Operation bacterium - secret biological warfare tests on the public

Washington Monthly | July-August, 1985
By Leonard A. Cole

It would have been hard to pick them out of a crowd: average-looking men walking through Washington's National Airport, carrying suitcases. But the men were agents of the United States Army, and the suitcases were something out of a James Bond movie--disguised atomizers which imperceptibly sprayed unsuspecting travelers with a bacteria-laden mist. The undercover operation, which took place in 1964-65, was part of a nationwide program of so-called 'vulnerability' testing designed to gauge the impact of an enemy-launched epidemic of smallpox.

For 20 years ending in 1969, the Army staged hundreds of these secret germ 'attacks' in a number of cities, using microorganisms the Pentagon claimed were harmless to humans. It wasn't until 1977, during a hearing before the Senate, that civilian experts suggested that vulnerability testing may have caused outbreaks of disease which occured in some of the test areas.

Although vulnerability testing took place only two decades ago, it seems like a bad memory from a distant era--when, for example, we were rehearsing troops for atomic combat by marching them through radioactive fields following nuclear detonations. Many of these soldiers were never informed about the risks to their health; neither were the civilians who lived downwind from the explosion sites in Utah and Nevada, among other places.

It would be inconceivable today for the Army to propose a new round of live nuclear tests on unknowing human subjects. Yet at the 1977 Senate hearing on biological vulnerability testing, military spokesmen insisted their experiments had been safe and refused to rule out renewed open-air germ spraying. One Pentagon witness, Lt. Colonel George A. Carruth, declared that although such operations were not then underway, the Army might well find "a specific area of vulnerability that takes additional tests."

In light of the military's refusal to swear off future vulnerability testing, several recent developments deserve more attention than they have received:

First, the Reagan administration has argued that the Soviet Union is violating international agreements and developing offensive biological weapons. On the strength of these allegations--which has been challenged by some scientists--the White House has succeeded in pushing through Congress a vastly increased budget for chemical and biological weaponry. In deciding how to use its new biological research money, the Army recently contracted for a special scientific study. The recommendation: resume open-air vulnerability tests to evaluate "meteorological variables" and available "detection devices." What is most alarming is that the Pentagon insists there would be no legal or ethical barriers to such a vulnerability testing program.

Biological weaponry is, by nature, an elusive issue, made more complex by a multilateral treaty which imposes an ambiguous partial ban and fails to provide for verification. Officially, the United States maintains no germ arsenal; thus, for Congress, there are no missiles to count or basing systems to debate. Biological weapons are overshadowed in public discourse by questions over more tangible--and far more expensive--weapons systems. Were the Army to decide to start spraying people with germs again, few on Capitol Hill would have enough information to put up much of a fight. And the rest of us might not hear about it until it's all over.

'Innocent' organisms

Biological weaponry is often lumped together with chemical agents, such as mustard gas, which was first used with devastating effect in World War I, and nerve gas, which the United States and Soviet Union currently stockpile in huge quantities. The differences, however, are significant.

Chemical weapons are either man-made synthetics or inanimate agents produced by living organisms. While the effects of chemical weapons may be lethal, the materials used ultimately dissipate; their toxicity lasts for a limited period. Biological weapons, on the other hand, consist of living organisms which cause disease. The organisms, such as bacteria, reproduce and may become increasingly lethal with the passage of time. Unlike some chemicals, biological agents cannot easily be separated from a natural habitat; it may be impossible to detect their presence until after widespread infection has occurred. Ounce-for-ounce, therefore, biological weapons are potentially more dangerous than chemical.

The United States has never used germs to fell enemy soldiers, but research on biological weapons has been conducted since the early 1940s. By the late 1960s, the Army had developed at least 10 different strains of biological agents. It was a Ft. Detrick, a biological and chemical research base outside of Frederick, Maryland, that the organisms for vulnerability testing were grown.

Most of the open-air test sites are known only from a list provided by the Army for a 1977 hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research, a panel then chaired by Senator Edward M. Kennedy but since disbanded. Details about a few of the actual tests have since become available through law suits and Freedom of Information Act claims. Although documents describing open-air testing have been partially censored by the Military, they indicate that one of the Army's chief goals was to conduct the experiments without raising suspicions among exposed populations.

