To the Editor:
Without wishing to comment on the substance of Lucio Lami’s article, “Yellow Rain: The Conspiracy of Closed Mouths” [October 1983], let me just inform you that the last two paragraphs concerning an officer of UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] are totally devoid of truth and invented either by Mrs. Adelia Bernard or by Mr. Lami himself, who has repeated this accusation on several occasions in spite of all our very formal denials. Never has Mark Malloch Brown, then UNHCR officer in Thailand, received any sort of plastic sphere with “valves and tubes, inside of which lay the dead body of a three-year-old baby,” as Mr. Lami states. Never has such a macabre parcel been “deposited on the desk of Mark Brown.”
Chief of Public Information
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
To the Editor:
I would like to apologize for an error that appeared in my translation of Lucio Lami’s article on yellow rain. In my translation, I gave the date of an encounter between Adelia Bernard and a representative of UNHCR as 1982; it should have been given as April 1980. This typographical error in fact was printed in il Giornale nuovo when the story first appeared, but Mr. Lami quickly caught and corrected it in a letter to the editor two days later. I translated from the original text and missed the correction. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused your readers.
To the Editor:
There is only one point in Lucio Lami’s article, “Yellow Rain: The Conspiracy of Closed Mouths,” with which I would agree, and that is that the evidence on the subject of yellow rain and its mode of presentation do indeed suggest a conspiracy, but not that which is troubling Mr. Lami. . . .
Mr. Lami claims both that evidence for the use of chemical weapons is overwhelmingly plentiful and that it has been suppressed by the UN with the aid of some Western journalists. How such censorship could be exercised by the UN organizations, when the U.S. government, using evidence gathered by its own personnel along the Thai-Cambodian and Thai-Lao borders, has published its own reports and otherwise trumpeted its story to the world, is not made clear. Indeed, Mr. Lami seems quite unaware of those U.S. government documents, which for all their weaknesses are far superior to Mr. Lami’s documentation, and which show, with respect to Mr. Lami’s first general point, that the evidence, apart from scatter-gun allegations, is pitifully scarce and weak, and becomes progressively weaker as new information about the natural occurrences of mycotoxins, the alleged new yellow-rain poisons, is discovered.
On the subject of such evidence, and its collection, I can do no better than recommend Grant Evans’s The Yellow Rainmakers, which demonstrates in great detail how the stories from Laos are most probably mass hysteria plus some disinformation, while the apparently genuine instances of mycotoxin poisoning in Cambodia are probably of natural origin. Particular attention should be given to Evans’s demolition of the story of one star Hmong yellow-rain witness, a man who when Evans interviewed him had given his story thirteen times to various Western organizations and journalists (Evans, pp. 58 ff.).
I have no doubt that Mr. Lami heard allegations of gas attacks on the Cambodian and Laotian borders, and by their very nature and presentation there is no way to disprove them, but Evans’s book demonstrates the care such claims require. It is not permissible simply to accept someone’s assertion that he was hit by “poison gas,” and still less to accept that as evidence for a new generation of chemical weapons being used by the Vietnamese.
Although Mr. Lami’s story of the two Son Sann soldiers whom he met at Ban Sangae cannot be disproved, Dr. Amos Townsend’s report of August 19, 1983, of which I have a copy, indicates the carelessness with which evidence from those alleged gas attacks of January 1983 has been collected and assessed. Townsend, referring to one case in which the autopsy of a soldier killed in an assumed gas attack had indicated “toxic hepatitis” as the cause of death, hinted that the medical analysis must have been incompetent or dishonest.
Townsend also described his encounter, at Ban Sangae in August 1983, with an alleged victim of a January incident, who claimed to have previously been healthy and who in August showed symptoms consistent with respiratory infection and dengue fever. Townsend expressed some reservation about the man’s reliability, but believed that “he needs further study.” Unaccountably, Townsend then departed from Ban Sangae and left the collection of blood samples to Adelia Bernard. In his report he expressed the hope of finding the man again at a later date, although he knew full well the great difficulty in retrieving people in the confused conditions of the border camps. No doubt we shall eventually see that soldier as a yellow-rain statistic in some U.S. government report.
