Army's `Harmless' Tests

REVELATIONS of decades-old experiments using radioactive materials on unwitting human subjects have been disturbing enough. But the United States Army's biological warfare experiments with unsuspecting civilian populations are even more repugnant and indefensible.

Clearly, the hubris that disregarded human rights in the name of national security or scientific knowledge in the radiation experiments was not an aberration. The system that is supposed to safeguard citizens from becoming unknowing guin-ea pigs needs an overhaul.

Like the work with radioisotopes, the experiments using microbes got under way after World War II. In the 1950s and '60s, they included release of bacterial and fungal agents over cities and in such crowded areas as Washington National Airport and the New York City subway. This kind of blatant contamination of public places reportedly has stopped. But the Army apparently still conducts open-air tests of biological agents at its Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, even though winds might carry them to nearby Salt Lake City.

For its part, the Army has maintained that it uses ``simulant materials,'' meaning ``harmless'' microbes used to simulate the spread and persistence of deadly biological agents. But ``harmless'' is a relative term. Political scientist Leonard Cole of Rutgers University, who has investigated the subject, has noted that some of the agents are known to cause health problems.

Congressional investigations and Clinton administration studies that are looking into the radioisotope experiments must broaden their scope. They must study human experimentation generally, especially where it was conducted secretly. It has been too easy for misguided officials to sanction experiments that, if they had been conducted openly, would have shocked the public and been legally forbidden.

This issue is fundamental to American democracy. It involves the basic trust between citizens and their government which constitutes the foundation on which the government rests. The US needs a clearly defined system to regulate human experimentation, one that will accommodate legitimate research but will prevent - with tough sanctions - the disregard of human rights and public safety that the biological experiments have involved.

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