Government Experiments on U.S. Soldiers: Shocking Claims Come to Light in New Court Case
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Their stories are a staple of conspiracy culture: broken men, suffering hallucinations and near-total amnesia, who say they are victims of secret government mind-control experiments. Think Liev Schreiber in The Manchurian Candidate or Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory . Journalists are a favorite target for the paranoid delusions of this population. So is Gordon Erspamer—and the San Francisco lawyer's latest case isn't helping him to fend off the tinfoil-hat crowd. He has filed suit against the CIA and the US Army on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America and six former American soldiers who claim they are the real thing: survivors of classified government tests conducted at the Army's Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland between 1950 and 1975. "I get a lot of calls," he says. "There are a lot of crazy people out there who think that somebody from Mars is controlling their behavior via radio waves." But when it comes to Edgewood, "I'm finding that more and more of those stories are true!"
That government scientists conducted human experiments at Edgewood is not in question. "The program involved testing of nerve agents, nerve agent antidotes, psychochemicals, and irritants," according to a 1994 General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) report (PDF). At least 7,800 US servicemen served "as laboratory rats or guinea pigs" at Edgewood, alleges Erspamer's complaint, filed in January in a federal district court in California. The Department of Veterans Affairs has reported that military scientists tested hundreds of chemical and biological substances on them, including VX, tabun, soman, sarin, cyanide, LSD, PCP, and World War I-era blister agents like phosgene and mustard. The full scope of the tests, however, may never be known. As a CIA official explained to the GAO, referring to the agency's infamous MKULTRA mind-control experiments, "The names of those involved in the tests are not available because names were not recorded or the records were subsequently destroyed." Besides, said the official, some of the tests involving LSD and other psychochemical drugs "were administered to an undetermined number of people without their knowledge."
Erspamer's plaintiffs claim that, although they volunteered for the Edgewood program, they were never adequately informed of the potential risks and continue to suffer debilitating health effects as a result of the experiments. They hope to force the CIA and the Army to admit wrongdoing, inform them of the specific substances they were exposed to, and provide access to subsidized health care to treat their Edgewood-related ailments. Despite what they describe as decades of suffering resulting from their Edgewood experiences, the former soldiers are not seeking monetary damages; a 1950 Supreme Court decision, the Feres case, precludes military personnel from suing the federal government for personal injuries sustained in the line of duty. The CIA's decision to use military personnel as test subjects followed the court's decision and is an issue Erspamer plans to raise at trial. "Suddenly, they stopped using civilian subjects and said, 'Oh, we can get these military guys for free,'" he says. "The government could do whatever it wanted to them without liability. We want to bring that to the attention of the public, because I don't think most people understand that." (Asked about Erspamer's suit, CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf would say only that the agency's human testing program has "been thoroughly investigated, and the CIA fully cooperated with each of the investigations.")
Erspamer's involvement in the case is deeply personal. His father was a government scientist during Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in the summer of 1946; he was present aboard a research vessel for the "Baker" test, during which a 21-kiloton thermonuclear bomb was detonated 90 feet below water. The blast resulted in massive radioactive contamination. Erspamer's father and the rest of the ship's crew, he says, all died in middle age from radiogenic diseases. Erspamer makes his living in the field of energy litigation, but has twice before argued class action suits for veterans—one for soldiers who, like his father, were exposed to radiation during nuclear tests (a case he ultimately lost in a 1992 appellate decision) and more recently one on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans denied treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The case is on appeal in California's 9th Circuit. "Nobody out there is doing these types of cases," he says. "It's really sad because the veterans are left holding the bag, and it's not a very pretty bag."