Alaska’s secret Cold War seafood export: Shellfish toxin for the CIA

Crew dig for clams on Mission beach. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)
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Alaska is well known for its halibut, cod, salmon, and kelp, destined for the dinner table. But there’s one seafood product that may have been made for the CIA – one that you wouldn’t want to consume, a lethal toxin used as an alternative to cyanide.

In May of 1960, Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union during a high-altitude reconnaissance mission. In his pocket was a modified silver dollar, containing a hidden needle loaded with a lethal dose of shellfish toxin.  The subject came up in a presentation this week at the Kodiak Area Marine Science Symposium. Patricia Tester, an oceanographer, told the gathering she might know where the poison, known as saxitoxin, came from.

Tester says saxitoxin causes paralytic shellfish poisoning. Basically, it paralyses the muscles by interfering with signals from the body, and can stop respiration.

Tester says she learned about saxitoxin experiments from a trove of documents found in Kodiak, that revealed tests on mice in the 1950s involving shellfish toxins. Tester says the research was conducted in a facility in Ketchikan that no longer exists. The documents include a contract for clams and a shipping receipt to the US Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick in Maryland.

“In one of the files, there was a Department of Defense contract for toxic shellfish. And this is what led to the detective journey that brought us through the Cold War history. The contract was from the Department of Defense and it was for toxic clams written in October 6, 1952,” Tester said.

The contract was for $10,000 of toxic clams- closer to $100,000 today- to be shipped to the east coast.

“And the department worked with the CIA to actually develop a replacement for the cyanide poison pill that was provided to US covert agents and spies during that time,” Tester.

Now, some real Cold War enthusiasts might be thinking, “wait a minute, didn’t the United States destroy its stockpile of biological weapons under the order of President Nixon in 1969?” That’s correct on paper, but in practice the CIA had interpreted that instruction quite liberally.  During a 1975 congressional committee investigation, the CIA admitted it had kept a small stockpile of saxitoxin against Nixon’s order, and further admitted that this was the same saxitoxin that Powers had carried during his flight over the USSR.

Tester says it is actually possible to save somebody who has acute saxitoxin poisoning by putting them on a respirator, to give the toxin time to work its way out of the body – but the amount carried in Powers’ needle would likely be lethal within minutes.

Now to be clear, this document doesn’t determine definitively that Powers carried saxitoxin from Alaska, but Tester says that her research indicates that that’s still highly probable.

“There could have been another order either earlier or later than the one I found. There could have been orders for toxic clams off the east coast, which happened as well, I think for the first time down in the Woods Hole area in the Massachusetts area about 1972. But that would have been, you know, pretty late in the game for them to have been doing anything like that. So to say that I know that that is exactly the origin. No, I can’t say that. But it seems likely,” Tester said.

Powers never used his suicide needle. He was captured after ejecting from his plane and ultimately returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange, about two years after his plane was downed. There are no other known cases where saxitoxin was used by the CIA.

 

 

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