Washington, DC — Just days after it was revealed that monitoring devices to detect leaks of deadly VX agent from Kentucky’s Bluegrass Army Depot had been inoperative for months, the Army Chemical Materials Agency issued a directive that any further disclosures must be approved in advance, according to memos released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under the directive, employees could be disciplined for releasing unclassified information that is nonetheless deemed “sensitive.”
The sweeping order follows within a week of a request for a Pentagon inspection by Donald Van Winkle, an air-monitoring technician at Bluegrass, who charged that the monitors to detect VX agent had been configured so as to be ineffective until very recently. On September 12, 2005, Van Winkle was ordered to sign a directive forbidding disclosure of “potentially inappropriate information.”
The basis of the directive comes from an August 2 email by Commanding General Benjamin Griffin that invokes the continuing “global war on terrorism” and “a stealthier enemy” who uses “open source information on Army operations, equipment and personnel.” His email lists “sensitive unclassified reports,” “technical data” and “lessons learned” memos as subject to security review.
“If release of particular information genuinely threatens national or even operational security, it should be classified and this order would not be necessary,” stated PEER General Counsel Richard Condit, whose organization is representing Van Winkle. “This order, however, is far broader and covers whole new categories of information that formerly have been in the public domain; the order is so broad that it makes what General Griffin had for breakfast a state secret.”
PEER is asking Gen. Griffin to clarify the memo so that it could not be interpreted to forbid Army employees from reporting problems to the Inspector General, state pollution agencies or Congress.
“Federal law allows public employees to report precisely the sort of information covered by this order to the proper authorities and to Congress without prior permission of the Army,” Condit added. “In fact, Congress has declared it an illegal use of public funds for an official to issue a gag order without making allowances for public employees to blow the whistle on threats to public safety, violations of law and abuses of authority.”
Bluegrass Army Depot stores over 500 tons of chemical warfare agents in 45 storage units called igloos. Van Winkle operates air-monitoring units designed to detect leaks of chemical warfare agents. A release of the chemical agents in the igloos could cause illness or be fatal to facility staff and, under worst case scenarios, to the surrounding civilian populations.