Sunday, September 08, 2019

Wormwood and Gall: The Frank Olson Story that Errol Morris Missed

[This is the script of an episode of China Watch I did for Newsbud in January 2018.]

You may have heard of the acclaimed documentary Wormwood directed by Errol Morris.  The film has focused attention on the mysteries surrounding the death of government scientist Frank Olson.  Olson fell 13 stories to his death from a New York hotel window in 1953.  He died after—but possibly not because—he was dosed with LSD by the CIA.  Why Frank Olson died—and maybe why he had to die—leads us to one of the most persistent controversies of Cold War America.

Did the US use biological weapons during the Korean War?  The US government says No.  Frank Olson apparently thought otherwise.

In Wormwood and Gall, I look at the story: the facts, the accusations, and the cover-up. And I point to indications of another terrible crime, one that might provide the key to the death of Frank Olson.  

If the United States deployed biological weapons during the Korean War, it would be the second time China had experienced biological attack within ten years.  And that probably would have been no coincidence.

During World War II, Japan’s notorious Unit  731 biological warfare unit was headquartered near the city of Harbin in Northeast China.  Under the command of Colonel Shiro Ishii, Unit 731 conducted horrific experiments on living Chinese detainees and foreign POWs.  Iishi wanted to determine the limits of human endurance to extreme temperatures, wounds from conventional weapons…and most importantly, vulnerability to biological attack.

After Japan’s defeat, the United States, instead of prosecuting Colonel Ishi, hired him.  Over a period of three years, Ishi and his team negotiated an exchange: in return for immunity from prosecution, Unit  731’s files was handed over to the US Army.

US historians spin this in a backhanded way as evidence of American humanitarianism.  The US, after all, could not conduct its own human experiments even though the data might have contributed to saving American lives.  So the US Army acquired the data from Ishi and Unit 731.

But Unit 731 was not just a ghoulish research and development project.  Unit 731 weaponized and operationalized biological warfare on a massive scale.  University of Indiana entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood characterized Unit 731 as equivalent in scale to the Manhattan Project, the US effort to develop the atomic bomb.

During World War II, Unit 731 operations grew to encompass at least 10 field stations throughout China, employing over 10,000 people.  It focused on identifying, testing, and growing bacterial strains most lethal to humans.  In addition Unit 731 scientists developed strategies for delivery either directly or via insect vectors, and tactics for most effective exploitation.

Dozens of large scale attacks were conducted.  In 1940, the Japanese army dropped fleas infected with bubonic plague from aircraft on the east Chinese city of Ningbo.  The Ninbgo operation is well-documented thanks to Western witnesses and the enormous efforts taken by the Chinese government to contain the epidemic.  

But the most successful Unit 731 operation involved the use of cholera.  This campaign required close coordination between the biological warfare units and the Japanese army’s conventional forces.  Colonel Ishii realized the most effective to spread cholera was not via infected insects, or by dumping cholera bacteria into a city’s water supply.  

The key to a successful cholera attack was breaking down public order and public sanitation.  The infected humans had to be forced to flee the city and spread their payload of disease along the path of their flight.

Therefore, in 1942, 54 Japanese bombers attacked the city of Baoshan in Yunnan Province with a mixture of conventional weapons and ceramic shells containing cholera and houseflies.  The bombers returned for three more raids over the next week.  These raids drove refugees—by now sickened with cholera and incubating the bacteria in their intestines—to enter, infect, and overwhelm the surrounding villages.  60,000 people died of cholera inside Baoshan…and another 120,000 perished in villages within a 125 mile radius of the shattered town.

With a death toll of perhaps 200,000 people, Baoshan is the deadliest single WMD attack in modern history.  Together with another operation in China’s Shandong province in 1943, Colonel Ishi’s cholera operation killed 400,000 people —more fatalities than the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

This was the kind of data that Colonel Ishii delivered to the US Army in 1948, after 3 years of negotiation.

