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Conspiracy Theories

Does a rash of mysterious deaths around the world lead to Memphis?

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It sounds like a mystery for Mulder and Scully. A string of scientists working on similar projects all over the world are found dead. A mysterious Russian with ties to biological warfare tells tales of threats that boggle the mind. A Tennessee driver-testing center employee is burned to death after being implicated in a license-selling scandal. And the United States government pushes states to adopt a doomsday law that dramatically reduces civil rights.

Chock-full of conspiracy theories and a surprising amount of verifiable data, it’s a story that’s got Web sites and talk-radio callers churning with speculations. And the theories stem from events right here in Memphis.

Formula For Death

Late on November 16, 2001, Dr. Don C. Wiley, a prominent Harvard-based microbiologist, went missing in Memphis. After attending a banquet for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at The Peabody hotel, Wiley -- one of the world’s top biochemists and rumored to be headed toward a Nobel Prize -- disappeared without a trace. Four hours after he left the Peabody, Wiley’s rented white Mitsubishi Galant was found abandoned with a full tank of gas and the keys in the ignition, pointed west on the Hernando DeSoto bridge into Arkansas.

A month later his body was found snagged on a tree 320 miles downstream in a sidewater of the Mississippi River near Vidalia, Louisiana. Bloated from the water and rendered unrecognizable by exposure to the elements, Wiley’s body was nonetheless easy to identify because his wallet and identification were still in his pants pocket.

Across the Atlantic in a rural village near Wiltshire, England, a seemingly unrelated death occurred a week after Wiley’s disappearance. Vladimir Pasechnik died of a stroke on November 23rd in the yard behind his house. Pasechnik, a Russian who defected to England in 1989, was once in charge of the Institute of Ultra Pure Biochemical Preparations, first in St. Petersburg and later in Leningrad. Pasechnik and his comrades developed and perfected potential biological weapons such as anthrax, Ebola, Marburg virus (similar to Ebola), plague, Q fever, and smallpox, eventually creating strains of these viruses stronger than any scientists had ever imagined possible.

On December 10, 2001, back in the United States, Dr. Robert M. Schwartz was found stabbed to death in his rural Loudoun County, Virginia, home. Authorities speculated at the time that Schwartz might have interrupted a burglary in process. However, investigators found no signs of forced entry and nothing seemed to be missing from the home. Schwartz, who lived alone, was a founding member of the Virginia Biotechnology Association and executive director of research and development at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology. He was extremely well respected in the field of biophysics and considered something of an expert on DNA sequencing.

Two days later and a few hundred miles south, Dr. Benito Que was found comatose on a Miami street near the University of Miami Medical School laboratory where he worked. Que died of injuries Miami police initially suspected were the result of a mugging. Later Que’s death was determined to be “natural”-- the result of a heart attack. Que was a cell biologist involved in research on infectious diseases and worked in the hematology department of the medical school.

On December 14th, two days after Que’s death, Dr. Set Van Nguyen was found dead in Geelong, Australia. Nguyen had worked as a scientist in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s animal-diseases facility for 15 years. Earlier last year two scientists at that facility were written up in the esteemed science journal Nature for their work in genetic manipulation and DNA sequencing. Specifically, the two had created a virulent form of mousepox.

“Australian scientists, Dr. Ron Jackson and Dr. Ian Ramshaw, accidentally created an astonishingly virulent strain of mousepox, a cousin of smallpox, among laboratory mice. They realised that if similar genetic manipulation was carried out on smallpox, an unstoppable killer could be unleashed” read the Nature article on the scientists.

According to the Victoria police department, Nguyen died after entering a refrigerated storage facility. “He did not know the room was full of deadly gas which had leaked from a liquid nitrogen cooling system. Unable to breathe, Mr. Nguyen collapsed and died” reads the official report.

Then, in January 2002, Ivan Glebov and Alexi Brushlinski -- both members of the Russian Academy of Science -- were killed. The Russian daily newspaper Pravda reported that Glebov died as the result of a bandit attack and simply says that Brushlinski was killed in Moscow.

