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Yellow Rain in Southeast Asia: Bee Pollen or Deadly Weapon?

The 1925 Geneva Protocol put in place a worldwide ban on chemical weapons, but the necessity and handling of such weapons continue to be a hotly debated issue, and accusations of illegal use have been aimed at various nations. One example is the controversy surrounding “Yellow Rain,” with investigations and discussion regarding its use in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan continuing for decades.

Honey Bee (Apis cerana) on a Rhododendron leaf in Hong Kong (2013) Earth100 | Wikimedia Commons
Honey Bee (Apis cerana) on a Rhododendron leaf in Hong Kong (2013) Earth100 | Wikimedia Commons

In 1981, the United States accused Russia of supplying T-2 mycotoxin, a toxic fungus naturally found in cold climates, to communist states in Southeast Asia for use as a weapon. While Russia denied the accusations and the United Nations found them to be false, the U.S. government has never rescinded the claims, which were made based on physical data and victim accounts. One prominent voice on the issue is Dr. Matthew Meselson of Harvard University, who says that the notorious yellow spots found on plant life in the area were actually honey bee droppings. There are those, however, who continue to insist that the spots are not the result of bees, but are just one piece of the evidence proving mycotoxin usage. With no clear scientific conclusion, discussion becomes not just political, but personal.

In this “moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” we see that Foreign Service Officer Gary B. Crocker spearheaded the U.S. investigation of yellow rain. To this day, he remains convinced that T-2 mycotoxin is the cause. Crocker began at the State Department in 1974, after serving in intelligence roles in the Army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and Air Force. At State, he worked in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, focusing on numerous geopolitical issues including arms control and chemical and biological weapons.

Gary B. Crocker’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on March 27, 2012.

Read Gary B. Crocker’s full oral history HERE.

Read more on chemical weapons HERE.

Drafted by Blythe Zadrozny

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Excerpts:

“These were Hmong people talking about being gassed. And they described one of the agents as a yellow rain that destroyed crops and made their livestock sick and people also got sick and sometimes bled through the skin.”

Identifying the Problem: The issue of chemical use starts in 1978 with evidence from Laos. The issue of chemical weapon use would occupy a lot of my time for many years. ….In 1978, Ed McWilliams, an FSO, and Denny Lane, an Army Attaché, started interviewing refugees in Northern Thailand. They compiled a list of hundreds of names and their stories. These were Hmong people talking about being gassed. And they described one of the agents as a yellow rain that destroyed crops and made their livestock sick and people also got sick and sometimes bled through the skin…. Collection was difficult because of the Lao and Vietnamese control as well the Soviet military presence in Laos. Therefore we relied on mercenaries and travelers and special teams to collect evidence. We also had joint intelligence operations with Thailand. The Thai royal family were involved in science and were very supportive of our efforts. But our intelligence was telling us that Soviet supplied chemicals were in Laos and we knew where their storage facilities were, and this is all through joint U.S/Thai collection activity. We knew that the Lao with Soviet support were using some Soviet spray devices on planes. The original samples were leaves with yellow spots on them. And we get various vegetation and soil samples, including some from Congressman Leach….We continued through 1979. We sent people out to the camps. We had discussions with the Lao. We sent in an Army medical team and they came back and said these people definitely had been exposed to chemical agents. We briefed the House Foreign Affairs Committee….We also raised it in the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva. We had now accumulated all the evidence, scientific evidence, which was verified by scientists all over the world. In addition we examined the collected material from attack sites in Laos and Cambodia and eventually from Afghanistan. That data appears in the classified and unclassified versions of the first and second reports.

“…the entirety of the evidence was insufficient for some people because of a wide range of opposition to the U.S. accusations, skepticism or downright opposition because of politics.”

Political Pushback:
CROCKER: We had people bring out samples, we had people going in and examining victims. I mean there’s a lot of evidence, including sensitive intelligence from NSA and other places. This was an international investigation involving government and non-government organizations as well as private individuals. We had all kinds of defectors and witnesses. Other governments like Australia, France, Britain, Germany were also sending people in there, finding out what was going on. But the entirety of the evidence was insufficient for some people because of a wide range of opposition to the U.S. accusations, skepticism or downright opposition because of politics.

Q: OK, I mean you’re getting information, you’re getting statements and all. Why would there be resistance within I assume the academic, the scientific side?

CROCKER: Opposition was varied. First, on the scientific side there was a belief that the signing of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Treaty, which is ratified in 1975, and the Geneva Protocol from 1925 had made these weapons illegal and stopped their use. There even was a UN report before all this happened that said since World War I there had been no persuasive use of chemical or biological weapons. There were charges made in World War II and Korea that were not internationally accepted.

Q: Was it also the fact that you were accusing a major power of treaty violations?

