dr Schalk van Rensberg, testified that "The most frequent instruction" from Basson was for development of 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 deposited on the gummed flaps of envelopes and in cigarettes and chocolate, walking sticks 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 included 32 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 doses of the heavy metal poison, thallium, designed to make his brain function become "impaired, progressively", as Van Rensberg put it.
In one case lethal toxins went from Roodeplaat to a death squad detailed by the apartheid regime to kill one of its opponents, the Reverend Frank Chikane. The killers planted lethal chemicals in five pairs of his underpants, expecting him to travel to Namibia, where they reckoned there would be "very little forensic capability." Instead Chikane went to the United States where 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 vaccine to make blacks infertile. He told the Truth Commission that was his major project assigned to him by Basson. There were plans to distribute infected T-shirts in the black townships to spread disease and infertility.
Americans need not entertain any feelings of moral superiority. Back in 1960, in the course of one of the Agency's frequent attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, the CIA planned to put thallium salts in Castro's shoes and on 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-supplied team tried to assassinate Nicaragua's foreign minister, Miguel d'Escoto, by giving him a bottle of Benedictine, laced with thallium. (Illustrating of the like-mindness of government assassins everywhere, Saddam Hussein's secret police also tried to assassinate one of its prime foes with thallium.)
Race specific onslaughts were made by US army researchers into bio-chemical warfare in the 1950s. In the early 1990s it was reported that psychiatrists at the National Institute for Mental Health were testing new medications to try to correct what they supposed to be chemical imbalances allegedly found in both violent monkeys and men. This disclosure came shortly after government psychiatrist Fred Goodwin created an uproar by comparing violent inner-city youths with "hyper-aggressive monkeys". Goodwin was duly installed as the boss of NIMH.
One of the investigators for the South African Truth Commission, Zhensile Kholsan, has said that there is a strong suggestion that, in the words of one South African press report in the Johannesburg Sunday Times, "drugs were fed into communities that were political centers, to cause socio-economic chaos." Black communities in the United States have expressed similar suspicions, particularly about the arrival of crack in South-Central Los Angeles in the early 1980s, imported by CIA-sponsored Nicaraguans raising money for arms. On March 16 of this year CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz finally conceded to a US Congressional committee that the Agency had worked with drug traffickers and had obtained a waiver from the Justice Department in 1982( the beginning of the Contra funding crisis) allowing it not to report drug trafficking by its assets.
Back in the 1950s CIA researchers were investigation the consequences of putting LSD and other chemicals in reservoirs. Was the lethal arsenal deployed at Roodeplaat assembled with useful advice the CIA and other US agencies? There were most certainly close contacts down the decades. It was a CIA tip that led the South African secret police to arrest Nelson Mandela. Another Truth Commission here wouldn't do any harm. In fact we should have it in permanent session.