By introducing a bill in Congress that would put a civilian agency in charge of the Army's germ warfare research, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, clearly is looking for ways to allay the doubt and suspicion that many Utahns feel about such work at Dugway Proving Ground in the western Utah desert.
Utahns have been fearful about the potential danger to the state from such research and concerned about the secrecy surrounding it. Some also have objected to Army proposals to upgrade the Dugway facility to handle more exotic forms of bacteria and genetic material.Such work has been done at Dugway for years, but there have been accidents, including the most infamous one in 1969 when nerve gas killed 6,000 sheep - an incident the Army evaded and denied for years. Other releases of gas and germs in open-air tests have subsequently come to light, less gruesome than the sheep deaths but still unsettling.
This history has made Utahns wary of Army promises of absolute safety in advanced research that might be done at the Dugway facility.
There is no doubt that some biological and chemical warfare research needs to be done by the Army, if for no other reason than to understand some of the defensive measures required to keep the nation safe. Offensive weapons of this type are currently outlawed.
The legislation proposed by the Utah congressman would make the civilian National Institutes of Health responsible for germ warfare defense research. The NIH would then contract with the Army for such research, including work at Dugway.
Using the NIH bureaucracy may not be the best way to provide oversight while allowing such work to continue, although it is one option. Some have suggested that a civilian commission of selected experts be appointed to keep tabs on the Army. This might be more effective.
At present, the Army does chemical-biological research under its own auspices. The Army says its program is not classified, but any information about what goes on is very hard to acquire, just the same.
Having a civilian agency in charge would remove some of the secrecy and make it easier to ensure that the Army is not dabbling in forbidden kinds of offensive germ warfare work. And it would perhaps reduce fears about the adequacy of safety procedures at Dugway and other installations.