Thousands of U.S. citizens who participated in human experimentation for the military may have been exposed to harmful chemical and biological substances.
In some cases, healthy adults, psychiatric patients and prison inmates were used in experiments that often included intentional exposure to blister and nerve agents. A GAO report adds that many of the test subjects have not been notified by the government about their potential exposure.
The report cites tests conducted by the Defense Department going back to World War II, most of which were a part of its Project 112 test program, while others were conducted as separate efforts.
"I really don't understand it," said Davi D'Agostino, director of defense and management at GAO. "It would be easy to say DOD has a lot of priorities right now, but they've also got a lot of problems, and we think this is very important."
Since World War II, the Defense Department has been involved in classified human experimentation tests that were conducted to support weapons development programs, identify methods to protect the health of military personnel against a variety of diseases and combat conditions and analyze U.S. defense vulnerabilities, according to the GAO. From 1962 through 1974, the department conducted a series of classified ship and land-based chemical and biological warfare tests involving military and civilian personnel. This group of classified tests were named Project 112 because it was the 112th project of 150 outlined by the secretary of defense in 1962.
GAO has done four previous reports regarding the dangers of letting those who were exposed to hazardous material continue to go unidentified. In 2004, GAO performed a random sample in Utah and discovered 12 boxes with names of people who received no notification after exposure to chemical and biological agents. GAO says a cost-benefit analysis is necessary to give transparency on the efforts that have been made, and what other things can be done.
"We thought that if we could randomly pick 12 boxes at a former testing site and find names, there could potentially be more information at this location," said D'Agostino. "This is why we still have questions and feel that DOD should do a documented cost-benefit analysis since they haven't taken any actions with our recommendations from 2004."
In response to GAO's recommendations, the defense determined continuing an active search for individuals had reached the point of diminishing returns and reaffirmed its decision to cease active searches.
"We believe DOD made a full accounting of its efforts available to Congress in 2003," said Chris Isleib, Defense Department spokesman. "At that time, DOD informed Congress it had ceased the active stage of the investigation but would pursue any leads that became available."
"If they're transparent about it with Congress and the veterans, they would have more credibility with their decision," said D'Agostino. "That's why we recommended it, and they disagreed with that recommendation."
In 2003, the Defense Department reported it had identified 5, 842 service members and estimated another 350 civilians could have been potentially exposed to chemical or biological substances during Project 112, and indicated that they would cease actively searching for additional individuals. GAO says that since that time, the DOD has stopped actively searching for individuals who were potentially exposed, without giving a sound and documented basis for that decision.
And since 2003, non-DOD sources -- including the Institute of Medicine -- have identified approximately 600 additional names of people who were potentially exposed during Project 112. GAO maintains that until these issues are addressed, some identified veterans and civilians will remain unaware of their potential exposure.
"This is a striking issue," said D'Agostino. "Some of these tests are going all the way back to World War II, and it would seem that you would want to get some of these people help as soon as you could."