Now fast forward to the Korean War.

In 1951 and 1952, the government of the People’s Republic of China was galvanized by local reports of biological weapons attacks against its forces in Korea, and against targets in northeast China…and by published reports that Colonel Ishii had visited Korea.

Chinese alarm made a lot of sense.  After all, when it came to biological warfare in Asia, Unit 731 knew the neighborhood, the ecology, and the most effective techniques.  And it had a track record of spectacular success.  And Colonel Ishii had signed on to the US side.  

It is universally accepted that the PRC, at least at first, saw the danger as real. Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong ordered China’s scarce public health resources committed to a massive anti-biological warfare effort.

Then, with the help of the Soviet Union, the Chinese government organized two international commissions to investigate and document claims of biological warfare operations.

These reports supported the PRC’s position and have generated nothing but controversy.  The US government and its supporters have labored for decades to discredit the reports as propaganda, hoaxes, and frauds.  The US Department of Defense calls biological warfare allegations “the disinformation that refuses to die.”

Well, there are a lot of reasons why it refuses to die. 

Reasons like a documentary prepared by al Jazeera in 2010 that piled up testimony and circumstantial evidence supporting allegations of biological weapons operations. Al Jazeera also unearthed home video footage shot by an alumnus of Unit 731 in which he claimed that he had assisted the US in mounting “an attack” in Korea.  

There’s also the professional opinion of experts.  Like this:

It’s not outside the realm of possibility something was done.  During that time there was a very active offensive program…The Americans had a big vector program, so they must have tested it somehow or another.  What would have stopped them?

The guy who said this is not some comsymp.  He is Colonel Charles Bailey, executive director of the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases at George Mason University.  And Colonel Bailey was previously commander at Fort Detrick.  

Fort Detrick is ground zero for US bioweapons research.  It has been America’s headquarters for US Army offensive and defensive biowar work for almost a century.  It is where the US built up its inventory of anthrax and anthrax bombs.  It’s where Colonel Ishii’s secrets from his bioweapons research, development, and operations ended up. 

In the Cold War Fort Detrick geared up for a massive research effort into any biological agents that might be useful or harmful to the American military and the CIA.  Fort Detrick’s nickname was Fort Doom.

And Fort Detrick is where our story comes full circle.

Because Fort Detrick is where Frank Olson, the tragic figure at the center of the Wormwood documentary, worked.

Olson worked as a biological warfare researcher and administrator.  And a CIA employee.

Frank Olson was an unhappy biological weapons researcher and administrator and CIA employee, which was apparently why he was dosed with LSD and maybe why he was thrown out of a window to his death.

What made Frank Olson unhappy?

The Errol Morris documentary Wormwood discusses his motivation almost as a casual aside.

Frank Olson’s son tells Morris:

It was in 2001, very close friend, this guy named Norman Kenoyer, who I had remembered from my childhood, but who I hadn’t seen for decades.  He dropped me a note and he said, “Eric, you got everything right except for one thing…Your father had become convinced that the United States was using biological weapons in Korea, and he was pissed.”

This statement is fleshed out in another documentary on US biowarfare black ops and Frank Olson’s death, Code Name: Project Artichoke.

In the documentary, Eric Olson and Norman Kenoyer have this exchange about US biological weapons activities in Korea:

Kenoyer says, “I took an oath when I left the United States Army that I would never divulge that stuff.”

“You divulged it to me.” Says Olson

“You cannot prove it, can you?”

“I can assert it. You told me.”

“So you don't want to say it?”
“No .... I don't want to say it. But, there were people who had biological weapons and they used them. I won't say anything more than that. They used them.”

So Frank Olson believed the US was doing nasty things in biological weapons in Korea.  Not because he was reading People’s Daily.  Because he was a top researcher in the US bioweapons program at Fort Detrick.  

