During the Cold War, top Army scientists toiled stealthily in
rural Maryland to make covert weapons coveted by new enemies.
For years, in total secrecy, they studied the black art of bioterrorism.
They designed deadly, silent biological dart guns and hid them in fountain
pens and walking sticks. They crunched lethal bacteria into suit buttons
that could be worn unnoticed across borders. They rigged light fixtures
and car tailpipes to loose an invisible spray of anthrax.
They practiced germ attacks in airports and on the New York subway, tracking
air currents and calculating the potential death toll.
But they weren't a band of al-Qaida fanatics -- or enemies of any kind.
They were biowarriors in the U.S. Army's Special Operations Division at
From 1949 to 1969, at the jittery height of the Cold War, the division
tested the nation's vulnerability to covert germ warfare -- and devised
weapons for secret biological attacks if the United States chose to mount
A few years ago, its story -- never before told in detail -- would have
seemed a macabre footnote to U.S. history.
Now, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the anthrax mailings and a steady stream
of government warnings on terrorism, the fears of the 1950s have returned
-- and the experiments of Fort Detrick's covert bioweapons makers suddenly
resonate in a new era. In the biological realm, there is little that any
terrorist group could concoct that Fort Detrick's "dirty tricks department,"
as veterans call it, didn't think up decades ago.
But because of the division's scant recordkeeping and the fast-disappearing
ranks of its aged scientist-warriors, the knowledge it acquired is being
lost to history.
One of the few survivors is Wallace Pannier, 76, who remembers standing
in a Frederick County field watching sheep shot with what the Army called
a "nondiscernible bioinoculator" -- a dart gun. The bosses demanded
a dart so fine that it could penetrate clothing and skin unnoticed, then
dissolve, leaving no trace in an autopsy.
"If the sheep jumped, that meant people were going to jump, too,"
said Pannier, now living a quiet life tending his flowers and shrubs in
Once perfected, the dart gun astonished those who saw it in action. Charles
Baronian, a retired Army weapons official, recalls a demonstration at
Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
"Twenty-five seconds after it was shot, the sheep just fell to the
ground," said Baronian, 73. "It didn't bleat. It didn't move.
It just fell dead. You couldn't help but be impressed."
The rest of the Army's offensive biological weapons program thought big:
500-pound anthrax bombs that could contaminate entire cities. But the
Special Operations Division -- known at Fort Detrick by its initials,
SO -- studied biowarfare on a more intimate scale, figuring ways to kill
an individual, disable a roomful of people or touch off an epidemic.
'Army has no records'
The existence of the SO Division was revealed only six years after it
shut down, in a 1975 Senate investigation into CIA abuses. Senators wanted
to know why the CIA had retained a lethal stock of shellfish toxin and
cobra venom after President Richard M. Nixon's 1969 order to destroy all
biological weapons stocks. They found that the poisons had come from the
SO Division under a CIA-Army project code-named MKNAOMI.
But records show that even CIA bosses were stymied as they tried to get
the facts on the SO Division. "The practice of keeping little or
no record of the activity was standard MKNAOMI procedure," a CIA
investigator wrote. The military offered little help, he added: "The
Army has no records on MKNAOMI or on the Special Operations Division."
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Sun, the
Army said no records of the Special Operations Division could be found.
Nor is there any mention at the National Archives, which reclassified
Fort Detrick's old biowarfare records after the Bush administration ordered
agencies to withhold anything that might aid terrorists.
Few SO Division veterans are still alive. Fewer still are willing to describe
their work. They are not sure what is still classified and don't relish
leaving biological horror tales for their grandchildren.
"I just don't give interviews on that subject," said Andrew
M. Cowan Jr., 74, the division's last chief, who is retired and living
near Seattle. "It should still be classified -- if nothing else,
to keep the information the division developed out of the hands of some
But it is possible to assemble a patchwork portrait from documents obtained
by The Sun under the Freedom of Information Act, Senate investigative
files and private document collections, including the National Security
Archive in Washington and even the Church of Scientology, which long collected
material on government mind-control research.
And a few Detrick retirees who worked in the SO Division or collaborated
with it spoke sparingly about what they know. Most are proud of their
work, pointing out that the Soviet biological program was much larger
and also developed assassination tools.
The veterans still slip into biowarrior-speak, in which "good"
means good-and-lethal. "It made a real nice aerosol," they'll
say, or "That would give you real good coverage."
All say that if the biological devices they made were used against humans,
they never learned about it. But it is impossible to be certain, they
say, because the program was strictly compartmented: One worker didn't
know what another was doing, let alone what CIA or Special Forces did
with the bioweapons.
The 1975 Senate investigation revealed that the SO Division supplied biological
materials for several planned CIA attacks, none of which were successful.
In 1960, the CIA's main contact with the SO Division, Sidney Gottlieb,
carried a tube of toxin-laced toothpaste to Africa in a plot to kill Congolese
leader Patrice Lumumba. But the CIA station chief balked and pitched the
poison into a river, a congressional investigation later revealed.
