New Eastern Outlook
by Henry Kamens
Predictably, since the US signed the Bio Weapons Convention it has invented increasingly innovative ways of circumventing it. The scientific community and public have responded by looking the other way, due to fear, ignorance or even personal safety.
One of the most favoured circumvention mechanisms has been to hide bio weapons programmes under the flimsy disguise of civilian research projects with a public health component, as has happened in Georgia and various other countries involved. But all such projects are now being placed under closer scrutiny, and are prompting a wave of denials, unsupported by actual facts, which embassies do not make when there is nothing to deny.
The US government long denied the existence of the first biolab uncovered in Georgia, despite the fact it was officially opened by the President of Georgia and named after a US Senator. Now it can be demonstrated that there are more labs here, which may be linked with any of the disease outbreaks we have seen in the region and beyond, and even the Ebola outbreak now threatening the US itself.
In early October RIA Novosti caused a storm by blaming the United States for the deadly Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the West African countries known to host American biological warfare laboratories. The Russians would say that, wouldn’t they? However, they supported this allegation by quoting Prof. Francis Boyle, a leading American professor and expert on international law.
Boyle was responsible for drafting the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, the American implementing legislation for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. He might therefore be presumed to have studied this subject in some depth, and not have a reason to attack his own paymasters.
“US government agencies have a long history of carrying out allegedly defensive biological warfare research at labs in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is now the point agency for managing the Ebola spill-over into the US,” Boyle was quoted as saying. He has no doubt that what is happening is not a natural outbreak but bio weapons research gone astray and dismisses all claims that they are involved in civilian research.
“That is what they tell you. But if you study what the CDC and the Pentagon do… They say it is defensive, but this is just for public relations purposes. It’s a trick. They say, “We have to develop a vaccine”, so that’s their defensive argument. Then what they do is to develop the bio-warfare agent itself. [This is] usually by means of DNA genetic engineering. And then they say, “Well to get the vaccine we have to develop the bio-warfare agent” – usually by DNA genetic engineering – and then they try to work on the vaccine. So it’s two uses type of work,” Boyle says.
The professor claims he has “absolute proof” from a Pentagon document that the Center of Disease Control was doing bio-warfare work for the Pentagon in Sierra Leone, the country at the heart of the outbreak, as early as 1988. Indeed it was probably doing it long before then, because constructing the lab would have taken some time. “We know that Fort Detrick and the Centers for Disease Control are over there, Tulane University, which is a well-known bio-warfare centre here in USA – I would say notorious for it – is there,” Boyle says.
What we know for a fact is that more than 5,000 people have died in what is the worst Ebola outbreak in history and the first to have occurred in West Africa. It began in southern Guinea in February and has spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and the US agencies known by insiders to be engaged in biological warfare have labs in these countries where bio-agents are prepared.
The biolab previously uncovered in Georgia was the Senator Richard E. Lugar Center, which is conveniently near Tbilisi Airport. People and supplies can be brought into the country, and taken out of it, at a moment’s notice. This was also under the CDC until the Saakashvili regime fell and the story of its true purpose was broken by local journalist Jeffrey Silverman, who holds Georgian citizenship.
However this lab is a decoy. The real dirty work is done at other, less obvious facilities which have been around so long that nobody questions what they do. If the Lugar Center goes down, these other labs will carry on producing bio-agents as usual.
The jewel in the crown of the bio-weapons programme in Georgia is very probably the G. Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology. This is an internationally known centre of bacteriophage research and applied microbiology. This was established in 1923, as the World Centre of Bacteriophage Research, and is therefore a native Georgian facility inherited from Soviet times, not a political stunt put there by a foreign government.
During the Soviet period the Institute was part of the all-Soviet Ministry of Health, known first as the Institute of Microbiology, Epidemiology and Bacteriophages and later as the Scientific-Research Institute of Vaccines. It therefore has considerable “independent” scientific credibility. It is on this basis that it also got involved with the “civilian research” into biological agents, in conjunction with the Lugar Center.
There is also at least one other lab involved in producing bio-agents. It is in Kutaisi, a regional city where, by some strange coincidence, the Georgian Parliament was relocated to by former President Saakashvili. At this point he was running scared of mobs of protestors in Tbilisi, and seeking to build a new power base elsewhere. The other facilities people might raise an eyebrow at, such as the torture chambers in the woods near Zugdidi also uncovered by Silverman, are in areas run by Saakashvili-supporting local crime gangs.
These labs are connected by a US company operating in Georgia, Bechtel National. This is the front company holding the umbrella for conducting bio weapons research, as it has done in the countries where the Ebola outbreak originated. It has longstanding connections with the CDC and the other agencies mentioned by Professor Boyle, and also a longstanding deal with the Georgian Technology Management Company (TMC) on biological non-proliferation, as if this would be necessary.
Bechtel National and the US Naval “go between” have contracts with most if not all of the Georgian government agencies. It could therefore do all kinds of work to benefit the Georgian people, who live in crumbling blocks and are surrounded by now-dilapidated Soviet-era constructions in need of repair. But what does it actually do in Georgia?
The first of these appear to be fairly innocuous civil engineering projects. However, there is a concentration of work at the Eliava Institute, the Kutaisi lab and Central Reference Lab, the new name given to the Richard E. Lugar Center after these projects were completed, for which Bechtel itself, not an external company, is listed as the customer. Of all the work it could do, this is what it does, much to the concern of those who endure the Soviet heritage daily.
Bechtel is in Georgia to further the biological weapons programme, just as it was in Africa. The Eliava Institute, which does not have to import experts and whose work and existence are not questioned (which is why it is not near the airport) is part of the same programme. The Bechtel project list actually means that the same facilities found at the Richard E. Lugar Center, including what looks very like a mortuary, have been installed at Eliava. The Lugar Center was constructed for the express purpose of studying bio-agents, and this was considered a necessary facility for such a study.
The rationale for opening the soon-to-be-declared-non-existent Lugar Center was that biological agents were causing diseases in cattle, and research needed to be carried out. Therefore biological agents were in Georgia before the Lugar Center existed, however that happened. There has also been some experimental vaccines, naturally donated by the US Department of Defense, tested on an unsuspecting Georgian population—as white rats, according to Silverman.
To build counter-agents you must first have sufficient stocks of the weapons-grade material or “infecting agent” you are trying to counter. If these were not already in Georgia they would have to be imported in order for a scientific research institute to function. Creating such a centre provides justification for importing such materials legally in any quantity.
It would be nice to know more about the three labs mentioned. As they are all now public facilities, under Georgian government and therefore public control, most of what goes on at them shouldn’t be too hard to find out. However, anyone who approaches these labs is turned away without explanation, if they are lucky. The unlucky ones have bricks thrown at them and mysteriously lose their jobs, citizenship and health insurance. They are still waiting for other explanations of why these things have happened.
When the story about the Lugar lab broke last year it was categorised as a BSL3 facility. This meant that the agents it was dealing with could cause serious or potentially lethal disease, but treatable ones. Jeffrey Silverman now says that research is actually being conducted into agents that require BSL 4 facilities, (i.e., they cause diseases for which there is no known cure). He has no scientific proof, [at least what he is willing to share] but has been right so far, and the Eliava Institute has the known capacity to do this.
Any country the US enters to serve its purposes develops some resistance to the “friendly” US presence. It is now becoming clear that whole countries will rapidly have to become BSL4 facilities to protect themselves from US dirty tricks for which there are no known cure.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.