February 2001 saw the official launch of Britain's worst agricultural disaster in living memory. Within days, conflicting information on the nature of this virus (Foot-and-Mouth Pan Asiatic Type O - henceforth abbreviated to FMD:O in my text) with attendant conspiracy theories, began to circulate.
In many public gathering places, lurid stories of biological warfare being waged by environmental extremists, in league with Middle-Eastern/Gulf terrorists, were rife. The media seemed incapable of reaching any consensus about the aetiology, manifestations and consequences of FMD:O other than a broad assertion that the virus was a harbinger of doom for the countryside.
One particular rumour made reference to FMD:O having been in Britain months before February 2001 and that "secret experiments" had been conducted. At the time - March 2001 - I was only vaguely aware of these unsubstantiated assertions and failed to make a connection with more publicized accounts of combustible materials stockpiling and issuing of contracts to heavy plant machinery operators prior to the disease outbreak.
In fact, vaccination trials involving this organism had been carried out quite legitimately although, for obvious bio-security reasons, details were not available to the general public. Therefore, due to viruses' propensity for mutation coupled with existing knowledge of FMD:O epidemiology, it would have been essential to develop an effective vaccine - even if its use was only to be sanctioned as a last resort.
The following is reproduced (without permission) from an Institute of Science in Society Report, dated 24th September 2001: Article by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, entitled "Foot & Mouth Outbreak, GM Vaccine and Bio-warfare."
"Investigations by the 'Evening Chronicle' (*) uncovered that the United States, Canada and Mexico began preparing for 'a simulated outbreak of foot and mouth disease' last October. According to papers leaked from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the exercise - which took place between November 6 and 9 - was 'for the purpose of emergency planning.' The papers reportedly state: 'This exercise is the first of its kind and provides all three countries with a unique opportunity to apply their emergency response plans in the event of a real disease outbreak.'
"At the same time, the UK Government was reported to be preparing its own 'contingency plans' for a foot and mouth outbreak - even though the last foot and mouth outbreak here was in 1967 (#) The 'Evening Chronicle' reported that MAFF officials began telephoning timber merchants as early as December asking if they could supply wood for pyres, should foot and mouth strike."
* Article: "Animal Virus Ordeal Shock Report" by Nic Outterside, Evening Chronicle, 29th June 2001.
# Incorrect. An outbreak took place in the Isle of Wight during 1981.
The Chief Veterinary Officer's report on "The Origin of the UK Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001" (DEFRA, 2002) stated that:-
"... only the Institute of Animal Health Laboratory and the Merial Biological Laboratory (for vaccine production) at Pirbright are licensed to hold FMD virus - contrary to suggestions that FMD was released or stolen from the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency or the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, Porton Down."
(As quoted in the Cumbria Foot & Mouth Disease Inquiry Report, Cumbria County Council, September 2002)
This extract does not state or imply that it was illegal for Porton Down to hold and use FMD:O tissue samples: permission to do so would have been granted. In the Sunday Express article of 8th April 2001, it was mentioned that:-
"... A senior military source close to Porton Down said: 'A phial appears to have gone missing from one of the labs following a routine audit last year.'"
Again, this is not a categoric admission of fact. The item was either missing, had been used and, therefore, no longer in existence, or demonstrably extant. A Public Enquiry would need to seek clarification on the role of Porton Down and find out what happened to the missing specimen.
One rumour concerning FMD:O was the existence of an experimental farm, or similar establishment, where vaccination research and trials were undertaken. Understandably, due to paucity of information at the time, it was felt that what had been - and still is - a legitimate activity per se should not have taken place.
It was likely that MAFF wanted such research and development to be carried out well away from scrutiny, especially those implacably opposed to vaccination. Establishments like Pirbright, the Moredun Research Institute in Midlothian and Sourhope Research Station in Roxburghshire would be able to cope with some low to medium risk animal health projects. FMD:O did not fall into these categories!