CROCKER: Yes. There was a reluctance internationally and at home to accuse the Soviets even after they invaded Afghanistan and used chemical weapons. The UN investigated the reports from Afghanistan, but never actually accused them. According to my research, the only country the UN directly accused was Iraq for the chemical weapons use on Iranian forces. It reminds me of the time I briefed the U.S. Catholic bishops who were visiting NATO. I commented that their letter on nuclear disarmament only mentioned the U.S. unilaterally disarming. They said “Well, we believe you should deal quietly with the Soviets and not openly accuse them.”

“One scientist reflected the view that he would have to be at the attack site at the time the chemicals are used and collect samples with his own tools and identify without doubt who delivered the agents. We have to do the best we can on the battlefield, which has rarely been available for on sight collection.”

           
Fields near Plain of Jars - Site 3, Xiangkhouang Province, Laos (2017) Jakub Hałun | Wikimedia Commons
Fields near Plain of Jars - Site 3, Xiangkhouang Province, Laos (2017) Jakub Hałun | Wikimedia Commons

Professor Meselson and the Science Community: [Meselson] first approached me in Geneva after he did his own investigation on the reports from Laos. He concluded that the yellow spots on leaves were from bee pollen. He held several scientific meetings with his like-minded friends challenging the U.S. evidence. One person who was with him in Thailand and published an article turned out to be his wife. He co-opted some people from London, Australia, others, all who were basically Soviet apologists and convinced the U.S. was making the accusations for anti-Soviet propaganda and to increase spending for chemical weapons in the U.S. Our next national estimate and white paper was in November 1982 from Secretary Shultz with more evidence from Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. Blood samples were new and flew in the face of Meselson’s bee droppings theory. In one case we had blood taken from victims on camera by an ABC film crew. We had ABC film right there, drawing the blood, documented it, kept the camera going to film it being put on a commercial plane and taken off in Washington by Army specialists and taken to Fort Detrick and other labs for analysis. The blood contained the mycotoxins we said had been used in the first report. Meselson never had a good argument for the blood analysis and millions of people saw the documentary. He appeared in the documentary saying the mycotoxins would not cause the symptoms. He was followed by scientific demonstrations by non-government researchers that proved the toxins caused the massive bleeding through the skin reported in Laos. The Shultz report made a tighter connection between Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. The same chemicals and toxins were used in all three countries according to testimony, samples and sensitive intelligence. There is no way that these victims from three different countries and different tribes of people could have coordinated their stories. The common denominator was the Soviet Union who produced the agents and weapons…. Another significant obstacle was the scientific view, expressed to me by Meselson, that scientists didn’t like that we were talking about using biotechnology to make bad things to kill people. They were pushing worldwide biotechnology to help people. Therefore they questioned our evidence and found ways to prove it wasn’t valid. One scientist reflected the view that he would have to be at the attack site at the time the chemicals are used and collect samples with his own tools and identify without doubt who delivered the agents. We have to do the best we can on the battlefield, which has rarely been available for on sight collection. But we also have a lot of intelligence about who was flying then, the weather, and military communications about the attacks. The U.S. government’s work was not shabby. We checked every piece of evidence against other information.

“All of us who worked on this in the old days are still in touch. I’m talking scientists, attachés, Foreign Service Officers and intelligence analysts.”

The Debate Continues: [Meselson] never stops. And so then he became very active saying there was no Soviet biological weapons program and went over there and visited the Soviet facilities at their expense. And he said that we’d totally exaggerated the Soviet chemical weapons program. Well, later I’m going to tell you that there’s absolutely no doubt about the enormity of the programs. We went there and saw all the plants. And defectors came out and told us how huge both programs were. Well, then he kind of did a soft-shoe shuffle. He’s trying to get a Nobel Peace Prize for work he did in DNA, but his checkered past in ‘95 dealing in politics in the name of science probably weakened his chances. And he wants to talk to me. I just got a call and he wants to meet with me. I don’t know. He’s getting old, it might be his last hurrah for me to admit I was wrong. All of us who worked on this in the old days are still in touch. I’m talking scientists, attachés, Foreign Service Officers and intelligence analysts….Meselson and others said these Hmong were just making it up, they were ignorant people, naturalists, and they don’t understand science and medicine. It turned out, there was a lot of good work done around the world on these toxins. Now, Meselson’s on camera saying toxins don’t cause these symptoms although he didn’t know squat about toxins, quite frankly. And he was saying these things earlier, that it wouldn’t do this, you’d have to drop tons of it but of course the experiments showed he was wrong. But he just keeps changing his position. It’s interesting he wants to talk to me. And I’d be curious to see if he’s still singing this same song, particularly his view that the U.S. government was wrong about the Soviet chemical/biological program, which has been 100% proved to be huge. We’ve been to the facilities. We’ve got all the defectors.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA, University of Washington 1959–1963
MA in International Affairs, George Washington University
U.S. Army 1963–1971
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) 1968–1971
National Security Agency, Army Intelligence Reserve Unit 1971–
Air Force Intelligence ~1972–1974
Joined the Foreign Service 1974
Washington, D.C., United States—Intelligence Officer 1974–1999