A 79-page report entitled "Miscellaneous Publication 7," for example, which was obtained through a FOIA claim by the Church of Scientology, describes the spraying of the common bacterium, Bacillus Subtilis, in the North Terminal of National Airport. After millions of the germs were dispersed, the report states, "test team members, each with a suitcase sampler, selected a passenger at random at the entrance to the North Terminal and covertly collected air samples in close proximity to the passenger." If the agents had sprayed smallpox germs, the report concluded, passengers would have carried them all over the country and "numerous cases of smallpox could be expected. . .before diagnosis was made."

"Miscellaneous Publication 25" describes testing done in 1966 in the New York City subway system, where Army agents inconspicuously dropped light bulbs filled with a Bacillus subtilis compound onto roadbeds and street-level ventilator grates. Passengers were oblivious; when the bacteria clouds engulfed them, the report notes, "they brushed their clothing, looked up at the grating apron, and walked on."

Other experiments were conducted in places such as California, Alaska, Florida, Panama City, and on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. At the 1977 Senate hearing, Pentagon representatives insisted that the germ spraying was only intended to track the airborne bacteria and calculate the number of people who might be affected by a real biological attack. Brig. General William Augerson told the Senate that "the assumption was that under the conditions established, there was not a threat to the public. . . . Everyone made an assumption of the innocence of these organisms." But the military could never have been sure that this assumption was correct, because, as Pentagon witnesses conceded at the hearing, the Army failed to monitor the health of any of the exposed populations.

Several civilian scientists challenged the Army's contention that the microorganisms dispersed, such as Bacillus Subtilis and Serratia Marcescens, were harmless. Testifying at the Senate hearing, Dr. J. Mehsen Joseph, laboratories director of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that although such germs are common and generally not dangerous, concentrated exposure during vulnerability testing had created "an unjustifiable health hazard for a particular segment of the population." Dr. Richard Goldstein, a molecular biologist at Boston University, confirmed in an interview that physicians have known for decades that in infants and infirm and elderly people, whose immune systems are weak, heavy concentrations of "normally non-pathogenic microorganisms," such as Bacillus subtilis, can cause serious infections and even fatal disease.

Epidemiological reports released in conjunction with the 1977 hearing showed that pneumonia and influenza cases tripled in frequency in some regions where the testing occurred in the 1950s. In San Francisco, where the Army sprayed the microorganism Serratia marcescens, 11 people contracted diseases associated with the germ during a five-month period following a test in 1950, according to court papers from a 1981 suit against the government. One of the 11 victims died of an infection of the heart. But relatives of the deceased--facing the formidable obstacle of proving legal 'causation' 31 years after the fact--failed to convince a federal court judge that the death was connected to the Army's testing.

'Defensive' germs

According to Pentagon documents, vulnerability testing ended in 1969, when the United States unilaterally renounced use of biological weapons. President Richard Nixon promised that the military would destroy its arsenal and cease all offensive research and development. Within three years, the Soviet Union announced it would do the same. In 1972, the two nations, joined eventually by more than 120 others, signed the Biological Weapons Convention which prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons.

For all of its ambitious-sounding aims, the treaty is fraught with ambiguity. It contains no provision for verification and allows for work on biological agents for "protective or other peaceful purposes." Both Washington and Moscow have construed this to mean that "defensive" research is permissible. The Pentagon considers vulnerability testing to be "defensive" in nature.

The problem arises in opening the Pandora's box even a crack: once invisible biological agents are in use, the line between "defensive" and "offensive" research quickly fades. In 1969, Henry Kissinger, then White House national security adviser, illustrated the difficulty when he explained that while the United States would not engage in purely offensive research, it would continue to explore "those offensive aspects of bacteriological/biological agents necessary to determine what defensive measures are required." This predictable--and perfectly defensible--position continues to be American policy: if biological agents are not completely banned, we want to understand them in case our troops someday confront them on the battlefield. At the same time, the prospect of "defensive" research moving out of the laboratory and into our airports--or evolving into offensive weapons development--underscores the need for a total and verifiable ban on all biological agents which could have military applications.

Today, the hazy distinction between "defensive" and "offensive" biological weapons research has taken on a new importance. The reagan administration has launched a major campaign charging the Soviets with violating the 1972 treaty and developing offensive biological weapons. This fear of falling behind the Soviets, which is shared by many Pentagon officials and some conservatives in Congress, creates a more congenial atmosphere for discussion of renewed open-air vulnerability testing.

