Sunday, November 18, 2001

Remember 9-11-01

Isle tests fortold
anthrax danger

1963 sea tests off Oahu showed
bioterrorism's threat

By B.J. Reyes

Germ warfare tests conducted decades ago across the country -- including near Hawaii -- could give military strategists an idea of what to expect if biological weapons were used on a large-scale basis today, one expert says.

One project, entitled Autumn Gold, was conducted in May of 1963 about 60 miles west-southwest of Oahu, according to documents recently released by the Defense Department. The tests involved military personnel who were exposed to chemical agents meant to simulate the effects of deadlier germs such as anthrax.

As concerns over anthrax and other bioterror agents continue, one legacy of the Cold War -- the U.S. biological weapons program of the 1950s and 1960s -- could yield valuable information.

"The bottom line of what was learned and repeatedly learned (from the tests) was that releasing microorganisms under a variety of conditions could cause devastating consequences," said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Scientists learned that large numbers of people could be affected with relative ease, said Cole, author of "The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare."

"The distribution of bacteria, whether released from low-flying airplanes, from slow-moving boats off shore or from land sources could, under certain conditions, put hundreds of thousands of people at risk," Cole said recently via telephone.

The Autumn Gold tests were among 113 that were part of a program called Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD) that was designed to "learn the vulnerabilities of U.S. warships to an attack with chemical or biological agents and develop procedures to respond to such an attack while maintaining a war-fighting capacity," according to the Defense Department.

Although the fact that such exercises took place had been known previously, specific information has been classified.

Details about Autumn Gold -- and a similar 1965 project off the coast of Newfoundland called Copper Head -- were uncovered last year by CBS News. The May 2000 report featured veterans who recalled serving aboard ships where personnel in chemical suits monitored events while crew members received no information.

Military officials have said chemical agents used in Autumn Gold and Copper Head -- zinc cadmium sulfide and bacillus globigii -- were simulants that are known to mimic other biological agents and are not considered health risks to humans.

However, federal officials, citing increased Congressional and media attention, late last year agreed to provide health evaluations to veterans who may have been exposed to chemical or biological agents.

"What's happened to date is the (Department of Veterans Affairs) has contacted their clinics around the country and made them aware that folks that come in who may have been exposed to these tests need to be evaluated," said Mandy Kenney, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.).

Thompson, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, last year inquired about the germ tests on behalf of a constituent. One veteran also contacted U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D, Honolulu), who also is a member of the committee, about the germ tests. Abercrombie spokesman Mike Slackman said he could not discuss the case, citing privacy concerns.

Autumn Gold details

Germ warfare tests conducted across the country in the 1950s and 1960s included a project entitled Autumn Gold that took place about 60 miles off of Oahu. Some details about the operation:

>> Date: May 3-31, 1963.

>> Test organization: U.S. Army Deseret Test Center.

>> Operations: Three phases simulating stages of combat preparedness. Each phase consisted of three trials: defense against chemical and biological attack, battle or near-battle condition and wartime or battle steaming.

>> Services involved: Navy, Marines and Deseret personnel.

>> Units and ships: USS Navarro, USS Tioga County, USS Carpenter, USS Hoel, USS Granville S. Hall and Marine Air Group 13, First Marine Brigade.

>> Dissemination: Sprayed by A4B aircraft.

>> Chemical agent: Bacillus globigii. Harmless to humans, BG is ubiquitous and found easily in samplings of wind-borne dust. BG is safely used in biological studies as a stand-in for pathogenic bacteria. BG is used as a biological tracer for anthrax because its particle size and dispersal characteristics are similar. A household bleach-and-water solution easily kills BG.

Source: U.S. Department of Defense

In addition to the health evaluations, other results of the increased attention to the decades-old tests include the recent release of Defense Department fact sheets for projects Autumn Gold (1963), Copper Head (1965) and Shady Grove (1965), Kenney said.

Shady Grove was an extension of Autumn Gold that took place at various open-water locations throughout the Pacific Ocean and used both simulant and actual chemical agents, the Defense Department said. Personnel involved in these tests should have known about the biological and chemical agents.

All three tests were organized by the U.S. Army Deseret Test Center and took place at sea. Military aircraft would disperse the chemical agents over the warships while shipboard staff would monitor the distribution, the documents said.

The SHAD tests were similar to those conducted by scientists of the Special Operations Division, a secret arm of the U.S. biological weapons program at Ft. Detrick, Md., during roughly the same time period.

Those scientists released bacteria meant to simulate anthrax spores and monitored how they were dispersed when released among the population. Two such tests were conducted in a New York subway and the Pentagon.

In other experiments, scientists would take guinea pigs, monkeys, sheep and other animals into the desert or onto a barge out at sea and release a cloud of anthrax or some other pathogen to see how many animals would be affected, according to military documents.

"What was learned during the 20-year period of these tests was that the bacteria and chemical particles that were released, had they been highly pathogenic, could have caused disease and death among large populations," Cole said.

The U.S. biological weapons program was dismantled three decades ago in accordance with the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. The vast majority of what was learned remains classified or in the memories of those who worked on the projects.

Cole expects it to stay that way.

"I am aware that people in the military establishment are not altogether happy about the amount of material that has already been released," Cole said. "I would not be optimistic about seeing much more information that is still classified be released as it concerns the testing program."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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