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The Spy Who Wasn't | The Nation

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The Spy Who Wasn't

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Anatomy of a Scandal

About the Author

Bill Mesler
Bill Mesler is a Baltimore-based journalist who writes frequently for The Nation.

Also by the Author

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

It is about two feet long, cylindrical and far denser than steel. When fired from a U.S. Army M1 Abrams tank, it is capable of drilling a hole through the strongest of tank armors. The makers of this tank-killing ammunition say it is the best in the world. But there is one problem with the Pentagon's super bullet: It is made of radioactive waste.

The first time the Army used this "depleted uranium" (D.U.) ammunition on a battlefield was during the Gulf War, in 1991. Yet despite Pentagon assurances that only a small number of U.S. troops were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U., a two-month investigation by The Nation has discovered that hundreds and perhaps thousands of U.S. veterans were unknowingly exposed to potentially hazardous levels of depleted uranium, or uranium-238, in the Persian Gulf. Some soldiers inhaled it when they pulled wounded comrades from tanks hit by D.U. "friendly fire" or when they clambered into destroyed Iraqi vehicles. Others picked up expended rounds as war trophies. Thousands of other Americans were near accidental explosions of D.U. munitions.

The Army never told combat engineer Dwayne Mowrer or his fellow soldiers in the First Infantry Division much about D.U. But the G.I.s learned how effective the radioactive rounds were as the "Big Red One" made its way up the carnage-ridden four-lane Kuwaiti road known as the "highway of death." Mowrer and his company saw the unique signature of a D.U. hit on nearly half the disabled Iraqi vehicles encountered. "It leaves a nice round hole, almost like someone had welded it out," Mowrer recalled.

What Mowrer and others didn't know was that D.U. is highly toxic and, according to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, can cause lung cancer, bone cancer and kidney disease. All they heard were rumors.

"Once in a while you'd hear some guy say 'Hey, I heard those things were radioactive,'" Mowrer said. "Of course, everybody else says, 'Yeah, right!' We really thought we were in the new enlightened Army. We thought all that Agent Orange stuff and human radiation experiments were a thing of the past."

So Mowrer and his comrades didn't worry when a forty-ton HEMTT transport vehicle packed with D.U. rounds accidentally exploded near their camp. "We heard this tremendous boom and saw this black cloud blowing our way," he said. "The cloud went right over us, blew right over our camp."

Before they left the gulf, Mowrer and other soldiers in the 651st Combat Support Attachment began experiencing strange flulike symptoms. He figured the symptoms would fade once he was back in the United States. They didn't. Mowrer's personal doctor and physicians at the local Veterans Administration could find nothing wrong with him. Meanwhile, his health worsened: fatigue, memory loss, bloody noses and diarrhea. Then the single parent of two began experiencing problems with motor skills, bloody stools, bleeding gums, rashes and strange bumps on his eyelids, nose and tongue. Mowrer thinks his problems can be traced to his exposure to D.U.

The Pentagon says problems like Mowrer's could not have been caused by D.U., a weapon that many Americans have heard mentioned, if at all, only in the movie Courage Under Fire, which was based on a real-life D.U. friendly-fire incident. The Defense Department insists that D.U. radiation is relatively harmless--only about 60 percent as radioactive as regular uranium. When properly encased, D.U. gives off so little radiation, the Pentagon says, that a soldier would have to sit surrounded by it for twenty hours to get the equivalent radiation of one chest X-ray. (According to scientists, a D.U. antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as fifty chest X-rays.) Plus, the military brass argues that D.U. rounds so effectively destroyed Iraqi tanks that the weapons saved many more U.S. lives than radiation from them could possibly endanger.

But the Pentagon has a credibility gap. For years, it has denied that U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf were exposed to chemical weapons. In September Pentagon officials admitted that troops were exposed when they destroyed Iraqi stores of chemical weapons, as Congress held hearings on "Gulf War Syndrome." The Pentagon also argued, in its own defense, that exposure to chemical weapons could not fully explain the diverse range of illnesses that have plagued thousands of soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf. Exposure to D.U.--our own weaponry, in other words--could well be among the missing links.

Scientists point out that D.U. becomes much more dangerous when it burns. When fired, it combusts on impact. As much as 70 percent of the material is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys. "This is when it becomes most dangerous," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "It becomes a powder in the air that can irradiate you." Some scientists speculate that veterans' health problems stem from exposure to chemical agents combined with D.U., burning oil-field vapors and a new nerve-gas vaccine given to U.S. troops. "We know that depleted uranium is toxic and can cause diseases," said Dr. Howard Urnovitz, a microbiologist who has testified before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. "We also know these soldiers were exposed to large amounts of nerve-gas agents. What we don't know is how the combination of these toxic and radioactive materials affect the immune system."

