Weapon of Mass Deception
What the Pentagon doesn't
want us to know
about depleted uranium
by Frida Berrigan
In These Times magazine,
In the weeks leading up to the war on
Iraq, TV screens across America were crowded with images of U.S.
soldiers readying for upcoming battles with a crazed dictator
who would stop at nothing. One clip after another showed U.S.
soldiers racing to don ~ $211 suits designed to protect them from
the chemical and biological attacks they would surely suffer on
the road to ousting Saddam Hussein.
But these grim forecasts were wrong. Despite
the advance hype, Hussein's dreaded arsenal was not the biggest
threat to Americans on the battlefield in Iraq. In fact, it was
no threat at all.
The real threat-not only to U.S. troops
but to Iraqis as well-may prove to be a weapon scarcely mentioned
before, during or after the war: depleted uranium.
A toxic and radioactive substance, depleted
uranium (DU)- otherwise known as Uranium 238-was widely used by
U.S. troops as their Abrams battle tanks and A-10 Warthogs thundered
through Iraq this spring.
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of enriched
uranium, the fissile material in nuclear weapons. It is pyrophoric,
burning spontaneously on impact. That, along with its extreme
density, makes depleted uranium munitions the Pentagon's ideal
choice for penetrating an enemy's tank armor or reinforced bunkers.
When a DU shell hits its target, it burns,
losing anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of its mass and dispersing
a fine dust that can be carried long distances by winds or absorbed
directly into the soil and groundwater.
Depleted uranium's radioactive and toxic
residue has been linked to birth defects, cancers, the Gulf War
Syndrome, and environmental damage.
But the Pentagon insists depleted uranium
is both safe and necessary, saying it is a "superior armor
[and] a superior munition that we will continue to use."
Pentagon officials say that the health and environmental risks
of DU use are outweighed by its military advantages. But to retain
the right to use and manufacture DU weaponry and armor, the Pentagon
has to actively ignore and deny the risks that depleted uranium
poses to human health and environment.
To keep depleted uranium at the top of
its weapons list, the Pentagon has distorted research that demonstrates
how DU dust can work its way into the human body, potentially
posing a grave health risk. According to a 1998 report by the
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the inhalation
of DU particles can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, shortness
of breath, Iymphatic problems, bronchial complaints, weight loss,
and an unsteady gait-symptoms that match those of sick veterans
of the Gulf and Balkan wars. Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a Canadian epidemiologist,
released a study in 1999 revealing that depleted uranium can stay
in the lungs for up to two years. "When the dust is breathed
in, it passes through the walls of the lung and into the blood,
circulating through the whole body," she wrote. Bertell concluded
that exposure to depleted uranium, especially when inhaled, "represents
a serious risk of damaged immune systems and fatal cancers."
The Pentagon has to cloak this dangerous
weapon in deceptive and innocuous language. The adjective "depleted,"
with its connotation that the substance is non~threatening or
dimin' ished in strength, is misleading. While depleted uranium
is not as radioactive and dangerous as U235-a person would not
get sick merely from brief DU exposure-depleted uranium has a
half-life of 4.5 billion years (as long as the solar system has
existed) and may pose serious health risks and environmental contamination.
Don't Believe the Hype: Propaganda Wars
As the U.S. military prepared to launch
a new offensive against Iraq early this year, the Pentagon and
White House embarked on a parallel effort to promote depleted
uranium as a highly effective weapon that would protect the lives
of innocent Iraqis. At the same time, the Iraqi govemment sought
to exploit the use of depleted uranium and the serious public
health concerns about its use in its propaganda war against the
At a March 14 Pentagon briefing, Col.
James Naughton of the U.S. Army announced that U.S. forces had
decided to employ DU munitions in the looming war on Iraq. When
asked about depleted uranium's possible effects on civilians,
Naughton characterized opposition to the use of DU weapons as
a product of propaganda and cowardice. "Why do [the Iraqis]
want [depleted uranium] to go away?" he asked. "They
want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them [in
the first Gulf War]."
The White House echoed Naughton's sentiment,
rejecting reports linking depleted uranium to birth defects and
cancers in Iraq. Early this year the White House released a report
titled Apparatus of Lies: Saddam's Disinformation and Propaganda
1990-2003, which includes a section on "The Depleted Uranium
Scare." In it, the White House accuses the Iraqi government
of launching a "disinformation campaign" that uses "horrifying
pictures of children with birth defects" as a tool to "take
advantage of an established international network of antinuclear
activists." Iraq's aim, the report charged, was to promote
the "false claim that the depleted uranium rounds fired by
coalition forces have caused cancers and birth defects in Iraq."
But few anti-DU activists say that depleted
uranium is the sole cause of cancer and birth defects. Rather,
they contend there is an obvious link between depleted uranium
and other toxins released into the environment during the 1991
Gulf War, that independent study is now required, and, in the
meantime, that the United States should declare a moratorium on
any future use of depleted uranium.
