The U.S Army and
Production of War radiological weapon
In one of the
longest-held secrets of 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 obtained by the Associated Press.
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-making to contaminate swaths
of enemy land or to target military bases, factories or troop
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; just last year an unknown assailant used
a tiny amount of radioactive polonium-210 to kill Kremlin critic
Alexander Litvinenko in London.
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 AP in 1995.
records were released recently to the AP, 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. They leave unclear 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, just one year after the CIA's creation in 1947.
It was a turbulent
time on the international scene. In August 1949, the Soviet Union
successfully tested its first atomic bomb, and two months later Mao
Zedong's communists triumphed in China's civil war.
As U.S. scientists
developed the atomic bomb during World War II, it was recognized
that radioactive agents used or created in the manufacturing process
had lethal potential. The government's first public report on the
bomb project, published in 1945, noted that radioactive fission
products from a uranium-fueled reactor could be extracted and used
"like a particularly vicious form of poison gas."
Among the documents
released to the AP — an Army memo dated Dec. 16, 1948, and labeled
secret — described a crash program to develop a variety of military
uses for radioactive materials. Work on a "subversive weapon for
attack of individuals or small groups" was listed as a secondary
priority, to be confined to feasibility studies and experiments.
The top priorities
1. Weapons to
contaminate "populated or otherwise critical areas for long periods
combining high explosives with radioactive material "to accomplish
physical damage and radioactive contamination simultaneously."
3. Air and-or
surface weapons that would spread contamination across an area to be
evacuated, thereby rendering it unusable by enemy forces.
The stated goal was
to produce a prototype for the No. 1 and No. 2 priority weapons by
Dec. 31, 1950.
The 4th ranked
priority was "munitions for attack on individuals" using radioactive
agents for which there is "no means of therapy."
"This class of
munitions is proposed for use by secret agents or subversive units
for lethal attacks against small groups of important individuals,
e.g., during meetings of civilian or military leaders," it said.
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.
The Dec. 16, 1948,
memo said a lethal attack against individuals using radiological
material should be done in a way that makes it impossible to trace
the U.S. government's involvement, a concept known as "plausible
deniability" that is central to U.S. covert actions.
"The source of the
munitions, the fact that an attack has been made, and the kind of
attack should not be determinable, if possible," it said. "The
munitions should be inconspicuous and readily transportable."
were thought to be ideal for this use, the document said, because of
their high toxicity and the fact that the targeted individuals could
not smell, taste or otherwise sense the attack.
Writer: Seyed Ebrahim Tahami- Information Base of Chemical Weapons