One of Mr. Lami’s stories, the storage of “chemical weapons in the former house of the oblates” in Ban Hue Sai, is of a type discounted even by Townsend and his associates. In a report of August 25, 1983, one of the latter described how a self-proclaimed Thai secret agent in a border town tried to sell them some chemical-warfare liquid recently stolen from storage in the “Lao President’s government office in Vientiane.” They of course refused his offer. One of the things distinguishing the serious yellow-rain researchers (even if they are misguided) from the mad-hatters is that they know that Vietnamese, or Soviet, chemical corpsmen would keep their poisons in proper storage facilities, not in odd places like a former seminary or the President’s office.
Mr. Lami’s story of a Vietnamese gas mask, even if true, means nothing, since gas masks are standard equipment in all armies; and the detail of the West German embassy secretly negotiating to acquire the gas mask from the “Khmer Blancs” (a meaningless term illustrating Mr. Lami’s ignorance of the area) tends to discredit the story entirely.
It is certainly not true that all the embassies in Bangkok consider the evidence irrefutable, and this has been one of the difficulties in the U.S. government campaign. Indeed, last year the Australian and British governments announced that yellow-rain samples sent to them for analysis were fakes (Evans, pp. 101-02 on the Australian case). There is even some doubt that the U.S. government still believes its own propaganda. On April 7, 1983, Robert L. Rau of the U.S. Naval Academy’s political-science department, on a U.S.-government-sponsored lecture tour, told the staff of Adelaide University’s Center for Asian Studies that “no one” in Washington, except for a small corner of the State Department, any longer took the yellow-rain stories seriously. Moreover, Dr. Amos Townsend’s yellow-rain research efforts lack funds, and the two Bangkok embassy officers who were most energetic in assisting Townsend have been routinely transferred and replaced by new men who have indicated to Town-send that they will not exert the same efforts in yellow-rain research. Also of interest is the fact that one person involved in the early collection of yellow-rain evidence told me in 1982 that the Pol Pot people were quite capable of feeding toxin to their own soldiers in order to make an anti-Vietnamese case, something consistent with the circumstance that the most potent of the alleged mycotoxins could be made by any literate person or bought wholesale (Evans, p. 101).
Neither is there agreement among medical personnel in the camps about the reality of yellow rain, or other kinds of new chemical and biological warfare (CBW). The medical evidence is inconclusive; most of the alleged “gassing” symptoms could just as well have other causes (see Evans, pp. 92-93, 95, 100, 117-18, 122-23); and where mycotoxins have really been found, in some Cambodian patients, their behavior has been inconsistent with dissemination by weapons and is more reasonably explained by natural occurrence in contaminated food (Evans, pp. 98-99; and Lee Torrey, “Yellow Rain: Is It Really a Weapon?,” New Scientist, August 4, 1983, pp. 350-51).
This inconsistency of opinion within medical circles also comes through clearly in the aforementioned report of Amos Townsend, with Townsend hinting at political motivations of those doctors who do not support the yellow-rain cause. No doubt political considerations are relevant, but the political preconceptions of those who support yellow-rain charges lead them to assume the truth of “gas attacks,” etc., and devise circular explanations to accommodate the most diverse symptoms, while medical personnel not politically predisposed to accept yellow rain seem impelled to adopt the scientifically more acceptable methodology of proceeding from the observed symptoms and laboratory analyses to indications of the causes.
Certainly there is no evidence, though, of a political cover-up by doctors of the Red Cross or other agencies working for the UN. If there were the slightest truth in this it would have appeared in the U.S. government reports and in the reports of Amos Townsend, several of which I have read, and which provide much of the material on which the U.S. government documents are based.
In this connection, Mr. Lami should tell us just how he knows what went on in Red Cross meetings and what was allegedly deleted from the transcripts. Townsend has not complained that the Red Cross denies assistance to gas victims, and his alleged complaint about suppressed results of an autopsy on a Cambodian woman killed at the border and transported to Khao I Dang in November 1982 is directly contradicted by his report of August 19, 1983. There he noted that he had just recently obtained permission from Task Force 80, the Thai military unit in overall control of the refugee camps, to bring possible CBW victims to Khao I Dang for study and treatment, but he had “not ‘tested the system as yet.’”
