Inside America's Dark History of Chemical Warfare

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

Reagan and Bush I's Dual-Use Double Dealing

The 1991 Gulf War followed almost a decade of the Reagan-Bush I administration's active support of Iraq in its war against the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran. The US supplied Iraq with financing, intelligence and supplies for a protracted war with Iran, in which chemical weapons played a significant role. “Iraqgate”—in which we used other countries and their banks to transfer war funds and materials to Iraq—became a considerable though fleeting scandal in 1989-'90. But Reagan’s and then Bush’s use of US government agencies to funnel materials and technology that could be used to create and disperse chemical and biological weapons remains a little known chapter in the history of US warfare. Dual-use materials and technologies—normally used for civilian purposes but with ready military applications—were central to the program. Overseen by the Department of Commerce, the secret program allowed massive export to Iraq items such as agricultural toxin, and “crop duster” equipped helicopters, ostensibly to kill weeds and insects, but used to kill people.

In 1983, as the State Department was reporting Iraq’s manufacture and use of nerve gas, Donald Rumsfeld, Reagan’s special envoy to Iraq, was in Baghdad negotiating the resumption of normal diplomatic relations with Iraq, which were formalized soon after. In 1988, with clear evidence that Iraq had used sarin and other nerve gases on the Kurdish village of Halabja, killing up to 5,000 civilians, the US government did nothing: The State Department advanced the bogus story that Iran was partly to blame. In 1989, the Bechtel corporation, on whose board Rumsfeld sat, won a contract with Iraq to construct a new chemical plant that expanded its ability to produce sarin and other chemical weapons.

The 1994 “Riegle Report” issued by the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chaired by Donald Riegle Jr, documented that the Commerce Department had issued 771 licenses to US companies to export war-related products including the chemical materials used to make mustard gas and sarin and pathogens causing anthrax and bubonic plague. A recent article in Foreign Policy has revealed that newly-declassified CIA files provide ample evidence of the US’ close involvement with Saddam’s gas warfare program. “They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched,” authors Shane Harris and Matthew Aid write.

Replacing Vietnam Syndrome with Gulf War Syndrome

On Feb. 28, 1991, as the Persian Gulf War fighting ended, then President George Herbert Walker Bush declared, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” referring to the American public's dismay over the decade-long Vietnam War in which almost 58,000 US troops died. But ultimately Bush I’s Operation Desert Storm, a five-week war with only 148 US battle casualties, spawned a real health syndrome from which some 250,000 US veterans still suffer.

The 1991 Gulf War and our more recent wars in the region have released a catastrophic cocktail of chemicals, microbes and radiation. Depleted uranium (DU) —the byproduct of uranium enrichment—made its debut in the Gulf War, the ordinance of choice for bullets, grenades and cluster bombs. Extensive in vitro research by Alexandra Miller and others has documented DU altering genes and changing normal cells into cancerous cells. The increased incidence of birth defects and cancers in Iraq has been widely reported and linked to DU. At home, veterans groups, advocacy groups for children with birth defects, and researchers have reported higher rates of  birth defects in children of Gulf War veterans, including facial and heart malformations.

The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illness, a congressionally mandated panel of scientists, has not ruled out DU as a contributor to Gulf War Illness, the multi-symptom, multi-system disease afflicting a third of Desert Storm veterans. Not surprisingly, researchers have reported higher cancer rates of Gulf War veterans and made linkages between DU exposure and cancer. But RAC’s 2008 report found the clearest culprit of the extreme pain, chronic fatigue, headaches, memory loss, and movement disorders prominent in GWI to be US-released neurotoxins. RAC implicated a certain type of chemical (acetylcholinesterase inhibitors) common to experimental anti-nerve gas pre-treatment pills, bug spray and sarin, which troops were exposed to when the US bombed munitions storage facilities in southern Iraq.

The Pentagon has not denied the explosion of sarin, but has maintained the gas could not have reached the troops, who were stationed at US bases in Saudi Arabia. Recently, longtime Gulf War illness researcher, epidemiologist Robert Haley and former military investigator James Tuitte have shown weather satellite images of the plume’s course, ending in the sky above the Saudi bases. The many nerve gas alarms that were going off at the time, troops were told, were false alarms. But they were not, the authors say, demonstrating a direct connection between the number of nerve gas alarms troops heard and the severity of Gulf War Illness symptoms.

The sarin explosions Haley and Tuitte write about occurred in January 1991. On March 4 and March 10, we again bombed military facilities in southern Iraq, exploding open pits of sarin-loaded rockets. The Pentagon does not deny the deed, but its logs for the period between March 4 through March 10 are missing. (Its excuse: the individual who kept the log was off for the week.)

The media coverage of Haley and Tuitte’s findings was limited and brief. Now a big story has claimed the world’s attention: another Arab dictator has purportedly killed his own people with chemical weapons—and the US, as the leader of the civilized world, says it cannot stand by.

We will “degrade” Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, secretaries Kerry and Hagel have stated. Wasn’t that what we meant to do when we bombed Saddam’s weapon depots, poisoning hundreds of thousands of American and Czech troops, and who knows how many Iraqis and Saudis? The Syrian government may or may not have done what the Obama administration is claiming. The US may or may not bomb Syria. What is certain, though, is that the United States has its own dark history with biological and chemicals weapons, which we ignore at our peril.

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