I don’t like having to write this article. I don’t like even thinking about it, but over the past few months its subject has come up repeatedly. Many television and radio hosts who have interviewed me about my new book, A TERRIBLE MISTAKE: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIAs Secret Cold War Experiments, have, on their own, brought up the subject of AIDS and Fort Detrick and the connection between the two. Nearly the entire ten years I worked on the book, this subject consistently loomed in the background like some malevolent poltergeist, and was essentially considered unspeakable by practically everyone I interviewed. Now things are different.
Just a few days ago, one radio host, who had actually read my entire book, asked about the many trips various Fort Detrick bacteriologists and biochemists took throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond to locations in Africa. Trips were to locations like the Belgian Congo and Burundi and French Equatorial Africa. A few media hosts have remarked about the thousands of rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees that Fort Detrick went through in their countless experiments during these same years; resulting in so many mutilated and dead primates that one former Army scientist, Dr. Henry Eigelsbach, told me that sometimes their bodies had to be “scooped up with a back-hoe and loaded into dump trucks” and then carted off for disposal and incineration.
Only yesterday, a very well informed radio host in California, Cary Harrison, at KPFK-FM, asked me about well-documented reports concerning the 1969 testimony of a high-level Pentagon biological warfare official before the U.S. House of Representatives.
Nobody in their right mind wants to think or believe that the American government had a hand in producing the dreadful disease AIDS, certainly not me. My father, as a dedicated and conscientious histologist, worked for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in the 1950s, and went on to devote his life to helping people in any way he could. He would have never done anything to hurt anyone, yet now there is strong evidence that other scientists with the U. S. Army may have done just that. Before his recent death, I asked my father about these reports. He sadly shook his head, and said, “I don’t know what’s happened to this country. I don’t understand it at all. It’s not the country I went to war for; it’s not the same country I was willing to die for.” My father was always a confident man. It distressed me to see him bewildered, but I too was bewildered. I didn’t at all like thinking about Fort Detrick and AIDS.
On July 1, 1969, a high-ranking Pentagon biological warfare official, Dr. Donald MacArthur, appearing before the Defense Department Appropriations Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, told the assembled elected officials that “dramatic progress being made in the field of molecular biology [by Army researchers at Fort Detrick and elsewhere] led [the Army] to investigate the relevance of this field of science to biological warfare. A small group of experts considered this matter and provided the following observations:
1. All biological agents up to the present time  are representative of naturally occurring disease, and thus known by scientists throughout the world. They are easily available to qualified scientists for research, either for offensive or defensive purposes.Dr. MacArthur ‘s testimony went on and he informed the subcommittee that a research program to explore the feasibility of developing such a disease, “a synthetic biological agent, an agent that does not naturally exist and for which no natural immunity could be acquired,” would take only about 5 years to complete, and would cost $10 million.
2. Within the next 5 to 10 years, it would probably be possible to make a new infective microorganism, which could differ, in certain important aspects from any known disease-causing organisms. Most important of these is that it might be refractory to the immunological and therapeutic processes upon when we depend to maintain our relative freedom from infectious disease. [Emphasis added.]”
As readers may expect, the Army that year was given its fully requested appropriation. As to whether or not the new biological disease Dr. MacArthur spoke of went into production is unknown, but former Army scientists with Fort Detrick’s Special Operation Division (SOD), speaking under terms of anonymity, say the program had actually already begun several years prior to 1969 under a reformatted Project MK/NAOMI. That project was the ultra-secret joint CIA-SOD program that was organized in late 1950. One former SOD researcher said, “The idea of a man-made disease that the immune system couldn’t handle had been proposed much earlier in the late 1950s with a fair amount of field work conducted in the process.” When I attempted to interview other SOD researchers about the manufacturing of an AIDS-like virus at Fort Detrick people clammed up and shook their heads. Said one microbiologist, “I can’t discuss that. You know as well as I do that if I said anything at all about that it would be like putting a gun to my head.” Said another coyly, “We had ability to do practically anything we wanted to do back then; to create any diseases we wanted to, but what we did and did not do is not a subject I can discuss. Lets just say that nothing was beyond our reach.” Answers such as these provided me with little satisfaction or comfort. I became increasingly uneasy about the smugness of some of the replies. When some replies were made along with what I considered terribly racially-biased remarks, I often wished I had never brought the subject up.
