GAO: U.S. Troops Vulnerable to Chem/Bio Attack


Democrats opposing a possible invasion of Iraq cited those problems as more reason to oppose President Bush’s request for a congressional go-ahead for the use of military force. Bush accuses Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of stockpiling chemical and biological weapons in violation of U.N. resolutions demanding that Iraq disarm.

“Are we exposing our men and women at this point to contamination, … knowing that we cannot protect them?” asked Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif. “I’m not going to support going blindly into warfare that could result in great bodily harm to our fighting men and women.”

Investigators from the General Accounting Office and the Pentagon’s inspector general said the military has problems keeping track of its protective gear, supplying enough protective equipment to troops and training them in how to work in a contaminated environment.

“The survival of our service members and military operations in a chemical or biological environment may be at risk,” Raymond Decker of the GAO told a House Government Reform national security subcommittee hearing.

Decker and Joseph Schmitz, the Defense Department inspector general, said their reports on problems with chemical and biological protection were largely classified. They cited these unclassified details:

·The Defense Department has not accounted for up to 250,000 defective protective suits. Military officials told the panel there was a low risk those suits would be used in combat.

·The military has shortages of some important protective gear and has not met internal requirements for the number of full protective ensembles, which include gas masks, hoods, suits, boots and gloves.

·Many units have had insufficient training in how to deal with chemical or biological attacks, and the military has implemented only recently requirements that units submit reports on their chemical and biological training. Marine Corps and Air Force training is “more robust” than Army and Navy training, Schmitz said.

The Defense Department recalled almost 800,000 protective suits in 2000 after warnings from internal investigators about defects including holes, improper stitching and embedded foreign objects in the fabric. All were made by a bankrupt New York company, Istratex, whose top officials later pleaded guilty to federal charges.

The Defense Logistics Agency has accounted for about 550,000 of the defective suits, agency official George Allen told the House panel. The agency has offered free shipping and has sent reminder notices to military commanders as recently as a month ago to recover the defective suits, Allen said.

He and Army Maj. Gen. William Bond, a chemical and biological defense official, said remaining defective suits probably would not be in the hands of front-line units.

The military currently has about 4.5 million sets of protective gear, including 1.5 million of the latest version, known as the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology, or JSLIST.

All four military services have shortages of some items, Decker said, and the shortages are to worsen as older equipment passes expiration dates, he said.

Pentagon officials also said training has improved for chemical and biological attacks. Officers in Central Command — the regional command that covers Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding areas — are particularly keen to ensure their troops are trained and equipped for chemical or biological warfare, inspector general Schmitz said.

Training has been inadequate for other units, Decker said. Commanders are often reluctant to have troops train with protective gear because it is time-consuming and restricts the soldiers’ abilities to do their jobs, he said.

“I’m not convinced that the realism and degree of training that has to happen … is taking place,” Decker said.

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