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Spotlight: How ‘yellow rain’ misinformation blew back on us


In an exclusive interview recorded in 2021, Jim Coyne, a Vietnam veteran who later became a freelance journalist for Soldier of Fortune (SOF) magazine, explained how he had been duped into believing that the infamous “yellow rain” of the 1980s was a real biochemical weapon, but also how his experience may have been purposefully hijacked for US propaganda purposes in a bid to smear the then Soviet Union.

I couldn’t get the story published at the time, so it’s been sat in my inbox ever since. But with Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Biden administration, announcing her retirement this month and the internet running wild with clips of her confirming that American collaboration with Ukrainian biolabs was real, after all, I thought it a good time to revisit the story as well as my accounts of the conversation.

Readers may remember that social media was privy to an initially very aggressive campaign to cancel anyone referencing the existence of such labs when the Russian-Ukraine invasion first happened.

How the yellow rain narrative became a thing

Coyne’s involvement in the chemical and biological weapons sphere began by serendipity in May, 1981. He was in Southeast Asia with a group of Special Forces veterans engaged in reconnaissance to determine whether there might be American prisoners of war still alive in Laos from the Vietnam War. During their mission, the party came across some refugees in Northern Laos, and one guy came forward with a sample of a supposedly chemical substance that was reportedly being used in Laos by the Vietnamese or the Soviets.

Coyne realised the potential significance of the find and, after conferring with the Special Forces members in his party, decided to get it to Washington as quickly as possible. Within a day the sample was on its way out of Bangkok on a commercial flight, travelling in the care of a sergeant major who had inserted it into a used metal toothpaste tube so that it couldn’t be detected by X-ray machines.

Upon arrival, the sample was dispatched to some private labs for analysis, but these turned out to lack the capability to figure out what it was. Their results came back negative.

Convinced there was more to it due to the intensity of the on-the-ground testimonials, SOF decided to turn the sample over for analysis to the US government, which is how several US intelligence services came into possession of it. Just two weeks later Coyne got the call that the agencies had confirmed the sample contained “mycotoxins”, a substance believed to have been used in chemical weapons by the Soviet Union and its allies in Southeast Asia.

“Up until that time, there had never been an actual physical sample of this stuff,” Coyne told the Blind Spot. “There had been reports of it by an anthropologist, Jane Hamilton-Merritt, who was very well known. And Sterling Seagrave had come out with a book called Yellow Rain. But all of it was anecdotal. None of them had the actual samples of the chemical supposedly being used itself.”

It was at this point the real drama began.

Political and military leaders in the US, who understood chemical and biological weapons, immediately wanted to know more about the sample and requested to meet Coyne directly since he had been part of the team that recovered the sample. So Coyne flew to the US to meet them, telling them exactly what he had told the original interviewer he’d met in the Bangkok embassy; that a refugee had given them the sample, providing them with the name of the location and the coordinates of where it was found.

A few weeks later, in September of 1981, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig came out with a statement that the US had the smoking gun that proved the Soviet Union was supplying chemical and biological warfare agents to the Vietnamese and Lao and that it was being used in Afghanistan.

As the furor surrounding the discovery grew, Congress took an interest. That November Coyne was called in to testify in front of lawmakers as to how he got the sample, along with Sterling Seagrave, Jane Hamilton Merritt, and Ambassador Richard Burt. Coyne said he was also provided with handlers to help him navigate the media storm following the story’s public release.

“We were put on more or less a dog and pony show within Washington; made available to journalists by the State Department. You know, they arranged various things parties in Washington, where we would meet people, etc., etc.” he said. At the time Coyne didn’t think anything of it, but in retrospect he considers he may have been stage-managed from the outset.

Amid the escalating interest in the yellow rain revelations, it was decided that Coyne should go back to Bangkok to participate in a press briefing on the topic, overseen by the DIA, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, which was open to every journalist in Bangkok.

Coyne says he had always considered himself a true believer and a US patriot and felt a duty to oblige in all the press relations.

But it was that night that he was to have a fateful encounter with a KGB operative, which would, in the long run, cause him to doubt the narrative he himself was spinning.