In the 1984 edition of the Pentagon's annual Soviet Military Power, for example, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger charged that an outbreak of anthrax in 1979 in the city of Sverdlovsk resulted from an accident at a "biological warfare center." Weinberger also argued that there is "strong evidence" that biological toxins--specifically, so-called "yellow rain"--have been used by the Soviet Union and its client forces in Afghanistan and Southeast Asai. He added, "There is an apparent effort on the part of the Soviets to transfer selected aspects of genetic engineering research to their biological warfare centers."

Columnist Jack Anderson has reported on the contents of numerous White House and Central Intelligence Agency documents which indicate increasing official alarm over Soviet plans for biological weapons. In a similar vein, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote this spring that members of the American "intelligence community" had confirmed to them that the Soviets operate eight biological warfare plants and may have tested lethal germs on human subjects.

U.S. government allegations of Soviet violations of the Biological Weapons Convention have been vigorously challenged by some American scientists. For example, the Sverdovsk anthrax epidemic has been attributed to infected beef sold widely on the Russian black market. Matthew Meselson, a biochemist at Harvard University, has led an effort to demonstrate that reports of Soviet "yellow rain" attacks may actually describe nothing more than large amounts of wild honey bee feces.

The White House, however, has merely brushed aside these dissenting opinions in convincing Congress to appropriate more than $1 billion for biological and chemical weaponry--up from $160 million in 1980. The Pentagon has refused to reveal how much of the budget it will devote to biological research, but a spokesman at Ft. Detrick said his outfit had received a "very generous" share. The Army, meanwhile, has been busy deciding how to spend the new money. One proposal currently under consideration is renewed open-air vulnerability testing.

The Army last year contracted for a report from the National Academy of Sciences' Board on Army Science and Technology on the effectiveness of existing means of detecting a Soviet biological or chemical attack. The science and technology board determined that American detection capabilities are inadequate and that "the overall effort to detect and identify biological agents and toxins should be accelerated." As part of this effort, the board urged in its written report that "field tests" be carried out using "realistic, nontoxic simulants." The board did not recommend whether these tests should be confined to unpopulated areas.

The 12-person committee that drafted the report for the Army never explicitly discussed the effects secret vulnerability tests might have on exposed populations, according to two sicentists on the panel. Dr. F. James Primus, an immunologist on the committee, said that "field tests would be done presumably where there are people," but he added that the committee probably had not intended for tests to take place in heavily populated areas.

Colonel Robert Orton, chief of the Army's nuclear-biological-chemical defense division, said in an interview that while the report is being reviewed, the Army has "taken no decision at all to go back into the business of open-air testing." Shortly before the report was completed last year, another Pentagon official provided a far less categorical assessment of military planning in this area. At an academic symposium on military uses of biological research, Thomas Dashiell, director of environmental and life sciences in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, was asked about the possibility of the testing of microorganisms and chemicals over populated areas. Dashiell responded: "I would hesitate to guess on whether there will be a resumption or not."

What, me worry?

There are three reasons to be concerned about the possibility of future vulnerability testing. First, there's the history of secretive germ spraying. The Army did it once before, and with a seeming enthusiasm for trench coat-style deception. When the earlier tests were revealed in 1977, the Pentagon proclaimed that it saw them as perfectly harmless.

But the second reason to worry is that we now know that some open-air tests coordinated at Ft. Detrick were dangerous. Those in Washington, New York, and San Francisco, for example, created at least a possibility of health risks for some members of exposed populations. The Army's stubborn refusal to concede that it may have harmed unwitting test subjects should prompt concern over how carefully officials would conduct any new tests. One troubling signal in this regard is the off-hand way in which the Board on Army Science and Technology report recommending a return to testing fails to address the obvious question of where the spraying would be done and on whom.

Third, there's the problem of ignorance on Capitol Hill. Interviews with 15 current and former congressmen and staff members revealed that not one of them was aware that the Army had solicited a report from the science and technology board and that the board had recommended a resumption of simulant spraying. "We haven't heard about it, and I'd be surprised if you found people who had," said Edie Wilkie, staff director of the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, a non-partisan group of about 150 liberal and moderate senators and representatives. With one or two exceptions, Wilkie added, "no one focuses on [biological weapons testing] at all."

