To bare arms

December 24, 2003

THE PENTAGON is understandably reluctant to encourage independent thinking. Or to replace orders with suggestions. Or to in any way promote the interests of the individual over the good of the entire military unit.

But in forcing service personnel to be vaccinated for anthrax or face disciplinary action, military leaders exceeded their authority. So says a federal judge whose decision should be the last word on the topic.

In a relatively narrow ruling, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered the Pentagon to stop vaccinating members of the armed forces against their will on the grounds that the vaccine in question was formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration to protect against anthrax contact with the skin - not the highly lethal inhaled version the military fears might be used as a weapon.

Thus, the judge said, military personnel were being forced to serve as "guinea pigs for experimental drugs" in violation of federal law that requires consent from those who participate in such experiments.

President Bush has the authority to waive the consent requirement in the cause of national security, but he has not done so. Administration officials are still debating their response to Judge Sullivan's ruling.

The appropriate course would be to let it stand, offer the vaccine on a voluntary basis and make amends to the hundreds of military personnel court-martialed for refusing to take what they judged to be an unnecessary risk.

William S. Cohen, the former defense secretary who in 1997 gave the order for U.S. troops to be vaccinated against anthrax, stood by his decision yesterday. He said such vaccinations should be no more a matter of individual choice for servicemen and women than wearing a helmet or flak jacket in the battlefield.

But helmets and flak jackets have proved effective at their mission. What's more, they don't constitute a danger themselves. Neither can be said of the vaccine.

Federal officials contend the risk of the shot is very small, with only about 100 reports of adverse reactions from the first 830,000 vaccinations given by the military. As Judge Sullivan observed, though, "it's impossible to tell with any certainty what the long-term effects of the vaccination will be" in the absence of controlled studies.

Wartime violence already poses such a huge threat to life and limb for the young people who step forward to serve their country that their health should not be further endangered without a very compelling reason. The possibility that an unproven vaccination program might offer protection against an anthrax attack doesn't meet that test.

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