There is, arguably, only one organisation which can routinely ensure that activities requiring maximum secrecy, maximum efficiency in administration and implementation of large-scale projects and, above all, total professionalism and dedication, are performed satisfactorily. In addition, it has access to vast tracts of countryside from which the public can be excluded, as required by statute.
The Ministry of Defence has its own facility which, as well as researching and developing NBC weaponry (and decontamination measures), can assist the microbiological work carried out at Moredun and Pirbright. Enter Porton Down.
The following is reproduced (again, without permission) from an Institute of Science in Society Report dated 24th September 2001: Article by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, entitled "Foot & Mouth Outbreak, GM Vaccine and Bio-warfare."
"In August/September 2000, the company, United Biomedical Inc. (UBI) based in the USA had conducted tests on a vaccine for FMD Type O. That is the strain involved in the disease outbreak in the UK.
"UBI announced on its website www. unitedbiomedical. com, 'We have vaccinated pigs, challenged them with infectious FMDV (foot and mouth disease virus), and successfully protected almost all of them (45 of 46 animals) from viral infection and out-performed the commercial product (*) This has been done by four government laboratories on three continents.'
"The three continents were Asia, America and Europe. The four governments were the US, the Chinese, the Mexican and the UK. Was the one pig the vaccine failed to protect in a UK government laboratory? All the governments have admitted these trials took place except the UK.
"According to UBI, previous studies have been carried out in several biocontainment facilities, including... the Merial Animal Health Ltd Biological Laboratory, Pirbright... But Merial UK denied it had any connection with UBI.
"Merial is a Merk (sic) and Aventis company (#) that have foot-and-mouth vaccine production laboratories close to those of the government's Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, Surrey.
"Scientists in the Institute for Animal Health have also been trying to genetic (sic) engineer a recombinant DNA vaccine against FMDV. ...FMDV is highly contagious and mutable, and it afflicts mainly cloven-hooved animals, such as cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, as well as some wild animals such as deer, camels and giraffes. In the lab, rats and hedgehogs have also been infected with the virus, although whether that happens in the wild is unclear.
"The vaccine made by the Institute of Animal Health consisted of a plasmid containing FMD Type O sequences coding for viral coat and other proteins. It was found to protect only half of the vaccinated animals against the FMDV, and was not as effective as the conventional live viral vaccine. The paper also described the process of getting a particularly virulent strain of FMDV, 'by serial passage of FMDV O One Lausanne in pigs,' a process designed to generate new recombinant viruses. This work was submitted to a journal last October (2000) and published earlier this year." (Induction of a protective response in swine vaccinated with DNA encoding foot-and-mouth disease virus empty capsid proteins and the 3D RNA polymerase. Journal of General Virology 2001, 82, 1713-24)
"Work on genetically engineered foot and mouth vaccines have (sic) been going on for the past 20 years, for the ostensible reason that the conventional live vaccine had been unsatisfactory..."
"The Sunday Express reported in April that a routine audit in the UK Government's bio-warfare research laboratory at Porton Down, Wiltshire, revealed that a container of foot-and-mouth virus was missing two months before the first official outbreak. The newspaper also claims it has seen documents confirming that some sheep carried the virus long before the outbreak was confirmed on February 20, 2001. A Welsh vet says the virus was in Wales as early as January.
"Was the outbreak caused by the FMDV used to challenge vaccinated animals, either the strain from Porton Down or the virulent strain resulting from serial passage in pigs, which has escaped from one of the labs? Could it have been due (to) the virus from infected pigs escaping, or to an entirely new virus generated by recombination between the challenge virus and the vaccine?
"These questions could easily be answered by molecular genetic analysis of the virus or viruses from infected livestock in the outbreak (+)"
* Am I correct in assuming that the "commercial product" is "the conventional live vaccine," as quoted above?
# Merck and Aventis is, as far as I can ascertain, a joint venture comprising:
Merck KG & A, based in Darmstadt, Germany / Merck & Co, Inc, USA. Also known as Merck, Sharp and Dohme (MSD) A leading global pharmaceutical products and services company,
Aventis SA, based in Strasbourg, France, with a research and development faculty at Bridgewater Crossings, New Jersey, USA. Its core business activities are prescription drugs and human vaccines. Aventis has a 50% equity stake in Merial.