One former staff member of the Arms Control Caucus who now works for a member of the House said. "Up here, people see the whole thing as lab research--something that's so far down the line that it's not worth worrying about." The staff member, who asked to remain unidentified, added that "people find it is a lot easier, for the obvious reasons, to concentrate on the big weapons questions: the MX, 'Star Wars,' chemical weapons." Since many in Congress and the Pentagon have come to correlate the importance of weapons systems with their cost, said the staff member, it's easy to see how a few hundred million for biological weapons work would be overlooked as a minor line item.

"There's also the reassurance in that we're a signatory to the biological Weapons Convention," said the staff member. Every year, "there's a [Defense Department] report that we're upholding the treaty, and that's enought for most" members of Congress. Wilkie agreed with this assessment, adding that legislators routinely confuse biological with chemical weapons and assume they're familiar with the whole subject if they've been briefed on the latest debate over modernizing the chemical nerve gas arsenal.

One exampl of how the question of biological weapons falls between the cracks in Congress was the 1977 Senate hearing. According to the official transcript, of the eight members of the sub-committee, only Kennedy and then-Senator Richard Schweiker participated in questioning Pentagon witnesses who admitted to the vulnerability testing of the 1950s and 1960s. No one on the panel pressed the military witnesses to explain what "specific area of vulnerability" might require additional germ spraying, and there was never any follow-up investigation to determine whether vulnerability testing had indeed caused health problems. The hearing, said Wilkie, "must not have had a big impact." Neither she nor a series of other congressional foreign policy staff members interviewed had more than a superficial familiarity with the 1977 revelations before the Kennedy subcommittee.

The Pentagon, for its part, seems to be aware of Congress's lack of sophistication in the area of biological weaponry. Just before Congress adjourned in August 1984, for example, an acting assistant secretary of the Army sent a note to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees requesting a routine reallocation of $66 million. The money was to be taken from existing programs and used for several apparently minor projects: new military housing in Europe, a parking garage in upstate New York, a physical fitness center in Pennsylvania. Tucked among these items was a new "aerosol test lab" in Utah intended for biological weapons research with a price tag of $8.4 million.

Colonel Robert Orton of the Pentagon's biological defense division insisted in an interview that "it is wrong to say that someone was trying to slip one by"--a term that was not suggested to him--"without the approval of Congress." If indeed the military did pull a hidden ball routine to gain approval for a controversial funding request, ti wouldn't have been an unusual maneuver. "It's an old trick with weapons systems," said a staff member of the House Subcommittee on Arms Control.

But the familiarity of such gamesmanship doesn't diminish the fact that the Pentagon apparently went out of its way to avoid formal votes, hearings, or debates on the matter. As is customary with such rellocations, the request received only a cursory review by senior committee members of both houses before being approved. After he had signed off on the funding, Senator James Sasser, ranking minority member on the Senate Subcommittee on Military Construction, changed his mind and protested that the Pentagon has not explained precisely what new testing would take place and whether the activity would fall within the guidelines of the 1972 treaty. (Last month, construction for the Utah project was delayed by a federal judge's ruling that the Army must file additional environmental reports on the proposed new laboratories.) Sasser is still nominally pressing his complaint with the Pentagon, but one of his staff members conceded that the senator "couldn't get very much interest from anyone" on the Hill to join his after-the-fact protest.

Who's on first? What's on second?

The issue here is not whether the United States should have defenses available if the Soviets violate their treaty obligations and threaten us with biological attack. Clearly, the Army has a responsibility to develop such defenses within the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention. But the need for adequate protection does not justify spraying germs on unknowing people.

The use of involuntary, unwitting subjects for potentially dangerous military experiments is not, of course, limited to the experience with vulnerability testing. The Pentagon, as well as the CIA, have shameful histories of exploiting human guinea pigs. For instance, in one study which was the focus of a recent case before the Supreme Court, the CIA explored means of controlling human behavior by administering mind-altering drugs without the subjects' knowledge.

Laws now exist to prevent such activity. But as the Pentagon reads those restrictions, at least one form of unannounced weapons testing involving human populations is still permissible: that of biological weapons.

Congress enacted the National Research Act of 1974 in response to revelations that for 40 years beginning in 1932, U.S. Public Health Service doctors in Tuskegee, Alabama had consciously endangered the lives of patients they were supposed to be treating. The government doctors were charged with caring for a group of syphilitic black men, but in fact were dispensing placebos so they could study the course of the disease in live subjects. The 1974 legislation reflected concern not only about the misdeeds in Tuskegee, but also about the rights and welfare of human experimental subjects in general. It provided that every federal agency that engages in research involving human subjects have a review board, which must approve each project. Informed consent is supposed to be a central consideration in such reviews.

