Historians' Watch

Testing Secret Agents: A Century of Human Experimentation at Porton Down

The Salisbury nerve agent attack of March this year continues to generate worldwide political fallout. The poisoning of a former Russian secret agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, has not only intensified diplomatic efforts to strengthen the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but has also highlighted the role of (dis)information warfare in relation to the use and testing of chemical weapons in Britain during the Cold War.

Above all, the Salisbury attack has propelled Porton Down – the Ministry of Defence biological and chemical laboratory established during the First World War – into the limelight after samples of the agent used tested positive for the rare nerve agent Novichok. Novichok – literally, ‘Newcomer’ – describes a series of extremely lethal and fast-acting “fourth generation” nerve agents, developed by the then Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. The aim of these compounds, developed by a branch of the State Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology at Shikhany, near Volgograd, was to be undetectable by standard NATO detection equipment and safer to handle. It is believed that there are approximately one hundred Novichok variants. The development of these agents took place as part of the offensive chemical weapons programme code-named FOLIANT, and was was so secret that Russia – despite signing the CWC in 1993 – did not declare them to the OPCW. Although Western intelligence agencies were aware of their existence, the non-disclosure of Novichok agents was tacitly accepted in return for the ratification and implementation of the CWC by the international community.

This is an unusual case, which has raised many problems for the UK’s counterterrorism experts in trying to ascertain what happened in Salisbury. At the same time, it has provided fertile ground for speculation and conspiracy theories, the volume and intensity of which has caught the relevant UK authorities off-guard. In barely concealed attempts to muddy the waters between the Skripal case and Britain’s Cold War past, some commentators have raised – more often than not ‘leading’ – questions about the ethics and conduct of Porton’s own nerve agent programme. Porton’s human research programme, however, is historically more complex and morally more ambiguous than some observers may have suggested.

From the early 1990s, allegations that servicemen had been duped into taking part in trials of toxic agents at top-secret Allied research facilities throughout the twentieth century featured with ever greater frequency in the media. Investigative journalists and television crews interviewing former “guinea pigs” reported that many had believed they were taking part in tests for the common cold, and that no informed consent had been obtained. The UK government, on the other hand, maintained – and still does – that Porton’s “Volunteer Programme has always been operated to the highest ethical standards of the day”. Although a whole army of British soldiers, a total of 21,752 to be precise, had participated in Porton’s research programme between 1939 and 1989, the number of veterans coming forward first numbered in the tens and hundreds rather than the thousands. Most of the veterans’ complaints related to the 1950s and 1960s, some to the 1970s and, in a few cases, even the 1980s. Many remembered their stay at Porton as relatively harmless, but there were large numbers of men for whom the experience had been anything but pleasant, and in some cases harmful, or even deadly.

A historical understanding of Porton’s record over the last hundred years needs to be located within a wider historiography of human research which deals with the major achievements, as well as aberrations, of modern medicine since the late nineteenth century. Since the mid-1990s – prompted in part by the events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Nuremberg Code, a ten-point set of principles for the conduct of human experiments promulgated in response to Nazi medical atrocities – there has been a surge in studies examining the ethics and politics of government-sponsored human trials in a range of historical and geographical settings. The general consensus among those examining this history of military science was that veterans had been exposed to “undue risk”. No longer could the Nuremberg Code be brushed aside, in the words of medical ethicist Jay Katz, as a “good code for barbarians but an unnecessary code for ordinary physician-scientists”. The largely Western research community had to engage with irrefutable evidence of systematically unethical research practices.

Foremost among the commissions which looked into the field of human research was the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research. Established in 1974 in the wake of revelations about the Tuskegee experiment, one of the most profound medical ethics scandals in the history of the United States, seen by some as a “programme of controlled genocide”, the work of the commission led to the critically-important, and much cited, Belmont Report in 1979. Others included the Presidential Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioural Research (1978), the President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (1994). More recently, the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (2010) was set up after it was revealed that scientists working for the US Public Health Service had performed experimental research on sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948 – around the time of the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial – without the consent of the participants or their legal guardians. Human trials in Guatemala had involved the intentional exposure to syphilis, gonorrhoea and cancroid of prisoners, soldiers, patients from state-run asylums, commercial sex workers, and children from orphanages and state-run schools.

Yet such government-funded human investigations have not been confined to the United States. In Canada, the Ombudsman for National Defence and Canadian Forces looked into complaints concerning chemical agents testing on thousands of soldiers during the Second World War. In the United Kingdom, in 2004, the inquest into the death of a serviceman at Porton Down from sarin nerve gas in 1953 concluded with an unlawful killing verdict against the UK Ministry of Defence. In 2008, after a campaign lasting over a decade and involving the combined efforts of politicians, journalists, medical experts, and historians (the author included), the UK government awarded compensation to about 670 victims of secret chemical testing and issued an official apology, a milestone in Britain’s attempt to come to terms with its own inglorious past.

A nerve agent trial at Porton Down

The UK has historically been at the forefront of investigations into the manufacture and use of weaponised chemical agents ever since it was attacked by Germany with choking and blistering agents during the First World War. Yet, it was the discovery of the weaponised production of the highly toxic nerve agent sarin by Nazi Germany that prompted highly secret research into chemical weapons at Porton Down. Included in this work was the non-therapeutic experimentation with nerve agents on thousands of human subjects. From 1945-1989 an estimated 3,400 servicemen are believed to have taken part in nerve agent trials. With the increased use of human experimentation to meet the demands of this evolving method of warfare came ancillary crises and challenges in regulatory and ethical practice. Did subjects give voluntary consent? How was consent obtained? Were the risks adequately explained to the subjects? What safeguards were taken? How was research regulated? Questions such as these were at the heart of attempts to protect the fundamental rights of human participants in non-therapeutic trials. But were the ethical standards designed to safeguard these rights, as outlined in the Nuremberg Code from 1947, and the Declaration of Helsinki (and its subsequent versions) from 1964, sufficient to regulate highly secret military research under the covert demands of the Cold War?

As the Skripal case demonstrates, these questions are not confined to the historical archive. As we move into another age of uncertainty and disinformation, questions surrounding the protection of human rights in cultures of secrecy are as pressing as ever. Chemical weapons are no longer confined to the battlefield, and their unconventional use has engendered a new type of terrorism. Yet perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that the ‘normalisation’ of chemical weapons’ growing use in modern-day conflicts. What remains certain is the UK’s need to understand these weapons, to know how and where they have been manufactured, and how to treat those who have been exposed to them. With this demand comes the need for scientific research, and once more the ancillary crisis of where human rights lie in relation to secret science.

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