Exactly how many U.S. soldiers were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U. during the Gulf War remains in dispute. Friendly-fire incidents left at least twenty-two veterans with D.U. shrapnel embedded in their bodies. The Veterans Administration is also monitoring the health of eleven more soldiers who were in tanks hit by D.U. but who were not hit by shrapnel, and twenty-five soldiers who helped prepare D.U.-contaminated tanks for shipment back to the United States without being told of the risk. The tanks were later buried in a radioactive waste disposal site run by the Energy Department.



No Protection

The Nation investigation has also discovered that the average infantry soldier is still receiving no training on how to protect against exposure to D.U., although such training was called for by an Army report on depleted uranium completed in June 1995. On the training lapses, the Pentagon does acknowledge past mistakes. Today the Army is providing new training in D.U. safety procedures for more soldiers, particularly members of armor, ordnance or medical teams that handle D.U. on a routine basis. "I feel confident that if an individual soldier has a need to know, they will be provided that training from the basic level on," Army Col. H.E. Wolfe told The Nation. But Wolfe confirmed that even now, not all infantry will get D.U. training.

Although the full hazards of these weapons are still not known, the law allows the President to waive restrictions on the sale of D.U. to foreign armies. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. The proliferation of D.U. ammunition around the world boosts the chances that U.S. soldiers will eventually be on the receiving end of the devastating weapon.

A broad coalition of veterans organizations, environmental groups and scientists hope that won't happen. On September 12, they met in NewYork to kick off a campaign calling for an international ban on D.U. weapons. Even the conservative-minded Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion recently passed resolutions calling on the Defense Department to reconsider its use of the controversial weapon.

"Clearly the Department of Defense hasn't thought through the use of D.U. on the battlefield and what kind of exposures they are subjecting our troops to," charged Matt Puglisi, the assistant director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion. "It is a very effective weapon, which is why the D.O.D. really doesn't want to see it re-examined. We only spent a couple of days [in winning the Gulf War]. But what if we had a fight that took years and years? We could have tens of thousands of vets with D.U. shrapnel in them."

The Gulf War Test

The U.S. Army began introducing D.U. ammo into its stockpiles in 1978, when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in intense competition over which side would develop the most effective tank. Washington feared that the Soviets with their T-72 had jumped ahead in the development of armor that was nearly impenetrable by traditional weapons. It was thought that D.U. rounds could counter the improved Soviet armor. But not until Iraq's Soviet-supplied army invaded oil-rich Kuwait and President Bush sent an expeditionary force of 500,000 to dislodge it was there a chance to battle-test the D.U. rounds.

American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers fired D.U. rounds; the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which provided close support for combat troops, fired twin 30-millimeter guns with small-caliber D.U. bullets. All told, in the 100 hours of the February ground war, U.S. tanks fired at least 14,000 large-caliber D.U. rounds, and U.S. planes some 940,000 smaller-caliber rounds. D.U. rounds left about 1,400 Iraqi tanks smoldering in the desert. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recalled one commander saying his unit "went through a whole field of burning Iraqi tanks."

The D.U. weapons succeeded beyond the Pentagon's wildest dreams. But they received little public attention compared with the fanfare over other high-tech weapons: smart bombs, stealth fighters and Patriot missiles (which looked good, even if they didn't, as it turned out, work). D.U., perhaps the most effective new weapon of them all, was mentioned only in passing. "People have a fear of radioactivity and radioactive materials," explained Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer who served in the gulf. "The Army seems to think that if they are going to keep using D.U., the less they tell people about it the better."

As the U.S.-led coalition forces swept to victory, many celebrating G.I.s scrambled onto--or into--disabled Iraqi vehicles. "When you get a lot of soldiers out on a battlefield, they are going to be curious," observed Chris Kornkven, a staff sergeant with the 304th Combat Support Company. "The Gulf War was the first time we saw Soviet tanks. Many of us started climbing around these destroyed vehicles." Indeed, a study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that out of 10,051 Gulf War veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles.

Other soldiers might have been exposed to harmful levels of D.U. as they rescued comrades from vehicles hit by friendly fire. A Gulf War photo book, Triumph in the Desert, contains one dramatic picture of soldiers pulling wounded Americans from the burning hull of an Abrams tank that had been hit by a D.U. round. Black smoke from the depleted-uranium explosion billows around the rescuers. Still other G.I.s picked up fragments of large-caliber D.U. rounds or unexploded small rounds and wore them as jewelry, hung around the soldiers' necks. "We didn't know any better," said Kornkven. "We didn't find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as D.U."

But the Americans facing perhaps the greatest risk from D.U. were those who had been hit by D.U. shrapnel, especially those still carrying radioactive fragments in their bodies. Robert Sanders, who drove a tank, was one apparent casualty. On the third day of the ground war, his tank was hit by a D.U. round fired from another U.S. tank. "I had stinging pain in my shoulder and a stinging pain in my face from shrapnel," Sanders said.