Records suggest, though they do not prove, that the SO Division also supplied
germs for CIA schemes to kill or sicken Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and
that it came up with the poisoned handkerchief that the agency's drolly-named
Health Alteration Committee sent to Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qasim
in 1963. (He survived.)
Army Special Forces also asked the SO Division to design biological assassination
weapons. Fort Detrick's engineers delivered five devices -- including
the dart gun -- collectively known as the "Big Five." But records
of what Special Forces did with the weapons remain classified, said Fort
Bragg archivist Cynthia Hayden.
If the work sounds sinister today, there were doubters at the time, too.
A 1954 Army document says high-ranking officials -- including George W.
Merck, the pharmaceutical executive and top government adviser on biowarfare
-- wanted to shut down the SO Division because they considered it "un-American."
But Fort Detrick's rank and file rarely voiced such doubts. "We did
not sit around talking about the moral implications of what we were doing,"
said William C. Patrick III, a Fort Detrick veteran who worked closely
with the SO Division. "We were problem-solving."
And if the orders came to unleash the weapons, Fort Detrick's biowarriors
During the Vietnam War, William P. Walter, who supervised anthrax production
at Fort Detrick and worked with the SO Division on projects, asked British
intelligence agents for blueprints of the office occupied by North Vietnamese
leader Ho Chi Minh. Plotting a covert germ assault is easier if the room's
cubic footage and ventilation system are known, he says.
"We thought if the president of the United States wants to kill somebody,
we want to be able to do it," said Walter, now 78 and retired in
Opening of the division
A gun or a bomb leaves no doubt that a deliberate attack has occurred.
But if someone is stricken with a sudden, fatal illness -- or an epidemic
slashes across a crowded city -- there is no way of knowing whether anyone
attacked, much less who.
That was the key conclusion of the Pentagon's Committee on Biological
Warfare in a secret October 1948 report on covert biowarfare.
At the time, the United States feared a shadowy global enemy, organized
in secret cells overseas and on U.S. soil --Communists. Echoing today's
fears, the report said the United States "is particularly vulnerable"
to covert germ attack because enemy agents "are present already in
this country [and] there is no control exercised over the movements of
Although it emphasized the threat to America, the report called for offensive
capability. "Biological agents would appear to be well adapted to
subversive use since very small amounts of such agents can be effective,"
the report said. "A significant portion of the human population within
selected target areas may be killed or incapacitated."
Setting an imaginative tone for what would follow, the report listed potential
targets: "ventilating systems, subway systems, water supply systems
... stamps, envelopes, money, biologicals and cosmetics ... contamination
of food and beverages."
Seven months later, in May 1949, the Special Operations Division quietly
opened at Fort Detrick.
The other divisions there, created during and after World War II, focused
on large-scale biological attack, said Walter, who completed a quadruple
major at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmittsburg and went to work at Fort
Detrick in 1951.
At the time, planners regarded bioweapons as a valuable military option
-- more devastating than chemical weapons, but more selective than a nuclear
"Biological agents can really cover more territory than nuclear weapons,"
Walter said. "Biological's better than nuclear because it doesn't
destroy the buildings."
Shrouded in secrecy
Fort Detrick's other divisions had diabolical tricks of their own. For
instance, Walter said, their scientists bred antibiotic-resistant bacteria
to make standard Soviet and Chinese treatments useless against U.S. weapons.
Still, the veterans say, Special Operations stood apart. You didn't apply
for SO, you were chosen. And even within the tight-lipped world of Fort
Detrick, the SO Division's secrecy was extraordinary.
"Most of the people [at Fort Detrick] didn't know what was going
on in SO," Pannier said. "And they got angry because you wouldn't
tell 'em what was going on."
When Pannier hitchhiked to Fort Detrick to take up his new assignment
in 1946, he saw so many guard towers that he thought he had been sent
to a prison. After three years there, he went home to Utah and completed
a degree in bacteriology. When he returned, his former boss recommended
him to the SO Division, "sort of a little Detrick within Detrick."
SO Division personnel -- about 75 at the unit's peak -- didn't get the
usual parking stickers. They had metal tags that could be removed from
their cars when they traveled undercover.
Pannier spent a night on the roof of the Pentagon taking air samples to
rule out a bioattack before a visit by President John F. Kennedy.
He was also assigned to see what germs were leaking from a Merck pharmaceutical
plant on the Susquehanna River, observations that would be crucial to
U.S. spies trying to identify Soviet bioweapons facilities. Pannier posed
variously as a fisherman, an air-quality tester and a driver with a broken-down
When East Bloc officials who were suspected of working in biowarfare labs
traveled abroad, U.S. agents secretly swabbed their clothes so the SO
Division could test for germs.
Fanning out across the country, SO Division officers also played the role
of bioterrorists in an era before the word had even been coined. Their
usual mock weapons were two forms of bacteria, Bacillus globigii (BG)
and Serratia marcescens (SM).
Scientists thought both were harmless, though later research found that
SM could cause illness or death in people with weakened immune systems.
In an elaborate 1965 attempt to assess how travelers might be used to
spread smallpox, SO Division officers loosed BG in the air at Washington
National Airport and at bus stations in Washington, Chicago and San Francisco,
then tracked its movement using air samplers disguised as suitcases.