Merial Animal Health Ltd, UK, (a Merck, Sharp & Dohme and Aventis company) was formed in 1998 and is involved with discovering, developing and manufacturing vaccines, including those for animal diseases.
+ Answers to these questions have not, as far as I am aware, been made available to the public.
During 2000, a major outbreak of "Classic Swine Fever," resulting in significant culling, was reported. Was this an attempt to conceal the real problem - FMD:O?
It is noteworthy that some heavy plant machinery operators and road haulage companies which were given contracts for ground excavation and livestock/deadstock conveyance respectively, prior to February 2001, had been informed that Classic Swine Fever was the reason for their services. I understand that extra veterinary staff drafted in at the same time were told a similar story.
Then, my knowledge of livestock diseases was negligible, but I did wonder whether there was a connection between Classic Swine Fever and FMD:O. Recently, I looked at Black's Veterinary Dictionary, 17th Edition, 1992. I saw no reference to the latter under "Swine Fever" and "Swine Fever, African." There was no text relating to "Classic Swine Fever."
However, under "Foot and Mouth Disease," I found the following:-
"It is necessary by laboratory tests to distinguish between Foot and Mouth Disease and Swine Vesicular Disease and Vesicular Stomatosis.
"Swine Vesicular Disease first appeared in the UK in 1972. In the Staffordshire outbreak of that year, it was at first mistaken for Foot and Mouth Disease, from which it cannot be differentiated on clinical grounds alone, However, within three and a half days of receipt of material from the lesions, it was shown at the Animal Virus Research Institute, Pirbright, that the virus was not that of Foot and Mouth Disease."
Under Vesicular Stomatosis, the Dictionary states:-
"Vesicular Stomatosis of horses resembles in some respects Foot and Mouth Disease but is caused by a rhabdovirus (*) The disease may also affect cattle and pigs."
(* "Rhabdovirus - group of bullet-shaped viruses which includes the Rabies virus and that of Vesicular Stomatosis.")
In "The Walker's Handbook" by Hugh D. Westacott (published by Penguin Books, 1978), no mention is made of Classic Swine Fever, but...
"Swine vesicular disease is very similar to foot and mouth disease but is peculiar to pigs and first occurred in this country in 1972. The only way to control an outbreak is to slaughter all pigs on the premises and to control the movement of pigs. It is considered possible to transmit the disease on clothing, so walkers should avoid infected areas."
Has there been a recent re-classification of livestock diseases resulting in Swine Vesicular Disease being called Classic Swine Fever?
Did the media confuse Classic Swine Fever with Swine Vesicular Disease, the latter having some initial similarity with FMD:O? Or, are they different names for the same disorder? Not having access to veterinary journals, I cannot answer these questions. What is not in doubt is that there was a major disease outbreak affecting pigs during 2000 which resulted in large numbers being slaughtered.
For this section of the article, I will refer to Classic Swine Fever and Swine Vesicular Disease (hypothetically, the same) as CSF/SVD, and assume that, in the illness' early stages, it can be confused with FMD:O.
Given CSF/SVD's very high infection potential, did it suddenly vanish when FMD:O was declared? Or, were the eradication measures successful? Since some of the FMD:O contingency plans prior to February 2001 were carried out under the pretext of dealing with a CSF/SVD epidemic, these would have indicated that the latter problem was extant.
It has been alleged that extra veterinary staff drafted in between December 2000 and early February 2001 (including some from overseas) were informed that CSF/SVD was the reason for their services. Yet it was FMD:O which they found themselves dealing with. Did any of them become suspicious, realising that any similarities between the two illnesses were superficial?
Or, was this rumour based on misinformation and, in fact, the real disease (FMD:O) had been revealed to these personnel prior to 19th/20th February 2001? Unlikely. The CSF/SVD was already public knowledge and served as a plausible reason for recruiting extra employees on temporary contracts. Despite stringent enforcement of the Official Secrets Act, any preparations for a possibe FMD:O outbreak involving large numbers of additional personnel, to be followed shortly by an actual manifestation, would ignite a storm of controversy. As it transpired, Westminster/Whitehall's obsession with secrecy backfired!
