Army stockpiles, destroys WMD antidotes in Iraq

U.S. soldiers train for attacks using auto-injected antidotes. U.S. soldiers train for attacks using auto-injected antidotes. Chip East/Landov
Despite not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq for the past four years, the Army still sends to the war zone -- and later destroys -- millions of dollars worth of antidotes that soldiers would take in case they are attacked by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, according to internal Army documents obtained by Government Executive.

The policy is a leftover from when the Bush administration believed Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which include chemical and biological agents. But no such weapons have been found since the war started in March 2003.

The antidote kits -- which contain treatments for nerve gas along with injectors, antibiotics to fight anthrax and drugs to reduce the effects of radiation exposure -- are no longer given to soldiers when they arrive in Iraq. The Army stores the kits, called Individual Service Member Medical Chemical Defense Materiel, in locked military vans "without being issued to the individual soldier. In addition, millions of dollars worth of [the kits] are incinerated annually in Iraq," according to the briefing documents prepared by the Army Medical Department. "Current theater policy is to incinerate all [kits] prior to redeployment." The documents do not put an exact dollar value on the kits.

The briefing was given to top commanders by the Task Force 3 Medical Command, the senior medical command operating in Iraq.

Dave Foster, an Army spokesman, said the service's policy is "to issue the [kits] to each unit prior to deployment, and ensure all unused [kits are] turned in prior to the unit's redeployment for destruction." Foster declined to answer other questions because the briefing documents were stamped "For Official Use Only."

Cynthia Vaughn, a spokeswoman with the Army Medical Department, declined to answer queries for the same reason. The U.S. Central Command, which sets overall policy for the Iraq theater, did not respond to questions about why the Army incinerates the kits.

According to a supply bulletin issued by the Army Medical Materiel Agency, much of the materiel in the kits -- including the atropine injectors and the antibiotics -- should be stored in a controlled temperature setting between 59 and 86 degrees. Army spokesman Foster said the components "expire after 12 to 15 months in an uncontrolled temperature environment, such as the Southwest Asian desert," which includes Iraq, where temperatures routinely drop below 59 in winter and exceed 100 in summer.

The supply bulletin directs the Army to return all kits that were stored correctly to stock, unless theater or command policy specifies otherwise. Assets that were maintained in central storage (not issued to individuals) and under unknown storage conditions or were outside prescribed storage temperatures must be destroyed, according to the bulletin.

Philip Coyle, senior adviser with the Center for Defense Information, a security policy research organization in Washington, said he views the incineration as a waste of taxpayer dollars. At the very least, he said, the Army should take steps to store the kits correctly.

Coyle, who served as assistant secretary of Defense and director of its operational test and evaluation office from 1994 to 2001, believes the Army's decision to keep shipping the kits to Iraq is a direct result of assertions by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD and "insinuations since by Vice President [Dick] Cheney and others that WMD might still be found. Accordingly, it wouldn't be surprising if no one in the Army has wanted to raise the policy issue of why are we still sending these kits to Iraq," Coyle said.

Ivan Oelrich, vice president for strategic security programs at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, said that continuing to ship the kits to Iraq is a rational policy just in case "some terrorist gets hold of ten gallons of nerve gas." The political repercussions of a nerve gas attack against unprotected U.S. troops would be severe, he added.

But, Oelrich said, if the Army continues to ship the kits to Iraq, "it has to be more than symbolic. . . . [They have] to be stored and managed correctly." Just storing the kits does not protect troops, Coyle argued. "If the insurgents actually disbursed chemical or biological agents, U.S. soldiers would die since they don't have the kits close by," he said.

The Army, Coyle added, could argue that there is a "logistical advantage in lead time to have the kits in Iraq [instead of in the United States], even though the kits are not being distributed to the troops." But he said "this argument would not hold water unless the scenario assumed that a first insurgent attack with chemical or biological agents would be followed by other attacks. And in this scenario the Army would essentially be sacrificing the first to die, and then -- only after they died -- be distributing kits to other soldiers in anticipation of future attacks. I can't imagine the Army would operate this way if they really believed there was a credible threat."

The Task Force 3 Medical Command briefing recommended the Army Medical Department conduct a threat analysis of the Iraq theater of operations to determine the requirements for current antidote kits and consider employing regional contingency stocks to meet those requirements.

The specific antidotes and drugs contained in the kits include:

  • Atropine, an antinerve gas agent loaded in what the Army calls an antidote treatment nerve agent auto-injector.
  • 500mg tablets of ciprofloxacin, the generic name for the drug developed by Bayer Pharmaceutical to treat individuals exposed to the inhalant form of anthrax bacteria.
  • 5mg tablets of diazepam, the generic name for Valium, to counter convulsions caused by nerve gas.
  • 30mg tablets of pyridostigmine bromide, which is used to treat soldiers exposed to nerve gas.
  • Potassium iodide tablets, which can be used to treat troops exposed to radiation.
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