Military doctors removed the shrapnel. Several years later, however, Sanders heard that D.U. was radioactive and toxic, so he obtained his medical records. He found an interdepartmental fax saying doctors had removed bits of an "unknown metal" from his shoulder and that it was "probably D.U." Four years after he was wounded, Sanders took a urine test for depleted uranium, which revealed high levels of it in his system. The Pentagon had never made an effort to tell him of his likely exposure.

Even the end of the ground war on February 28, 1991, did not end the threat of exposure to U.S. soldiers. Government documents reveal that in one accident alone, at a camp at Doha, about twelve miles from Kuwait City, as many as 660 rounds weighing 7,062 pounds burned, releasing dark clouds of D.U. particles. Many of the 3,000 U.S. troops stationed at the base participated in cleanup operations without protective gear and without knowledge of the potential dangers.

The Aftermath

At war's end, U.S. forces left behind about 300 tons of expended D.U. ammunition in Kuwait and Iraq, a veritable radioactive waste dump that could haunt inhabitants of the region for years. In August 1995, Iraq presented a study to the United Nations demonstrating sharp increases in leukemia and other cancers as well as other unexplained diseases around the Basra region in the country's south. Iraqi scientists attributed some of the cancers to depleted uranium.

Some U.S. officials and scientists have questioned the Iraqi claims. But former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has made two recent trips to Iraq, observes that "the health ministry and doctors particularly in Basra and the south are terribly concerned about a range of problems that were not experienced before: fetuses with tumors, high rates of leukemia." And a secret British Atomic Energy Authority report leaked to the London Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough depleted uranium left behind in the Persian Gulf to account for "500,000 potential deaths" through increased cancer rates, although it noted that such a figure was an unlikely, worst-case scenario. That figure was based on an estimate that only forty tons of D.U. was left behind.

Another study, by Siegwart Gunther, president of the Austrian chapter of Yellow Cross International, reported that D.U. projectiles "were gathered by children and used as toys." The study noted that a little girl who collected twelve of the projectiles died of leukemia. Gunther collected some D.U. rounds in southern Iraq and took them to Germany for analysis. However, when Gunther entered Germany, the D.U. rounds were seized. The authorities claimed that just one projectile emitted more radiation in five hours than is allowed per year under German regulations.

Cleaning up the radioactive mess in the Persian Gulf would cost "billions," even if it were feasible, said Leonard Dietz, an atomic scientist who wrote a report on depleted uranium for the Energy Department. But the Pentagon maintained in a report that "no international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the U.S. to remediate Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm battlefields."

Those who suggest otherwise have found that they must fight the military industry as well as the Pentagon. In January 1993 Eric Hoskins, a public health specialist who surveyed Iraq as a member of a Harvard team, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times warning that D.U. may be causing health problems in Iraqi children. A few weeks later a harsh letter to the editor accused Hoskins of "making readers of limited scientific literacy the lawful prey of his hyperbole," which reaches the "bizarre conclusion that the environmental aftermath of the Persian Gulf war is not Iraq's fault, but ours!" The author, Russell Seitz, was identified as an associate with the "Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University."

Though the letter appeared to be the work of a neutral scientist, the Olin Institute at Harvard was established by the John M. Olin Foundation, which grew out of the manufacturing fortune created by the Olin Corporation, currently the nation's only maker of D.U. antitank rounds. Seitz did not answer a request from The Nation seeking comment.

Despite the Pentagon's love affair with D.U., there is an alternative--tank ammunition made from tungsten. Matt Kagan, a former munitions analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly, said the latest developments in tungsten technology have made it "almost as effective as D.U." That assessment is shared by Bill Arkin, a columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who has consulted on D.U. for Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch. "It comes down to this," Arkin said. "Is there a logical alternative that provides the same military capability and doesn't leave us with this legacy? The answer is yes, tungsten."

But tungsten is more expensive and must be imported, while the United States has more than 500,000 tons of depleted uranium, waste left behind by the production of nuclear weapons and by nuclear generators. Scientists have long looked for a way to re-use what otherwise must be stored at great expense in remote sites.

"It's just a cost issue," argued Arkin. "But nobody ever thought through what would happen when we shoot a lot of this stuff around the battlefield. It's not a question of whether a thousand soldiers were exposed or fifty soldiers were exposed. We were probably lucky in the Gulf War. What happens when we're fighting a war that makes the Gulf War look like small potatoes?"

The Wen Ho Lee saga really began back in 1988, when, according to Congressional sources familiar with later briefings by intelligence officials, CIA agents were approached by a Chinese scientist who offered to spy for the United States. The scientist handed over a one-page document suggesting that China had data on a highly advanced warhead design called the W-88, a miniaturized warhead originally developed at Los Alamos. Although the document did contain some classified data, it was primarily drawn up from declassified information and contained nothing proving that the Chinese actually acquired the W-88. The agents concluded the scientist was in fact a spy for the Chinese and rejected his offer. The Chinese had and still have good reason to want the CIA to believe it had the W-88: The tiny warhead would make Chinese ICBMs almost immune to interception by ballistic missile defenses being developed by the United States--defenses China has adamantly opposed.

