FOR seven years, Michael Christopher Carroll, a lawyer from Bellmore, researched the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the former Department of Agriculture laboratory situated on 840-acre Plum Island, less than two miles off the tip of Long Island’s North Fork. Now, after hundreds of hours spent poring over government documents and interviewing scientists, workers, government officials, journalists and others involved with or knowledgeable about the island laboratory, Mr. Carroll has turned his findings into ”Lab 257,” published by William Morrow and scheduled to appear in bookstores on Tuesday. Mr. Carroll argues that the laboratory, which was taken over by the Department of Homeland Security in June, is a biological time bomb with an appalling safety record, a tempting target known to terrorists and a grave but little-recognized threat to the largest population center in the United States.
Mr. Carroll also writes that his research suggests that the laboratory could be linked to the outbreak of Lyme disease and West Nile virus in the United States. But he offers no smoking gun, just the argument that a leaky laboratory studying the world’s most dangerous animal diseases would seem a plausible source of new or foreign ailments in nearby human populations, especially when the transmitters of the disease are ticks or mosquitoes, which feed indiscriminately on animals or humans.
Told of some of Mr. Carroll’s conclusions last week, government officials, including a former laboratory director, said the author was vastly off the mark and had written what appeared to be a book of science fiction.
”Mr. Carroll is a Baron Munchausen, or else he has been talking to him,” said Roger G. Breeze, who was the laboratory director from 1987 to 1995 and is now leaving a post as an associate administrator in the Agricultural Research Service. ”You don’t sell many books by concluding that federal officials are doing a really good job,” he said.
Despite this and other denials and disavowals, Mr. Carroll’s 289-page book seems unlikely to bolster Plum Island’s reputation on the East End, where the jobs provided by the lab have long been balanced by questions about the safety of operations there. The book arrives as the Department of Homeland Security continues to develop the 50-year-old laboratory’s new focus of protecting against agricultural terrorism. The Agriculture Department remains on the island as a tenant.
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The book also raises wider concerns. Mr. Carroll writes that in 2002 American forces in Afghanistan found a dossier of information about the Plum Island laboratory in the Kabul residence of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a Western-educated nuclear physicist and former chairman of the Pakistan Nuclear Energy Commission who has been identified by American officials as an associate of Osama bin Laden.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to questions about the laboratory, but there were indications last week that the department planned a quick response to Mr. Carroll’s assertions, perhaps including opening the laboratory to a new round of press tours. ”We are doing what we can to demystify the legend that’s wrapped around Plum Island,” said Michelle Petrovich, a department spokeswoman, who said Homeland Security officials had not seen advance copies of the book.
Mr. Carroll said he originally had the cooperation of the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments and was given permission to visit Plum Island six times in 2001 and 2002. ”When they discovered where I was going and that I was going to write the truth, they pulled the plug and cut me off on the grounds of national security,” he said.
Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the Agricultural Research Service, confirmed that the Agriculture Department ceased cooperating with Mr. Carroll, but would not discuss why. ”He was allowed on the island and subsequently denied access, but I don’t think the issue of national security came up as far as A.R.S. is concerned,” she said.
In his book, Mr. Carroll links Plum Island to Army research on offensive biological weapons in the first years after it opened in 1954 and writes that connections with an Army biowarfare laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have continued. He said he believed it was likely that research the public was unaware of was now in progress at the laboratory. ”The problem is that Plum Island is a kingdom unto itself,” he said in an interview. ”There is zero public oversight.”
Representative Tim Bishop of Southampton, whose district includes Plum Island, disputed the assertion that the lab was out of control. ”I believe we have a fairly good handle on what’s going on there and that the administrators are pretty open about it,” he said. He said he rejected the view that the island was a biological ticking time bomb that should be feared.
