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USA/Africa: Anthrax, History and Security

by Africa Action Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2002 at 11:21 AM

In the New York Times of July 2, columnist Nicholas Kristof attacked FBI foot dragging in the investigation of last year's anthrax attacks. In particular, Kristof pointed to the failure of the FBI to fully investigate "Mr. Z," rumored within the biodefense community to be a prime suspect. "If Mr Z. were an Arab national, he would have been imprisoned long ago," Kristof commented. "Mr. Z" is identified elsewhere in news stories and on the internet as Steven J. Hatfill, an American bioterrorism specialist who is reported to have served in the Rhodesian military in the 1970s.


Summary Background Note

* The world's largest outbreak of human anthrax occurred in rural Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from 1978-80 where 10,738 cases were recorded and 182 people died. There is significant evidence that this outbreak was the result of covert action by Rhodesian security forces, with the assistance of South African specialists in biological warfare.

* Dr. Wouter Basson, the man who headed South Africa's biological warfare program, refused to testify before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and was acquitted by a South African judge in April 2002 on criminal charges of murder, conspiracy, fraud, and drug possession, despite evidence presented by witnesses in a trial which lasted more than two years. As a result, many details of the South African and Rhodesia covert operations in this period still remain obscure.

* Steven J. Hatfill, a biodefense specialist who was employed at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease at Fort Detrick, Maryland from 1997 to 1999, and continues to work in the biodefense field, has been among those questioned by the FBI in connection with the anthrax attacks of 2001. However, critics say the investigation has been lethargic. Hatfill, born in St. Louis in 1953, reportedly served with the Rhodesian Special Air Squadron (SAS) and Selous Scouts in the late 1970s, and attended medical school and worked in Rhodesia and South Africa, returning to the U.S. only in 1995. On July 1, Hatfill took up a new job as associate director of Louisiana State University's National Center for Biomedical Research and Training, and the Baltimore Sun reported on July 18 that the FBI says he is not a suspect.

Whether or not Hatfill is fully cleared or does prove to be implicated in the 2001 attacks, one must question both the previous lack of U.S. government curiosity about his background and the failure of the U.S. media to highlight the 1978-80 anthrax attacks in Rhodesia as a precedent to current events. This history also raises other specific questions. Among them:

(1) Has the FBI investigated whether Hatfill had any connection to the 1978-80 anthrax outbreak in eastern Zimbabwe?

(2) What do other agencies of the U.S. government know about this outbreak and related incidents in the counter-insurgency wars waged by the white minority regimes in Southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s? What did they know at the time?

(3) Who has moral and legal liability for the human damage caused by these programs?

(4) Given the failure to date to expose this history to full scrutiny, are there additional legal or official actions that could be taken to facilitate the efforts of investigative journalists and scholars?

Other sources available on-line, in additional to those excerpted below, include:

David Martin, "Human Anthrax Scares were a Major Reality in Southern Africa" Southern Africa News Features

[note: headline on article in web version is incorrect]

Chapter 22, "Rhodesia, 1978" in Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Plague Wars. Macmillan, 2000. Full text of chapter available on line at:

Additional related news stories can be located by searching under "Steven Hatfill" at


Who is Steven Hatfill? The FBI has searched a U.S. bio-warfare scientist's apartment as part of its anthrax investigation.

Laura Rozen

American Prospect

Web Exclusive 6/27/2002

[brief excerpts only; full text at:]

FBI agents investigating last fall's anthrax attacks searched the Frederick, Maryland, apartment of Steven J. Hatfill, a former U.S. government bio-defense scientist, this past Tuesday. Hatfill is not a suspect in the anthrax case, the FBI says. Rather, law-enforcement officials have told The Associated Press that Hatfill consented to the search in order to clear his name, which The New York Times reports has been much mentioned on Web sites frequented by scientists, journalists, and others who've taken an interest in the anthrax investigation.

Tuesday's search of Hatfill's home by the FBI was reportedly not the first time the bureau has had contact with him in the course of its ongoing investigation. Sources close to the investigation say that he had been questioned on four previous occasions by FBI investigators, and that he'd been given, and passed, a polygraph exam. These sources also say that Hatfill has always been very cooperative with the bureau.

Who is Steven Hatfill? The Prospect has spoken with dozens of biowarfare scientists, other government contractors who work in bio-defense, former medical school associates and colleagues, and sources close to the FBI investigation to get a clearer picture of the Maryland scientist. Hatfill belongs to a small pool of people who have access to and detailed knowledge of how to grow and weaponize the highly lethal, concentrated dry powder spores of anthrax that were sent in letters to media personalities and members of Congress last October. Specifically, by virtue of his government contracts, Hatfill had access to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Maryland, up until early March. As one of a handful of places in the country where scientists grow the most lethal germs in order to develop vaccines to defend against them, USAMRIID and its Utah cousin, Dugway Proving Grounds, have been at the center of the eight-month-old FBI investigation. Last month, genetic analysis of the letter-anthrax suggested that it was indistinguishable from a strain developed at USAMRIID.

