When U.S. attacked itself

By David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor

As scientists in the United States seek new ways to prevent more bioterrorist attacks, there's an important thing to keep in mind: Experiments to defend us from the enemy could backfire -- and even prove lethal.

At least three times in the past, San Franciscans and other Americans have been inadvertent victims of efforts designed to help shield citizens against attacks: These secret research projects were supposed to help the military and other federal agencies prepare defenses against biological warfare, nuclear terror and mass brainwashing.

The most dramatic of the biological warfare experiments was the one in San Francisco, where, in S8eptember 1950, a Navy auxiliary mine-laying vessel pumped out billions of supposedly harmless bacteria called Serratia marcescens. Winds from the sea carried the microbes over 117 square miles of the Bay Area.

Eleven patients who inhaled the bacteria were hospitalized for severe urinary and respiratory infections in San Francisco, and one died of bacterial endocarditis.

In testimony before a Senate committee in 1994, Leonard Cole, a specialist in biological terorism who teachers at Rutgers University, said that for more than 20 years, the Army continued releasing clouds of "simulant" microbes and chemicals over hundreds of populated areas.

The Army's purpose, Cole testified, was "to assess the nation's vulnerability to attack with biological weapons." But by the 1970s, Serratia marcescens was removed from the Army's list of "simulant" agents because of its dangers, Cole said, and less harmful ones were used instead.

The CIA's MK-ULTRA program 40 years ago was presumably designed to learn how to defend against enemy use of drugs to brainwash American prisoners of war or citizens at home being held by terrorists -- as well as to develop effective methods of interrogating enemies.

Hearings before a Senate Intelligence Committee in 1977 revealed some astonishing experiments, including one run out of a CIA safe house in San Francisco where agents infiltrated parties and dances to spike the drinks of guests with LSD and other hallucinogens and observe their freaked-out behavior.

One of the victims of the CIA experiments with LSD was Dr. Frank Olson, a civilian working for the army who unwittingly drank the hallucinogen after dinner in a glass of Cointreau handed to him by a CIA agent.

While being treated for violent episodes of paranoid schizophrenia, Olson jumped to his death at New York's Statler Hotel.

Ironically, Olson's job at Ford Detrick in Maryland was to assess the vulnerability of American installations to biological terror.

Early in the 1990s, reporters began learning about secret radiation experiements conducted during and after World War II when people in scores of hospitals, universities and military bases were exposed to various levels of radiation without their consent and often without their knowledge.

Finally, in 1995, a committee named by President Bill Clinton to investigate the "murky record" of the incidents reported there had been more than 4000 such experiments. In one, conducted at the University of California at San Francisco, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the universities of Chicago and Rochester, 18 people were injected with plutonium without their knowledge or consent.

The investigating panel said that while most of the experiments wer conducted "to advance biomedical science," many were intended to "advance national interests in defense or space exploration," and the investigators identified several studies in which patients died from "acute radiation effects."

San Francisco Chronicle, October 29, 2001

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