Mr. Carroll argues that outbreaks of the Dutch duck plague virus that devastated duck farms on eastern Long Island in the 1960’s, Lyme disease in 1975, West Nile virus in 1999 and the mysterious 1999 disease that killed most of the lobsters in Long Island Sound all occurred too suspiciously close to Plum Island to dismiss the possibility of a laboratory link.
”Every investigation is about connecting the dots,” Mr. Carroll said. ”There are a lot of people who don’t want to believe that there are these striking coincidences and at the very least these facts deserve some serious investigation.”
That the laboratory could be the source of viruses, Mr. Carroll asserts, was proven by an outbreak of foot and mouth disease at the laboratory in 1978 that infected animals in outdoor pens on the island. Mr. Carroll said he found government records reporting 3/4-inch gaps around roof pipes, allowing contaminated air to escape from — or disease-transmitting insects to enter — laboratories that were supposed to be sealed shut.
That the worst could happen, he wrote, was suggested by what one Plum Island worker described to him as a biological meltdown in August 1991, when Hurricane Bob knocked out power for more than a day to a laboratory building. Mr. Carroll writes that was long enough for viruses in freezers to thaw and for negative air pressure designed to keep air inside the building to fall off to nothing even as forced-air seals on lab doors went flat.
”My agenda is not to close Plum Island, it’s to make it safe,” said Mr. Carroll, who grew up in Bellmore and is now a senior vice president and general counsel at the Medallion Financial Corporation in Manhattan.
Allegations that Lyme disease is linked to the lab — which is 10 miles across Long Island Sound from Old Lyme, Conn., where the outbreak began in 1975 — have been heard before and are generally discounted by health officials. ”I don’t believe the laboratory had anything to do with it,” said Dr. David Graham, the director of public health for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. He also rejected any connection between the lab and the West Nile outbreak, which was first reported in Queens in 1999. It has now spread to 46 states, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported 9,136 cases and 228 deaths from West Nile virus in 2003.
Lyme disease cases in 2002, the most recent year for which numbers were available, totaled 23,763, with no reported fatalities. About 95 percent of the cases were in 12 states including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Suffolk County has one of the highest incidence rates in the state, Dr. Graham said, and records 500 to 1, 200 new cases a year. David Weld, the executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation in Somers, N.Y., also discounted Plum Island as a Lyme disease link. ”I personally just don’t think that has any merit,” he said.
Mr. Carroll writes that experiments lab scientists performed with ticks injected with viruses might have led to the Lyme disease outbreak. Infected ticks used in lab experiments, he postulates, might have escaped from the lab and reached the mainland on birds or swimming deer.
”I’m not a scientist, but what I am saying is that there is enough evidence of these multiple unexplained germ outbreaks near Plum Island that scientists need to sit down and actually investigate,” he said.
David Kapell, the mayor of Greenport, where many Plum Island employees live, said he had not heard of Mr. Carroll’s book and remained a supporter of the laboratory. ”I have been comfortable with Plum Island since Day 1,” he said. ”But like everybody else, I am ready to be educated.”
The Plum Island that unfolds in Mr. Carroll’s pages is the vision of a Nazi virologist, Erich Traub, who worked after the war with the United States Army on biological warfare. Mr. Carroll places the virologist on the island on at least three occasions, and speculates that he may have performed outdoor field tests with poisoned ticks.
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The tests would have occurred in the 1950’s, two decades before the Lyme disease outbreak. But Mr. Carroll suggests that lab research involving ticks was also taking place at the time of the 1975 outbreak.
Ms. Hays, the agricultural service spokeswoman, said there was no connection between Lyme disease and the laboratory. ”Nobody believes that that’s true,” she said.
She said she did not know of Erich Traub’s connection, if any, to the island. ”I have heard this Nazi scientist stuff for years and I never heard anything where anyone said ‘that’s right,”’ she said.
John Loftus, a former Justice Department prosecutor, describes Mr. Traub’s activities and work with ticks in the book ”The Belarus Secret,” which details the careers of former Nazi scientists. Mr. Carroll cites the Loftus book in his work.
