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The case is not proved: "yellow rain." (charges of Soviet use of chemical warfare)

In September 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused "the Soviet Union and its allies in Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea and Afghanistan" of employing a new breed of chemical warfare agent--mycotoxins, or "yellow rain." The charge was a serious one: the violation of two major treaties banning such warfare. Yet the evidence Haig and his successor, George Shultz, have offered to substantiate it does not stand up to close scrutiny. Not only is the evidence flawed and inconclusive; it also belies scientific fact, as well as military and political reality in Southeast Asia.

Reports of yellow-rain attacks first surfaced in 1977 after Hmong hill people who had fled from Laos into Thailand, some of whom were carrying on guerrilla actions, told journalists that Laotian Communists, the Pathet Lao, were using a toxic gas against them. The methods of delivery were variously characterized as rockets, aerial spray or bombs. The refugees said the substance emitted produced eye irritation, dizziness, bloody coughing, vomiting and diarrhea. Many deaths were reported. Descriptions of the substance differed. It was generally described as yellow, though some witnesses said it was red, blue, green or white. Some refugees recalled seeing a fine mist, others spoke of yellow raindrops, and still others said it took the form of particles about the size of a grain of rice and sounded like rain when it fell on their roofs.

The wide range of reported agents and symptoms baffled chemical warfare experts, since they did not correspond to any known chemical. The State Department, however, was not deterred by the inconclusiveness of the evidence.

In a speech in West Berlin, Secretary Haig claimed that the United States possessed "physical evidence from Southeast Asia" containing "abnormally high levels of three potent mycotoxins--poisonous substances not indigenous to the region." The physical evidence he mentioned consisted of two fragments of a single leaf weighing 0.4 grams. The mycotoxins were present in minuscule quanities.

Despite two State Department white papers and numerous statements by officials aimed at swaying public opinion in this country and abroad, the allegations regarding the use of yellow rain remain unproved. Indeed, after a sustained assault from scientists, journalists and other investigators, the evidence seems as fragile as Secretary Haig's leaf sample.

The U.S. government's evidence is of three kinds: scientific data procured in Southeast Asia, consisting of organic material allegedly contaminated by mycotoxins, as well as blood and tissue specimens from people allegedly exposed to them; refugee reports; and information from secret intelligence sources. Since much doubt has been cast on evidence in the first two categories, the State Department has come to rely increasingly on that in the third, which is not subject to public scrutiny. Scientific Evidence

Although the department claims that the United States obtained more than 350 samples from sites of alleged chemical attack, independent scientists have often been thwarted in their attempts to examine them. For months after the Haig speech, the department refused to divulge the source of the samples or the level of toxins found in them. The truth is that in only five of the government's environmental samples--comprising leaf fragements, scrapings from rocks and pond water--was the presence of toxins indicated by laboratory tests, and the accuracy of those tests has been questioned. Those five samples--the State Department's "smoking gun" of a massive Soviet chemical warfare campaign--have a combined weight of less than a large aspirin, 500 milligrams.

The tests were conducted by a single facility, a private laboraptory run by Chester Mirocha of the University of Minnesota. No one has been able to confirm them. The sample in which Mirocha reported finding the highest level of toxins was analyzed a year later by the Army's Chemical Research and Development Center at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and no toxins were detected. After testing more than eighty other samples, the Army lab has yet to find any toxins. U.N., Canadian and Australian laboratories have also been unable to detect toxins in their own yellow-rain samples.

The State Department tried to discredit those independent tests by pointing out that analyzing mycotoxins is difficult and requires highly sophisticated techniques. Yet Mirocha's methods have yielded questionable results. When he analyzed the two halves of the leaf sample mentioned by Haig, he found different amounts and ratios of toxins in each. Another of the five samples he tested, obtained at the same alleged attack site as the leaf, did not contain two of the toxins reportedly found in the leaf sample. (Mirocha declined to answer any questions regarding his research.)

