LAST WEEK the State Department released a long-promised report summarizing the evidence it believes proves that the Soviet Union is waging chemical war in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. Publication of the report is a welcome step toward a more effective government effort to raise international consciousness on this subject.
There is little new in the document. Most of the information contained in it has been released in different forms and forums over the past few years. But the digestion of voluminous refugee reports and organization of the military, intelligence and scientific data into a single, compact report, shorn of the misstatements that have marred earlier pronouncements, is a definite advance. The sum of the available evidence-- though much of it remains flimsy on its own--makes a compelling case that chemical agents are being used, though which agents and by whom is less clear.
Although much more carefully written than previous statements, this one unwisely ignores the inconsistencies and unanswerable questions raised by the findings. The reader is led to believe that no troubling questions have been raised, that there have been no unexpected findings and that all expected evidence has been found. The report does not address, or even recognize, questions raised by scientists, refugee workers and others since the findings were first made public.
Among these unresolved puzzles is the question of whether trichothocene toxins do or do not cause massive hemorrhaging. The report itself is inconsistent on this question. Also in need of further explanation is how concentrations of the toxins in the range of what has been found could be lethal to man. They appear to be far too low to cause death.
The report would have been strengthened, not weakened, by a candid discussion of these and other problems. Collecting this sort of information in the field often produces confusing and even misleading data. Working under wartime conditions makes everything correspondingly harder. No one expects the evidence to be watertight. Ignoring the contradictions and gaps only serves to undermine the government's case when others point them out.
This report helps to buttress the government's prior claims. More needs to be done. Conclusive proof of Soviet culpability and clear identification of the chemical agents being used have not yet been produced--at least publicly. When both have been produced, the job of stopping this inexcusable warfare should shift to the top of the international agenda.