On February 9th, Pravda reported the death of Victor Korshunov, head of the microbiology sub-faculty of the Russian State Medical University. Korshunov died of massive head trauma. His body was found February 8th at the entrance of his Moscow house.

Less than a week later, on February 12th, the body of Ian Langford, a senior fellow at the University of East Anglia’s Center for Social and Economic Research, was found in his blood-spattered and ransacked Norwich, England, home. The Times of London reported the following day that police and emergency technicians discovered Langford naked from the waist down and partly wedged under a chair. Coroners were unable to determine the exact cause of Langford’s death. Langford was described by The Times as being one of Europe’s leading experts on the links between human health and environmental risk.

In less than four months, then, nine of the world’s top microbiologists were dead. All had been doing research that had connections with the creation and prevention of biological warfare. But there is more to the story.

On October 4, 2001, a Siberian Airlines flight from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Novosibirsk, Siberia, was shot down over the Black Sea by an “errant” Ukrainian surface-to-air missile, killing everyone on board. The highly publicized crash rattled the 9/11-shaken nerves of people everywhere, but, according to conspiracy theorists, none were rattled more than the Israeli science community. Many in Israel believe the flight carried four or five microbiologists headed to work in one of the 50-plus scientific laboratories in Novosibirsk.

Just before the Black Sea crash, Israeli journalists were claiming that two Israeli microbiologists had been murdered by terrorists. After the crash, these same journalists claimed that Avishai Berkman, Amiramp Eldor, and Yaacov Matzner -- flight manifests confirm they were on the plane -- were top microbiologists in Israel. These journalists say that the men were the head of hematology at a major hospital, the director of Tel Aviv’s public-health department, and the director of the Hebrew University’s school of medicine, respectively. However, the names and the titles don’t match.

Then on November 24, 2001, a Swissair flight from Berlin to Zurich crashed during its landing approach. Twenty-four of the 33 people on board were killed, including the head of the hematology department at Israel’s Ichilov Hospital and directors of the Tel Aviv public-health department and the Hebrew University school of medicine.

Meanwhile, back in Memphis, on February 10th the burned-beyond-recognition corpse of Katherine Smith, a driver-testing center employee, was found in her car on U.S. 72 near Fayette County. Smith was scheduled to testify before a federal magistrate the following day against five Middle Eastern men who allegedly paid her $1,000 each for fraudulently issued Tennessee driver’s licenses.

What does it all mean? Is it a worldwide conspiracy? It sounds like a plotline from The X-Files, but these are the facts, and they’ve got conspiracy theorists all over the globe buzzing.

Terror Talk

“As a talk-radio host you get these conspiracy types all the time. I like to say to them, ‘Sir, you are being misled,’” says Lowell Ponte, host of radio’s The Lowell Ponte Show (www.talkamerica.com/lowell/) and a frequent contributor to FrontPage Magazine (www.frontpagemag.com), a news site edited by controversial writer David Horowitz.

But when he heard about the dead scientists and the driver’s-license scheme, Ponte says he realized that maybe the conspiracy theorists were onto something this time. So he read up on the issues and penned a column titled “Terror in Tennessee: The Middle East echoes in America’s Heartland.” In the column, Ponte discusses the mysterious deaths of Wiley and Smith and speculates on the possible links to global terrorism. Ponte ends the column by writing, “Reasonable people would say that any prudent look at such fatal coincidences should lead us to support President George W. Bush’s life-and-death, open-and-clandestine war against terrorism. Those with a more ‘liberal’ imagination prefer to believe that Denial really is just a river flowing past Memphis, Tennessee.”

Ponte told the Flyer that he wrote that column after reading about the Katherine Smith case in several national newspapers and reading about the dead microbiologists on some Web sites devoted to traditional news and some devoted to conspiracy theories.

“When you have two people -- both of whom are involved in activities that are significant to terrorists -- who die in the same community during a short period of time, you have to at least entertain the idea that the [events] are related,” said Ponte.