It is not true that the medical organizations in the refugee and border camps “are under UN control” with respect to medical practice, or that “they have adapted to these methods and deny help to gas victims.” The medical work in the camps is undertaken by private voluntary groups, mostly from the United States, France, Germany, Thailand, and the United Kingdom, with international personnel of diverse nationalities and backgrounds. The UN could not, even if it wished, order them to refuse necessary treatment. Some of the medical teams belong to devout Christian organizations which are strongly anti-Communist, believe firmly in yellow rain, and would not fail to complain loudly of any UN interference with their medical ethics.
If there were really a conspiracy on the border to suppress information about yellow rain or to turn away patients suffering from its effects, the conspiracy would have to include not only the UN and voluntary agencies, but the Bangkok U.S. embassy, the CIA, and the Thai military, all of whom have agents patrolling the border areas, as well as the Pol Pot-Son Sann-Sihanouk coalition, which in all of its most exaggerated propaganda has never claimed that international medical teams refused treatment nor that the UN was suppressing evidence. Mr. Lami probably got such fanciful stories from Adelia Bernard, whom he expressly credits as the source of his last, and most fantastic, tale.
Adelia Bernard is a resident of Melbourne, Australia, who has spent some time working with a Thai Catholic organization, COERR (Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees), in the refugee camps, and she has purveyed a certain amount of lurid anti-Vietnamese material to the Australian press (the Age, Melbourne, March 19, 1983). Being familiar with her name and convictions, I made inquiries about her activities during my latest trip to Thailand in August-September 1983, in particular at UNHCR in Bangkok, where there are several people whom I have known and have met annually or semi-annually since 1980 when I also worked in the Cambodian refugee camps, and where one key employee has been my acquaintance for over ten years.
Although it is logically impossible to prove a negative, that is to prove that Mrs. Bernard has never sneaked into Cambodia, no one familiar with the border or the interior of Cambodia gives credence to her story of traveling clandestinely to Phnom Penh, a story which, stripped of the lurid details imparted to Mr. Lami, is otherwise well known and treated as a joke. All agree on the utter impossibility of such a trip.
Even more stupefying is the claim to have brought a corpse, in tropical heat, from Phnom Penh to the border (a two-day trip in the best, non-clandestine circumstances), negotiated it through the multiple Khmer and Thai checkpoints at the border, taken it to Bangkok (another day), and finally dragged it up to Mark Brown’s office on the crowded third floor of the UN building, where all visitors have to sign in at a security desk and where large packages are examined.
Had anything like that ever occurred, it is certain that there would have been a major scandal both within the UN building and at Thai security services. Mrs. Bernard might well have found herself detained for violation of several laws, and I would not have been able to converse with my UNHCR acquaintances during two or three days without hearing of the incident.
It is also worth asking why Adelia Bernard, on April 13, 1983, in a talk before the Community Aid Abroad group in Melbourne, boasted of her “secret” trip to Phnom Penh, but did not relate any of the lurid adventures reported by Mr. Lami; why she also failed to mention them in her atrocity-mongering interview with the Age; and why she did not report them to Dr. Townsend when she met him at the Ban Sangae camp on the Thai-Cambodian border on August 11, 1983.
If she had really acquired evidence of Vietnamese or Soviet CBW atrocities in Cambodia, the logical person to approach would have been Townsend, already known then as an activist in the yellow-rain cause, who could have organized medical examination of the evidence, not Mark Brown, who was neither administratively concerned with medical matters nor of sufficient authority to effect a scientific investigation. Brown could not possibly have dismissed Adelia Bernard’s corpse and apparatus, but would have had to refer the case to his superiors. . . .
Whatever the whole truth behind the diverse yellow-rain and CBW stories may be, Lucio Lami’s article is a tissue of wild rumors and lies, and he shows total ignorance of even the official U.S. statements on the question. It should be clear that I do not believe that the Vietnamese are using yellow rain or any other mysterious new CBW agents in Laos and Cambodia, but I would agree that all of the evidence is not in, and that further careful, objective scientific investigations are required. . . .
Center for Asian Studies
University of Adelaide
To the Editor:
Lucio Lami’s article on the continuing agony of Southeast Asia should be read by every good-hearted humanitarian who ever paraded a Vietcong flag through the asphalt paddies of Western (especially American) campuses and cities. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be.