Olson, in fact had run the supersecret Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick that worked with the CIA on development of covert biological assets.  And he was himself a CIA employee who had security clearances.  

Olson presumably knew about the Ishii Unit 731 biological warfare data acquired by the US Army. 

And if there had been US biological warfare activity in Korea, from planning to crew training to implementation to after-action evaluation, Olson would have known about it.

And that, for me, at least is the most important takeaway from Wormwood.  The United States was doing some sort of biological weapons shenanigans in Korea and Northeast China…

…and US attempts to discredit Chinese and North Korean allegations as a groundless mixture of panic, propaganda, and fraud are bankrupt.

So, did Frank Olson’s knowledge of US biological warfare activity in Korea kill him?

We know Olson was disturbed and upset by his work.  Frank Olson did not pursue the upward path open to him in America’s bioweapons bureaucracy.  Instead, Olson had resigned his position as head of the Special Operations Division.  He said he had ulcers.  The CIA regarded him as a potential security risk.  

At the time, the CIA regarded LSD as a magic mind control and truth serum elixir.  When Frank Olson was attending a retreat at a camp called Deep Creek with his CIA and Fort Detrick colleagues in November 1953, he was secretly dosed with LSD.  

However Frank Olson responded, it wasn’t good for Frank Olson.  He reacted badly.  Presumably Olson was regarded as even more of a liability and security risk after the dosing.  Olson was bundled off to New York for meetings with a CIA-affiliated doctor and a CIA-affiliated magician hypnotist just before his fatal plunge from the 13th floor of the New York Statler hotel on November 28, 1953.

Perhaps guilty knowledge of US bioweapons activity in Korea was the key factor in the CIA’s anxieties over Frank Olson.  

One problem with that.  The Korean War armistice had already been concluded in the summer of 1953.  That was months before the encounter at Deep Creek and Frank Olson’s death.  Korean war crimes seem a bit bygones.

Another factor in Olson’s state of mind might have been first hand involvement in torture and murder. 

Olson’s classified work at the Special Operations Division involved more than biological weapons of mass destruction.  It apparently included evaluation of biological agents, that is to say, drugs, for use in interrogation by the CIA.

During a work trip to Germany, Olson had apparently witnessed deeply disturbing CIA activities at a US military base.  Suspected Soviet agents were subjected to interrogation involving extreme and inhumane physical and psychological mistreatment.  

And drugs.  By the end of the process at least one of the detainees, subjects, victims, whatever you want to call them, had died.    In front of Frank Olson. 

Olson was a softhearted man who took it very hard when a successful bioweapons experiment led to the death of all the subject monkeys in his lab.  Maybe witnessing the torture/murder of a human being, even an alleged Soviet agent, drove Olson into open and fatal defiance.

But there’s a third possibility, and it relates to this:

The notorious biowarfare confessions made by captured American airmen during the Korean War.

The US security establishment was horrified by American POWs corroborating allegations that the US had conducted biological warfare attacks during the Korean War.  It was also appalled by a wider trend.  Of 7200 US prisoners of wars, 5000 either signed a petition calling for the end of the war or confessed to crimes.  21 refused repatriation back to the United States and stayed in North Korea.  

Instead of accepting the possibility that some draftees imprisoned under miserable conditions might have traded their signature on a petition for better treatment, or some might have had doubts about the US social system, or maybe *gulp* some were confessing to actual crimes, the US establishment became convinced that the POWs were victims of brainwashing.

The CIA and US Army especially feared that returning POWs might be infiltrated by brainwashed human robots programmed to do the will of their Chinese masters and attack America. 

There is no evidence the Chinese tried to do this.  But the United States itself fantasized about assassin automatons and tried to create them…and later projected the idea on China via the book and film “The Manchurian Candidate”. 