Ms. Hays disputed an assertion in Mr. Carroll’s book that the laboratory was studying West Nile virus at the time of the August 1999 outbreak. Government health officials have placed the epicenter of the outbreak in New York City, and connect the virus’s introduction in this country to jet travel. Mr. Carroll writes that the epicenter was the North Fork and cites the death of at least 18 horses infected with West Nile as evidence.
Ms. Hays referred to a letter to a local newspaper written in September 2002 by Doug Moore, a laboratory safety and environmental officer, which said that the laboratory agreed to investigate the susceptibility of horses to the virus and did so from Oct. 29, 1999, to Jan. 31, 2000, or after the outbreak had begun. It said the tests were performed using an infected crow shipped to the lab from Ames, Iowa, the site of another major Agriculture Department lab.
The letter noted that the first horse case in eastern Long Island was recorded on Aug. 26, 1999, or prior to the investigation, and that 25 cases occurred after, including 3 in Nassau County. It cited government findings that the first human case was in Queens on Aug. 2.
Mr. Carroll writes that at the same time West Nile was causing human deaths in Queens, the Agriculture Department was quietly shipping dead horses in eastern Suffolk to Plum Island for tests. Ms. Hays said she knew of no shipment. A state official involved in an emergency team investigating the horse deaths, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also knew of no such shipment.
In his book, Mr. Carroll describes plunging morale and a sharp decline in security when a private contractor took over support functions on Plum Island in 1991, stripping some 300 workers of pay and benefits they had as federal employees.
Mr. Carroll questions the wisdom of a sensitive, security-dependent government laboratory bringing in a cost-cutting private contractor who laid off workers and cut salaries. He notes that employees at the Agriculture Department lab in Iowa remain federal.
He also writes that the shift triggered a decline in the strict security at the island that had prevailed under the former director, Jerry Callis.
Dr. Callis did not respond to a telephone message left on an answering machine at his residence in Southold. A former Plum Island employee, speaking on assurance of anonymity, said security at the island remained light.
Dr. Breeze said Mr. Carroll had no understanding of federal contracting procedures. He said an executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan directed that functions such as those performed by support workers at the laboratory be privatized. ”He is blaming the wrong guy,” Dr. Breeze said.
The employees’ union went on strike against a lab contractor in 2002 after years of worsening tensions. Replacement workers the contractor brought in during the strike were blamed by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Bishop and others for subsequent safety problems including two incidents in which replacement workers were unable to start emergency generators after power losses.
The Department of Homeland Security replaced the contractor with a new private contractor last year, but has made no move to federalize the workforce.
Dr. Breeze suggested that disgruntled workers who supplied some of the information used in Mr. Carroll’s book might have led the author astray. ”This is an industrial dispute just like any other industrial dispute between an employer and a workforce,” Dr. Breeze said. ”And the only way to draw the public in is by allegations of safety malfeasance.”
Mr. Carroll responded, ”If I was led astray, I was led astray by government documents yielded by seven years of requests, national archives research and hundreds of hours of interviews, including with Dr. Breeze.”
Dr. Breeze also said that it made no sense to suggest that viruses might have escaped during Hurricane Bob in 1991, when power was lost to the lab building that Mr. Carroll took for the title of his book. The samples, he said, were sealed in vials and plastic. He also denied that supplies of anthrax, simply labeled ”N,” had been stored at the laboratory for years. ”It’s about time somebody addressed these claims,” he said. ”These are claims that are completely untrue.”
But Mr. Carroll said he had a manifest documenting a transfer of anthrax from Fort Detrick to Plum Island. Told of Dr. Breeze’s denial, he said, ”Let him prove it.”
Mr. Carroll said that he had no prior personal or professional connection to the lab before undertaking the book project, and that he was drawn to the project after looking out at Plum Island across Plum Gut from the tip of Orient Point and promising himself that he would learn what really happened at the secretive laboratory.
”I am painting an image,” he said. ”People have to know about this place.”
