Bugged by the Net
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 27, 1999
If someday, somewhere, U.S. troops face a battlefield enemy who employs anthrax bacteriological weapons, Secretary of Defense William Cohen will be a God.
That's a big if.
The Secretary has been the driving force behind the Pentagon's Anthrax Vaccination Immunization Policy (AVIP), a May 1998 decision to start 2.4 million men and woman in uniform on a six-shot regimen to protect them from the most commonplace biological weapon. According to the Pentagon, a total of 339,837 are already enrolled (that is, they have received anywhere from one to six shots).
Both sides are waging battle over the Internet to issue their positions, and my Email in-box is filled with pleas from vets and activists to cover what they say is a tale of soldiers being used as guinea pigs.
Not So Secret Agent
Anthrax is an infectious bacterial disease spread by contact with animals and their feces. Bacillus anthracis can also kill humans, and consequently, it has been in the cookbooks of biological warriors for decades. Colorless, odorless and tasteless, anthrax spores retained in the lungs have been shown to kill more than 90 per cent of untreated victims. Death from hemorrhage, respiratory failure and toxic shock follows within a few days.
Invigorated by post-Cold War international anarchy, the Pentagon calls anthrax the "top choice in biological weapons for germ warfare." Sometimes it cites 10 countries, sometimes 12, sometimes 16, as having "developed or weaponized" the agents. According to an Air Force newsletter on the Web, "Saddam Hussein has stockpiled ... 2000 gallons of the deadly bacteria - and their delivery systems."
Charles L. Cragin, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness says "we have a moral obligation to provide our personnel with the best protection available from all anticipated threats - anthrax is one of those threats; the threat is real and growing; and the vaccine offers safe and effective protection."
Central to the controversy is whether Cohen's scheme is safe and effective. The Centers for Disease Control reports a 93 perfect effectiveness in protecting against anthrax, with "systemic reactions" occurring in fewer than 0.2 percent of recipients. In the 1990s, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) , of approximately 1.5 million doses of anthrax vaccine administered, there have been 215 reports of "adverse events," of which 22 are considered serious.
Follow the Links
"Arm Yourself Against Anthrax," says the expensive-looking Defense Department Web site promoting vaccination. The site was created after Cragin's boss, undersecretary Rudy DeLeon, visited the troops in Kuwait, only to be grilled by soldiers about the dangers of the vaccination. They told DeLeon that they had heard about the dangers from the modern grapevine, the Web.
Says Army Maj. Guy Strawder, the AVIP webmaster cum advocate: "Much of the hand-wringing and bizarre allegations about the vaccine is coming from a vocal minority of people who think "the 'field' is where a farmer works and 'Gortex' is one of the Power Rangers."
Strawder laments his lack of resources: "The problem is that you're not getting a steady flow of information from the Department of Defense side, but you are getting it from the other side, it starts to plant a seed of doubt."
"The Pentagon just doesn't know how to respond to soldiers who have ready access to accurate information that conflicts with the official position, so they brand it as 'Internet disinformation,'" says an activist reservist who asked not to be named.
A Bigger Headache
Though one could raise fundamental questions about the likelihood of anthrax use, and there are a dozen other biological agents that adversaries will now likely pursue with greater rigor given universal anthrax vaccination, the two sides are locked in a more fundamental debate.
I myself got a headache trying to sort out all of the twists and turns of their dispute. The Internet may be a great advance because we can all share headaches now, but for every unimpeachable scientific study proponents offer, opponents produce challenging counters. No where is there any sense of proportion regarding the conflicting risks.
What is particularly depressing about the anthrax war is that neither side can acknowledge they might be wrong.
In their Web contest between Brand X and Brand Y, the two sides battle as if it were a legal case between an environmental watchdog and some corporate polluter motivated solely by profit.
But this is the Pentagon versus its own service members. It is a depressing window into the breakdown of discipline and basic confidence in the political and military leadership. That has nothing to do with the Web.
William M. Arkin can be reached for comment at email@example.com