Depleted Uranium Use Increasing
Over the past 15 years, the Pentagon has
become increasingly dependent on DU weapons and armor. The 1991
Gulf War was the first major conflict in which DU weaponry and
armor was used. Almost 320 tons-an amount equal to the weight
of five Abrams battle tanks-were fired in the Iraqi desert. About
10 tons of DU munitions were used in Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia
in the '90s. DU weaponry was reportedly used in Afghanistan in
2001 as well, but reliable estimates are not yet available.
Depleted uranium was used extensively
in this year's war on Iraq, but if Pentagon officials have an
accurate accounting of total DU use, they are keeping that number
to themselves. In a May 15 article in the Christian Science Monitor,
reporter Scott Peterson wrote that after the war, the Pentagon,
when pressed by reporters, announced that about 75 tons of DU
munitions were fired from A-10 Warthogs. However, the Pentagon
has stalled on releasing additional relevant data on how much
depleted uranium was fired from Abrams battle tanks-the other
system that uses only DU munitions. More importantly, it has not
addressed concerns that DU weaponry was used much more extensively
in Iraq's urban and densely populated areas in the 2003 war than
The use of DU weapons in urban areas and
against civilian targets in Iraq gives the lie to the Pentagon's
insistence that it needed the DU advantage in order to win the
recent war quickly. To illustrate the power of this wonder weapon,
a March Pentagon press conference prominently featured pictures
from the first Gulf War of an Abrams tank firing a DU munition
through a sand dune to destroy an Iraqi tank hidden behind While
this makes good TV, did depleted uranium really provide a critical
advantage to the U.S. military in Iraq? The answer is no. The
U.S. military did not need a wonder weapon in Iraq because the
crippled country was not a wonder opponent. Its arsenal was antiquated
and had been poorly maintained since the first Gulf War. Suffering
under more than 12 years of U.N. economic sanctions, moreover,
Iraq had not been able to develop or purchase comparable high-tech
In his May 15 article, Peterson describes
video footage from the last days of the recent war showing an
A-10 Warthog strafing the Iraqi Ministry of Planning in downtown
Baghdad. This was not an armored target; it was a building in
a heavily populated neighborhood. Peterson visited the area and
found "dozens of spent radioactive DU rounds, and distinctive
aluminum casings with two white bands, that drilled into the tile
and concrete rear of the building."
The indiscriminate use of DU munitions
in densely populated areas throughout Iraq, which put large numbers
of civilians in jeopardy of radioactive and toxic exposure, violates
the Geneva Convention's protocol prohibiting the use of weapons
that do not distinguish between soldiers and civilians during
So why did the Pentagon insist on using
DU weapons in Iraq? Tungsten alloys would have worked as well.
Depleted uranium, it turns out, has one tremendous advantage over
tungsten. It is provided to weapons manufacturers nearly free
of charge by the U.S. government-an ingenious method of radioactive
waste disposal. Essentially, depleted uranium is the waste left
over from decades of nuclear weapons development. In fact, the
States has stockpiles of depleted uranium
scattered at sites throughout the country-728,000 metric tons
to be exact-a tiny fraction of which is used in the manufacture
of depleted uranium warheads.
Lies and Silence
In an April 14 video address, President
Bush spoke directly to military personnel and their families,
thanking them for their role in the Iraq war. The monuments to
Hussein had been top' pled in Baghdad, and the first troops were
beginning to return home triumphant. The message, broadcast on
armed services networks around the country and beamed to troops
on the Iraq battlefield, included Bush's promise that veterans
of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" would receive "the
full support of our government. We will keep our commitment to
improving the quality of life for our military families."
The same day, the Defense Department and
the Centers for Disease Control released the results of their
four-year study on birth defects in the children of Gulf War Veterans.
Although the study did not mention depleted uranium specifically,
it found "significantly higher prevalences" of heart
and kidney birth defects in veterans' children. Unfortunately,
the study's disturbing findings were not reported by any U.S.
media outlets until June.
The Pentagon and White House propaganda
on depleted uranium was never challenged by the mainstream media
this past spring. If members of the national press corps had done
their homework, they would have found ample evidence that the
Pentagon is fully aware of the dangers posed by DU weaponry and
is actively ignoring its own research and warnings.
A 1974 military report evaluated the medical
and environmental effects of depleted uranium, noting that "in
combat situations involving the widespread use of DU munitions,
the potential for inhalation, ingestion, or implantation of DU
compounds may be locally significant." This contradicts recent
Pentagon claims that depleted uranium does not pose a threat and
demonstrates the military's understanding of how depleted uranium
is absorbed into the human body, posing risks to organs.