I can think of few mendacious statements which equal that from the Chief Veterinary Officer's report on "The Origin of the UK Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001." (DEFRA, 2002):-
"...suggestions that DEFRA of MAFF had knowledge of the presence of FMD in the country before its discovery on 19 February were incorrect."
(As quoted in the Cumbria Foot & Mouth Inquiry Report, Cumbria County Council, September 2002)
The following is reproduced (without permission) from The Sunday Express, 8th April 2001:-
"Test tube taken from Porton Down lab two months before outbreak."
"Exclusive - By Yvonne Ridley."
"A test tube containing the foot-and-mouth virus went missing from a top-secret laboratory two months before the outbreak was first reported.
"Now it appears that the disease which has crippled rural Britain could have been an act of sabotage by a rogue worker. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was alerted when a sample of live virus was reported missing at Porton Down, Wiltshire, following a routine audit.
"The test tube was stored in a highly sensitive laboratory where scientists also hold other diseases, including smallpox, TB, ebola and anthrax.
"The shocking revelation from the Government laboratory undermines the ministry's account of the rapid spread of the disease - yesterday it stood at 1,089 cases, an increase of nine - and raises questions of a massive Government cover-up.
"It also supports documents seen by The Sunday Express which clearly reveal that sheep in parts of the UK were carrying the virus long before the outbreak was confirmed on February 20.
"According to a report by a French vet, it was detected in a Welsh flock as early as January.
"Timber merchants around Britain say that in early February they were approached by the ministry for wood supplies to burn animals with foot-and-mouth.
"Agriculture Minister Nick Brown has told MPs the earliest known case was on a pig farm in Tyne and Wear on February 20.
"He insisted the approaches to timber merchants were part of a 'regular contingency planning exercise.' He said: 'There are a number of urban legends doing the rounds that the ministry knew about this disease before. That is not true.'
"Questions will be asked in Parliament this week about the Porton Down link, and several MPs say they intend to give Mr. Brown a 'hard time.'
"Tory MP Owen Paterson said: 'There are very persistent rumours over missing phials from Porton Down linked to animal rights activists. What I do know is that there is evidence this disease has been round a lot longer than the Government will admit. I specifically asked Nick Brown last week that if the outbreak was first revealed in February, then how come sheep exported from Wales to France were carrying the virus on January 31? He gave me a lame answer and also denied it. Yet I know for a fact that a Mr. Hugues Inzan exported sheep to France and they tested positive. Foot-and mouth takes a minimum of two to three weeks to incubate, so these sheep obviously had the virus a lot longer.'
"Tim Collins, Tory MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said: 'If it emerges that the Government knew about a potential outbreak before the end of February, there will be an explosion of anger in my constituency.'
"Bob Parry, president of the NFU in Wales, said: 'We must get to the bottom of this mystery because no one has yet given a convincing explanation about the beginning of the outbreak. News of the stolen virus began circulating last week. Swill feeding is still being wrongly blamed. There is mounting evidence the disease started well before February.'
"A senior military source close to Porton Down said: 'A phial appears to have gone missing from one of the labs following a routine audit last year. Ministry officials were informed immediately and an investigation was launched initially by Special Branch and then by MI5, who are interested in the activities of animal rights protesters.'
"Porton Down was rocked by scandal last August after samples of TB bacteria were wrongly sent to a Plymouth shop.
"Yesterday a spokesman for the Department of Health refused to comment about the missing test tube. But an Agriculture Ministry spokesman said the matter was being investigated."
I have quoted the above in full since, Porton Down aside, it summarizes the rumours in circulation at the time. The Chief Veterinary Officer's Report (DEFRA, 2002) mentioned that the French authorities failed to confirm signs of FMD:O in sheep imported from Britain prior to 1st February 2001.
