Guard the Scientists, Please

By July 28, 2002 No Comments

Infrastructure Protection is another of the new Post September 11th buzzwords in wide circulation. After all, attacks on power, water, food and transport can cripple our society, cause immense economic damage, potentially kill tens of thousands of our citizens and leave us helpless. There are people who should be included under the list of critical infrastructure to protect, and they are not politicians. We really should be guarding top scientists.

The May 4th 2002 edition of the Globe and Mail carried an article on the deaths of some 11 leading microbiologists between November 2001 and March 2002. The deaths included:

  • Benito Que, 52, on November 12th of either a beating or a stroke as four men carjacked his vehicle at his medical school parking lot in Miami. Que was an expert in infectious diseases and cellular biology at the Miami Medical School.
  • Don Wiley, 57, of the Howard Hughes Medical School at Harvard, fell off a bridge into the Mississippi River on November 16th (investigators do not believe this was a suicide). He was an expert on immune system responses to viral epidemics.
  • On November 21st, Valdimar Pasechnik, who had defected to Great Britain in 1988 after playing a leading role in Soviet biological warfare projects (including delivery systems). He was also the author of a recent paper on using viruses to cure diseases, and the cause of his death is officially considered to be a stroke.
  • On December 10th, Robert Schwartz, 57, was stabbed and slashed to death in Virginia; his daughter and some of her friends (who identify themselves as a pagan cult) have been charged in his death. He was an expert on DNA sequencing and pathogenic micro-organisms.
  • On December 14th, Nguyen Van Set, 44, died in a bizarre laboratory accident in Geelong Australia – he entered an airlock which was flooded with nitrogen. His facility had just discovered a virulent strain of mousepox which can be used to affect smallpox.
  • In Moscow, on February 9th, Victor Korshunov, 56, was fatally struck with a blunt object near his home. He was an expert on intestinal bacteria in children.
  • Ian Langford, 40, was found dead in his home in Norwich England, naked from the waist down and wedged under a chair on February 14th. His field of expertise lay with environmental risks and disease.
  • Guyang Huang, 38 shot his colleague Tanya Holzmayer, 46 in a seeming murder-suicide (though Police were hard-put to find anything other than a professional relationship between the two) in San Francisco on February 28th. Both were prominent in their profession and specialized on identifying portions of human molecular structures for precise applications of medicine.
  • David Wynn Williams, 55, was struck by a car while jogging near his home in Cambridge England on March 24th. His particular expertise lay with the survival of microbes in extreme environments.
  • On March 25th, Steven Mostow, 63, a noted expert in bio-terrorism and influenza, died piloting an airplane near Denver, Colorado.

The research community in microbiology numbers some 20,000 in the US and a similar number can be found elsewhere in the Western World. For 11 members of a community of 40,000 specialists to die in such unusual ways over a five month period is, at least, disturbing. Moreover, most of the deceased were in the upper echelons of this field. There has been an orgy of speculation on these deaths, not least because it is difficult to find a common thread beyond their common occupations.

This sort of thing, however, has been seen before and was written about in the Mackenzie Institute’s 1987 study Terrorism, “Active Measures”, and SDI by Randall Heather. In the paper, Heather mentioned the following deaths:

  • Dr. Karl-Heinz Beckurts, the director of Research at Siemens Electronics and an advisor to the West German government on physics, was killed (along with his driver) by a command detonated bomb set off by the terrorist group Red Army Faction, on July 9th, 1986.
  • Another unusual killing for the Red Army Faction was the shooting death of Dr. Ernst Zimmerman, head of the West German firm Motor-und-Turbinen (which produced tank and aircraft engines). He was shot to death in his home on February 1st 1985.
  • General Licio Giorgieri was the Director General of Italy’s Department of Space and Armaments Procurement, and was assassinated by a pair of Red Brigades gunmen on March 20th, 1987.
  • Gerold von Braunmuhl, a policy director of West Germany’s Foreign Ministry concerned with arms control issues, was shot by members of Red Army Faction on October 10th, 1986. He was the first government official killed by the group in nine years.
  • Georges Besse was the head of Renault, which had many defence contracts, and was assassinated on November 17th 1986 by Action Direct.

This series of killings were all committed with conventional terrorist weapons by known groups (although the sudden resurgence of the Red Army Faction was a bit surprising). A parallel series of deaths and disappearances was even stranger.

