U.S. Weighed Radioactive Poisons
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Early in the Cold War, the U.S. Army explored the potential for using radioactive poisons to assassinate "important individuals" such as military or civilian leaders, according to newly declassified documents.
Approved at the highest levels of the Army in 1948, the effort was a well-hidden part of the military's pursuit of a "new concept of warfare," using radioactive materials from atomic-bomb production to contaminate swaths of enemy land or to target military bases, factories or troop formations.
Military historians who have researched the broader radiological warfare program said in interviews that they had never before seen evidence that it included pursuit of an assassination weapon. Targeting public figures in such attacks is not unheard of; last year an unknown assailant used a tiny amount of radioactive polonium-210 to kill Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London.
No targeted individuals are mentioned in references to the assassination weapon in the government documents, declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Associated Press in 1995.
The decades-old records were released recently, heavily censored by the government to remove specifics about radiological warfare agents and other details. The censorship reflects concern that the potential for using radioactive poisons as a weapon is more than a historic footnote; it is believed to be sought by present-day terrorists bent on attacking U.S. targets.
The documents give no indication whether a radiological weapon for targeting high-ranking individuals was ever used or even developed by the United States. There is no clear indication how far the Army project went. One memo from December 1948 outlined the project, and another memo that month indicated it was underway. The main sections of several subsequent progress reports in 1949 were removed by censors before release to the AP.
The broader effort on offensive uses of radiological warfare apparently died by about 1954, at least in part because of the Defense Department's conviction that nuclear weapons were a better bet.
Whether the work migrated to another agency, such as the CIA, is unclear. The project was given final approval in November 1948 and began the following month, one year after the CIA's creation in 1947.
Assassination of foreign figures by agents of the U.S. government was not explicitly outlawed until President Gerald R. Ford signed an executive order in 1976 in response to revelations that the CIA had plotted in the 1960s to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro, including by poisoning.