Saturday, August 1, 1998


By DEAN E. MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

CAPE TOWN, South Africa--The United States and its Cold War allies encouraged South Africa's former white regime to develop a chemical and biological warfare program that investigators here say veered out of control and targeted the country's own black population, according to testimony Friday by the program's director.

Dr. Wouter Basson, the general who headed the top-secret project from its inception in 1981, also said that U.S. intelligence officials were not surprised when told that his researchers had explored using cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and other street drugs as "incapacitates" on enemies of the apartheid government. "At that stage in South Africa, we were confronted with information that the Russians, East Germans and Cubans definitely had capabilities in neighboring countries," Basson said, referring to fears of a communist expansion in Africa in the 1980s. "Western countries were interested in the information we gathered on this . . . so I had access to [their] senior government officials." The revelations came on the last day of public hearings before the main committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a government body that has been delving into human rights abuses of the apartheid era of racial separation. Committee members must now sift through 2 1/2 years of testimony involving some of the most sensational and contentious events of South Africa's recent past and prepare a report for President Nelson Mandela by October.

The effort was intended to foster racial harmony by exposing the crimes committed by both whites and blacks during the apartheid era. The panel's exhausting hearing process concluded with a surprise bang when Basson, who had been dodging questions for months, commandeered Friday's session for nearly 11 hours.

The steely-eyed general aggressively rebutted claims by investigators and witnesses that he was apartheid's "Dr. Death" -- the mastermind of a sinister plot to silence black opponents of the white regime through clandestine chemical and biological means.

"I did many things, but not one of them was illegal and not one of them led to the death or bodily harm of a single person," Basson said. "I was part of the ordinary defense force that had to support the government of the day." Basson said Project Coast, as the weapons program was code-named, had no offensive capabilities, despite testimony by former government scientists that they had been instructed to develop "gadgets" that kill or maim people. The creation of such cloak-and-dagger items as peppermint chocolates laced with cyanide, cigarettes contaminated with anthrax and whiskey spiked with weedkiller were for training purposes only, he said, and were no different from teaching aids used by militaries worldwide. Occasionally, Basson said, the experiments were tested on laboratory animals to emphasize, for example, never to eat a chocolate left on a hotel pillow.

"There is no better lesson than for the person to actually see the results of his mistake," Basson said.

In 14 pages of notes written by Basson after a visit to the United States in 1981, he said that he was welcomed warmly by scientists and others who were more concerned with the communist threat than with the increasingly unpopular racial policies of his government.

The notes, written in Afrikaans and made public at the truth commission proceeding Friday, say Air Force officials encouraged him to develop joint "medical projects" with the United States, while other top military and defense officials extolled the virtues of chemical weapons. "He feels that chemical warfare is an ideal strategic weapon because infrastructure is preserved together with facilities, and only living people are killed," Basson wrote of a conversation with Maj. Gen. William S. Augerson, who was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for health resources and programs but has since retired from the military. "The warm climate of Africa is, according to him, ideal for this type of weapon because the diffusion of the poison is better and the absorption is increased by perspiration and increased blood flow in the persons who are targets."

In another notation, Basson recorded that Augerson said he wondered if the incidence of typhoid, cholera and other diseases during the war in Vietnam were the result of "bio-manipulation" by the Soviet Union. In an eerie echo of that speculation, Basson now stands accused by former Project Coast employees of ordering research into cholera as a weapon of mass destruction; Basson dismissed the possibility as absurd Friday.

Referring to himself as a patriot loyal to the "people of South Africa," not its former white regime, Basson went so far as to suggest that he saved Mandela from an assassination attempt while the African National Congress leader was in prison. At the same time, he said he knew nothing about a classified document from the State Security Council that talked about poisoning Mandela to make him incapable of governing once freed. Basson said he was advised by a top defense official in the mid-1980s that radical members of the ANC intended to kill Mandela because they considered him too conciliatory toward the apartheid government. Basson said he instructed his staff to come up with a list of methods that might be used in an attack or to protect Mandela. "My job was to integrate the plans and set up a protection plan to make sure Mr. Mandela did not become a victim of forces trying to destabilize this country," Basson said. "For the benefit of this country, I had to ensure that Mr. Mandela remained alive." Basson and his attorneys spent a large chunk of the day arguing unsuccessfully with commission lawyers about the appropriateness of his testimony because of his upcoming criminal trial. Basson is scheduled to appear in court next week on charges of conspiracy to murder, obstruction of justice, fraud totaling $10 million and other alleged wrongdoing related to his tenure at Project Coast until he was forced out in 1992.

But when his lawyers finally gave up and went home late in the day, Basson shocked most everyone when he stayed put and fielded questions alone, denying every allegation and explaining away -- often with witty sarcasm -- every insinuation.

"I don't envy the attorney general," said Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebza, referring to the prosecutor in the criminal case. "Dr. Wouter Basson is nobody's fool."

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights served.