Why did the Army really back off a proposal to build a controversial lab at Dugway Proving Ground - a lab that potentially could have made aerosols out of genetically engineered germs that cause disease without cure?Some local politicians say their work deserves much of the credit. Others say public outcry and news about Army safety lapses were largely responsible.
The Army officially says all those factors played a role. But the bottom line was it really didn't need such an exotic lab yet, said Lt. Col. John Chapla, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.
But others say maybe even a bigger consideration - even though Chapla denies it - is that the Army risked losing key support for some other controversial programs unless it dropped plans for the lab.
Congressional sources told the Deseret News they felt that was the final factor. For example, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, said, "The Army is now acting to avoid an outright defeat on its proposals to expand biowarfare research."
Agreeing is retired Navy Capt. James T. Bush, an associate director of the Center for Defense Information think tank in Washington, D.C., and a supporter of the once-proposed lab.
"The Army after many years is finally producing a few binary chemical weapons . . . and is carrying on a variety of other chemical and biological research programs. I think it felt the narrow margin of good will that allowed it to proceed might dissipate if it proceeded with the lab," Bush said.
But Chapla said concern about the future of other programs really didn't figure into the Army's lab decision. He said the Army simply conducted a review of needs at Dugway - and decided a "biosafety level 4 lab," which could allow aerosolization of genetic-engineered germs, wasn't needed now.
He said the Army now plans only the same sorts of "biosafety level 3" work it has conducted in the past, but the BL4 rating would have given it "more flexibility in the future. But the program has to be requirements driven."
Chapla said requests at public hearings, protests by watchdog groups, negative stories in the press and pleas from politicians all led to that review and influenced its subsequent conclusion. He said the Army wants to be seen as more responsive and open about its work to increase public confidence.
Whether the lab decision will help public confidence is unclear.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, a strong supporter of most Army programs, thinks it will. "I do not believe there is any state that supports the armed forces of our country more passionately than Utah. That passion and support comes from mutual trust and understanding and the sharing of ideas. We have seen that opinions do count and that the Army does listen."
Others, such as Owens, are not yet ready to unquestioningly trust the Army because of its apparent past lies or errors about the effects of nuclear and nerve gas testing. Owens has even introduced legislation to put biologic research under civilian control within the National Institutes of Health.