The USSR is concealing the truth about an anthrax epidemic at Sverdlovsk last year that probably involved Soviet violation of a 1975 treaty against manufacturing biological weapons, according to intelligence reports released by a congressional committee June 30.
Critics of the Carter administration, led by US Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, are charging that the administration's awkward handling of news about a reported explosion in a Sverdlovsk germ-warfare research laboratory that allegedly led to hundreds of Soviet casualties has made it more difficult to get at the truth.
In comments prepared for delivery on the House floor June 30, Congressman Aspin agreed with findings of the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Housing Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that there is strong evidence "the Soviets have cheated" on the biological weapons treaty.
However, Mr. Aspin agrees with the subcommittee's majority report that absolves the Carter administration from allegations that it played politics with the Sverdlovsk germ-warfare information. Some critics have charged that the administration withheld the information from the Us public until all hope for the ratification of the SALT II treaty by the Senate had been lost in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The committee's ranking Republican member, Rep. John M. Ashbrook of Ohio, and Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R) of Florida, added the opinion that the US should sign no arms-control treaties with the Soviets "unless they are self-enforcing or if we have the capability to fully monitor them through our intelligence agencies or with on-site inspection.
The committee document and a related, earlier account of the Sverdlosk affair by the Public Interest Report of the Federation of American Scientists, disclose the following sequence of events:
* In 1972, the US and the Soviets signed the biological weapons convention. Signers are bound "never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain" germ-warfare agents "of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes."
* The US intelligence community began collecting information on suspected Soviet germ-warfare facilities, including one called Laboratory No. 19 near Sverdlovsk. Travelers from the USSR and one Soviet Defector, indentified as "Mr. Popovsky," reported that in April 1979 an explosion there released clouds of anthrax bacteria spores, and that hundreds of fatalities resulted from inhaling the spores.
* On Feb. 19, 1980, the Soviet news agency Tass denied anything had happened in Sverdlovsk, calling published reports about the anthrax epidemic "malicious inventions." But on March 19 Tass conceded there had been a natural epidemic. It said diseased meat had brought on the epidemic. The Soviet government formally told the US the same thing March 20.
* Meanwhile, on March 17, as Mr. Aspin points out, the US had approached the Soviets privately, reminding them of the obligation to consult on such matters under the 1975 treaty.
Before the Soviets had a chance to respond privately, the US then went public in a State Department comment, during a conference in Geneva to review progress on the treaty. The result of this was the indignant Soviet response of March 19 . This looks to some administration critics, including Mr. Aspin, as though "we intended to embarrass the Soviets and to make political capital out of the incident rather than to resolve it."