Their stories are a staple of conspiracy culture: broken men, suffering hallucinations and near-total amnesia, who say they are victims of secret government mind-control experiments. Think Liev Schreiber in The Manchurian Candidate or Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory. Journalists are a favorite target for the paranoid delusions of this population. So is Gordon Erspamer—and the San Francisco lawyer's latest case isn't helping him to fend off the tinfoil-hat crowd. He has filed suit against the CIA and the US Army on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America and six former American soldiers who claim they are the real thing: survivors of classified government tests conducted at the Army's Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland between 1950 and 1975. "I get a lot of calls," he says. "There are a lot of crazy people out there who think that somebody from Mars is controlling their behavior via radio waves." But when it comes to Edgewood, "I'm finding that more and more of those stories are true!"
As a CIA official explained to the GAO, referring to the agency's infamous MKULTRA mind-control experiments, "The names of those involved in the tests are not available because names were not recorded or the records were subsequently destroyed." Besides, said the official, some of the tests involving LSD and other psychochemical drugs "were administered to an undetermined number of people without their knowledge."
The CIA's decision to use military personnel as test subjects followed the court's decision and is an issue Erspamer plans to raise at trial. "Suddenly, they stopped using civilian subjects and said, 'Oh, we can get these military guys for free,'" he says. "The government could do whatever it wanted to them without liability. We want to bring that to the attention of the public, because I don't think most people understand that." (Asked about Erspamer's suit, CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf would say only that the agency's human testing program has "been thoroughly investigated, and the CIA fully cooperated with each of the investigations.")
Erspamer's involvement in the case is deeply personal. His father was a government scientist during Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in the summer of 1946; he was present aboard a research vessel for the "Baker" test, during which a 21-kiloton thermonuclear bomb was detonated 90 feet below water. The blast resulted in massive radioactive contamination. Erspamer's father and the rest of the ship's crew, he says, all died in middle age from radiogenic diseases. Erspamer makes his living in the field of energy litigation, but has twice before argued class action suits for veterans—one for soldiers who, like his father, were exposed to radiation during nuclear tests (a case he ultimately lost in a 1992 appellate decision) and more recently one on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans denied treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The case is on appeal in California's 9th Circuit. "Nobody out there is doing these types of cases," he says. "It's really sad because the veterans are left holding the bag, and it's not a very pretty bag."
Medical records indicate that Rochelle went through a third round of testing, but he has no memory of it. For years he's been having nightmares about the Edgewood tests and now suffers from anxiety, memory loss, sleep apnea, tinnitus, and loss of vision, all of which he claims are direct results of the experiments. Still, he didn't inform his doctor of the tests until 2006, believing that he was still bound by the oath of secrecy he swore in 1968. (The government finally released human test subjects to speak to their physicians about the tests in June 2006, under the condition that they not "discuss anything that relates to operational information that might reveal chemical or biological warfare vulnerabilities or capabilities.")
Rochelle's story is similar to those of Erspamer's other plaintiffs, all of whom claim to be suffering debilitating health effects stemming from the experiments. Of course, substantiating these claims is a challenge, given that most of the medical records were destroyed upon completion of the program. Rochelle's records remain intact, but for "others we have less information," says Erspamer. "We spent a great deal of time on that topic, and we are confident that the plaintiffs are who they say they are, were where they said they were, and got what they said they got," in terms of exposure to experimental chemicals. "Who bears the burden on that issue when the defendants destroyed the evidence?" Erspamer asks. "They've put all that stuff through the shredder."
Compensation for injuries sustained during human testing of chemical and biological agents is not unprecedented. Last year, more than 350 servicemen who served as test subjects at Porton Down, a secret military research facility where the British government conducted its own series of mind-control experiments, were granted nearly $6 million in compensation in an out-of-court settlement with the UK's Ministry of Defence. Likewise, in 2004, the Canadian government began offering $18,000 payments to eligible veterans of experiments at its testing facilities. Nevertheless, says Erspamer, "No American soldiers have ever been compensated." The CIA and the Army "just hope they're all gonna die off, and they will unless somebody does something."
These are hard core patriotic men that take their oaths seriously...even to the death!