London-based author Ian Gurney also became interested in the scientists’ deaths while doing research for his next book. The book is about biological warfare and is tentatively titled The Spawn of the Devil.

“I was doing research for my book and it seemed like every week I would receive a news alert about another microbiologist dying,” Gurney told the Flyer. “The story was all over the place but no one had really connected the deaths yet.”

So Gurney began researching the various deaths himself and saw a common theme -- all were working on projects related to biological warfare. Considering the post-9/11 climate worldwide, he thought these links were more than just coincidental.

“I don’t believe that much in coincidence,” said Gurney. “Most people in America, like most people in my country, tend to only scan the news for about 30 minutes. That’s all we can take before we have to go make a cup of tea. We don’t usually get into the stories behind the stories. The news doesn’t usually get in depth.”

Gurney took it upon himself to visit the Web sites of major newspapers all over the world. Reading articles and obituaries, he pieced together a web of deaths -- some natural, some violent -- that he believes are related to current advancements in biological weapons. Gurney began publishing articles on the connections on his Web site (www.caspro.com), and his stories were soon picked up or modified by other sites like FrontPage Magazine and the conspiracy-theory-heavy site Rense.com (www.rense.com) run by talk-radio host Jeff Rense.

“The news doesn’t really go in depth,” said Gurney. “The majority of people in your country and in mine are being treated like mushrooms. We’re being kept in the dark and having bullshit heaped over us. If there is a conspiracy and we don’t pay attention to the signs, they’re going to get away with it.”

Dr. Death

Conspiracy theory or not, there is an unmistakable and frightening connection between one of the dead scientists and a man referred to by London newspaper News of the World as “The Third Horseman of the Apocalypse.”

Vladimir Pasechnik, the Soviet scientist who died in England last fall, and Dr. Ken Alibek, the scientist formerly known as Kanatjan Alibekov, worked together at Biopreparat -- the Soviet germ-warfare laboratory. Alibekov defected to the United States in 1992, changed his name, and made the talk-show circuit. After September 11th, many Americans saw Alibek sharing his views on cable and network news. His life begun anew, Alibek now spends his days in a tiny office at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C., trying to undo the horrors he spent the first part of his scientific career creating.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Pasechnik and Alibekov were the top two scientists at Biopreparat, but they were hardly the only scientists there. According to U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, at its height Biopreparat employed as many as 70,000 scientists and technicians -- many of whom worked solely on creating biological weapons of mass destruction.

“Through our program, we stockpiled hundreds of tons of anthrax, plague, and smallpox for our use against the West,” Alibek told News of the World in October. “What went on in our labs was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Cold War.”

But when the Soviet Union collapsed, funding for Biopreparat disappeared with it, and the previously employed scientists began selling their services to the highest bidders. According to Alibek: “Many went to Europe and Asia or have simply dropped out of sight. I’ve heard that several went to Iraq and North Korea.”

Of Pasechnik, Alibek says this: “He was behind some of our best work, devising a machine that turns viruses into a fine powder. It had been a huge breakthrough because it complemented another project, using cruise missiles to fly low over enemy territory, spraying out clouds of disease.”

Originally trained as a doctor, Alibek says he is holding himself accountable to the Hippocratic oath he ignored for so long. In July 2001, well before the September attacks, Alibek told New Scientist magazine that he was devoting his time to enhancing “innate immunity” in the respiratory tract.

“Our objective is to develop an inhaler containing micro-encapsulated cytokines to prevent degradation and toxicity. The inhaler could be used to treat people before a biological weapons attack and after they are exposed,” Alibek told New Scientist.

In a Frontline interview that aired October 13, 1998, on PBS, Alibek said that scientists at Biopreparat had specifically selected smallpox as a biological weapon because it was highly contagious and because it was a “dead” virus -- meaning in the future most people would not be vaccinated against it. When asked if the Russians would have vaccinated their citizens against smallpox before unleashing it, Alibek was grim.

“In my opinion,” he told Frontline, “nobody cared what would happen to the Russians because this weapon would be used just in case of a total war.”

