Pentagon backs use of chemical suitsFebruary 29, 2000
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Members of Congress are demanding to know why it took the Pentagon five years to warn the armed forces that suits designed to protect soldiers from chemical or biological weapons were potentially defective.
"The holes in these protective suits show the holes in the Pentagon's procurement process," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "It's alarming that it took two inspector generals' reports and five years for the Pentagon to finally stop use of these dangerous suits.
"This is yet another example of Pentagon wasteful spending and contractor fraud," said Harkin, a member of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. "This case is particularly disturbing because these defective suits risked the lives of our soldiers. The Pentagon failed to immediately react to red flags."
A Pentagon report this week criticizes the military leadership for taking five years after it first learned about problems with the manufacturer before just this month removing the suits from the active inventory. In 1995, the Pentagon inspector general's criminal investigators first warned the Defense Logistics Agency that the manufacturer of the suit, New York City-based Istratex Inc., was alleged to be intentionally producing inferior merchandise, the investigators have said.
"At the time we're trying to prepare for the threat of terrorism using chemical or biological agents and putting all this money into training and equipment, to have this kind of thing happen is very disheartening; it's outrageous," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa.
Weldon said he may demand hearings. First he will ask the Pentagon to brief the House Armed Services military research and development subcommittee, which he chairs.
"Somebody responsible is going to have to answer to members of Congress and the public," Weldon said. "There should be some type of punitive action taken."
"Unlike other instances where reports have shown that DoD simply loses major inventory items, this mistake actually threatens lives of American soldiers," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. "I expect someone to be held accountable for this situation, which puts our soldiers at risk of harm and evidently wastes millions of taxpayer dollars."
The congressional concern came as a top military official Monday defended the Pentagon's actions in the case.
"At no time did we ever put our military forces in jeopardy," said Army Lt. Gen. Tom Glisson, director of the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages Pentagon inventories. "I'm confident the testing we did and the ones we issued were good."
At a hastily arranged news conference responding to an Associated Press report about the defective suits, Glisson said 120,000 were issued for use in Bosnia but that he did not know how many were actually used.
The suits cost $49 million for 778,000. They were made under two contracts, one in 1989 and one in 1992.
Because of the criminal investigation, in 1994, the Pentagon froze the issuance of 173,000 suits made under the 1992 contract, Glisson said. The quality of 607,000 suits made under a 1989 contract was never questioned, Glisson said, although he acknowledged that those suits did not undergo the same scrutiny by criminal investigators.
The inspector general's report said the defects included holes, tears and stitching irregularities. Though Glisson called the problems "cosmetic," an Army guidance document for chemical soldiers says: "The BDO (battle dress overgarment) becomes unserviceable if it is ripped, torn, fastener broken or missing" or other problems occur.
The U.S. military issued 120,000 of the suits for use in Bosnia. In 1999, company officials were indicted for fraud and other charges, and last fall several top executives pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
The Defense Logistics Agency in 1996 satisfied itself through its own testing that the chemical suits -- charcoal-lined camouflage pants and jackets -- were functional for use in Bosnia, Glisson said.
What Glisson called "cosmetic" flaws criminal investigators said this month actually were critical, though testing did not show it until 1999. In 1996, the problems were classified as merely "major." According to military regulations, "major" problems are serious but not grave enough to trigger pulling the items from the shelves.
Glisson said the 1999 tests found critical flaws in just seven suits out of 500. Though not great in number, he said, the problems were considered serious enough to justify the worldwide warning.
In the Bosnia crisis, Glisson said, the military had a dire need for the suits, helping to justify the decision to issue them, he said.
Today, the agency has 334,000 in a stateside depot and an undetermined number of additional suits around the world. The military has 4 million comparable suits available, so the loss of the Istratex number from the active inventory will not have an effect on the readiness of forces to fight in a chemical or biological environment, Glisson said.