Lab 257: the Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory
tags: Lab 257, Plum Island,animal disease research, USDA, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, Dutch duck plague
After the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK was shown to be the result this virus’s escape from one of two nearby research labs, I thought it was timely to review a book that investigates this same occurrence in the United States. Lab 257: the Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory (NYC: William Morrow; 2004) by Michael Christopher Carroll, is the riveting story of an animal disease research lab located on an 840-acre island that is only two miles from Long Island, New York, and Olde Lyme, Connecticut, and a mere 85 miles from Manhattan. This book tells the frightening story about this government lab’s spotted history and also reveals that Plum Island Animal Disease Research Laboratory, which is home to many of the deadliest germs known to man, is about as safe as the average high school biology lab.
African swine fever, Rift Valley fever, anthrax, mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, West Nile virus … this lab is home to all these deadly microbes and more. The reason? One of the primary targets for terrorists is to infect a nation’s livestock with dangerous microbes so they can cause widespread famine and panic. Thus, since the end of World War II, our government has been busily researching the bacteria and viruses that can be used to accomplish this goal. To that end, Plum Island’s two research labs, Lab 101 and Lab 257, were designed and established by two men: William Hagan, a veterinarian and former dean of Cornell University’s veterinary school who developed the first weapons-grade strain of anthrax known as Strain 99; and Erich Traub, a Nazi germ warfare expert who worked for Heinrich Himmler and who was allegedly smuggled into the United States in 1949 to work with the CIA, Army, Navy and the USDA.
Currently overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, Plum Island’s stated purpose was to study animal diseases that could threaten our livestock and to design vaccines against them. But the real purpose of Plum Island is to study dangerous animal diseases with the goal of weaponizing them for use against the livestock in other countries — originally the Soviet Union — while protecting our own livestock from such attacks.
Relying on interviews with current and former employees of the labs and with nearby residents, Carroll does his homework by documenting that Plum Island is an astonishingly insecure facility. The author follows the fortunes of Plum Island from its inception, explores how the labs went from the US Army’s jurisdiction to that of the USDA and then to the Department of Homeland Security, and details how many aspects of the labs’ daily maintenance was later sold to the lowest civilian bidder, thus causing the research program to decline in its standards and level of biosafety. Further, Lab 257 reveals instances of gross negligence in biosecurity and of ailing workers who were denied diagnostic assistance by their employers.
Most interesting and troubling to birdwatchers and other outdoors-y types is the author’s investigation into the unproven but nonetheless highly suspicious connections between Plum Island and the sudden appearance of Dutch duck plague (1967), Lyme disease (1975) and West Nile virus (1999) on the East Coast. All of these disease outbreaks were first documented within a few miles of the labs. Further, as if the appearance of these foreign disease organisms are not incriminating enough, the sudden and inexplicable appearance of the Lone Star Tick in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut should be, because this sedentary tick species was formerly confined to the state of Texas. Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s repeated denials of their work with these organisms at Plum Island, there are documents that reveal otherwise. However, even if the government denials are true, these many coincidences are, in my opinion, just too numerous not to be viewed with great suspicion.
This readable 255-page book is carefully researched and documented, including a separate 30-page section of source notes detailing interviews, news stories and other printed source materials along with the author’s own Freedom of Information Act requests for various documents. The book also has a separate inset section containing 30 black and white images, and also embeds within the text several maps of Plum Island, the Eastern flyways followed by migratory birds, and a blueprint for the first floor of Lab 101.
I do have several criticisms. First, the book lacks a glossary and footnotes, which makes it difficult at times to identify the precise source for some of the information presented in the text. I was also disappointed that, after the big build-up at the end of the book, the author did not write more about the aftermath of Hurricane Bob and the power outage that it caused. How did Plum Island clean up the resulting mess? What was the reaction of upper management to the hurricane? Additionally, why was author denied further access to the island after he had already made six visits — he only mentioned that he was denied access by the government due to reasons of “national security”. And one last thing .. perhaps this is nit-picking on the part of a birdwatcher, but I was really annoyed that the author repeatedly referred to Canada geese as “Canadian” geese. Did he talk with any knowledgeable birders or ornithologists while writing this book? If he had, they would have immediately corrected his usage of that erroneous common name.