The following are extracts from Hansard, 23rd April 2001: Written Answers.
"To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: ... What enquiries his Department has made in the last twelve months to establish the availability of timber suitable for use in pyres for burning deadstock."
Min. of State, Agriculture, Fisheries and Food:-
"I assume that the Hon. Member's questions relate to the media speculation that the Government were aware that foot and mouth existed in the UK prior to the first notification of disease on 19th February. Such speculation is entirely without foundation.
"The Ministry has contingency plans to deal with all notifiable, exotic animal diseases, includinf foot and mouth disease. These are regularly updated and tested by the State Veterinary Services. As part of this process, Animal Health Officers... will quite correctly contact contractors from whom they may need services or supplies during a disease outbreak. Any inquiries... would have been made as part of these contingency planning arrangements.
"Information on all the timber stockists contacted by the Ministry over the last year is not held centrally and could be provided only at a disproportionate cost."
I will refrain from commenting on the Minister of State's last sentence!
Yvonne Ridley's article made no reference to the extra personnel being drafted in prior to February 2001. During a perusal of Hansard, I found this excerpt, dated 14th November 2000: Written Answers. Mr.M:-
"To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when the numbers of staff at his Department's Carlisle regional office will be increased, and if he will make a statement." Min. of State, A.F.F:-
"The number of staff based at the Carlisle Regional Service Centre varies according to business needs. The number of staff in post at the office on 1 November this year was 259, compared to 236 in post on 1 January 2000. The numbers are expected to continue to increase during the course of 2001."
An increase of 23 staff between January and November 2000 - and set to rise during 2001 - seems, at least on the surface, to be generous. I have five questions:
(1) Did Mr.M's query arise from concerns over inadequate staffing levels, bearing in mind the following: (a) Measures to deal with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and CSF/SVD were ongoing at the time and that the appropriate staff would have been well established in their posts? (b) The FMD:O outbreak was not publicly confirmed until three months later and, at the time of asking, was not a general issue?
(2) What factors, actual, anticipated or pending, led him to raise the matter in writing with a MAFF Minister?
(3) Was Mr.M. in receipt of information, either officially corroborated or anecdotal, which led him to suppose that MAFF's Carlisle office would shortly be facing a crisis (as yet unidentified but suspected) necessitating extra ministry personnel, including short-term contract labourers and veterinary officers?
(4) What was that information?
(5) Is it significant that Mr.M's question asks "when" rather than whether staff increases at MAFF's Carlisle office will happen?
Before discussing Porton Down in the context of Yvonne Ridley's article, I will outline the Westminster/Whitehall orthodoxy regarding onset of FMD:O.
The official - and not unproven - account of how the epidemic started was that the virus entered Britain via an unknown route, although contaminated imported foodstuffs seems the most plausible. The first case was diagnosed at Cheale Meats abattoir in Little Warley, Essex, on 20th February 2001 and was traced back to Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland - a pig rearing establishment.
Aerobic infection from Burnside may have infected cattle and sheep on a nearby farm at Ponteland. Before FMD:O was confirmed, sheep, believed to be harbouring the virus, were sent from Ponteland to Hexham and Longtown markets between 13th and 15th February. A further sheep sale took place on 22nd February, thereby intensifying the disease spread, especially in Devon, Wales and the Welsh Marches, Cumbria and Dumfriesshire. This was merely the overture...
Yvonne Ridley's account of a missing FMD:O phial was not the only report of possible biological skulduggery. Some scientists, including ex-government employees, claimed that the disease had spread due to research on a vaccine and the virus could only have come from a UK laboratory.
Not surprisingly, many people - not all of them mere "closet subversives" - felt that the New Labour administration had something to hide. Included in a letter to the Western Morning News, published on 1st September 2001, was the following:-
"We know there is an EU wish to 'rationalise' farming, and this would include a Britain which is arable rather than livestock producing.
"We also know Mr. Blair wishes to 'rationalise' British farming. So is foot and mouth a chance opportunity or an opportunity created?
