Pentagon tested nerve gas in exercises on U.S. soil

Md. among states where reviews were held in 1960s

October 09, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Acknowledging a much wider testing of toxic weapons on its forces, the Defense Department says it used chemical warfare and live biological agents during Cold War-era military exercises on American soil, as well as in Canada and Britain, according to previously secret documents cleared for release to Congress on yesterday.

Sixteen of the newly declassified reports, prepared by the Pentagon, describe how chemical and biological exercises, until now undisclosed, used deadly substances such as VX and sarin to test the vulnerability of American forces to unconventional attack.

An additional dozen reports describe how more benign substances were used to mimic the spread of the poisons in other tests. The reports, which detail tests conducted from 1962 to 1971, reveal for the first time that the chemical warfare agents were used during exercises on American soil in Maryland, Alaska and Hawaii and that a mild biological agent was used in Florida.

Pentagon officials said late yesterday that their investigations indicated that none of the lethal chemical agents were dispersed into the general population. Some milder substances did escape into the atmosphere, with a plant fungus dispersing in an area of Florida, a naturally occurring bacteria in Hawaii and a mild chemical irritant in a remote part of Alaska.

Late yesterday, William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said service members in the tests had been given protection available at the time, though he conceded that it was primitive compared with what is available today.

In May, the Pentagon disclosed that ships and sailors at sea had been sprayed with chemical and biological agents during Cold War-era testing.

The Defense Department is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify an estimated 5,500 people believed to have participated in the land and sea tests because it remains unclear, even today, whether all of the sailors and soldiers were fully aware of the nature of the exercises and of the potential risks.

Congress has scheduled hearings this week to examine the documents and the government's responsibility to any veterans suffering from ill effects. The House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health meets in closed session today to be briefed on the reports, and the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel meets tomorrow.

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