Nevertheless, in spite the book’s shortcomings, I think Lab 257 presents an eye-opening look into the very real and ever-present dangers of germ warfare research, of government secrecy, and into the gross arrogance and lack of responsibility enjoyed by many of our politicians and government officials. I think Carroll forms the basis for an important argument that homeland security should begin at home; it is essential that our government spend the money necessary to improve biosecurity in this nation’s research laboratories and that it carefully monitor every vial of dangerous microbes, so we can avoid dangerous epidemics of our own making.
Michael Christopher Carroll is a lawyer who spent seven years researching and writing Lab 257. A native of Long Island and an avid outdoorsman, Carroll is now general counsel of a New York-based finance company. He lives on Long Island and in New York City.
my research notes on the medical politics driving the
Former Nazi germ warfare scientist
‘developed idea to build Plum Island’
This is Carroll’
s own summary of his research findings, published in 2004, that were
gleaned from his seven years of research into Lab 257. (“Lab 257″: William Morrow,
2004; Harper, 2005)
“[H]ard facts are indeed facts: the Army and the USDA [United States Department of
Agriculture] conducted numerous outdoor biological warfare experiments within the
United States borders; the Army and the USDA were cooperating in a germ warfare
laboratory built on Plum Island; the U.S. recruited the key architect of Nazi Germany’s
arfare program who worked directly for Heinrich Himmler; after Fort Detrick and
the CIA interrogated him, the Nazi scientist developed the idea to build Plum Island,
modeled after his own germ warfare lab on Insel Riems; the USDA borrowed this Nazi
st to work in its Washington, D.C. area laboratories; and this very Nazi scientist is
now confirmed to have been on Plum Island on at least three occasions.” (“Lab 257.”
2005, p. 22)
The scientist, Erich Traub, was recruited by the U.S. as part of postwar
named Operation Paperclip.
Carroll wrote, “Ironically, Traub spent the prewar period of his scientific career on a
fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, perfecting his skills in
viruses and bacteria u
nder the tutelage of American [U.S.] experts before returning to
Nazi Germany on the eve of war.”
The author described Traub as chief of the secret Nazi biological warfare laboratory in
the Baltic Sea
another island lab
and that Traub worked for Hitler’s
command SS chief Heinrich Himmler on live germ trials. Traub “packaged weaponized
mouth disease virus, which was dispersed from a Luftwaffe bomber onto cattle
and reindeer” in occupied Russia [Soviet Union
Traub himself reportedl
y didn’t hide his 1930s U.S. membership in “Camp Sigfried,”
which Carroll described: “Just thirty miles west of Plum Island in Yaphank, Long Island,
Camp Sigfried was the national headquarters of the American Nazi movement. Over
40,000 people throughout th
e New York region arrived by train, bus, and car to
participate in Nuremberg
“Each weekend they marched in lockstep divisions, carrying swastika flags, burning
Jewish U.S. congressmen in effigy, and singing anti
Semitic songs. Above all, th
solemnly pledged their allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.” (p. 8)
Carroll detailed more of Traub’s reported germ warfare history. He also detailed Traub’s
role during WWII: “He was also a member of NSKK, the Nazi Motorists Corps, a
i organization that ranked directly behind the SA (Storm Troopers) and the
SS (Elite Corps).”
Carroll stated: “Records detailing a fraction of Erich Traub’s activities are now available
to the public, but most are withheld by Army intelligence and the CIA
on grounds of
national security. But there’s enough of a glimpse to draw quite a sketch.” (p. 11)
Next: Carroll describes Traub as ‘a founding father of Plum Island