"Again, there is circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun. Foot and mouth notices were printed ahead of the outbreak. Inquiries about materials to furnish funeral pyres were going ahead weeks before the outbreak. A phial of foot and mouth virus went missing, not an obvious target for a petty thief. Could these things be pure coincidence?" M.H., South Zeal.
Another view expressed at the time was that FMD:O should have been re-named "Foot-and-Myth Disease." Doubts were raised over whether the organism was a virus per se or a syndrome caused by environmental factors - malnutrition, fatigue, poor sanitation, ill-treatment, and adverse meteorological and topographical conditions. These are discussed in Steven Ransom's book "Plague, Pestilence and The Pursuit of Power: The Politics of Global Disease" (Credence Publications, Tonbridge, Kent, 2001) Even before it appeared in the shops (Summer 2001), official policy, that because FMD:O was so terrible no alternative existed other than mass slaughter, with the faint prospect of ring-vaccination as a last resort, was being openly challenged.
So, during March and early April, the notion of either environmental terrorists or rogue ministry officials being responsible for the epidemic was being discussed in earnest. Add to that questions concerning FMD:O's raison d'etre, and there would be sufficient material for any budding thriller writer!
Then, on Sunday 8th April 2001, Yvonne Ridley's article appeared in The Sunday Express. The hint of alleged security breaches at Porton Down gave credence to the official line that FMD:O was - and still is - a highly dangerous organism, at the very time when this orthodoxy was being queried.
I found it incredible that such an account appeared in the first place, given the severity of its content. Even more remarkable was any lack of denial from the MAFF spokesman and that an investigation was taking place. Initially, I admit to having been strongly influenced by the Porton Down report but, a few months later, doubts began to surface.
With a pathogen like FMD:O, the specimen at Porton Down would have been kept under the same security levels which exist at, for example, a nuclear ordnance silo. Any loss of such an item would have resulted in a massive clandestine recovery operation with full reporting restrictions under Official Secrets Act procedures enforced.
As soon as it became clear that the test tube could not be accounted for, a national bio-hazard alert, akin to enacting a state of emergency, would have been declared immediately. Mobilisation of the reserve armed forces, to be deployed at full battalion strength once an infection zone was identified, should have been central to the strategy. In my view, failure to implement these measures would be grossly negligent!
I neither find it unusual nor unacceptable for Porton Down to hold tissue samples of FMD:O. Common sense should indicate to even those who are intellectually challenged that the terrorist potential of such a pathogen would require counter-measures, not least in developing a vaccine. Porton Down's expertise in NBC warfare would compliment the work already being undertaken at the Institute of Animal Health Laboratory, Pirbright.
The Chief Veterinary Officer's ambiguous comment relating to Porton Down (CVO's Report, DEFRA, 2002: already quoted in this article) would initially appear to refute a senior military source's statement (Sunday Express, 8th April 2001) that "A phial appears to have gone missing from one of the labs following a routine audit last year." In fact, neither remark would withstand scrutiny at a Public Enquiry!
If Porton Down's sanctity had been compromised, "D Notices" would have been invoked. Publication of the newspaper article was either due to a security oversight, an act of defiance in the face of Official Secrets Act regulations, or amplification of an official, yet deniable, "leak."
I suspect Yvonne Ridley may have been duped into believing that she had delivered a major scoop pointing to the existence of FMD:O in the UK prior to February 2001, this linked to a missing specimen from Porton Down. However, could there be a more sinister aspect to this journalist's role?
If her account is correct, its revelations would have been to the government's benefit for the following reasons:-
(A) It would have stifled debate about the epidemic's seriousness, especially if the disease's origins may have been linked to nefarious factions within MAFF and MOD, including "special advisers" working for these departments.
(B) Rumours about Porton Down were, of course, known to the authorities and posed a challenge to their presumptions of integrity. Media disclosure would bring the issue out into the open, thereby refuting at least some of the innuendo concerning governmental malpractice.
