Kevin Loria Sep. 25, 2016 Business Insider
From Minneapolis to St. Louis
The military tested how a biological or chemical weapon would spread throughout the country by spraying bacteria as well as various chemical powders — including an especially controversial one called zinc cadmium sulfide. Low flying airplanes would take off, sometimes near the Canadian border, “and they would fly down through the Midwest,” dropping their payloads over cities, says Cole.
These sprays were tested on the ground too, with machines that would release clouds from city rooftops or intersections to see how they spread.
In the book, Cole cites military reports that documented various Minneapolis tests, including one where chemicals spread through a school. The clouds were clearly visible.
To prevent suspicion, the military pretended that they were testing a way to mask the whole city in order to protect it. They told city officials that “the tests involved efforts to measure ability to lay smoke screens about the city” to “hide” it in case of nuclear attack, according to Cole’s account.
The potential toxicity of that controversial compound zinc cadmium sulfide is debated. One component, cadmium, is highly toxic and can cause cancer. Some reports suggest a possibility that the zinc cadmium sulfide could perhaps degrade into cadmium, but a 1997 report from the National Research Council concluded that the Army’s secret tests“did not expose residents of the United States and Canada to chemical levels considered harmful.” However, the same report noted that research on the chemical used was sparse, mostly based on very limited animal studies.
These air tests were conducted around the country as part of Operation Large Area Coverage.
“There was evidence that the powder after it was released would be then located a day or two later as far away as 1,200 miles,” Cole says. “There was a sense that you could really blanket the country with a similar agent.”
City tests were conducted in St. Louis, too.
In 2012, Lisa Martino-Taylor, a sociology professor at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, released a report theorizing that the army’s experiments could be connected to cancer rates in a low-income, mostly black neighborhood in the city where zinc cadmium sulfide had been tested. She said she was concerned that there could have been a radioactive component to some testing, though she did not have direct evidence for that possibility.
Her report, however, prompted both senators from Missouri to write to the Army secretary, “demanding answers,” the Associated Press noted at the time.
While Martino-Taylor’s suggestion remains purely hypothetical, “the human dimension is never mentioned” in most Army documents, Cole writes in the book. Instead there’s just a discussion of how well the particulates spread and what they learned about the possibility of biological attacks from them.
1966: “A Study of the Vulnerability of Subway Passengers in New York City to Covert Attack with Biological Agents”
The New York subway system experiments are among the most shocking in terms of the numbers of people exposed, according to Cole.
In a field test called “A Study of the Vulnerability of Subway Passengers in New York City to Covert Attack with Biological Agents,” military officials tried to see how easy it would be to unleash biological weapons using the New York City subway. They would break light bulbs full of bacteria on the tracks to see how they spread through the city.
“If you can get trillions of bacteria into a light bulb and throw it on the track as a train pulls into a station, they’ll get pulled through the air as the train leaves,” Cole says, travelling through the tunnels and into different stations.
Clouds would engulf people as trains pulled away, but documents say that they “brushed their clothing, looked up at the grating apron and walked on.” No one was concerned.
In a 1995 Newsday story, reporter Dennis Duggan contacted retired Army scientist Charles Senseney, who had testified about the experiments to a Senate subcommittee in 1975.In his testimony, he explained that one light bulb full of bacteria dropped at 14th Street easily spread the bacteria up to at least 58th Street.
But he declined to reveal anything to the Newsday reporter. “I don’t want to get near this,” Senseney said to Duggan. “I [testified], because I was told I had to by the people at the Department of Defense … I better get off the phone.”
Experiments continued in New York for six days using Bacillus subtilis, then known as Bacillus globigii, and S.marcescens.
A paper from the National Academy of Sciences analyzing military experiments notes that B. globigii is “now considered a pathogen” and is often a cause of food poisoning. “Infections are rarely known to be fatal,” the report said — though fatal cases have occurred.
Particularly controversial tests
Another controversial experiment described in Cole’s book involved a test at the Norfolk Naval Supply Center. The experimenters packed crates with fungal spores to see how they would affect the people unpacking those crates.
Cole’s book notes that “portions of a report about an army test in 1951 involving Aspergillus fumigatus … indicate that the army intentionally exposed a disproportionate number of black people to the organism.” Most of the employees at the supply center were black.
In the military reports cited by Cole, researchers claim they are preparing for an attack that might target black citizens. He quotes from a section that reads: “Since Negroes are more susceptible to coccidioides than are whites, this fungus disease was simulated.”
When these experiments were first revealed in 1980, the racial aspect of these tests engendered controversy and skepticism about the “army’s interest in the public welfare,” according to Cole.
Tests revealed by an unexpected source
Many of these experiments on the American public were first investigated by what we would consider questionable sources.
One 1979 Washington Post news story discusses open air experiments in the Tampa Bay area involving the release of pertussis, or whooping cough, in 1955. State records show that whooping cough cases in Florida spiked from 339 (one death) in 1954 to 1,080 (12 deaths) in 1955, according to that story.
But it’s hard to trace how accurate the information about the whooping cough release is: The only documentation goes back to an investigation by the Church of Scientology.
The Church of Scientology formed a group called American Citizens for Honesty in Government that spent a significant amount of time investigating controversial experiments run by the Army and CIA, according to the Post. Through FOIA requests they uncovered a number of documents related to these experiments in the late 1970s.
Cole understands why some people are skeptical of those reports. “I certainly am not a member and I think a lot of what they do is quackery,” he says, but “in this case, I have no reason to believe any of this isn’t real.”
Many of the documents Scientologists made public were the same documents he’d received doing his own research, redacted in the same places.
Perhaps the hardest question is how much information is still missing.
As Cole writes in the book:
Many details about the army’s tests over populated areas remain secret. Most of the test reports are still classified or cannot be located, although a few of the earlier ones have become available in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and in conjunction with the Nevin case. Among those available, sections have been blocked out and pages are missing.
What we learned
Military officials were called to testify before Congress in 1977 after information about these biological warfare experiments was revealed.
At the time, those officials said that determining just how vulnerable the US was to a biological attack “required extensive research and development to determine precisely our vulnerability, the efficacy of our protective measures, and the tactical and strategic capability of various delivery systems and agents,” according to a record of that testimony quoted in “Clouds of Secrecy.”
Cole too says it’s hard to see these events now from the perspective that people had then.
There was “a different mindset in the country then … [a] Cold War mentality,” he says. But, he argues, that doesn’t justify glossing over the already known potential danger of the agents used.
At the same time, part of what the military knows about how clouds of chemicals spread comes from these experiments. Cole says that knowledge gleaned from these biological warfare testing programs helped inform the US reaction when reports came in on the potential use of chemical weapons in the first Gulf War.
So what’s happening now?
Cole says that the obvious question that’s on people’s minds is what’s happening now. After all, if secret tests could occur then, what prevents them from continuing? Are they, in fact, still going on?