WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon sprayed biological and chemical agents off the coast of San Diego during the Cold War, part of a series of previously undisclosed tests in several states that exposed troops and perhaps thousands of civilians to the compounds, defense officials said Wednesday.
In all, 27 newly
disclosed secret tests were conducted in California, Alaska, Florida,
Hawaii, Maryland and Utah, officials said. The tests, conducted from 1962
to 1973, were also carried out in Canada and the United Kingdom.
In February 1966, a Navy vessel
in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego was sprayed with
methylacetoacetate, or MA, a chemical that irritates the eyes, skin and
respiratory tract but is not considered hazardous by the Environmental
In a second test in the summer of 1968, MA and
Bacillus globigii, or BG, were released in the same waters. A
bacterium related to anthrax, BG was later found to infect people with
weak immune systems. No civilians are thought to have been exposed to
harmful agents in those tests because they were carried out over the
It was the first time the Pentagon has
acknowledged that it used the agents on U.S. soil and that civilians may
have been exposed during the tests. The Defense Department previously
revealed that 10 tests were carried out during the Cold War on U.S. ships
to determine how they would perform under chemical or biological
The Defense Department released the information at a House
Veterans Affairs Committee meeting Wednesday; some elements were leaked to
Military officials insisted that none of the
agents used near civilians was thought at the time to be dangerous,
although some—including E. coli bacteria—were later found to be
harmful, even deadly.
In 21 tests on land and six newly reported
tests at sea overseen by the Deseret Test Center at Ft. Douglas, Utah,
live biological agents and lethal chemicals—including sarin and VX—were
sprayed not only in the six states, but at or near military facilities in
Puerto Rico, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Marshall Islands, Baker
Island and over international waters in the Pacific Ocean.
tests disclosed so far affected about 5,000 service members at sea and 500
on land from 1962 to 1973, defense officials said. The Pentagon has
notified about 1,400 of those soldiers about the secret testing regimen,
dubbed "Project 112."
The Deseret test center reported that four
people were infected at the time and successfully treated. Veterans
Affairs officials said they were studying the phenomenon; 53 veterans have
filed health claims since the 1990s. The claims blame what they say was
their exposure to the chemical or biological agents for a variety of
ailments, including muscular, skeletal, digestive, hearing, skin and
Defense officials said the Pentagon has
no process for notifying civilians who may have been exposed in the U.S.,
including those possibly numbering "into the thousands" on Oahu,
Pentagon officials believe local authorities were notified
of the tests at the time, said William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant Defense
secretary for health affairs, but most citizens apparently were not.
Veterans advocates said lower-level soldiers also were unaware, although
defense officials insisted the soldiers were protected by chemical gear
"We're making this information available so that anyone
who believes there may have been some ill effect could come forward,"
Civilians were not believed to have been
affected in California because the four tests conducted there—including
two first reported Wednesday—were all conducted off the San Diego coast in
the Pacific Ocean, according to the Pentagon analysis.
officials insisted that civilians were exposed only to live biological
agents that simulated more deadly agents in the way they spread, but were
themselves believed to be harmless. However, the simulated substances
included E. coli and other agents that were later found to be
harmful or fatal to young children, the elderly and those with compromised
Even soldiers and sailors exposed during the tests
"may not have known all the details of these tests," Winkenwerder
"Most of these people didn't have a clue what they were part
of," said Kirt Love, a veterans advocate with the Desert Storm Battle
Registry who contended that in many cases only senior officers were aware
of the tests. "These were not safe agents at the time."
report was released of the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, it
was detailed at a Pentagon briefing. Defense officials said the tests were
conducted for potential offensive use against U.S. enemies and for defense
against the Cold War biological and chemical weapons arsenal amassed by
the Soviet Union.
The Navy trials tested the ability of ships and
sailors, clad in chemical defense gear, to perform under a chemical or
biological attack at sea. The land-based tests were done to evaluate how
the agents dispersed, officials said. Desert tests such as those in Utah
helped the Pentagon amass much of the information the military has on how
chemical and biological agents would perform in desert areas such as Iraq,
said Anna Johnson-Winegar, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for chemical
and biological defense.
"The purpose of these operational tests was
to test equipment, procedures, military tactics, etc., and to learn more
about biological and chemical agents," Winkenwerder said. "The tests were
not conducted to evaluate the effects of dangerous agents on
The United States ended its biological weapons program in
the 1960s and in 1997 signed a treaty agreeing to destroy all of its
chemical weapons. Funding and disposal issues have delayed much of that
process, leaving stores of lethal chemicals at several military sites
throughout the nation.
Today, defense officials insist that the
only testing of toxic and biological agents in the United States is given
to chemical specialists among the armed services at a tightly contained
testing facility at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. So-called stimulants still are
The disclosures are unlikely to be the last from
Project 112. The military had planned 134 tests; 46 were conducted, 62
were canceled and the status of the remainder is unclear. The newly
disclosed tests used a variety of agents under various
Tests in the late 1960s in Porton Down, England, and
Ralson, Canada, used tabun and soman, two deadly nerve agents.
the 1965 Oahu test, BG was sprayed in a simulated attack called "Big Tom."
Near Ft. Greely, Alaska, researchers tested how deadly sarin gas, the
toxin members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult used in 1995 to kill commuters
in the Tokyo subway, would disperse after being released from artillery
shells and rockets in dense forests in a test dubbed "Devil Hole I" in
1965. A year later, VX agent, which lingers like motor oil in deadly
pools, was released by artillery shells in "Devil Hole II."