Has the Pentagon finally learned to stop treating the public as a foe to be outmaneuvered and instead start treating it as a partner whose cooperation is to be elicited?
There's room for at least some such hope in view of the Army's decision this week to alter its controversial plans for a biological test facility at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground.This about-face is certainly a victory for the many Utahns, including this state's political leaders, who actively opposed plans for a germ lab at Dugway designed to handle the world's most dangerous pathogens, including genetically engineered organisms. Instead, the Army now intends to construct a lab with the same safety rating as existing facilities at Dugway.
In a way, the change is also a victory for the Army - though the military likely won't see it that way.
The military has been suffering serious credibility problems in this state ever since it tried to shrug off a 1969 nerve gas accident that killed 6,000 sheep in the western Utah desert.
Those credibility problems have been exacerbated by a variety of episodes since then, including the Army's recent efforts to win approval for the controversial new lab at Dugway by drawing as little attention to it as possible, not just in Utah but also in Washington, D.C.
If the Army is wise, it will learn to invite public scrutiny from the outset instead of trying to avoid it. Once that happens, the military could be on its way toward replacing much of the present suspicion with a greater measure of public confidence.
But the military still has a long way to go on this score. Just how far can be measured not just by its record for candor but also by recent indications that biological warfare labs are not always as safety-conscious as they should be. As a case in point, take the report earlier this year from a U.S. Senate subcommittee that found:
- Only 10 percent of the Pentagon's germ warfare contracts, involving genetic engineering, impose specific, federal safety requirements.
- For the remaining 90 percent, contractors appear "to be under no legal obligations to possess the proper facilities" for containing infectious viruses, to monitor laboratory areas and workers for viral contamination, or to "decontaminate facilities when research is complete."
- There appear to be "no safety inspections of (germ warfare) contractors prior to contract awards" and no system for reporting accidents.
- Research into chemical weapons and defenses is managed better for safety than is the research into biological defenses.
Because it is so remote and relatively unpopulated, the western Utah desert is bound to remain high on the list of possible sites when new facilities are needed for handling dangerous materials. So be it.
But Utahns had better remain vigilant - particularly when those facilities involve the military and when the Pentagon's record of concern for safety leaves so much to be desired.