The incident was largely dismissed until resurrected in 1995 by Notra Trulock, then the Energy Department's director of intelligence. On the basis of the 1988 document and more recent Chinese advances in warhead miniaturization, Trulock concluded that the Chinese had in fact acquired critical information on the W-88 from the United States. His conclusion clashed with speculation by the CIA that China had obtained information on warhead miniaturization from the Russians or even developed improvements through their own weapons program. Nonetheless, Trulock's hunch would lead to an FBI investigation of Wen Ho Lee, the only scientist from Los Alamos, where the W-88 was developed, who had traveled to China in the mid-eighties. Lee had appeared on the FBI's radar screen once before, in 1982, when he phoned another Taiwanese-born scientist suspected of passing neutron bomb secrets to the Chinese. (As would later happen to Lee himself, that scientist was fired but never charged with any crime.)

Dismissed by the CIA and other intelligence analysts, Trulock's assessment of Chinese spying would find a more welcome reception three years later before a highly politicized committee in the House of Representatives chaired by California Republican Christopher Cox. The Cox committee was investigating whether contributions to the 1996 Clinton re-election campaign played a role in helping sensitive satellite technology find its way to China. Last fall Trulock took his allegations before the committee, and soon he had named Lee as the Energy Department's "chief suspect" in the case.

On March 6, New York Times reporters James Risen and Jeff Gerth broke a story headlined "China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say." Quoting Trulock extensively, Risen and Gerth reported that China had made "a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs...accelerated by the theft of American nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico," a charge that cannot be proven to this day. Based on illegal leaks made about a pending investigation (leaks reminiscent of the Monica Lewinsky affair), the story claimed that "a reconstruction by the New York Times reveals that throughout the government, the response to the nuclear theft was plagued by delays, inaction and skepticism" even though "government investigators had identified a suspect, an American scientist at Los Alamos laboratory." (The "reconstruction" would soon lead to calls for the resignation of everyone from Attorney General Janet Reno to White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.) The story went on to quote an unnamed government official as saying the suspect "stuck out like a sore thumb" because of trips made to mainland China in 1986 and 1988.

In fact, the Energy Department approved Lee's trips to attend two technical conferences. He had attended similar conferences throughout the world, particularly in Western Europe. During the 1986 trip to China, Lee's wife was actually working as an informant for the FBI to spy on mainland Chinese scientists. Nonetheless, on the same Saturday morning that the Times story broke, the FBI called in "the suspect" for questioning. Time reported that this time they "turned up the heat." By Sunday night, Lee, who had never before asked for counsel, finally stopped talking to investigators. A friend of Lee's later told Time that Lee's two-day ordeal had left him bewildered.

The next day, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered that Lee be fired from Los Alamos for failing to report contacts with officials from "sensitive" countries (that is, for not having disclosed meeting a Chinese scientist on one of his early trips to China) and for giving deceptive answers (he had earlier failed a polygraph test regarding his possible mishandling of computer files). As if proof of espionage had been predetermined, Richardson told the Washington Post, "We are still trying to pin down exactly when the information was passed." Meanwhile, with Washington abuzz over Wen Ho Lee and Democrats bracing for yet another potentially embarrassing scandal, Republicans quickly resurrected two bills promoting ballistic missile defense that were voted down last year. Thanks to a reversal of opposition from the Administration and key Democrats, the bills passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and House.

As cooler heads began to prevail and the evidence against Lee began to appear as thin as it was, a new reason to suspect the scientist emerged, again through an article written by James Risen and Jeff Gerth and again based on illegal leaks about the ongoing investigation. The April 28 article, titled "U.S. Says Suspect Put Code on Bombs in Unsecure Files," said officials charged that Lee, "who held one of the Government's highest security clearances, had been transferring enormous files involving millions of lines of secret computer code," code "used to design nuclear weapons." The Times reported that "the huge scale of the security breach has shocked some officials." Republican Senator Richard Shelby was quoted as saying the evidence "confirmed my worst fears." Bill Richardson, now using Lee's name as an adjective, justified a decision to temporarily shut down computer systems at Los Alamos in the wake of the disclosures by saying "these Wen Ho Lee transgressions cannot occur anymore." On May 10 Time echoed this story, reporting that investigators had found that between 1994 and 1995 Lee was "surreptitiously downloading millions of lines of classified code from the lab's top-secret computer database and storing the codes on the hard drive of his personal office computer," and that the codes "could have found their way into scores of foreign hands."

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