An issue nnow partially superseded by doubts regarding Mirocha's results is whether the toxins detected in the environmental samples could be natural contaminants. These mycotoxins are the natural byproducts of several species of Fusarium fungi, which are often associated with moldy grain. The question is whether the levels and combinations of toxins reportedly found in the samples could have occurred naturally in Southeast Asia or only in Soviet laboratories. contrary to what the government originally said, the Fusarium fungi are found in Southeast Asia. The State Department contends that since control samples of various materials from the region did not contain mycotoxins, the poisons must have come from outside the area. Lois Ember of Chemical and Engineering News Discovered that only nine control samples were offered in evidence, and all of them had been unscientifically collected. Lieut. Col. Charles Lane, who was assistant Army attache in Bangkok, Thailand, from 1980 to 1983 and was responsible for gathering much of the evidence on yellow rain, described to me how some of the control samples were obtained: "Basically, my Thai counterpart asked the Khmer Rouge to produce some rice, water and things. Twenty minutes later I was given a bag of rice and some water."

Only one idenpendently and tested sample has been reported to contain mycotoxins. Acquired by ABC News, it was analyzed by Joseph Rosen of Rutgers University. Rosen also claimed to have discovered the synthetic chemical solvent polyethylene glycol (PEG) in the sample which, the State Department contends, is further confirmation that yellow rain is not of natural origin. No other laboratory has confirmed Rosen's finding of PEG. Furthermore, according to Cyrus Levinthal of Columbia University's Biology department, since PEG is an extremely common substance in rubber and plastic products and in detergents, the ABC News sample could have been contaminated either during its collection or in the laboratory. "In my lab," Levinthal told me, "if a student came up finding PEG, I would tell him to go clean glassware."

All the government's samples could have been contaminated because of the uncontrolled manner in which they were collected and analyzed. Colonel Lane says that virtually every purported yellow-rain sample, no matter how bizarre, was routinely accepted in Washington with no questions asked about its provenance. Of the five positive environmental samples, two came from the Khmer Rouge, according to Lane, while the mercenary magazine soldier of Fortune claims responsibility for producing one sample from Laos.

Because State Department officials refuse to specify how those samples were found--to "protect our methods and sources and other assets," they say--intentional contamination cannot be ruled out. In 1982 a U.N. team investigating charges of chemical warfare in Southeast asia reported that a refugee leader in Thailand made a crude attempt to deceive it with a sample composed of sand and insecticide.

The remaining scientific evidence adduced by the government, blood and tissue specimens taken from alleged victims, reportedly contain trace amounts of mycotoxins. The centerpiece is Mirocha's analysis of tissue samples from a dead Khmer Rouge soldier. But Huguette Cohen, a research scientist with the Canadian government who accepts the State Department's allegations that the Communists used yellow rain, recently analyzed samples from the same tissues and found no toxins. Of the approximately one hundred blood samples drawn from alleged victims, only twenty were reported positive for mycotoxins. All came from Mirocha's lab.

Furthermore, many scientists are puzzled that mycotoxins could be detected in blood from refugees who were supposedly exposed to yellow rain weeks before the samples were taken. Even the State Department admits in its November 1982 white paper that "most of the toxin would normally be expected to be excreted within 48 hours of exposure." The department gets around that difficulty by making the unsupported assertion that the mycotoxins are stored in certain body tissues and released later.

A stir was caused last spring when Matthew Meselson, a Harvard University biochemist, and Thomas Seeley, a Yale University biologist, contended that yellow rain might be the feces of honeybees. Seeley is an expert on bees, and Meselson has been a consultant on chemical warfare to the State Department, the Defense Department and other government agencies for more than twenty years. If there actually were mycotoxins in the samples of yellow rain, Meselson and Seeley suggest, they would have been caused by Fusarium fungi growing on the pollen in the bee feces. Canadian and Thai investigators discovered that most of the material in the yellow rain is pollen. They reached that conclusion by using a microscope, an instrument the government scientists inexplicably failed to employ. Every sample Meselson, the Canadians and others examined with a microscope, including the ABC News sample, was practically identical to bee feces in color, pollen content and general weight. Some contained bee hairs. In a May article in Nature, Meselson and Joan Nowicke, a pollen expert with the Smithsonian Institution, concluded that because the pollen in bee droppings comes from a variety of local plants and because no two spots of yellow rain are exactly alike, the yellow matter brought in by the Hmong is probably bee feces.