When the first group of US POWs was repatriated in April 1953, 20 were segregated as potential brainwashed security risks and placed under armed guard.  These “tainted” POWs were flown to Pennsylvania on a prison plane.  Then they were sequestered at a mental ward in a hospital at Valley Forge.  They quickly recanted their confessions.  Maybe it was freedom, maybe it was conscience, maybe the openly wielded threat of prosecution.  And maybe more.

Maybe the US effort to get these airmen to quickly recant their confessions involved administering substances less wholesome than American hamburgers and milkshakes and even more sinister than the promise of decades in a military stockade.

The CIA had a longstanding interest in using behavior modification procedures to counter PRC indoctrination of US POWs.  According to a 2010 article titled Cries From the Past: Torture’s Ugly Echoes, by researchers Jeffrey Kaye and HP Albarelli, recovered POWs were subjected to various behavioral modification programs, including the use of experimental drugs.

And some of these experiments had been conducted by the CIA at Valley Forge Army Hospital, where the Korean POWs were quarantined in the summer of 1953.

Maybe drugs were involved in the remolding of the returned Korean POWs.  Drugs that Frank Olson was involved in testing and evaluating.  Drugs like LSD.

In 1953, the year the POWs returned and Frank Olson died, US official interest in mind control via LSD was at fever pitch.

Fears of a “brainwashing” gap between Communism and the United States fueled a US obsession with LSD as a mind-control superdrug.  The US government explored the possibility of acquiring the world’s entire supply of LSD to keep it out of Soviet hands.  And it gathered enough LSD to perform extensive experiments on human subjects, some of them uninformed or unwilling, for almost two decades.

America’s LSD mind control effort, which was variously known as Project Partridge, Project Artichoke, and MK-Ultra, was run by the CIA’s Sidney Gottlieb.  Gottlieb was present at Deep Creek the night Frank Olson was dosed with LSD.  Gottlieb’s assistant, Richard Lashbrook, was sharing the hotel room at the Statler the night Olson plunged out the window.  And as Olson lay dying on the sidewalk outside, Lashbrook made his first call…to Sidney Gottlieb.

I speculate the dark secret that killed Frank Olson was this:

The US was using LSD to counter-brainwash returned US POWs to obtain retractions of biological warfare confessions.  And Frank Olson knew about it.  

Maybe Olson had seen film.  Maybe he saw film that reminded him of the horrors he had witnessed at the interrogations in Germany. 

Only this time the victims of his mind control drugs were American servicemen.  

And the drugs were being used to cover up a crime Olson knew about from his classified work at Fort Detrick: that the US had indeed conducted bacteriological warfare operations in Korea. 

And this bothered Frank Olson.  And it terrified him.

Because when Frank Olson felt the LSD take hold at Deep Creek, he realized that the same thing that had happened to the  suspected Soviet agents and the returned POWs was happening to him. 

And Frank Olson broke.  Or was broken.  And ended up dying on the sidewalk in front of the New York Statler Hotel.

Errol Morris takes the title for his documentary, Wormwood, from Revelations to describe God’s biological weapon attack on the waters of the earth at the last judgment.

Then the third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star burning like a torch fell from heaven and landed on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter like wormwood oil, and many people died from the bitter waters.
My title Wormwood and Gall, comes from the Book of Lamentations.

Wormwood and gall are two intensely bitter substances.

Jeremiah, gazing upon the ruins of Jerusalem, speaks of 

remembering my affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall.

The wormwood is his intense suffering and grief, the gall his profound regreat and consciousness of sin…and taken together they yield  a yearning for redemption.

Wormwood and gall might have been a good description of Frank Olson’s thoughts and regrets as he entered the last days of his life.

Rest in Peace, Frank Olson.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

The Trillion-Dollar Grift: The Long-Term Plan for US-China Decoupling

 There is a certain amount of "OMG how did we get here??" handwringing over the escalating trade war between the US and China.


The decoupling strategy of the US China hawks is proceeding as planned.  And economic pain is a feature, not a bug.