In a 1998 training manual, the U.S. Army
acknowledged the hazards of depleted uranium, requiring that anyone
who comes within 25 meters of DU-contaminated equipment or terrain
wear respiratory and skin protection. The manual cautioned: "Contamination
will make food and water unsafe for consumption."
And in November 1999, NATO sent its commanders
the following warning: "Inhalation of insoluble depleted
uranium dust particles has been associated with long-term health
effects, including cancers and birth defects."
They Hid It Well
The fact that these reports are in the
public record is the result of years of hard work, study, and
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by anti-DU activists.
The Pentagon and Bush administration have also been hard at work.
In the past two years, they have clamped down on sources of information
that had been immensely valuable to service personnel and their
families over the past decade.
Dan Fahey served in the United States
Navy just months after the fighting ended in the Gulf War. Seeing
the havoc the war wreaked on his fellow veterans, he set out to
become an independent expert on depleted uranium. He sits on the
board of Veterans for Common Sense and has played a major role
in obtaining U.S. government documents about depleted uranium
Fahey says that, under President Bush,
the Department of Defense is controlling the release of information
about depleted uranium so tightly that if he were starting his
research and disclosure efforts today, he would be unable to get
any information through the Freedom of Information Act. "There
is less information and more secrecy," he says. "There
are tighter restrictions on access to information."
Fahey was responsible for publicizing
the findings of a July 1990 report by Science Applications International
Corporation (SAIC), a defense contractor commissioned by the Pentagon
to study depleted uranium.
The report revealed that the Pentagon
knew that depleted uranium was harmful before 1991, when they
sent 697,000 American troops to the Gulf, where they could be
exposed to DU dust and residue. SAIC asserted that depleted uranium
is "a low-level alpha radiation emitter" that could
be "linked to cancer when exposures are internal." The
report further warned, "DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield
could be significant, with potential radiological and toxicological
effects." In addition the report found that "short-term
effects of high doses [of depleted uranium] can result in death,
while long-term effects of low doses have been implicated in cancer."
SAIC says in its report that widespread
knowledge of depleted uranium's harmful properties could lead
to public outrage about the "acceptability of the continued
use of DU kinetic energy penetrators for military applications."
That's what worries the Pentagon.
All the while, as the Pentagon hides behind
claims that more study is needed to prove depleted uranium's connection
with the ailments suffered by Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians,
their own research demonstrates that, at best, depleted uranium
is radioactive and toxic-and that at worst, it can lead to incurable
diseases and death.
The Pentagon says more study is needed.
But veterans of the Gulf War, meanwhile, need medical care, information,
and benefits, and for the Pentagon to come clean about depleted
uranium. The veterans had been exposed to a "toxic soup"
of smoke from oil and chemical fires, pesticides, vaccinations,
depleted uranium and, most likely, plutonium.
Two types of depleted uranium exist. One
is "clean" depleted uranium, a byproduct of the processing
of uranium ore into uranium-235 (which is used in nuclear fuel
and weapons). The other type is created at government facilities
as a byproduct of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel (done to extract
plutonium for nuclear warheads) and is known as "dirty"
depleted uranium because it contains highly toxic plutonium.
In November 2000, U.N. researchers examined
11 sites in Kosovo hit by DU shells and found radioactive contamination
at eight of them. Furthermore, those tests uncovered evidence
that at least some of the DU munitions in the U.S. arsenal used
in Kosovo contained "dirty" depleted uranium. This raises
the question: How much of its plutonium-processing waste did the
U.S. government supply to weapons manufacturers?
If some of the DU shells in the U.S. arsenal
have been made from dirty depleted uranium, that could help explain
why about 300 of 5,000 refugees from a Sarajevo suburb heavily
bombed by NATO jets in 1995 had died of cancer by early 2001.
And it could also help explain the fact that 28 percent of veterans
who served in the first Gulf War have over the past 12 years sought
treatment for illness and disease resulting from their military
service and filed claims with the Veterans Administration for
medical and compensation benefits. In all, 186,000 veterans of
that war have sought treatment for a collection of maladies including
chronic fatigue, joint and muscle pain, memory loss, reproductive
problems, depression, and gastrointestinal disorders. Together
these ailments are known as the Gulf War Syndrome.
Based on the struggles of Gulf War veterans,
Congress passed a law in 1997 requiring the Pentagon to conduct
pre- and post deployment medical screenings of troops and military
personnel so that medical professionals would have an accurate
base of information if health problems developed. In the early
months of this year, as U.S. troops were being deployed to Iraq,
lawmakers found that the Pentagon was not complying with the 1997
law: The troops were not being screened at all.
According to Steven Robinson, a former
Army Ranger who now directs the National Gulf War Resource Center,
it took two congressional hearings, 30 news interviews, 60 radio
interviews, and a timely New York Times ad courtesy of www.TomPaine.com
to pressure the Pentagon to follow the law. On April 29, the Pentagon
announced it would begin conducting postdeployment examinations.