Ethnic WeaponsAt about the same time as retro-virus work began, Army researchers at Fort Detrick began intensive research into what it dubbed “ethnic weapons.” These were chemical and biological weapons targeted at various and specific ethnic groups. When I first encountered the term in a conversation with a former colleague of Frank Olson and inquired as to what it meant, he explained, “Weapons aimed at selected ethnic groups. Like Blacks who are particularly susceptible to certain blood diseases, weapons like that for example.” Despite the vagueness of the explanation, I understood.
I was astonished to learn that the Army was conducting research in this area, and soon encountered another scientist who spoke about the subject. I asked where was this research conducted? Both Fort Detrick and Edgewood Arsenal, I was told, and on a few selected university campuses. Are human subjects involved? I asked. Servicemen and others, came the answer. Others? Selected people and groups in the field came the answer. I asked if experiments involved particular ethnic groups with other shared characteristics; for example, Caucasian homosexuals or Black homosexuals or homosexuals, in general? It could, certainly, was the reply.
“We know and understand that there are differences, innate differences, among certain groups of people due their ethnicity,” the former Army scientist said. “This presents certain vulnerabilities that can be exploited through the studied use of selected chemical and biological agents. Which in turn offers some really exciting possibilities… it’s not far fetched at all to think that we can selectively, and very affectively, attack targeted ethnic groups, inflicting measured damage ranging from incapacitation to death.”
The Army scientist I had interviewed drew my attention to an early 1970 paper written by Dr. Carl A. Larson. The paper, later the same year published by the United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was simply titled, “Ethnic Weapons.” Larson was head of the Department of Human Genetics at the Institute of Genetics, University of Lund, Sweden. Widely published in medical journals in American and Europe, Larsen held a Licentiate degree from the Medical School of Lund University and was a licensed physician.
Dr. Larson’s paper proposes that differences in gene frequencies between ethnic groups serve as the basis for researching and developing an entirely new grouping of chemical and biological warfare agents—agents with the capabilities of incapacitating or killing a targeted population with ease thus sparing other groups within the targeted population. “For example, the Army scientist explained, “say we wanted to eliminate all those people of a certain ethnic group in a targeted city and we knew that this group was highly susceptible to a certain form of cancer. We would incorporate that cancer into a weapon and through special delivery mechanisms induce the disease into those people.”
Dr. Larson’s paper cites a number of examples of “enzymatic reactions” or “enzyme polymorphisms.” He writes, “Clearly a relative advantage in one environment granted carriers of a mutant gene can be entirely void in another environment…. Careful analyses of enzymatic reaction patterns to a series of drugs are underway, and we may soon have a grid where new observations of this kind can be pinpointed.”
Larson explains that also examined are the possibilities “of the poison-provoking enzyme production, an individual adaptation observed in several instances.” He then cites one poison, milk, explaining that among Europeans intolerance to lactose, or milk sugar, “occurs as a rare recessive trait” but that “milk intolerance in various groups of non-Europeans began to accumulate, it was remembered that malnourished children in east Africa get diarrhea when treated with dried skimmed milk. Then, the enzyme lactase was found to lose its activity in the intestinal mucosa of African infants over the first four years of life.” I found Larson’s discussion of milk quite provocative because I knew from my research into Frank Olson’s work at Fort Detrick that some of it had centered on milk, Asians, and microbiology. However, everyone I interviewed on the subject refused to give me specifics about this phase of Olson’s research.
Interestingly, Dr. Larson also briefly mentions the drug, or “incapacitant”, known as BZ “which before the present renaissance as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) caused epidemic outbursts of Saint Anthony’s fire in the Dark Ages. With ditran-like compounds, BZ shares the capacity to produce transient toxic psychosis, sometimes compared to schizophrenia.”