Moreover, while collecting specimens in Thailand, Meselson, Seeley and Phongthep Akratanakul, a bee expert at Kasetsart University in Thailand, were caught in a five-minute shower of bee feces. a swarm of bees flying too high to be seen splattered them and their Land-Rover. They counted more than 200 yellow droppings per square yard over a large area. Such showers are the result of periodic bee cleansing flights and can last up to five minutes, covering large areas. They occur primarily in the dry season, the period in which most yellow rain attacks are reported. Meselson and Seeley suggest that the showers are the source of the yellow rain described by the Hmong refugees. When shown leaves splattered with bee feces, many of the refugees remarked, "Chemie," one local term for chemical warfare agents. Refugee Accounts

Refugee accounts have figured prominently in State Department claims that yellow rain is being employed by the Pathet Lao (assisted by the Vietnamese and the Russians) in a genocidal campaign intended to punish the Hmong for their support of the Americans during the Vietnam War. On examination, however, many of those accounts collapse under their own weight.

It should first be pointed out that the Hmong did not unanimously back the American war effort. U.S. saturation bombing and herbicide attacks designed to drive civilians out of Pathet Lao areas polarized an already divided Hmong community. Approximately one-third of the 300,000 Hmong in Laos banded together with other ethnic minorities to form the backbone of the Pathet Lao forces. Another one-third sided with the C.I.A.-financed "secret army" under the leadership of Gen. Vang Pao. The remaining Hmong were neutral. After the Pathet Lao victory in 1975, Vang Pao and some of his supporters fled to Thailand. Others from the secret army resisted from the remote Phu Bia region until their defeat by Laotian and Vietnamese forces in 1979. Those forces are the prime source of stories about yellow rain.

Practically all the stories emanate from two refugee camps run by former officers of Vang Pao's army; significantly, no accounts of yellow rain have originated in three smaller Hmong camps which are not controlled by the officers. (Khmer Rouge accounts, which began only after the Hmong reports were widely publicized, are generally suspect.)

At the two main Hmong camps, Ban Vinai and Nong Khai, almost all interviews with alleged victims, whether conducted by representatives of the United States, the United Nations or the press, were monitored by the camp hierarchy. The bulk of the U.S. government's accounts were gathered by Colonel Lane and a State Department officer between 1979 and 1983. according to Lane, if the camp leader was not present, "the interpreter, who was number three or four in the [camp] echelon, would be there." Due to time pressures, there was no standard procedure for cross-checking accounts of members of the same village or even the same family, he told me. Two had no alternative but to question some 130 refugees on a parttime basis.

Christina Szanton, an anthropologist at Columbia University and a specialist on Thai culture, did cross-check the stories, however. She concluded that they "lacked internal consistency." Szanton faults the interviewers for not being aware that "there is a real potential for distortion when asking classical leading questions of preselected interviewees." Compounding the problem is the fact that such questions are asked "in the presence of the Hmong leadership, which is psychologically committed to perpetuating yellow rain stories." Szanton emphasizes that while she does not think the Hmong are lying, when they are aware an authority figure desires particular information, "they will give what they feel is the appropriate response." Lane acknowledges that with the early reports, "trying to make sense out of these things was incredible. You and [stories of] large magnets pulling guns out of people's hands [and] huge rifles which were simply impossible."

An example of the exaggerations that have occurred in the rumor-ridden Ban Vinai camp was provided by roger Rumpf and Jacqui Chagnon, members of the American Friends Service Committee who worked in Laos from 1978 to 1981 and are fluent in Lao. In early 1983, while conducting a six-week investigation of yellow rain both in Laos and in the refugee camps, they interviewed a husband and wife separately. The husband, who had fought against the Pathet Lao and the Vietnamese in the post-1975 resistance, said he had witnessed numerous chemical warfare attacks by Soviet planes which had caused many deaths. As evidence, he pointed to a skin rash on his hand. Camp doctors told rumpf and Chagnon that they were treating him for ring-worm. The man's wife, who said she was with him throughout the resistance, said she had not seen yellow rain or planes or dying people, only some yellow powder on the ground, which she said she believed had caused another family to become ill.