Slow realisation

Once the Bangkok event ended, Coyne said he was having a drink with the US military attaché at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club bar when a waiter came over with a drink for him. “So I asked the bartender who had ordered me a drink and he pointed down the bar to this guy sitting at the end of the bar,” Coyne said.

The military attaché immediately recognised the man. He told Coyne it was ‘Anatoly Korolev’, the Bangkok resident at the Soviet embassy and the only KGB officer in Southeast Asia authorised to use the “big sleep”, the practice of assassinating or eliminating political enemies or perceived threats through covert means. “Don’t drink it,” the attaché warned Coyne.

But Coyne was intrigued by the outreach. “Let’s not get dramatic here,” Coyne replied. “He just bought me a drink, that’s all.” Coyne proceeded to consume the drink, sending one back to Korolev in return. Eventually, the two struck up a conversation. To Coyne’s surprise, Korolev turned out to be most amiable. Coyne was particularly impressed by his English, which he said he spoke without a trace of an accent — telling the American he had perfected it after spending some years in Chicago.

The two men decided to continue the conversation the next day over lunch, much to the disapproval of the attaché — who Coyne suspects organised surveillance of the event.

When the lunch date came, the true believer in Coyne couldn’t help himself. He began to lecture Korolev about how the Soviet mission in Afghanistan was doomed to fail. Coyne himself had spent much time in Afghanistan covering how the Mujahadin were helping the Americans in their mission and felt quite passionately about events there. When the topic of yellow rain eventually came up, however, Korolev turned to Coyne and said: “You’re a smart guy … would the Soviet Union, would we, provide this sophisticated, controversial, weaponry, to the Laos and the Vietnamese?” Coyne said Korolev spoke very disparagingly of the locals as if he thought they were idiots. “You know, li ke ‘would we give that to the Afghans? We’re not doing any of this stuff.’,” Coyne recalled.

Despite liking Korolev, Coyne said he remained unconvinced and sceptical of the KGB man’s assertions. He returned home and wrote up the encounter for Soldier of Fortune Magazine in an article entitled Say goodbye, comrade Jaws. The account was not a flattering one.

Just bees faeces

It was about a year and a half later, and Coyne had largely forgotten about the episode. He was back in Boulder, Colorado, the then headquarters of Soldier of Fortune magazine, working on other projects when, out of the blue, he got a call from a professor by the name of Matthew Meselson. The professor told him he had written a thesis on “yellow rain” and concluded that the samples were most likely not a Soviet biological or chemical but bee faeces. Meselson’s theory postulated that when bees swarm they often excrete faeces in synchronised form giving the effect of yellow rain.

At first, Coyne thought the theory was preposterous. He didn’t want to believe it. But Meselson insisted. He said that, while he understood Coyne’s position, as far as he was concerned there was really no doubt. He had proved it conclusively. The sample that had caused a media storm in 1981 was not a biological or chemical weapon. It was bee excrement.

Unable to believe what he was hearing, Coyne attempted to reconnect with the intelligence contacts who had handheld him through the public engagements of 1981. But, to his surprise, he couldn’t get through to any of them. “My instinct then was that something weird was going on because before they always answered my calls. And now, nobody wants to talk about it,” he said.

Perturbed, he started “doing his own research”, digging into chemical and biological weapons in general and talking with other military experts on it. Slowly he became convinced there were good reasons why the “yellow rain” story was not true. It dawned on him specifically that if the chemical or biological weapons worked on a battlefield, regardless of whether they were legal or not, the military would be using them. Since they weren’t, it was unlikely the Soviets would be either — largely because they were so much more cumbersome than ordinary weapons and the blowback risk was so much greater.

Coyne eventually confided to Meselson that it was entirely plausible they may all have been tricked and that the whole story had been pushed by the intelligence services for Cold War purposes to smear the Soviet Union. “I said to Meselson, the irony of this whole thing is the only person who told me the truth was a KGB resident in Bangkok,” he said.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Once the truth began to seep out, the agencies’ role in exaggerating the story fell under greater scrutiny.

In 1991, Melvin Goodman, a national security and intelligence expert and former CIA analyst told a Senate Committee he considered the yellow rain episode to be one of three classic instances (the other two being the papal plot and international terrorism) where “exaggerated analysis, or what might even be described as misinformation” was put out by the CIA, placing a terrible burden on US policymakers and even created an ethical issue.

