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Inside America's Dark History of Chemical Warfare

Hypocrisy is in the air as America considers attacking Syria.

As the Obama administration presses ahead with its mission to punish the Syrian government for its alleged gassing of civilians in suburban Damascus, the particulars of the attack remain unclear. All too clear, though, is the role of the United States as a supplier, supporter and even employer of a wide range of weapons of mass destruction, including sarin gas, resulting in the death and illness of not only those considered our enemies, but our “heroes” too.

The 1960s and 1970s

Agent Orange

The US military’s widespread and long-term use of the defoliant Agent Orange to destroy Vietnamese jungles is among the best known and most anguishing chapters in modern chemical warfare. Published articles had demonstrated the health and environmental dangers of the chemical components of Agent Orange (so called for the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped) for a full decade preceding the war. In 1952, Monsanto (which along with Dow Chemicals was the principal manufacturer) informed the government of the dangerous byproduct resulting from heating the chemical mix—namely dioxin. Yet we proceeded to employ Agent Orange, denying for decades the death and illness inflicted on Vietnamese and Americans alike. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by AP photographer Nick Ut documented, we used the incendiaries napalm and white phosphorus in Vietnam.

As Seymour Hersh revealed in his groundbreaking 1968 reporting, we provided the South Vietnamese with the lethal arsenic-containing gas DM, claiming it was a “tear” gas for riot control, though the Field Manual clearly stated "not approved in any operations where deaths are not acceptable.” Throughout the war, Hersh and others continued to document the US use of gases, incendiaries and Agent Orange and other herbicidals to destroy not only Vietnam’s jungles but its food supply—a crime against humanity and nature.

Project SHAD

Totally unknown till 35 years after the Vietnam War was the DoD’s Project Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD), a highly classified program, which from 1962 to 1971 tested whether US warships and their troops could withstand attacks from chemical and biological weapons. From overhead planes and nearby aircraft carriers, the military aimed lethal gases at ships carrying mostly unsuspecting sailors and marines. In the 1990s, veterans stationed on SHAD boats reported respiratory conditions and cancers only to be told by VA that nothing called Project SHAD had ever existed. Finally, after CBS broke the story in May 2001, the Department of Defense admitted to SHAD’s existence and its almost decade-long program of toxic testing.

Project Tailwind

In 1998, a CNN two-part Sunday night news report revealed that a special commando unit in 1970 used sarin gas in Laos to kill American defectors. The story about “Operation Tailwind” was researched, written and produced by seasoned journalists April Oliver and Jack Smith, with help from Pulitzer Prize-winning Peter Arnett, who narrated the broadcast. Under pressure from Henry Kissinger and others, many claim, CNN retracted the story, and fired Oliver and Smith, and Arnett soon after. ( Newsroom's Aaron Sorkin recently explained on the Daily Show that he used "Operation Tailwind” as the basis of the second season’s centerpiece, Operation Genoa, a secret mission set in Pakistan, in which the US supposedly used sarin against civilians. CNN's reporting, Sorkin told John Oliver, offered an intriguing example of journalism gone awry with compromising research and doctored videos.)

The story of Operation Tailwind has never been proven wrong, as Jennifer Epps persuasively documented recently on the Daily Kos. According to Oliver and Smith, the story’s prime source, Admiral Thomas Moorer, read and signed off on the script; and according to Reese Schonfeld, CNN’s co-founder, Moorer stated in a legal deposition that he had said what the journalists quoted him as saying. Even CNN’s attorneys Floyd Abrams and David Kohler “found no credible evidence at all of any falsification of an intentional nature at any point in the journalistic process….We do not believe it can reasonably be suggested that any of the information on which the broadcast was based was fabricated or nonexistent." The attorneys asserted that high-level and reliable military personnel had been confidential sources for the story. Yet the story was pulled and the journalists fired.

The 1980s and 1990s