Greatest Hits

None of these (tongue in cheek) "greatest hits" are mine alone. Others that should be credited are listed in parenthesis at the end of each entry. The blame, however, is entirely mine.

The "Gay Bomb"

I had no inkling of what would come to pass when, in 2005, I posted an obscure 1990s US Air Force weapons research proposal online. One of the items of the proposal was to fund preliminary research into a biochemical bomb to cause soldiers to become gay. (No word on what would happen if they were gay already!) The results of such a bomb, the Air Force researchers reasoned, would cause a collapse in enemy morale.

While I merely thought of the idea as a kookier artifact from a more serious line of Freedom of Information Act inquiry, my friend Russ Kick, famous for extracting the first Gulf War II flag-draped coffin pictures from Dick Cheney's censorial deathgrip, did understand how interesting a "gay bomb" (not my term) would seem to the media. Russ sent a note about it to the readers of his website.

The next morning, every large US media outlet - and dozens of small ones - just *had* to know more. The Pentagon, business, and lifestyle CNN beats were all viciously competing with one another to get the story first. Difficult since I have one phone line and no secretary. I didn't know if I should laugh or cry. It was obviously a sad example of what passed for network 'news gathering' circa 2005.

Just when the gay bomb seemed to fade into the past, a San Francisco TV station recycled the story in mid-2007. It went even bigger the second time around. I haven't watched TV in over fifteen years, but later saw the clips when the gay bomb became a running joke on the Tonight Show for a week and a plot twist on the series "40 Rock".

I did have some fun the second time around. I was on the "Bluff the Listener" game on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me on US public radio. I corresponded with a gay pornography company re: technical advice on "non-lethal" chemical weapons. I eagerly provided the names and numbers of the responsible Marine Corps officers to inquisitive reporters (and the porn company), reveling in the image of the Marines' chagrin as the phone rang (again) with more reporters calling about this gay bomb thing.

(Russ Kick)

Texas A&M Bioweapons Infections

On a more serious note, in 2007 I caught Texas A&M University in violation of federal bioterrorism law, a story that went national and ... well, I'm really not sure if it did any good.

In 2006, A&M researchers repeatedly accidentally infected themselves with biological weapons agents. A&M failed to report these illnesses to the federal government, as it was required to do. Then it tried to cover the problem up. When I finally broke through their lawyers and extracted the evidence from them, it was a personal success (I had claimed such infections were covered up for some time).

The story was quite embarrassing for the flag-waving, screaming-death-is-upon-us biodefense establishment, which is far more accustomed to conjuring up blood-curdling fantasies about bearded Muslim bio-bombers than defending some of their own, caught violating the Bioterrorism Act garbed in white lab coats. As a bonus, the news instantly sank Texas A&M's bid to host a major biodefense lab called NBAF.

None of the problems I documented at A&M were found by inspectors from the Centers for Disease Control. Until they read my news releases. Texas A&M eventually agreed to pay a $1 million fine to settle their violations. There was no finders fee! The cash went to the same CDC nincompoops who failed to do their jobs.

Perhaps the most, err, rewarding part of the experience was testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee a few months later, at the same hearing where Texas A&M's President - in essence compelled to testify - unleashed a barrage of University mea culpas. Only alumnus and Congressman Joe Barton, who later achieved infamy for apologizing to BP about its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, sought to assuage A&M's shame.

If I sound a little mean when I gloat about A&M's national embarrassment and billion dollar lab loss (NBAF), understand that A&M stonewalled for six months. A&M lawyers tried everything they could to stop Public Information Act queries; but in the end, when the District Attorney threatened A&M leaders with a grand jury, they decided sending me the papers was preferable to facing criminal indictments. The bitterness of that fight left me little sympathy for the University and the leaders there who willfully violated federal law and then covered up their actions.

(Emily Ramshaw)

Out of Africa

In 2003, under the pseudonym Jay McGown, I began identifying and writing up biopiracy cases for the Edmonds Institute, a small NGO based in Washington State. One of the reports, a 2005 paper titled Out of Africa: Mysteries of Access and Benefit Sharing, proved particularly popular, attracting a good bit of public attention both in Africa and the US and Europe.

At that point, I was trying to dedicate myself to the Sunshine Project, so "Jay McGown" dodged the press. Despite remaining mute, Jay was widely quoted in articles about the report, none of which identified the name as a pseudonym. It was strange.

(Beth Burrows)

Ejected from the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

A proud moment came in mid-2002, when the Sunshine Project went to a meeting of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at The Hague to present a dossier on US "non-lethal" chemical weapons research. The US government responded to our initiative with an unprecedented move: John Bolton's negotiators tried to kick us out by blackballing our request to attend the meeting as non-governmental observers.

