Biological Warfare: Lethal Lies about Fatal Diseases

By Piller, Charles | The Nation, October 3, 1988 | Go to article overview

Biological Warfare: Lethal Lies about Fatal Diseases

Piller, Charles, The Nation

In 1977 the U.S. Army presented a lengthy, supposedly comprehensive report on its biological warfare (BW) testing program of the 1950s and 1960s to a Senate subcommittee. Although the report did not indicate the scale or number of field tests, it did show which diseasecausing organisms were used, and when they were -forty-four projects in all. The Army said elaborate safety procedures kept the BW agents within the borders of Dugway Proving Grounds, a desert test range larger than the state of Rhode Island, located near Salt Lake City. Indeed, the report concludes, "no impact on the enviromnent was ever detected nor were any other untoward effects." No one was harmed.

Documents I have recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act prove that most -perhaps all -of these reassurances, and others, are lies. The documents reveal gross omissions and misrepresentations in the Army's prior descriptions of its field testing of BW agents. The Army has consistently understated the range and extent of its pre-1969 BW testing. The heavily censored reports also display a stunning disregard for public safety in tests involving massive amounts of the organisms that cause Q fever, anthrax and other lethal diseases.

These revelations cast a long shadow of doubt on the Army's claims about its current research program. Technically, this nation is out of the BW business. In 1975 the United States ratified the biological weapons convention that bans this particularly horrendous form of unconventional warfare. However, the treaty permits research for defensive purposes. And even Defense Department officials cannot define the distinction between offensive and defensive BW research. Exploiting this ambiguity, the Defense Department has embarked on a provocative program, using new genetic technologies in ways that threaten to destabilize the treaty process and stimulate a new biological arms race.

To justify this effort, a steady drum beat of U.S. allegations of BW atrocities by the Russians has been sounded. Although never substantiated by verifiable evidence, the charges have succeeded in goading Congress into approving BW budgets that have increased nearly sixfold since 1980. And those budgets reflect only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars in Defense Department biomedical research funds that may be directly applied to BW but are hidden in innocuous-sounding programs.

An Army proposal for a facility designed to test large volumes of aerosol BW agents lies at the heart of the Pentagon's research strategy. The lab would be built at Dugway, would be equipped to grow and test both naturally occurring and genetically altered organisms and is needed, the Army says, to test the efficacy of protective gear and biological-detection devices. A phalanx of scientific experts insists that for such defensive goals, the facility would be an exercise in monumental overkill. Yet no one disputes the lab's value for showing which biological agents are the strongest candidates for weaponization.

An unusually broad coalition-from genetic-engineering critic Jeremy Rifkin to Utah's conservative Senator Orrin Hatch -has so far stalled the project. Rifkin and Center for Defense Information director Gene La Rocque sued, claiming that the lab would pose the grave public health risk of accidental release of dangerous organisms. A Federal judge ordered the Defense Department to produce a detailed environmental impact statement, still not completed after more than three years' work.

For its part, the Defense Department insists that its BW program, including the aerosol lab project, is well conceived and properly defensive in nature. Moreover, the department asserts in another recent envirownental impact report, elaborate regulations "assure adequate protection for the work force and virtually total protection for the external environment." In the face of official secrecy, deterdmining where the truth lies is largely a matter of whether one can believe the Pentagon. …

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