Aberdeen, MD

The thirteen self-declared “citizen weapons inspectors” marching down a rain-swept road just outside Baltimore knew they weren’t going to be allowed inside the US military’s Aberdeen Proving Ground. But they also knew the media would watch them try, and then ask them why.

So they wore light-blue baseball caps, a nod to the blue helmets of United Nations peacekeeping forces, and a nice touch for the television cameras. They included members of Parliament from Britain, Canada, Italy and Denmark, and a few American citizens, and claimed to have the backing of another 25,000 “honorary inspectors” who had sent messages of support via the group’s website.

They had a polite exchange with the base’s public affairs officer, George Mercer (a man who introduced himself to me as a loyal reader of The Nation, something he laughingly noted put him to the left of many in the military). They ignored the less-polite pair of counterprotesters farther down the highway, who shouted to them with a megaphone, “Supporters of genocidal dictators, go home! Take the French with you!” And afterwards, noting the television coverage on CNN and even an article in the Washington Post, they declared it a small victory.

The inspections effort was organized by a Toronto-based coalition of peace groups called Rooting Out Evil. The group says it used the Bush Administration’s own criteria for identifying the United States as a nation in need of independent inspections:

“According to those criteria, the most dangerous states are those run by leaders who:

1) have massive stockpiles of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons;
2) ignore due process at the United Nations;
3) refuse to sign and honour international treaties; and
4) have come to power through illegitimate means.”

Alan Simpson, a member of the British Parliament, said the group supported and advocated UN-run inspections of the weapons stockpiles of both Iraq and the United States. Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project –an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit that seeks to bring facts about biological weapons to light –said UN inspections would in fact be far preferable to a baker’s dozen of private citizens knocking futilely on the military’s door. “But the US has worked to prevent that from ever happening in the UN,” Hammond said.

It’s an intriguing question. Why can’t we have independent inspections of the US military’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons stocks? In the year 2003, American citizens still don’t know exactly how many nuclear weapons our nation possesses (we’ve only got good numbers for ICBM-mounted nukes, because those were governed by US-Soviet arms control agreements). Why can’t Congress, or some other representative of the people, conduct and publish independent audits? Our government admits it holds quantities of anthrax and other biological agents; it says the amounts are small and necessary only for developing and testing defenses against such agents, and this is probably true; but again, why must Americans, and the rest of the world, take the government’s word without question?

Nor is this just an academic point about respecting democracy or the rest of the world. As Hammond notes, other nations look at our truculent secrecy regarding our own weapons-of-mass-destruction-related programs and draw conclusions. Conclusions like: The Americans are developing things in secret; probably we should be, too.