The ejection took form at a meeting of the CWC's Bureau as the conference began. The story of the blackball was related to us by a European government delegate who was present at the Bureau meeting. Approving NGO attendance at the CWC is usually a bureaucratic formality, so until the US stopped the Sunshine Project, no NGO had ever been denied accreditation to the Chemical Weapons Convention for what it intended to say.

We took Bolton's blackball as a profound compliment. It backfired badly for the US. A friendly NGO loaned us space across the street from the CWC venue, and when we presented the dossier, the conference room was standing room only. Delegates overflowed into the hall because everybody was curious about the Sunshine Project, and what it had to say that the US found threatening enough to try to silence.

Only weeks later, Russia used a "non-lethal" chemical weapon, provoking devastating civilian casualties (see below). At about this time, all US research into this area of weaponry was classified secret.

(Jan van Aken)

The World is Still (Maybe) Free of Genetically Engineered Smallpox

Back in 2005, I found out that US biodefense researchers had hatched a plan to genetically engineer smallpox virus, historically the worst disease to ever effect mankind. Thankfully, smallpox was eradicated from the planet in 1977 by the World Health Organization (WHO). That's because smallpox is bad. Even into the 1960s, it killed millions of people a year. It's pretty much the worst of the worst of infectious diseases. It jumps easily from person to person and if it doesn't kill you, you probably wish it did. Smallpox is really bad. Get it?

But smallpox wasn't really eradicated. The Cold War adversaries the US and Russia were permitted to keep samples of smallpox virus in laboratories, each country wrapped up in its own Strangelovian fantasy of bioarmageddon. Both sides publicly promised and committed to UN resolutions to destroy the virus stocks in 1999; but they balked. By 2005, the US had strayed so dramatically from its' pledge to destroy the virus that US Army scientists wanted to genetically engineer it. Amazingly ,the subservient WHO committee that was supposedly in charge was prepared to let them do it.

With Third World Network and other NGOs, we raised hell. Granted, the immediate aim of the US project was relatively benign - screening antiviral drugs - but allowing any genetic engineering of smallpox was a dreadful precedent that could open a Pandora's box. Eventually, in a showdown at the World Health Assembly (WHO's most important meeting), with the help of sympathetic nations (especially in Africa), we succeeded in having WHO withdraw its approval for the experiments and to reinvigorate its anemic oversight of the two remaining smallpox laboratories.

Few know what Russia and the US do in secret, but we at least held the line against openly genetically engineering this extraordinarily dangerous pathogen. A lot remains to be done to convince (force) the US and Russia to destroy their virus stocks, truly freeing the world of smallpox at last. But, inshallah, this will eventually be done.

(Lim Li Ching, Jonathan Tucker)

Moscow Theater Tragedy

After Vladimir Putin's decision to "gas" Chechen rebels and their Moscow theater hostages in late 2002, I was one of few people outside of government that had been paying attention to research and development of so-called "non-lethal" (bio)chemical weapons. Putin's "non-lethal" chemical directly caused the death of well over 100 people. When the Russians let loose their secret weapon, I was overwhelmed by media for a couple of weeks.

The Moscow theater tragedy was a sad experience for me and Jan van Aken, my Sunshine Project partner. In the preceding couple of years, we had tried hard to draw attention to the dangers of such weapons; but we were mostly stonewalled by governments, ridiculed by more than one alleged biological and chemical arms expert, and our funding proposals for "non-lethal" weapons work were rejected as irrelevant by charitable foundations.

Obviously our concern was actually well-founded; but it took a horrendous event before anyone paid attention. In hindsight, the lack of support we received for this work - even active opposition from some academic "experts" - was an early sign the intractably compromised civil society and funding culture is that surrounds chemical and biological weapons issues.

Censored by the Marine Corps

One of my passions is the Freedom of Information Act and related laws. From 2000-2004, I waged a FOIA campaign to extract "non-lethal" weapons data from the US Marine Corps' Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. Through some bureaucratic machinations, in 2004 I managed to start getting some very interesting military documents on chemical weapon by various means, including clerical errors by military judge advocates.

After posting some of these documents, I received an unsettling demand from the US Marine Corps to censor them. These were public documents that I had legally obtained. When did the US Marine Corp acquire authority to censor US civilian websites? The Marines' demand caused some consternation among open records advocates.

Because the Marines suggested that the presence of the documents on the website could lead to people being harmed - "may subject Department of Defense employees to be targeted by hostile groups or organizations", I initially assented to their request. But I asked the Marines to explain exactly how posting the documents posed a physical threat to their people. They never replied. So, two weeks later, I put the documents back up, and the embarrassed Marines didn't complain again.