Hatfill, who was employed as an Ebola researcher at USAMRIID from 1997 to 1999, has since worked as a government contractor who specializes in training U.S. Special Forces, embassy employees, emergency workers, and other government officials to respond to biological attacks. Today, Hatfill continues to perform bio-defense training work, to which his colleagues say he is passionately devoted.

Hatfill's longer biography is riddled with gaps where classified projects presumably belong. The son of a thoroughbred horse breeder, Hatfill was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1953, then raised in Illinois. He studied biology at small Southwestern College in Kansas, taking a year off midway through to work with a Methodist doctor in Zaire. He graduated in 1975, married in 1976, had a daughter, and got divorced in 1978. From 1975 to 1978, he served with the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, while simultaneously, his resume says, serving in the Special Air Squadron (SAS) of the white supremacist regime in Rhodesia. He attended medical school in Rhodesia from 1978 to 1984, and then moved to South Africa, where he completed various military-medical assignments while obtaining three master's degrees, studying for a doctoral degree, and practicing in a South African clinic.

"After graduating from Southwestern College," he wrote his alumni newsletter, "Hatfill received a medical degree from the Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine in Rhodesia, with board certification in hematological pathology from South Africa. The South African government recruited him to be a medical officer on a one-year tour of duty in Antarctica, and he completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford University in England. His military background includes the United States Army's Institute for Military Assistance, the Rhodesian SAS, and Selous Scouts [Rhodesian counterinsurgency forces]."

There is something curious about Hatfill's claim, on his resume, to have worked concurrently with the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance in Fort Bragg and with the Rhodesian Special Air Squadron. Indeed, several of his associates have told the Prospect that Hatfill bragged of having been a double agent in South Africa -- which raises some intriguing questions. Was the U.S. military biowarfare program willing to hire and give sensitive security clearances to someone who had served in the apartheid-era South African military medical corps, and with white-led Rhodesian paramilitary units in Zimbabwe's civil war two decades earlier? Or did Hatfill serve in the Rhodesian SAS, and later in the South African military medical corps, at the behest of the U.S. government? ...

Indeed, Hatfill has been offering the press warnings about bioterror-attack scenarios for several years. [see article on web for details]

In all his appearances in The Washington Times, Insight, and other print sources, Hatfill stressed a single, consistent message: The United States is woefully under-prepared for an inevitable biological terrorism scenario. It's a sentiment shared by many of Hatfill's colleagues in the U.S. bio-defense community -- in particular, William C. Patrick, one of the founders of the U.S. biological weapons program. ...

In January 1999, Hatfill went to work for Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a large defense contractor. As a specialist in biological defenses working on contract for various government agencies, Hatfill continued to have access to the Fort Detrick lab; the Army's chemical weapons defense testing facility in Edgewood, Maryland; Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah; and other government labs and military facilities depending on his assignments.

... Why did he lose his clearance [in August 2001]? One military official recounts the story he says Hatfill told him. In this telling, the difficulties began last summer, when Hatfill allegedly applied for a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) security clearance in order to bid for a top-secret contract with a government agency, perhaps the CIA.

To qualify for this clearance, he was reportedly required to take a polygraph test. Hatfill allegedly told the military official that he failed the polygraph on questions concerning his activities in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The people conducting the polygraph were amateurs, Hatfill allegedly complained to his interlocutor; they couldn't understand what Cold Warriors like himself had to do in Rhodesia. The military official recalls Hatfill as saying that his father-in-law had been killed by rebels in Rhodesia, and that he had consequently undertaken some actions that caused concern when he was given his polygraph test.

Hatfill has appealed the loss of his security clearance in a process that is pending. ...


Anthrax Epizootic in Zimbabwe, 1978-1980: Due to Deliberate Spread?

Meryl Nass, M.D.*

* Dr. Nass, at the time of publication, was affiliated with Wing Memorial Hospital, Palmer, Massachusetts and the Department of Internal Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA USA. Her continued work on anthrax is available at her web site

Physicians for Social Responsibility Quarterly 1992: 2-198-209

[Brief excerpts only in this posting. Full version, with footnotes, available at]

The largest recorded outbreak of anthrax among humans, and possibly the largest among animals, occurred over a decade ago in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, during the time of its civil war [1]. The outbreak was reported in a series of articles by J. C. A. Davies and others [from 1980-1985] in the Central African Journal of Medicine [2-8]. Little was written about it outside of Africa. Over 10,000 human cases and 182 human deaths were documented [9]. Human cases were secondary to an unprecedented outbreak in cattle [5,10].

Unusual Features of the Epizootic

There were a number of surprising aspects of this epizootic. First, the large number of cases was unusual. Ten thousand seven hundred thirty-eight human cases were documented in Zimbabwe from January 1979 through December 1980 [9]. According to Mandell's Principles and Practice of Infectious Disease, published in 1979, "about 7,000 cases are reported in the world annually" [11].The large number of human cases was particularly unusual in light of the historically low prevalence of anthrax in Zimbabwe [5]. In the 29-year period preceding the epidemic (1950-1978), the period for which records are available, a total of 334 human cases were reported in Zimbabwe. By comparison, during the same period (1950-1978) in the United States, 459 human cases were reported [12]. Clearly, anthrax was a rare disease in both countries. ... Yet during the war, anthrax became one of the country's major causes of hospital admissions.