Below is the script of a Newsbud China Watch episode I did on September 26, 2018, when the outlines of the US strategy were already clear.

Some further comments.

Failure of trade negotiations was pretty much baked in, thanks to Lightizer's maximalist demands.

And that was fine with the China hawks.  

Because their ultimate goal was to decouple the US & PRC economies, weaken the PRC, and make it more vulnerable to domestic destabilization and global rollback.

If decoupling shaved a few points off global GDP, hurt American businesses, or pushed the world into recession, well that's the price o' freedom.

Or at least the cost of IndoPACOM being able to win the d*ck measuring contest in East Asia, which is what this is really all about.

Keeping the negotiations creeping along while encouraging the decoupling dynamic through tariffs & sanctions allowed the China hawks to dodge the onus of hurting the US economy for the sake of US hegemonic goals.

Now, as we're entering a phase of pretty much open economic warfare, maybe that mask is ready to drop.

One of those items of academic interest is whether Trump was ever interested in a trade deal & return to normalcy.  I'm guessing Yes.

But the US military is pretty much Trump's only solid Beltway constituency.  They want a China confrontation & he went along, since the costs of the confrontation in his main political constituency, the stock market, seemed manageable..  

The continual bait-and-switching on the trade deal (we got a trade deal; oops more tariffs!) is a classic from the Trump playbook: when your opposite number seems ready to deal, it's time to squeeze harder. 

This was catnip to the China hawks.  As long as the negotiations dragged on, the decoupling dynamic could continue pretty much unexamined.

Now maybe we've reached the point of no return, since it looks like the PRC has decided it's more important to signal its capacity to take punishment than its eagerness to make a deal.

Again, a happy day for the China hawks.  It's war!  At least economic, for the time being.

Now, if a recession does hit, one can consider it a signal that the US finance/business bunch have priced China out of their economic models.

The next step beyond economic warfare is strategic/military rollback.

Decoupling the US economy from China, squeezing China related expectations out of the market, and shifting to a war with China footing insulates the US military from economic and political pressures to pursue a more moderate course in East Asia.

I expect IndoPACOM to agitate for an aggressive program--via its allies in the Philippine military--to confront the PRC over its artificial islands, especially Mischief Reef, in the South China Sea.

These facilities are a major affront to IndoPACOM's manhood and must be removed.  And that means war, or something close to it.

Remember, as IndoPACOM jefe Admiral Davidson put it: "China controls the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war." 

He's not making these statements to signal American surrender, folks. IndoPACOM is China hawk HQ.

As I've discussed elsewhere, the US has put its ducks in a row to provide military backing to anti-China moves that the Philippines initiates in the South China Sea.

Also, assuming the elections in Taiwan go America's way, the decoupling of the Taiwan and mainland economies will accelerate and military cooperation between Taiwan and the US and Japan will increase.

Between the global economic slowdown and the regional military buildup, I guesstimate the cost of taking on the PRC at a trillion dollars over the next decade.

But like they say, War with China: one trillion dollars.  Postponing the loss of US hegemony in the Pacific: priceless.

The September 26, 2018 script:

It’s not a trade war, it’s the long war.  Cold War 2.0.  With China.

Donald Trump introduced tariffs on another $200 billion dollars of Chinese goods.  The Chinese responded but did not match, let alone escalate, with tariffs on $60 billion in US goods.

This round of US tariffs stopped at 10%, that’s short of pure apocalypse; that’s been put off until December, when the US will raise the rate to 25% if things don’t go Trump’s way.

U.S. businesses are starting to get a little nervous, since the PRC is apparently going to wait and see if the US Congressional mid-term elections deliver the promised blue wave of Democrats that will restrain Trump and maybe even impeach him, instead of hurrying to Washington to negotiate.

Per the Washington Post:

As the president pursues his uncompromising approach to China, business leadrs are growing increasingly frustrated.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation were among those blasting the administration's use of tariffs as costly and counterproductive.