Tracking travelers' routes, Fort Detrick scientists plotted on a U.S.
map the smallpox cases that would result from a real release.
The germ-spreaders were never challenged, the report noted: "No terminal
employee, passenger or visitor gave any outward indication of suspicion
that something unusual was taking place."
The next year, without alerting local officials, SO Division agents staged
a mock attack on the New York subway, shattering light bulbs packed with
BG powder on the tracks.
"People could carry a brown bag with light bulbs in it and nobody
would be suspicious," Pannier said. "But when [a bulb] would
break, it would burst. ... The trains swishing by would get it airborne."
The SO Division's report concluded that "similar covert attacks with
a pathogenic agent during peak traffic periods could be expected to expose
large numbers of people to infection and subsequent illness or death."
Understanding U.S. vulnerability may have been the main purpose of such
experiments. But defensive findings had offensive implications. No one
had to tell experimenters that Moscow, too, had a subway.
'Big Five' arsenal
If the subway tests could be explained as defensive, there was no such
ambiguity in the SO Division's development of covert biological weapons.
Mysterious characters from Fort Bragg and the CIA came and went at the
SO Division, leaving wish-lists and checking progress. For cover, CIA
visitors often wore military uniforms and said they worked for "Staff
Support Group." No one mentioned aloud the name of the agency financing
so much of the division's work.
"It was never really said, except that probably by the middle '60s
it became obvious," Pannier said. Army bosses "would ask: 'Are
you keeping them happy?'"
Most CIA records on the SO Division were apparently destroyed in 1973
by Gottlieb, the agency's liaison to Fort Detrick. But declassified invoices
the division submitted to the CIA give a sense of the work.
Germ dispensers could be concealed in many objects, such as the exhaust
system on a 1953 Mercury. ("It might look like a smoky, oil-burning
car," Pannier said.) There were invoices for fountain pens, even
"1 Toy Dog, 98 cents."
There are receipts for books with suggestive titles: The Assassins, The
Enemy Within, Dictionary of Poisons. There are rent bills for cabins at
state parks -- a favorite site for secret meetings.
And there is much ado about dogs, including supplies for a "Buster
Project." One plan for the dart guns was to knock out guard dogs
so U.S. agents could sneak into foreign facilities.
But dogs were not the primary target of the SO Division's creative efforts.
"The requirements of the Army Special Forces were the driving force
defining SOD activities, and ... Special Forces' interest included a number
of weird things, definitely among which was assassination," a CIA
retiree told an agency investigator in 1975, according to a declassified
The former CIA man referred to the arsenal that came to be called the
Big Five. "The Big Five program was devoted to assassination,"
said Patrick, who worked closely with the SO Division as chief of product
development at Fort Detrick. He calls it "the most sensitive program
we ever created at Detrick," and says its details should still be
kept secret because they might be useful to terrorists and "embarrassing
to the United States."
Walter, the former Detrick anthrax maker, calls the Big Five "hair-raising.
We really kept that thing hush-hush," he said.
Detailed descriptions of the Big Five remain classified. But documents
show that they included at least one version of the biological dart, dipped
in shellfish toxin and fired from a rifle using a pressurized air cartridge.
Walter recalled that colleagues were sent overseas to collect the mussels
that produced the poison, into which the darts would be dipped. Tiny grooves
guided the dose: "You could time a death by the load [of toxin] you
shot," he said.
Among the other Big Five weapons: a 7.62 mm rifle cartridge packed with
anthrax or botulinum toxin that would disperse in the air on impact; a
time-delay bomblet that would release a cloud of bacteria when a train
or truck convoy passed; and a pressurized can that sprayed an aerosol
of germs. The fifth is described in unclassified documents only as an
Walter recalls an effort to package the spray device in a food can for
smuggling into the Soviet Union and planting in a target's office or apartment.
"We had a hell of a time with that because we had to get Russian
cans," he said. "It had to look exactly like an ordinary can."
'Nothing has changed'
Of all the old bioweaponeers, Patrick is the only one who still has ties
to U.S. biodefense programs, working as a consultant and trainer. But
he said the government has made little effort to learn from the work of
the Special Operations Division and the larger biowarfare program.
Although bioengineering today could produce more virulent pathogens, "nothing
has changed" in the most challenging part of covert biological attack:
delivering germs so that they infect people, Patrick said.
"The problem today is there's a huge disconnect between what us old
fossils know and what the current generation knows," Patrick said.
"The good doctors at CDC [the national Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention] don't have a clue about aerosol dissemination, and the
military is not much better."
Walter, in Florida, agreed with Patrick's diagnosis. But he said it's
fine with him if the dark lessons of Fort Detrick's early days are lost
"When we all die off, that's it," he said. "If anybody
with bad intentions got hold of the things we had, it would be disastrous."
A father lost
By Scott Shane.
(Aug. 1, 2001)
Since 1953, Eric Olson has heard more than one explanation for his
father's mysterious death. Now he believes it was murder.
harvested victims' blood to boost anthrax: Ex-scientists detail Detrick
By Scott Shane.
(Dec. 23, 2001)