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Human Guinea Pigs: Congress Slams Door On Pentagon Biochemical Weapons Testing Declassification

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the US government tested chemical and biological weapons on US troops in still little known secret programs called Projects 112 and SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense). The Vietnam era tests involved some 6,000 military personnel being subject to experiments involving deadly nerve agents like sarin and VX, as well as biological agents like E. Coli, all of which can result in quick death or potential lifelong debilitating health issues such as long-term central nervous system failure. A fatal dose of VX nerve agent, for example, can kill in minutes, but it is unknown if the program resulted in deaths because documents remain classified as “Top Secret” even 50 years later. Veterans advocacy groups have long tried to get specifics of the program declassified in the hopes that disclosure might allow victims of the tests access to health benefits and better medical treatment, but on Thursday Congress slammed the door on these attempts, leaving veterans and some congressional sponsors outraged.

USS George Eastman personnel were among those identified by the National
Academies of
Sciences as subject to US government experiments in biochem warfare.

Some limited details of the highly classified program came to light in 2000, when the Department of Veterans Affairs obtained documents related to the program from the Pentagon in order to study medical treatments for claimants. But veteran victims of testing have long been left in the lurch as the Pentagon decides how much information should be shared with the public. Veterans Affairs has an official statement on its website – the result of in-house studies in coordination with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, claiming there’s no evidence that exposure has led to ill-health:

Project 112/Project SHAD, or Shipboard Hazard and Defense, was a series of tests conducted by the Department of Defense from 1962 to 1974. Servicemembers participated in conducting the tests. The purpose was to determine the potential risks to U.S. warships and American forces from chemical and biological warfare agents.


To date, there is no clear evidence of specific, long-term health problems associated with participation in Project SHAD.

Disturbingly, the National Academies admits in a 2016 study that among the 6000 personnel involved in the tests…

Only some of the involved military personnel were aware of the nature of the tests at the time they were conducted.

Table: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study of
Project SHAD agents used on troop personnel and hypothesized health effects.

Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., Don Young, R-Alaska, and Walter Jones, R-N.C. have worked on behalf of veterans groups to put the issue before Congress. The congressmen sponsored language in a defense policy bill this week that would force the secretary of defense to either declassify documents related to the chemical program or explain to Congress why he can’t. The Pentagon has kept silent on the issue.

On Thursday the House Rules Committee, which decides what goes before the House floor, struck down the proposal, so the declassification won’t even be up for discussion before Congress. An enraged Rep. Thompson called the fact that it didn’t even make it out of committee “shameful” and took to the house floor saying:

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.

A number of veteran spokespersons questioned how greater public knowledge of the experiments would compromise national security, which appears to be the Pentagon’s position. Government classification often has more to do with covering up embarrassing secrets and preventing lawsuits than national security. A number of outrageously immoral programs going back to the middle of the last century are already well-known and documented, including Mk-Ultra, Operation Paperclip, and nuclear testing on soldiers. Thompson told McClatchy News just prior to the proposal going to committee:

It’s been over 50 years since these tests were conducted and the DOD has yet to provide a complete accounting of what truly happened to our service members. Veterans can’t wait any longer.

It is entirely possible that buried amidst the stacks of Top Secret DoD documentation on project SHAD is the United States’ own horrific Ronald Maddison story. Maddison was victim of what is widely considered to be the most sickeningly scandalous case of human experimentation in UK history. In 1953 Maddison, a 20-year-old Royal Air Force engineer, thought he had volunteered for mild experiments related to curing the common cold. Instead he was given a large dose of liquid sarin drops applied directly to his skin by military scientists at England’s Porton Down labs in order to study the effects. Maddison died an agonizing death, which the UK government spent decades covering up.

Ronald Maddison, subject of
UK chemical testing at Porton Down

Details of the Ronald Maddison story only came to light over 50 years after his death, when an unwitting eyewitness named Alfred Thornhill went public. Thornhill told The Guardian:

“I saw his leg rise up from the bed and I saw his skin begin turning blue. It started from the ankle and started spreading up his leg. It was like watching somebody pouring a blue liquid into a glass, it just began filling up. I was standing by the bed gawping. It was like watching something from outer space and then one of the doctors produced the biggest needle I had ever seen. It was the size of a bicycle pump and went down onto the lad’s body. The sister saw me gawping and told me to get out.”

Maddison’s ordeal was not an isolated case of chemical weapons testing using human guinea pigs in either Britain or America, but it was certainly one of the ugliest in terms of the circumstances of his death. As 6000 possibly sick US veterans got the door slammed in their faces yesterday regarding project SHAD, we must ask: what is the Pentagon hiding?