At first glance, the Research Act would seem to protect people from Army germs insofar as targeted citizens would have to be informed of and give consent to the spraying before the Pentagon review board would approve vulnerability testing. Not so, says the Pentagon. Relying on semantic gymnastics that would do Abbott & Costello proud, the military argues that spraying germs isn't "research" under the law and that people affected by such spraying aren't "subjects."

Open-air vulnerability tests would be conducted to estimate the impact of an actual enemy attack; the tests would therefore be viewed as comparable to a battlefield exercise or an experiment with a new weapons system, according to a Pentagon official who requested anonymity. And battlefield maneuvers and weapons tests do not qualify as research on humans, said the official. Alexander Capron, a University of Southern California law professor who through 1983 headed a now-defunct White House commission on bioethics, confirmed the prevelance of this curious outlook within the military: "If they develop a new battle plan or a new weapon, the Army does not regard that as coming under regulations" on research involving human subjects. Here is how Thomas Dashiell, the environmental expert in the Office of the Secretary of Defense explained it: Before the military uses any weapon in a test situation, "we do a whole series of tests to ensure that they meet military requirements, and that they're not harmful from the occupational, safety, and health aspects." The Army would also obey any applicable environmental regulations, said Dashiell. In other words, the germs would have to be deemed 'harmless'--the way, for example, Bacillus subtilis was given the okay for the 1964-65 National Airport operation. Once a weapon is so classified, according to this view, it no longer falls under the terms of the 1974 research restrictions: no review board, no consent.

But even if the Army were to concede that vulnerability testing is indeed "research" covered by the 1974 legislation, people exposed to the germs would not be considered experimental "subjects" for purposes of the Act. Result: the restrictions would not apply. "To me," said Alexander Capron, "it would be pretty clear" that the exposed population is the subject of the experiment. "But to others, when you deal with widely dispersed testing, there may be some question as to who are the subjects." The Pentagon official who specializes in reading the research rules concurred that as far as the Army is concerned, open-air testing does not affect an identifiable subject group, and therefore the people exposed "would not, in fact, be experimental subjects."

This remarkable interpretation of the 1974 law stems in large measure from Congress's failure to oversee adequately the military's activities in this area. Former Representative Andrew Maguire, who served on the House Subcommittee for Health and the Environment, confirmed that ignorance on the subject is rampant and that Congress, in effect, has permitted the military to fashion "loopholes in current law which could be exploited by those who wish to test."

Maguire's fears are most ominous when viewed against the backdrop of an earlier era when the military cavaliery risked human life to test weapons no one fully understood. Thousands of veterans and civilians have brought claims against the government relating to the atomic testing of 20 and 30 years ago. Until last year, none of these plaintiffs had won a court decision. Last May, for the first time, a federal judge found the government negligent in the way it had conducted above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s. The judge ruled that radioactive fallout had caused nine people to die of cancer. They were among a group chosen in a test class-action case involving 1,192 alleged victims. The government has appealed the decision, but many similar claims are pending.

Despite the evidence of outbreaks of infectious disease, only a handful of people have sued the government for harm allegedly done by open-air vulnerability testing; none of the plaintiffs have won. And given the lack of attention paid to the matter by politicians, it's unlikely that biological weapons experiments will spark much public discussion in the near future. "There's a definite sense," said one House staff member, "that, 'well, this stuff went on all in the past. That's history. No one would try it again."

It would make it more difficult for the Pentagon to return to vulnerability testing if we had a clear-cut agreement with the Soviets barring all biological warfare research and development. But we shouldn't need a treaty to eliminate the possibility of undertaking experiments on our own innocent civilians. That's the job of our elected leaders. Unfortunately, Congress seems to have written off open-air germ testing as a relic from hysteria of the Cold War.

Asked about the future of vulnerability testing, a former employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency within the Pentagon who now works for the Senate stressed that "there's been a certain learning curve" on biological weapons testing within the military. "People do sit around [in the Pentagon] and talk and say, 'You know we got burned on that last time; let's not do it again." But the former DIA employee added, "I'm not at all sure it would be such a bad thing to do tests with harmless simulants--not to see how they affect people, just to see how the things spread."