Dark Winter

That’s just what U.S. government officials feared early last summer when representatives from several major departments met to stage a mini-war. Alibek was not the only person in the United States to realize that we need to develop a defense against biological weapons and these officials wanted a test to see if the U.S. could withstand a major biological attack.

They called their fake war “Dark Winter.” In the exercise, smallpox is discovered in Oklahoma and Georgia. State governments had to try and consolidate efforts with the federal government to ensure that the disease was not spread. The participants hoped to determine how each department would respond in a crisis situation. The results were grim.

“We, all in the room, were humbled by what we did not know and could not do and were convinced of the urgent need to better prepare our nation against this gruesome threat,” Margaret Hamburg, M.D., said in her July 23, 2001, testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform, following the Dark Winter exercise.

Hamburg participated in the exercise as the secretary of health and human services. Many Americans may be familiar with her name because, like Alibek, she appeared on many cable and network news shows following the September 11th and anthrax attacks last fall. Hamburg had previously been the New York City health commissioner when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 and also was an assistant secretary in the federal department of health and human services.

Hamburg also told the committee, “People should not be exchanging business cards on the first day of a crisis.”

Frank Keating, the current governor of Oklahoma, played himself in the exercise. Keating was also governor of Oklahoma in April 1995 when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed. Emergency response groups now look to Oklahoma’s response as the model of governmental efficiency during a crisis situation.

In his testimony before the House committee, Keating placed particular emphasis on the need to be open with the public and media and encouraged the committee to “resist the urge to federalize everything.”

Likewise, Senator Sam Nunn, who played the role of U.S. president, realized that both the nation as a whole and the individual states were ill-prepared to cope with biological warfare.

“In the evolution of warfare,” said Nunn, “arrows were countered with shields; swords with armor; guns with tanks; and now biological weapons must be countered with medicines, vaccines, and surveillance systems.”

All of the participants testified that the U.S. would have a long way to go before it would be ready to handle a biological attack. They all also testified that several legal hurdles currently stand in the way of officials, hurdles they believe need to be removed in advance.

Legislative Action

After the results of Dark Winter, and particularly after the September 11th attacks, federal policymakers decided that it was time to overcome these legal hurdles. A panel composed of law professors from Georgetown University and medical professors from Johns Hopkins University worked together to create a law to address the problems. After only 18 days of discussion, the Model Emergency Health Powers Act (MEHPA) was finished.

The act has since been introduced in every state legislature, where “Model” is replaced with the state’s name. In Tennessee, TEHPA (House Bill 2271/Senate Bill 2392) is currently being reviewed in committee.

However, nationwide left- and right-wingers alike are sounding off on MEHPA-based laws in Web chat rooms and bulletin boards. At issue are the vast and truly frightening powers the laws bestow upon state governors and their appointees.

Under MEHPA, and Tennessee’s TEHPA, a governor or his appointee, after declaring a “public health emergency,” has the power to take a number of actions. In the event of such an emergency, MEHPA allows each state to transform into something that would shock even George Orwell. The Model Emergency Health Powers Act allows officials to require an individual to be vaccinated. Anyone who refuses vaccination could be charged with a felony and forcibly quarantined. Likewise, it allows officials to require individuals to receive specific medical treatment or also be charged with a felony and quarantined. The state would also be allowed to seize any property, including real estate, deemed necessary to handle the emergency, and the property could be destroyed or retained without any compensation for the owner.

During a “public health emergency,” officials would be able to draft a person or business into state service and to impose rationing, price controls, quotas, and transportation controls. Any preexisting law thought to interfere with handling the emergency would be suspended. State governments would also be able to control the availability and distribution of medicines and vaccines and would be permitted to collect specimens from and perform tests on living persons.

Regardless of whether or not a connection exists between the dead microbiologists, between Don Wiley’s and Katherine Smith’s deaths, or between the events of September 11th and the anthrax attacks, the federal and state governments seem now at least to be aware of the threat of biological attack. What remains to be seen is how Americans will respond. And the links -- real or imagined -- between the rash of mysterious deaths? That’s a mystery even Mulder and Scully couldn’t solve.



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