Anti-DU activists say the military's grudging compliance is too
little, too late.
Activists are struggling for treatment
of veterans, for information about depleted uranium and other
toxins that could be responsible for the Gulf War Syndrome, and
for some sort of government acknowledgement or apology. But they
are also battling against a legacy of lies, secrecy, and official
promotion of an ends-justifies-the-means posture. Veterans with
Gulf War Syndrome can be seen as the latest in a long line of
Pentagon guinea pigs that includes the troops ordered to witness
the atomic blasts in the early days of the Cold War, soldiers
exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the black men in Tuskegee,
Alabama, who were subjected to federal government-sponsored syphilis
Keeps on Killing
If the Pentagon and the Federal government
can treat American troops and their families with such casual
disregard and use doublespeak with such abandon, what hope is
there for Iraqi civilians and troops?
The people of Iraq have known nothing
but decades of war, deprivation, and oppression. It is understandable
that many cheered when the statues of dictator Saddam Hussein
toppled. At the same time, how could they greet the United States,
their liberators, with anything other than the deepest skepticism?
In his just-released book The New Rulers
of the World, Australian journalist John Pilger recounts conversations
with Iraqi doctors like Jawad Al-Ali, a cancer specialist in Basra.
Before the Gulf War, Dr. AI'Ali told Pilger, "We had only
three or four deaths in a month from cancer. Now it's 30 to 35
patients dying every month, and that's just in my department.
That is a 12-fold increase in cancer mortality. Our studies indicate
that 40 to 48 percent of the population in this area will get
cancer. That's almost half the population."
Not only are Dr. AI'Ali's patients suffering,
but his own family members are ill as well. "Most of my own
family now have cancer, and we have no history of the disease,"
he told Pilger. "We strongly suspect depleted uranium."
The public has had to rely on anecdotal
evidence like Dr. Al Ali's testimony to get a sense of the health
crisis in Iraq. Throughout the '90s, Hussein's government released
data on cancer and birth defects, but it is unlikely that those
figures provide an accurate picture.
Kathy Kelly, director of the Chicago-based
Voices in the Wilderness and three-time nominee for the Nobel
Peace Prize, has visited Iraq repeatedly since the first Gulf
War and has built strong relationships with doctors and nurses
there. She recounted a day she spent in a pediatric hospital in
November 1998. "Four babies were born that day with deformities.
I was shocked, but the doctors said, 'This is not unusual."'
"So, I asked them," she continues,
"'Did you know where the mothers were when they conceived?
Were their fathers involved in the war? Were they in an area exposed
to depleted uranium?"'
"One of the doctors replied, 'A11
of these questions are very important, and we need to be collecting
this data, but we cannot. Let me show you something.' And she
showed me a prescription for a baby that was written on the back
of a candy wrapper. Because of the effects of the economic sanctions,
they did not even have paper to write prescriptions on."
There is an overwhelming need for medical
research in Iraq, but it is impossible to initiate within the
context of the pressing health needs and the lack of medical supplies
and equipment that constitute the fallout of war. This situation
allows the U.S. military to continue insisting that there is no
proof that DU exposures lead to cancers. "No I proof of harm
is not proof of no | harm," Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist
at Boston University, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The
potential for a DU-cancer link (especially lung cancer in those
who breathe depleted uranium through dust and smoke particles)
is still an open question."
Rep. Jim McDermott, a doctor from Washington
state, traveled to Iraq in the fall of 2002. He visited hospitals,
speaking with his peers, and saw the hospital beds crowded with
the dying. He returned to the United States adamantly opposed
to a new war in Iraq and deeply committed to challenging the continued
use of depleted uranium. McDermott drafted legislation requiring
studies of the health and environmental impact of depleted uranium.
His bill, introduced just as the war started this past spring,
is co-sponsored by a number of other Democrats but needs wider
Clearly, this legislation, if passed,
would be an important first step in understanding the long-term
effects of depleted uranium.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder has
called for an outright ban on shells made from depleted uranium.
That would indeed be another sensible place to start.
In addition, anti-DU activists Dan Fahey,
Steve Robinson, and Kathy Kelly should be encouraged and financially
supported in their ongoing efforts to compile data and release
their findings to the public. Next, manufacturers of DU weapons-like
the Minnesota-based Alliant Techsystems, which built 15 million
DU shells for the A-10 Warthog-should be held accountable for
the long-term effects of their "products."
Finally, we might take up Yugoslavian
President Vojislav Kostunica's suggestion: "We should be
discussing the depleted conscience of those who used the notorious
Only then will the cycle of deception
and silence about depleted uranium be broken.
Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate
with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy