Details about Pentagon biological and chemical weapons tests involving military personnel during the 1960s and 1970s – some involving lethal nerve agents – have long been kept secret. Thursday, the House agreed to keep things that way.
“It’s shameful,” said Congressman Mike Thompson, D-Calif., of the decision. He led a bipartisan effort to get a House vote demanding that the details be disclosed.
He couldn’t even get that vote. He wanted it as an addition to a sweeping defense policy bill the House is considering this week.
The House Rules Committee, which decides what gets considered on the House floor, approved votes on 210 amendments to the defense bill. It rejected 230. Thompson’s proposal was one of the losers.
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Rules Committee spokeswoman Caroline Boothe said the committee felt the decision to declassify the documents should be made by Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Trump administration.
The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment.
Thompson was seeking answers about Projects 112 and SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense) a series of covert chemical and biological weapons tests the Pentagon conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War era, involving some 6,000 military personnel.
Supporters of his plan, which included the nation’s major veterans advocacy groups, said that disclosure would help victims get better access to medical care as well as government benefits.
The Pentagon program aimed to identify any weaknesses to U.S. ships and troops and develop a response plan for a chemical attack.
The tests involved nerve agents like Sarin and Vx, and bacteria such as E. Coli. Sarin and Vx are both lethal. According to defense department documents, death can occur within 10 to 15 minutes of exposure to a fatal dose of Vx.
Veterans say the tests have led to serious health issues and that they need answers so they can get proper treatment. The Pentagon has released some information about the tests after a request from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but Thompson said more information is needed such as the dosages of the chemicals veterans endured.
Ken Wiseman, senior vice commander of the Virginia branch of Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of the nation’s largest veterans groups, said the time has long past for the Pentagon to provide details about the tests.
“The information has no impact on national security anymore,” he said.
After information about the tests was first made public in 2000, the Department of Veterans Affairs commissioned two studies to look at the impact of the tests on veterans health.
One report noted the difficulty of studying the issue because many documents remained classified. The studies did not find that veterans who participated in the tests were worse off than those that did not.
Thompson and his supporters want to know more. He went to the House floor Thursday, enraged.
“These tests were an ugly part of our history. They put veteran lives at risk. And our veterans have every right to know what it was they were exposed to, how much they were exposed to, we need to think about their safety and their security,” he told colleagues.
He said he had “no idea” why the House Rules committee did not allow his amendment to go forward. He said he had not seen any listed opposition to his proposal.
The issue could still come up in the Senate, where Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, is pushing a similar plan.
"Often, the impacts of toxic exposure don’t appear until long after service members have returned home from the battlefield and military records are filed away," he said in a statement.
Contact: Anshu Siripurapu at 202-383-6009. Twitter: @anshusiripurapu