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Critics question troops' safety from biological, chemical weapons

WASHINGTON—Critics on Wednesday questioned whether the military's equipment and training would prove adequate to protect American forces from biological or chemical weapons in a war against Iraq.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., called for congressional hearings. Senators Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and six other senators expressed "strong concern" in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"We are concerned that, as thousands of active duty and reserve troops are deployed to the Persian Gulf region each week, training and preparedness for confronting the harrowing threat of chemical and biological warfare lags behind the pace of deployment," the letter said.

Critics point to Army audits and congressional studies that have questioned the quality of protective gear and training. In July, Army investigators concluded that "soldiers in most units reviewed weren't proficient in operating and maintaining chemical and biological defense equipment" as a result of poor training.

An Army audit also found that in the first Gulf War, 62 percent of gas masks and 90 percent of chemical and biological detectors didn't work.

The Pentagon said this week that equipment and training have been upgraded since then and American forces are well prepared for a possibly toxic battlefield.

"Our soldiers are trained and ready, and their equipment is world class," said Gen. John C. Doesburg, who heads the Army's soldier and biological chemical command.

With some 300,000 troops deployed in the Gulf, concern is mounting, especially among Gulf War veterans, that American forces will be exposed to a range of hazardous materials from depleted uranium to pesticides that could lead to serious health problems.

At a briefing for news reporters Wednesday, critics including Ralph Nader charged that troops have not gotten medical and mental health screenings—including blood sampling—that are required by a 1997 law.

Such testing would give doctors and scientists important clues to help diagnose illnesses triggered by exposure to biological or chemical weapons, said Steve Robinson, a Gulf War veteran and executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to look into it.

The Pentagon says it has fully complied with the law. Troops headed for the Gulf received health screenings, and they will be screened again when they return.

"The health and safety of America's sons and daughters who go in harm's way is the top priority of those in (the Department of Defense)," said spokesperson Barbara Goodno.

To protect troops in the Gulf, the Pentagon has distributed new protective suits that are lighter and sturdier. Each member of a military unit gets at least two suits. Marines get three. The suits can be worn for 45 days and laundered six times after they are removed from the wrapper. If they're exposed to a biological or chemical agent, they must be changed within 24 hours.

The Pentagon also has two older suits for each person deployed. A spokesman said the Pentagon has accounted for and destroyed 250,000 defective suits that congressional investigators said were missing and that some critics fear could be mixed in with backup suits sent to the Gulf.

"If my son or daughter had to go over there and had to rely on the protection of a suit, I would feel confident that the suit would provide the protection needed," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald Sewell, a Pentagon spokesman.

The U.S. military also has outfitted American forces with new gas masks and systems to detect biological or chemical agents.

In addition, each unit has a biological and chemical weapons specialist to maintain equipment and make sure that troops are properly trained, said Col. Thomas W. Spoehr, who commands the Third Chemical Brigade at the U.S. Army Chemical School. A pool of specialists from chemical units will be on the ground in Iraq if war is ordered.

The Bush administration contends that Saddam Hussein has chemical and biological weapons and may use them on American troops. Iraq gassed and killed hundreds of Iranian soldiers in the 1980s and thousands of Kurdish villagers in northern Iraq in 1988.

Owen Cote, a defense specialist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he would be "shocked" if the U.S. military hadn't adequately prepared troops. But, he said, "there are limits to what you can do about a biological or chemical attack."

He believes it's unlikely that Iraq has enough biological and chemical agents or the means to deliver them to pose a major threat to American troops.

Jonathan Tucker, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the United States Institute of Peace, disagreed. He said Saddam Hussein more than likely has a substantial arsenal of such agents.

"This time the United States has made it clear that the objective of invasion is to overthrow his regime," Tucker said. "He has nothing to lose."

The biggest threat is that of a chemical attack using short-range weapons such as rocket artillery that can travel several miles, Tucker said. Iraq also might load biological agents onto Scud missiles to attack civilian areas or military bases.

"Chemical and biological defense has never been a priority of the Army," Tucker said. "It has never received the attention it really deserves."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.