But guess what—to China hawks, the miseries of US businesses in China is a feature, not a bug.  And since China hawks hold the whip hand in the Trump administration, expect more, not less of this.  Per the Washington Post report,

Some administration hard-liners would be content to see the trade and investment restrictions lead to a decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies

Decoupling the U.S. and Chinese economy would be a significant milestone in the new cold war against China.

That’s because decoupling is at the heart of containment classic.

US China hawks have always pushed the talking point, we don’t have a containment strategy.

That’s because the essence of containment against the Soviet Union as formulated by US diplomat George Kennan in 1946, was that the USSR had chosen the path of autarky—self-sufficiency instead of integration with the economies of the West—in order to sustain its repressive domestic system.  

Therefore, Kennan successfully argued that the United States and its allies should quarantine the USSR until it collapsed under its own weight and the stress of confrontation with the United States.

The People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, recognized the limitations of autarky and pursued integration with the world economic system through engagement with the capitalist states, and by membership in the World Trade Organization.

Therefore, People’s Republic of China did not remain a nation of impoverished farmers, albeit a billion farmers with nuclear weapons, globally isolated and vulnerable to U.S. containment, foreign and domestic subversion, and eventual overthrow.

Instead, we got a Communist government on the mainland that accounts for 40% of the world economy and has enough financial, social, and police state juice to stay on top of the heap domestically and compete with the United States for influence internationally!

This infuriates the China hawks, who see enabling China’s rise as the height of American folly. 

And they see the Trump tariffs as an important and long overdue battle in the long war to decouple the US economy from the Chinese economy and create more favorable conditions for an across the board cold war, polarization, confrontation, and classic containment. 

And business is getting the message.  Per the Post:

Under Trump's plan, the tariff pain on the $200 billion batch of Chinese goods will grow on Jan 1, 2019, rising to 25 percent from the original 10 percent.  If there remains little sign of diplomatic progress by that point, more companies may switch their orders from Chinese suppliers to factories in countries such as Vietnam or India, executives say.

On a meta level, you can consider this as “TPP with a meat axe”.  Barack Obama sought to isolate China via a free trade bloc excluding the PRC.  Donald Trump hopes to accomplish a similar objective by redirecting US imports away from China via tariffs.

As a tutelary deity of the China hawks, Aaron Friedberg put it:

"We're probably talking about a world with two centers: a China-centered economic domain...and another centered on the United States," said Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, who handled China policy as an aide to Vice President Richard Cheney in the George W. Bush administration.  "It's heading toward a bifurcated global economy."

Hey, mission accomplished!  At least for China hawks, if not for multinational corporations yearning for that global payday.

The PRC’s rulers have a lot of good reason to believe the US isn’t just interested in trade fixes like improved access and a level playing field; the China hawks wants to use economic policy to roll back and weaken the Chinese state.

What are the Chinese going to do?  Well, the leadership has been thinking about this economic war a lot.

That’s because the People’s Republic of China has seen this movie before.  And it isn’t the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It was the attack on the export economy of Japan engineered by Ronald Reagan and James Baker in 1985, the so-called Plaza Accord coordinated intervention in the currency market by state banks that led to a 50% appreciation of the Japanese yen against the US dollar.

So in response to the Trump tariff campaign, the PRC is planning to move factories overseas; push domestic factories to upgrade their products and technology and look for new markets—ironically, boosting the Made in China 2025 program that supposedly terrifies the West; and also pump cash into the domestic economy to boost consumption and reduce the trade war shock.

And they are preparing for the long haul.

Jack Ma, the overlord of ecommerce giant Alibaba, predicted the whole US-China trade war dynamic will take 20 years to play out:

 Well, I wonder who’ll be on top in 20 years?  Maybe the United States. Maybe China.  Maybe nobody.  But 20 years is enough time for China hawks to pay off their mortgages and put another generation of their kids through college.

So there will be some winners.