The United Nations' investigating team reported that while it had "no reason to doubt the integrity" of the people it had interviewed, "there were clear discrepancies" in their accounts. It noted:

In many cases, the persons involved only heard the passage of an aircraft but did not visually observe the aircraft. A few testimonials only referred to the sudden appearance of yellow spots without mentioning of [sic] any aircraft or other delivery system. Very few of those interviewed claimed to have observed actual dissemination of material from an aircraft.

Even Colonel Lane regards the refugee accounts as circumstantial evidence at best. Although he believes that "something very odd is going on out there," after three years of collecting evidence, he says, "The jury is still out."

The State Department's claim that attacks of yellow rain are part of a Communist genocide plan is also contradicted by the fact that many Hmong leaders who had joined the Pathet Lao hold important posts in the Laotian government and military, while also wielding considerable power on the provincial level. In the Plain of Jars region, where the majority of the attacks are alleged to have taken place, the provincial chairman, the military and police commanders, and other officials are all Hmong.

Furthermore, none of the scores of persons who oversee foreign-aid projects in Laos have confirmed reports of yellow rain. Rumpf and Chagnon say emphatically, "We never heard any firsthand stories, nor did anyone working in the foreign community, including the American Embassy, Swedish, Dutch, Australian and U.N. personnel." Australian sociologist Grant Evans, accompanied by John Hanoush, the political affairs officer at the Australian Embassy, tracked down accounts of yellow rain in Laos and concluded, in his book The Yellow Rainmakers, that they were based on "idle rumor and speculation."

Last year Rumpf and Chagnon interviewed dozens of Hmong from more than ten villages, all alleged attack sites. The stories they were told directly contradict those of former Vang Pao soldiers in Ban Vinai. Surprisingly, a few of the Hmong, including a Pathet Lao government official, said they had seen yellow rain but firmly denied that aircraft or other military equipment was involved in its dissemination. One Hmong government official, who stated that "yellow poison is real and kills," considered it a puzzling health problem of unknown origin. Clearly, government officials were not attempting to cover up the possible use of chemical weapons.

Laotian medical personnel and some Western physicians working in refugee camps say that deaths caused by a combination of poor sanitary conditions and widespread disease are attributed to yellow rain because of superstitions and people's memories of American toxic spraying. The Hmong, like other anamistic Southeast Asian peoples, often attribute disease to supernatural causes. "For the Hmong," says Szanton, "memories are kept through mythmaking and oral traditions. Since much of their life has been influenced by things coming from the sky, it is not surprising that the Hmong now associate illness and yellow spots on vegetation with passing aircraft."

The Hmong live in the most heavily bombed country in recent history. From 1964 to 1973 U.S. aircraft dropped approximately 300,000 tons of bombs on the Plain of Jars--an estimated two tons of bombs for every person living there. According to the recently declassified Air Force study "Operation Ranch Hand," between 1965 and 1969 more than 160,000 acres in norther Laos were sprayed with almost 400,000 gallons of Agent Orange. Back then, Laotians used the term "yellow rain" to refer to American defoliants. A Hmong supporter of the Pathet Lao told Rumpf and Chagnon that U.S. planes sprayed "chemical poison" which destroyed rice, produced symptoms like those currently reported and killed fifteen people. A Hmong supporter of Vang Pao described to National Geographic a spraying that destroyed an opium crop and resulted in several deaths in 1972 or 1973. Also influencing the outlook of some Hmong are Radio Free Asia and Voice of America broadcasts. One Hmong in Laos told Rumpf and Chagnon that a 1982 Radio Free Asia broadcast attributed 16,000 deaths to yellow rain.