Larson’s paper goes on, “Surrounded with clouds of secrecy, a systematic search for new incapacitating agents is going on in many laboratories. The general idea, as discussed in open literature, was originally that of minimum destruction.” Subtlety paying his respects to the Army’s earlier joint CIA top-secret drug experiment of 1951 in Pont St. Esprit, France, Larson’s paper states, “Psychochemicals would make it possible to paralyze temporarily entire population centers without damage to homes and other structures. In addition, with the small quantities required for full effect of modern incapacitating agents, logistics problems would be minute. The effective dose of BZ-type agents amounts to micrograms.”
Larson’s “Ethnic Weapons” paper concludes by stating that during the first half of 1969, “several laboratories reported factors engaged in passing over the genic message from DNA, the primary command post, to RNA which relays the chemical signal. The enzymatic process for RNA production has been known for some years, but now the factors have been revealed which regulate the initiation and specificity of enzyme production. Not only the factors have been found, but their inhibitors. Thus, the functions of life lie bare to attack.”
Larson’s paper makes no mention of field experiments in support of ethnic weapons but from other Army sources we know that the United States did conduct such experiments. In addition to the Pont St. Esprit experiment, cited above, others were conducted in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where the U.S. Navy launched a number of experiments at a vital naval supply depot. These surreptitious experiments, in the Navy’s own words, were aimed at “Negroes, whose incapacitation would seriously affect the operation of the supply system.” The Navy secretly employed an aerosol delivery mechanism whereby Asperillus fumigates was employed to simulate Coccidioides. Coccidioides immitis is a lethal fungus that causes valley fever. Fort Detrick and Edgewood Arsenal scientists studied the fungus for years in the 1950s and 1960s. Their experiments revealed that African Americans, as opposed to whites, were much more likely to die from exposure to valley fever.
In addition to Navy’s experiments, there were also a series of SOD experiments conducted in the early 1950s in Florida that specifically targeted African Americans in impoverished areas. In several neighborhoods outside of Miami, as well as at least one location nearby where Disneyworld is today, SOD scientists conducted a number of experiments using mosquitoes as vectors for various biological agents. Files concerning the operations, according to the Army, were destroyed in 1973. Additionally, at about the same time, Fort Detrick researchers working under the CIA’s MK/NAOMI project targeted a number of inner-city minority neighborhoods in Chicago and New Orleans with several aerosol attacks using chemicals thought to be harmless. Perhaps coincidentally, months following the urban experiments, a large number of elderly African American fell seriously ill and died. One former SOD biochemist, interviewed in his Maryland home in 1999, told me, “We weren’t all that sure of the supposed harmless agent used. I don’t even recall what it was. I’d be lying if I said anyone really was all that concerned about the targeted areas to begin with.”
In 1974 and 1975, Dr. Richard Hammerschlag, a biomedical researcher with nearly 20 years of experience with several west coast medical institutions, including City of Hope National Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente Health Research and Cancer Services, sounded a note of alarm about ethnic weapons research at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. After learning of the Army’s experiments with ethnic weapons, as well as learning that the CIA under its revamped MK/ULTRA program, now called MK/SEARCH, was also researching ethnic weapons, Hammerschlag had began warning other scientists of the serious dangers of such research.
At the Chemical Society gathering, Hammerschlag said, “South East Asians, for example, have a different genetic composition than do Caucasians. It’s therefore possible that these people are susceptible to diseases westerners are not, and we know that’s true. Its been learned that certain proteins exist in the blood of specific groups. These proteins occur in multiple forms and are called polymorphysims. We call them blood types, such as A, B, O, and RH. And they appear in different frequencies among different groups of people. For example, blood type B almost never appears in American Indians. But accounts for 30-40 percent of certain population in South East Asia and Southern India.”
Dr. Hammerschlag eventually approached Dr. Larson to speak about ethnic weapons. Larson, according to a 1983 report, told Hammerschlag that if the research continued the efforts could be “suicidal” for humankind. Larson sounded this warning over 25 years ago, and by most accounts the efforts he warned about have continued unabated.
H.P. Albarelli Jr. is the author of A TERRIBLE MISTAKE: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments [TrineDay Publishers, 2010]. Anyone reprinting this article must give credit to its author.