  • Dr. Svante Oden had been an internationally known Swedish expert on underwater acoustics. He vanished from his ten metre research boat (along with all his gear) on July 30th, 1986 inside Swedish territorial waters.
  • Vimal Dajibhai was a software engineer for Marconi Underwater systems and was working on torpedo guidance systems and an SDI related simulation system. On August 5th, 1986, he told his wife he would be working late – then he drove 170 kilometres to Bristol (a city with which he had no known connection) and fell 260 feet off a bridge over the Avon River. No motive for suicide was ever established.
  • Ashad Sharif was a 26 year old computer analyst working for Marconi Space and Defence systems near London, and was working on underwater acoustics for the Ministry of Defence. On the night of October 28th, 1986 he died when a cable was wrapped around his neck and around a tree and he then hit the accelerator – a very unusual method of suicide.
  • On January 4th, 1987, Richard Pugh, a computer hardware designer and consultant to the British Ministry of Defence was found in his home with a plastic bag over his head. The police ruled that this was an accidental death.
  • On January 8th, 1987, Avtar Singh Gida disappeared while conducting acoustical tests (he was a doctoral student working under contract to the Ministry of Defence and Marconi Space and Defence Systems). However, on May 8th 1987, he was found under an assumed name working in a Paris “Sweat Shop” for illegal migrants. No charges were laid and police considered the case closed.
  • Sometime in January 1987, Dr. John Brittan, a computer expert with the Royal Armaments Research Establishment, died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning in his home. The death was ruled to be an accident.
  • In February 1987, Victor Moore, a design engineer for Marconi Space and Defence Systems died as the result of drug overdose after spiraling into a bout of depression, familial breakup and heavy drinking in 1986.
  • Peter Peapell, was a senior lecturer at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham and a consultant with the Ministry of Defence on — among other things — beryllium metallurgy (useful in nuclear weapons design). He died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage on February 22nd, 1987. The Coroner’s inquest returned an open verdict as there was no apparent reason for suicide.
  • David Sands was a project manager and computer researcher working for Marconi contracts and on confidential projects with the Ministry of Defence on SDI and air defence related projects. On March 27th, 1987, he drove his car at 130km an hour into a disused café – and the resulting explosion was heightened by two five gallon cans of gasoline in the trunk. Again, an open verdict was returned as no grounds for suicide could be ascertained.
  • Robert Greenhalgh had been a computer defence system salesman working on a contract for the Royal Navy’s new Command and Control Centre. In mid-April 1987, he was found with slashed wrists after having fallen 20 metres from a railway bridge, and died a few days later in hospital.

These two strains of deaths, the one overtly caused by terrorists and the other suggestive of more covert means (for those unwilling to accept that these were just a very strange chain of coincidences) came at a time when the Soviet Union was struggling to find a way out of the trap it had set for itself through unconstrained defence spending to back an ideological psycho-political assault on the Western World. The Soviets were finding that they could not sustain their military in the face of dramatic improvements in Western military technology, and faced the prospect of economic collapse if they could not find some way of reform aside from the unthinkable step of dismantling the USSR and declaring that the whole arrangement had been a mistake.

In the late 1980s, the Strategic Defence Initiative and the realm of underwater warfare were the two leading areas of strategic defence for the Western World, and the threat that the US might actually start an SDI program resulted in numerous concessions from an increasingly nervous (and unstable USSR).

Heather’s paper did point out the linkages between the Soviet Union’s determined opposition to SDI and the terrorist attacks that were made on both scientists and against buildings associated with aerospace research at that time. The connections between the deaths of British (and the one Swede) who were experts on computers and underwater systems seem harder to make but it appears reasonable to point an accusatory finger at the USSR — although proving a case about some of these strange apparent suicides would be impossible. The recent series of deaths of leading microbiologists seems to be in something of the same pattern, but at least one of the murdered scientists was a Russian (and two had been Russian citizens). Moreover, Russia has no real motive for behaving this way anymore.

Biowarfare is the leading threat to the Western World for the next few decades, particularly since we refuse to engage in the offensive side of that coin and only envision defensive responses. Perhaps someone (and it would be easy to speculate who, but I’d bet they read Sun Tze’s The Art of War frequently) is copying a leaf from the despairing Soviet playbook – and might wish to damage our defences before we are even aware that a threat exists. If we spend tens or hundreds of billions on infrastructure protection and civil defence, perhaps it might be a good idea to guard those specialists who are, by the nature of their education and experience, priceless strategic assets in a world where biological warfare is becoming an increasing threat.