The State Department and most of the media have a selective memory when it comes to those earlier refugee claims of illness and death due to American chemical agents. If Hmong refugee accounts cited by the State Department are to be believed, eyewitness testimony of earlier alleged chemical attacks must be dealt with. Intelligence Information

As the credibility of the State Department's scientific evidence and refugee accounts weakened, officials took to claiming that the United States had other confirmation, from "national technical sources." Thus, Col. James Leonard of the bureau of Politico-Military Affairs has asserted: "This is not a scientific problem of the first order. It is basically an arms control monitoring function, which is an intelligence function ... and a forensic science function."

Officials are loath to discuss this other information. The government has alluded to interceptions of radio broadcasts by Laotian pilots describing chemical attacks, but no transcripts have been released. Accounts by defectors have also been discredited. The star defector, a Laotian pilot, is now quietly ignored. He claimed that he had fired rockets containing toxic gas on Hmong villages, but his description of the procedures used indicated conventional rockets rather than those equipped to deliver chemical weapons. An article in Far Eastern Economic Review of January 1982 reported that the U.S. Air Force attache who debriefed the pilot doubted his story.

Another defector, a Vietnamese artillery officer who claimed he had fired chemical shells in Kampuchea, retracted his story and complained in writing to an interviewer that "promise[s] ... that I would be allowed to go to the U.S. if I worked with them" were not kept. Exasperated military and civilian officials could not determine which part of his story was fabrication and which was not. Colonel Lane told me that after several interviews, "he was told, 'O.K., this time when you go in there, don't lie; tell the truth.' But he still lied."

No spend chemical warfare munitions containing mycotoxins have ever been found found in Southeast Asia, and military experts doubt the feasibility of such attacks. Based on the low proportion of toxins in the samples--less than 0.02 percent--scientists estimate it would take more than one pound of yellow rain to kill one person. Saul Hormats, who spent thirty-seven years designing and testing chemical agents until he retired as chief engineer in the Army's Manufacturing Technology Directorate at Edgewood Arsenal, told me:

There isn't a damn bit of military value to it. At minimum, about 3,000 tons of yellow rain would be required to attack a village. To place this quantity on target would require 20,000 to 30,000 shells--some two hours of fire from a full Soviet division--or a minimum of 8,000 bombs dropped from the air.

To explain its inability to produce toxin-carrying projectiles from Southeast Asia, government officials maintain that entry into Laos and Kampuchea is almost impossible. Yet they routinely hand out kits for collecting yellow-rain samples to the Hmong, who have brought in hundreds of items ranging from leaves splattered with bee feces to ballon-borne propaganda pamphlets from Taiwan. Extensive private initiatives have also turned up nothing: a rocket purchased for $10,000 by an Australian television crew was later shown to be a fake, and Soldier of Fortune's offer of a $100,000 reward to the first Laotian pilot to defect with gas rockets has yet to be claimed.

Given the extensive U.S. involvement in unofficial investigative activities with the Khmer Rouge and Vang Pao forces, the lack of an official investigation by the most logical source, the U.S. Embassy in Laos, is curious, to say the least. Although it is the only U.S. Embassy in Indochina, it is almost never mentioned by the State Department and has not issued a public report on yellow rain. If a genocidal campaign is being waged in Laos, embassy personnel would seem to be the ideal people to gather evidence and check out refugee accounts. Instead, all the evidence comes from Vang Pao-controlled camps, Khmer Rouge camps, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and government circles in Washington.

Four resolutions condemning Soviet use of yellow rain were introduced in Congress during the last session--an easy way to appear tough on the Russians in an election year. In February the Senate passed by unanimous voice vote a resolution stating, "The Soviet Union is engaged in the use and/or provision of chemical warfare agents in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan." The lack of dissent on the issue is astonishing given the paucity of solid evidence. Twenty years ago Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on the basis of "obvious" Vietnamese attacks and thereby paved the way for escalating U.S. military programs. Then, at least, there were two dissenters. Before Congree again the State Department's story on yellow rain it should heed the words of Saul Hormats: "Has Congress been misled, and if so, by whom?"
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Author:Guyot, Erik
Publication:The Nation
Date:Nov 10, 1984
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