For an establishment that, under normal circumstances, operates in a fog of secrecy, conjecture, and ignorance, the last few months must have been hard to bear. Dragged into the spotlight to add authoritative weight to the government’s account of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury on March 4, Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Unable to fully back the official version of events in Salisbury, or to say precisely where the “novichok” had been created, he described the substance as a military-grade nerve agent, requiring extremely sophisticated methods that were only within the capabilities of a state actor to create and deploy. Other experts were later to contest that conclusion, saying that the substance could easily have been produced in any university laboratory.
Aitkenhead also found himself having to defend his establishment’s integrity, denying Russian claims that the substance could have come from Porton Down, located just a few short miles from Salisbury. Despite, or possibly because of Boris Johnson’s clumsy use of this indeterminate picture to strengthen his hand the government moved quickly to explain that Aitkenhead’s contribution was “only one part of the intelligence picture.”
Hidden away in 7,000 acres of idyllic Wiltshire countryside, Porton Down is one of Britain’s most secretive scientific institutions. Founded in 1916 it is the oldest chemical warfare research installation in the world. Its sinister reputation is partly based on the fact that over a period of eighty years more than 25,000 servicemen took part in tests, or were subjected to experiments, many in trials with chemical weapons such as mustard gas, sarin, and tear gas.
From 1945 to 1989, scientists at Porton exposed more than 3,400 human “guinea pigs” to nerve gas. While other countries including the US, the Soviet Union and Iraq have also exposed humans to nerve agents it seems likely that Porton has done so more often, and for the longest period of time, than any other scientific establishment in the world.
In early tests men were sent into gas chambers and exposed to low concentrations of the nerve agent sarin. By 1950, Porton was testing considerably higher doses of sarin and cataloguing the severity of symptoms, such as headaches, vomiting and vision problems. The human subjects, supposedly all volunteers, had little or no knowledge of what they were being exposed to. Survivors have said that they were tricked into taking part, with many believing they were helping to find a cure for the common cold.
In May 1953, a young airman, Ronald Maddison collapsed and died after 200mg of sarin was dropped onto his skin during tests to determine the dosage of nerve gases. The original inquest declared his death to have been accidental. As a consequence the amount of nerve gas that could be tested on humans was restricted, but otherwise it was business as usual at Porton Down.
In July 1999 Wiltshire Constabulary opened an investigation into allegations of malfeasance at Porton. The scope of the operation was later broadened into a major inquiry, Operation Antler, which covered the period from 1939 to 1989 and lasted for five years.
In August 2000 a new inquiry was reported to be investigating at least 45 deaths as a result of chemical warfare tests at Porton. No further information as to the outcome of these investigations is currently available.
In 2004, after relatives and their supporters had lobbied for many years, the reopened inquest into the Ronald Maddison case found his death to have been unlawful. The Ministry of Defence challenged the verdict but the inquest upheld the finding and the government settled the case in 2006.
In 2007 a group of 369 affected servicemen launched legal action against the MoD, arguing that tests had left them with long-term health problems ranging from respiratory and skin diseases to cancer, psychological problems, and Parkinson’s disease. In early 2008 compensation totalling £3m, £8,300 to each of the 369 veterans, was announced by the then defence minister, Derek Twigg. His statement to MPs included a full apology to the servicemen but failed to admit liability by the MoD.
But even after the settlement the MoD contrived to make life difficult for the survivors. In 2008 one of the veterans told the BBC that although he had accepted the deal, the MoD was still refusing to pay out because others had refused to sign the agreement.
It also transpired that a number of the survivors of the Porton programs had no knowledge of the settlement despite the MoD being in possession of their contact details. Those applying for compensation after the cutoff date of 30 June 2008 found themselves unable register and therefore ineligible.
So what is the official justification for the multitudes of tests and experiments carried out on thousands of humans, and untold numbers of animals in one of the world’s most secretive military installations? Did they achieve anything of scientific value? Decades of tests and experimentation have produced vast quantities of data about the effects of nerve gas on the human body. This data has supposedly enabled Porton to develop sophisticated defences to protect Britain’s armed forces from chemical attack. The data also helped Britain to develop its own arsenal of nerve gas before such plans were finally shelved in the late 1960s in favour of the nuclear deterrent.
Dstl Porton Down will no doubt melt quietly back into the shadows once its expertise in giving credence to the statements of artless politicians on the six o’clock news is no longer required. Meanwhile the government now seems keen to put the entire Salisbury poisoning episode to rest as quietly as possible, slipping Sergei Skripal out of hospital on May18, the day before the royal wedding, and making him and his daughter Yulia apparently disappear into thin air. On May 22 the Salisbury shopping centre at the hub of the events was officially declared “decontaminated”.
But we’d do well to keep an eye on Porton Down’s activities, as far as that’s possible. What to think, for example, of the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) having funded a number of military projects performed at Porton Down over the last decade, to the tune of $70 million?
Porton Down is not unique, but just one of the many Pentagon-funded military laboratories in 25 countries across the world, where the US Army produces and tests man-made viruses, bacteria and toxins in direct violation of the UN Convention. US military and civilian personnel in such facilities work under diplomatic cover and are therefore not under the direct authority of the host state. Local governments are prohibited from public disclosure of sensitive information about the foreign military program running on their own territory. Britain’s most secret military/scientific installation is just one component in a much larger machine it seems.
In recent years Dstl Porton Down has branched out into other fields and now devotes considerable effort into researching and developing the weaponisation of artificial intelligence technology. This growth industry is set to fundamentally change the way in which warfare is waged, creating autonomous weapons that decide for themselves who is to die and when. Organisations like Drone Wars UK, and individuals such as Stephen Hawking have repeatedly warned of the potential dangers of allowing this technology to flourish.
On May 21 2018 Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the launch of a new artificial intelligence hub at Porton Down as he hosted the first ever joint US-UK Defence Innovation Board meeting. The official remit is to “…enhance and accelerate the UK’s world-class capability in the application of AI-related technologies to defence and security challenges.” In plain English this translates as “keeping up with the Joneses”, exactly the job that Porton Down was created to do over a hundred years ago in 1916.
Biological Experiments are war crimes.
Article 8(ii) of The Rome Statute of The International Criminal Court (ICC) defines biological experiments as war crimes. The US, however, is not a state party to the international treaty, and cannot be held accountable for its war crimes.
Steve Metcalfe served in the British Army in Germany and on operations in Northern Ireland, he is now a member of Veterans For Peace.