Second, the geographic scope of this outbreak was highly unusual for anthrax. Most outbreaks are characterized by a high degree of focality [11]. Cases occur in limited areas only. Yet in Zimbabwe from 1978 to 1980, the disease spread from area to area, until six of the eight provinces were affected [13]. ...

Humans generally acquire the infection by handling meat or other products from infected animals. Butchering, preparing, and eating meat from an animal infected with anthrax are frequent causes of the disease in humans and accounted for many cases in Zimbabwe. ...

Many of the Zimbabwe cases occurred in areas where anthrax had not been recorded before. Yet in the rest of the world, epizootics generally occur in areas that are known to have produced anthrax outbreaks in the past, where there is assumed to be low-density contamination of the soil. ...

Fourth, the epizootic was almost entirely confined to the Tribal Trust Lands. These were areas that had been assigned to Zimbabwe's blacks when the country was divided into distinct areas for black and white habitation by the Land Apportionment Act of 1930. ... By the end of 1979, one-third of Tribal Trust Lands were affected with anthrax, approximately 17% of the land area of the country [10]. Davies noted that "the commercial (white-owned) farming areas appear to have been almost completely spared" [5]. ...

Fifth, the timing of the epizootic coincided with the final months of a long and particularly brutal guerrilla war. Some guerrilla activity had begun in the late 1960s, but the war did not escalate significantly until the mid 1970s. The war ended in late February 1980, when elections were held, and ZANU and ZAPU, the parties affiliated with the two guerrilla armies, won an overwhelming victory. ...

Human anthrax case reports by month are available for the provinces of Matabeleland, Midlands, and Mashonaland [5]. In Matabeleland and Midlands, cases peaked in November and December 1979, respectively, and decreased thereafter. In Mashonaland, there were two peaks, the first in February 1980 and a second in December 1980. After the war ended in late February 1980, only sporadic cases were seen in previously unaffected areas, and there appeared to be no further geographic spread of the epizootic. However, anthrax has remained enzootic in Zimbabwe since the war ended, a not surprising finding, given the persistence of the spores in nature.


Weighing all available evidence, it is suggested here that a plausible explanation for the sudden peak of anthrax in the Tribal Trust Lands beginning in November, 1978, is that one or more units attached to the Rhodesian military may have air dropped anthrax spores in these territories. This action would expose cattle to the disease through ingestion or inhalation (or both) of anthrax spores. Humans would have acquired the disease from meat or meat products.


Chemical and Poison Weapons

Was there a parallel, well-documented use of other weapons considered abhorrent during the conflict and a willingness to overlook civilian casualties? In his memoirs, Flower admits to the deliberate distribution of poisoned clothing, which killed hundreds of black guerrillas [68]. Yet clothing can be worn by anyone. Organophosphate poisoning from tainted clothing affected civilians as well, and poisoning by this means became documented in the Zimbabwe medical literature [69,70].

Dr. Paul Epstein, an American physician practicing in Mozambique for the Ministry of Health, with support from the American Friends Service Committee in 1978, treated large numbers of Zimbabweans, who had arrived from ZANLA training camps, for a bleeding disorder. Initially a viral hemorrhagic fever was suspected. But there were many deaths despite treatment. Eventually a fat biopsy was obtained and sent for toxin analysis; this analysis revealed the presence of warfarin [71]. Thus another unconventional mode of warfare, warfarin poisoning, may have been employed by some within the Rhodesian military. ...


A case has been made for the possible deliberate use of anthrax as an agent of biological warfare, directed at African-owned cattle, in the final months of the Zimbabwe civil conflict.

The characteristics of Zimbabwe's anthrax epizootic are unusual. Outside Zimbabwe, outbreaks of animal anthrax have remained confined to enzootic areas or could be traced to contaminated animal products and have been generally self-limited. Zimbabwe's epizootic did not conform to this expected behavior, and the arguments put forward to explain it are unconvincing.

A military role for anthrax can be postulated, given the strategic control of food and other resources that existed at the time. Deliberate impoverishment of rural blacks may conceivably have been a strategy as well. Desperate tactics appear to have been used by the Rhodesian military elsewhere as the war drew to a close. Finally, there have been recent reports attributed to confidential eyewitnesses that support the theory of the deliberate spread of anthrax.


This material is being reposted for wider distribution by Africa Action (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Africa Action's information services provide accessible information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

Documents previously distributed, as well as a wide range of additional information, are also available on the Web at:

To be added to or dropped from the distribution list write to For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the source mentioned in the posting.

Africa Action

110 Maryland Ave. NE, #508, Washington, DC 20002.

Phone: 202-546-7961. Fax: 202-546-1545.


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