(C) It presented New Labour's oligarchy with the opportunity of allowing this story, along with a host of other conspiracy theories (fuelled by subtle leaks to the media), to become so contorted and exaggerated that eventually, the public would not be able to see clearly through the murk and gradually lose interest. (The government did not have long to wait. After Tuesday 11th September, the epidemic became a peripheral issue)
(D) Investigating the Investigator.
In the event of a Public Enquiry, I feel Yvonne Ridley should be present to answer these questions in the order presented thus:-
(1) Initially, were you assigned to investigate the Porton Down connection with FMD:O by your editor(s) or did you take the enquiry upon yourself before discussing it with your superiors?
(2) You are morally bound to protect your information sources. Bearing this in mind, were they from, or on secondment to, the government agencies responsible for dealing with the crisis?
(3) If they were, did any of them face disciplinary action following publication?
(4) If they were not Government employees (including those on secondment), what were their connections with FMD:O?
(5) Did you see any documentation to corroborate your article?
(6) What were these documents? (If answer to (5) is affirmative)
(7) Did you and/or your colleagues encounter any problems with officialdom?
(8) What happened? (If answer to (7) is affirmative)
(9) The report was printed despite any obstruction. Were any attempts made to either dilute your account or prevent its publication?
(10) What happened? (If answer to (9) is affirmative)
(11) Was there any ill-feeling from the authorities following publication?
(12) How was this expressed? (if answer to (11) is affirmative)
(13) Following publication, did you encounter problems with your work as a journalist?
(14) What happened? (If answer to (13) is affirmative)
(15) At any time in your life, have you been required to sign the Official Secrets Act?
There was a curious postlude to the Porton Down saga. Yvonne Ridley, whose article - in my view - merely clarified existing rumours, became an unwilling guest of the Talaban during Autumn 2001. At the time, I wondered how many people connected her name with the Sunday Express story back in April.
I have not read her account of what happened in Afghanistan, but was well aware of concerns for her safety. However, at the time when the Talaban was not only being internationally reviled but also facing military attack, it would have been counterproductive to harm her in any way. A facade of respectability had to be maintained. Although they were fundamentalist zealots, the world had to see them in as favourable a light as possible. Ill-treating foreign civilians, even those suspected of espionage, would not win friends and influence people.
Out of curiosity, I would ask Yvonne Ridley the following, listed in order of presentation:-
(1) Upon returning from Afghanistan, were you quizzed by Foreign Office officials - or, for that matter, anyone else from the Government?
(2) If so, what was said?
(3) During any contact with officials, was Foot-and-Mouth mentioned?
(4) If so, what was said?
(5) What, if any, suspicions do you have concerning links with the Sunday Express article and your detention by the Talaban?
(6) Were you advised to steer clear of political matters, in future? (*)
* Her involvement in the Katherine Gun/ GCHQ affair, as reported in The Observer, Sunday 29th February 2004, has not escaped my attention. Bearing the above in mind, I merely comment that it is for readers to draw their own conclusions. However, I will end with a conspiracy theory of my own which can never be verified.
At the beginning of June 2001, a letter concerning FMD:O, written under my real name, was sent to various newspapers, including the Express Group. To my discredit, it was ill-informed, inflammatory and most naive. Although unpublished, I am in no doubt that a copy was forwarded to the authorities. The letter would have been placed on file and, some two months later when, under my alter ego, a particularly mordant article appeared here, the connection between "Mark Brook" and myself was made.
Shortly before the 2001 General Election, I understand that the owner of Express Group Newspapers declared his support for New Labour. Whilst not accusing him or his staff of drawing officialdom's attention to my letter, I cannot exclude that possibility.
If he and/or his staff did act in that way, they should be aware of the following. Firstly, my house was entered unlawfully on Thursday 25th October 2001 whilst I was away. Secondly, this crime is being currently examined by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. Thirdly, if I am dissatisfied with their verdict, the matter will go to the European Court of Human Rights.
