Conflict alleged for head of study on gulf war illnesses Geneticist was a director of Md. firm that earlier had exported bacteria to Iraq

November 29, 1996|By NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON -- A Nobel laureate who headed a 1994 Pentagon study that dismissed links between chemical and biological weapons and Persian Gulf war illnesses had been a director since 1990 of a Maryland company that earlier exported anthrax and other lethal bacteria to Iraq, according to federal records.

Renowned geneticist Joshua Lederberg of New York served as chairman of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Persian Gulf War Health Effects. At the time of the 1994 study, Lederberg was one of 10 directors on the board of American Type Culture Collection, or ATCC.

The nonprofit Rockville company made 70 government-approved shipments of anthrax and other disease-causing pathogens to Iraqi scientists from 1985 to 1989, according to congressional records. Lederberg became a director, an unpaid position, in 1990, a year after the shipments were halted by the Bush administration. Lederberg resigned from ATCC last year.

During and after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, U.S. intelligence agencies became convinced that the ATCC shipments, along with supplies from other countries, had been used by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's scientists for an expanded biological weapons program, according to U.S. officials.

Dispersed as an aerosol, anthrax spores can produce high fever, breathing difficulty, chest pain, blood poisoning and death. Areas hit with anthrax spores can remain lethal to humans for decades, the Army says.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said ATCC's products, designed for research, were ideal for growing tiny samples into wartime stocks. "They [ATCC] were not the only source, but they made a contribution" to the Iraqi weapons program, the official said.

For the Bush administration, Iraqi biological weapons were the "nightmare scenario" of the gulf war -- a potential "Scud" missile carrying anthrax attacking Tel Aviv, prompting an Israeli nuclear counterattack on Baghdad.

Despite the fears, United Nations Special Commission investigators in Iraq have found no evidence that Baghdad used biological weapons or even succeeded in developing the pathogens into usable battlefield munitions. But lawyers for veterans groups argue that biological weapons might have been included in nerve gas and other chemical poisons encountered on gulf war battlefields.

About 75,000 gulf war veterans share an array of symptoms called gulf war syndrome, according to Pentagon health officials and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Symptoms include fatigue, sore joints, sleep problems, diarrhea and memory loss.

Lederberg, who shared the 1958 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology, was a director of ATCC when he was picked to head the study, which was overseen by Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch, now CIA director.

As chairman of the seven-month Pentagon investigation, Lederberg was specific in his personal summary of the 1994 report.

"There is no scientific or medical evidence that either chemical or biological warfare was deployed at any level against us, or that TC there were any exposures of U.S. service members to chemical or biological warfare agents in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia," Lederberg wrote in the report.

Despite repeated requests, Lederberg declined to comment or to answer Newsday's written questions. Deutch, through a spokesman, said he was unaware of Lederberg's connection to ATCC or that the company had shipped anthrax bacteria to Iraq.

Critics of that Pentagon report such as James Tuite III, head of the Gulf War Veterans Foundation, said Lederberg should have recused himself from the Pentagon task force because of ATCC's involvement. "It's an ethical issue," Tuite said.

According to Houston attorney Gary Pitts, Lederberg should have disclosed his tie to ATCC. "It doesn't pass the smell test," said Pitts, who noted that the task force ruled out biological weapons as a cause of gulf war syndrome.

Pitts is one of the lawyers representing more than 2,000 gulf veterans participating in a class-action suit in state court in Texas seeking damages from ATCC and other companies that exported products that could have been used in Iraq's chemical and biological warfare program.

ATCC officials say the company did nothing improper or illegal in shipping the products to Iraq.

Kay Sloan-Breen, a spokeswoman for ATCC, said Lederberg received no money during his five-year stint as a director and trustee. She described ATCC as a distinguished, 70-year-old nonprofit repository of bacteria, fungi and other products used by the global scientific community as a standard of reference for research.

Shipping ATCC's products to Iraq required approval by the Commerce Department during the Reagan administration, Sloan-Breen said.

ATCC's role as a supplier of anthrax to Iraq became public on Feb. 9, 1994, when Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., a Michigan Democrat, delivered a Senate speech outlining ATCC's shipments and criticizing Commerce Department export controls.

"I think the U.S. government approving export of these materials to a government like that and to someone like Saddam Hussein violates every standard of logic and common sense," Riegle said. By then it had been widely reported that Iraq had inflicted heavy casualties on Iranian troops with chemical weapons since 1981.

Pub Date: 11/29/96

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