“In some ways, it’s similar to international terrorism in that you had a charge from Secretary of State Al Haig without evidence, that the Soviets were responsible for the use of chemical agents in South-East Asia,” he said.

The embassy in Bangkok — that is, our embassy in Bangkok — didn’t believe this charge. They set up their own investigation, they found no evidence, and they merely stopped making the charges they were directed to report regarding yellow rain and the Soviet use of chemical agents.”

None of which is to say the Soviets weren’t engaged in illegal biological work at the lab-based level. Matthew Meselson, on his part, would go on in the 1990s to reveal the full extent of Russia’s secret biopreparat biological weapons programme with the help of British weapons inspector David Kelly. But by then the damage had been done. All parties (the US, the UK and the Soviets) had begun to lose trust in the idea that any of them were abiding by the biological and chemical weapons conventions they had agreed to.

Ukraine paranoia

In a poignant tribute to David Kelly after his death, Meselson talked of the initially “very private” trilateral process that was set in motion in 1990 to try and rebuild trust via mutual on-site inspections.

When the Soviet labs were revealed nobody could believe it. Yet what was rarely discussed on our side was the role US misinformation may have played in motivating the Soviets to double down on illegal work. The Soviets maintained throughout, for example, that they had become convinced the US, despite signing the BWC convention in 1975, had not suspended its own biological dual-use work but rather merely outsourced it to private corporations like Pfizer. It was all game theory.

The trilateral process allowed the Russians to act on that paranoia. In the negotiations leading up to the mutual inspections, the Russians insisted on inspecting not just government facilities at Fort Detrick but also private sector facilities at companies such as Pfizer. Eventually, President Bill Clinton buckled to the pressure, but the concession would prove a PR disaster for the West and the biological weapons convention. Kelly and Meselson may have discovered Biopreparat, but the Russians insisted they too had found illegal activity in the US private facilities and didn’t fail to propagandise accordingly — some might say taking a leaf out of the Americans’ own yellow rain playbook.

Understandably the private sector companies balked at the claims. Since then, the US has refused to allow or engage in mutual inspections.

All of this has fueled an enduring mutual distrust that continues on to this day, and one which has come to dominate Russian paranoia about ongoing US covert activities in Ukraine.

This brings us to about where we are now, notably the much under-reported news that at the December 4-8 meeting of the biological weapons working group in Geneva last year, the Russians continued to pursue efforts to strengthen the convention on grounds that the US military was operating labs in violation of the treaty in Ukraine. Their accusations claimed the US had been working on mosquito-laden drones capable of infecting large numbers of troops when released, among other things.

From their official submission:

During the special military operation, the Russian Federation received a number of documents and proofs which shed light on the true nature of military and biological activities by the United States and Ukraine. During the analysis of the mentioned documents it was reaffirmed that the US and Ukrainian sides do not comply with the provisions of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC).

It continued:

Such activities are most often carried out indirectly through the Pentagon’s Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and private companies that are regular contractors of the US military, including Black & Veatch Special Projects Corp., CH2M Hill, Metabiota.

And bringing it back to Nuland:

The fact of the implementation of military biological programmes in the Ukrainian territory is also recognized by the US officials. In particular, during the hearings in the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 8 March 2022, in her response to the question on the presence of biological or chemical weapons in Ukraine, the Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland testified the presence of biological research facilities there. She also expressed “great concerns” with their possible falling (including the materials present there) under control of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

So who really is telling the truth? For now, it’s impossible to tell.

In light of revelations by the New York Times on February 25 that, for more than a decade, the US has nurtured a secret intelligence partnership with Ukraine, and funded and operated bases on Ukraine soil, it seems some of the Russian paranoia may be justified.

On the other hand, until truly neutral third parties are given access to determine the real truth of what’s going on on the ground, the scale of mutual distrust is likely only to escalate on both sides. And, as Coyne reflected many years later, that only serves to destabilise trust more broadly, with huge negative consequences for society.

“I just have my doubts about almost everything coming through the information funnel at this point,” Coyne concluded. “Like I say, once you’ve been tricked, you sort of wonder about it all. You know how it works. You know how the government can do these things. And the ease with which the government can do these things. It’s almost second nature to them.”

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