In this article, I have tried to avoid accusing New Labour of lying to the British public over FMD:O, but am forced to conclude that my initial suspicions, expressed during 2001, have been confirmed. The matters of vaccination, animal disease contingency planning and the role of Porton Down were examples of criminal negligence on a scale hitherto never experienced. Worse still, rural communities were subjected to actions involving gross professional misconduct and wholesale abuses of Official Secrets Act procedures. I can think of no other episode in British domestic history where the art of mendacity achieved such perfection.
There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence of FMD:O having been in the UK during Autumn 2000. Indeed, if vaccination experiments were being conducted properly, that would have been the case. Of course, accidents happen. However, if the desire had been there, any outbreak and accompanying recriminations would have been short-lived. New Labour had other ideas. Their saving grace came on Tuesday 11th September 2001. "Now would be a good time to bury bad news" was the most honest statement to have emerged from a government apparatchic since 1997.
In my view, the carnival of blood, mud and fire which characterized 2001 was avoidable. This article does not draw any conclusions on whether the Government was guilty of either gross incompetence or reckless adventurism and opportunism. Compelling reasons for the latter are not hard to find.
Firstly, it would force rationalisation of the farming industry, thereby strengthening demands to reform the unwieldy European Union Common Agricultural Policy. Secondly, grazing lands of animals due for extermination could be used for a variety of new schemes, examples being GM crops, forestry and wind-turbine installations. The residue of Britain's livestock would be strictly regulated and eventually absorbed by the multi-national food processing corporations, whose philosophies are not based on green and pleasant lands.
Lastly, The Countryside Alliance and affiliated organisations - New Labour's great enemy - would have had its influence eroded beyond repair. There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that the Government, alarmed by their increasing militancy, sought ways to neutralise what one Millbank spokesperson referred to as "the rural nutters' cartel."
As a postscript, I will outline three instances which, although inadmissible as evidence in a court of law, clearly demonstrate questionable conduct on the authorities' part.
(1) During the last nine days of February 2001, severe wintry weather affected Southern Scotland. Heavy snowfall struck on Tuesday 20th February, resulting in many road closures. It was on that day when a highways clearance team from Dumfries & Galloway Council arrived to remove snow from an unclassified road connecting the A7 from Grid Ref. NY388963 to the B6399 at Grid Ref. NY507953, the latter situated within the Scottish Borders District.
This was unprecedented. Normally, this road was not considered a priority and very rarely received attention form a snow-plough. Situated in remote hill-farming country, it was anything but a major thoroughfare. A farmer approached the crew and, after a polite exchange, they departed. According to the workmen, instructions were being merely followed.
As it transpired, the farmer's premises escaped contamination and no livestock was culled.
(2) Shortly after official declaration of FMD:O, a cyclist, who travels regularly along the roads and byways of South Dumfriesshire/Roxburghshire and Cumbria, was struck by a profusion of "day-glo" orange ribbons tied into neat bows and attached to gate-posts, fences, telegraph poles, hedges and trees.
At the time he first noticed them, FMD:O had yet to make its presence felt. He became suspicious when, within weeks, the disease arrived in areas marked by the ribbons.
In his own words, "... this seemed to coincide that anyone that got a tape got foot-and-mouth. As if somebody had deliberately done something."
(3) For reasons of strict confidentiality, locations and the family's name have been altered. What made this account so appalling was the police's response.
The Bratton family have lived and worked on West End Farm near Inwardleigh, Devon, for generations.
One afternoon towards the end of April 2001, Mrs. Bratton encountered two men in white overalls outside the cattle shed. Upon asking them to explain their presence on the farm, she was curtly informed that they were MAFF officials who had every right to inspect agricultural premises. One of the men peremptorily requested Mrs. Bratton to go back indoors.
As she was returning to the house, Mrs. Bratton took a look inside the ministry van, its rear door having been left open. There, she saw a severed animal tongue and her main concern was the possibility of contamination: FMD:O was rife in Central and North Devon.
Mrs. Bratton telephoned the local police station, informing the duty constable of these events, and was told that her call would be returned. The following day, having received no such communication. Mrs. Bratton contacted the police station again and learned that there was no record of her initial telephone call.
The farm's livestock was subsequently culled.
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