It seems that the free peoples of Asia, along with those in Communist Asia who refuse to see the horror foisted on their homelands as “liberation,” have very few champions among the influential opinion-makers of the West. For their failure to recognize the nobility of the social experiment in which they have been forced to take part, the Khmer and Hmong (to say nothing of vast numbers of Chinese, Koreans, Tibetans, Vietnamese, and others) have possibly lost their humanity in the eyes of the Western liberal intelligentsia. Thus, their excision from the family of man is perhaps social surgery rather than genocide. The Communist Mengele mentioned by Mr. Lami (is he Vietnamese? Cambodian? Soviet? does it matter?) may go to bed at night secure in the knowledge that he will forever be given the benefit of the doubt in intellectual, religious, political, and media circles in the West. . . .
To the Editor:
While researching a paper on yellow rain, I was as dismayed as Lucio Lami by the effectively nonexistent coverage given the story by the media—with the powerful exception of the Wall Street Journal. Contrast this meager exposure with the expansive treatment given dioxin and the herbicide Agent Orange. The New York Times, which has covered the story better than most, has devoted almost as much space to the problems with particular pieces of evidence as it has given the main story itself. CBS and NBC have not seriously investigated the story.
The reluctance of the media to examine the unclassified evidence, available from a multitude of sources including the Canadian government, suggests that the public has been and will continue to be similarly uninformed about other possible Soviet violations of arms-control treaties. . . .
New Haven, Connecticut
Lucio Lami writes:
In the extravagant letter from Michael Vickery there is just one point that is worthy of serious attention, and that is where he writes that my article “is a tissue of wild rumors.” In fact, he repeats there, by some sort of Freudian inspiration, the same words that Professor Albert Bayet of the Sorbonne used in an attempt to discredit Soviet defector Igor Kravchenko’s book, I Chose Freedom, in the celebrated libel trial in Paris in 1949. The skeptical intellectuals repeat themselves: they don’t believe the eyewitnesses, but only “scientific” reports. The gulags, unfortunately, survive their doubts.
1. I have been in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia many times over several years. I have spoken with victims of poison gas and with their attending doctors. I have identified them, by name, in my articles in the Italian press. Yet Mr. Vickery, on the basis of his reading, says that these witnesses are incompetent or in bad faith. He also speaks of Dr. Amos Townsend’s doubts. Townsend said to me in 1982 that he had no doubts about the use of poison gas by the Vietnamese, but in 1983 he admitted that although he still had the same conviction, he had to obey instructions from his embassy. The new doubts, in short, have political roots.
2. The gas mask that I found is said to prove nothing, since all armies use gas masks. But do they wear them in combat for no reason? And do the Vietnamese wear them to protect themselves from their own chemical weapons, or because they are afraid that the Cambodian resistance uses such weapons? How is one to explain the awarding of the Ho Chi Minh medal to the Vietnamese chemical units, a gesture that was publicly hailed on April 18, 1981 on Radio Hanoi by General Trong Tan?
I found the gas mask, as I wrote, at Non Chan. By a simple lapsus, I wrote, “among the Khmer Blanc” instead of the Khmer Rouge, and Mr. Vickery is astonished (his forerunner, at the Kravchenko trial, screamed, “The author calls the same village by the name of Ackhabad once, and in another place he calls it Stalinabad. Therefore he knows nothing of Russia”).
3. Mr. Vickery writes that “unaccountably” Townsend gave blood samples to Adelia Bernard. But this is hardly unaccountable: Townsend, like me, trusts the woman. Moreover, samples of contaminated materials have always encountered obstacles in arriving at their destination. Often they arrive late at the Thai borders. They almost always arrive in deteriorated condition in Western laboratories, if they arrive at all. When the UN sent an investigatory commission (about which they still laugh in Thailand), its members refused to go to the areas in which the gas was launched. I asked Townsend if he had spoken with the UN “investigators,” and he replied (in an interview with me in 1982) that he had been uncertain whether to do it, since he knew that the head of the group, within the UN, was a Soviet, Ustinov. In any case, he gave them a briefing on his findings and offered them a sample he had taken. The head of the delegation then told Townsend that he was not interested in the samples, but would accept them, since otherwise the commission would be attacked by the press.
So the samples have had a tough life, and I do not trust analyses conducted over a distance of thousands of miles, often by people who are ideologically involved and who are capable of believing that the Laotians die from bee excrement (and that the bees were constipated for years, since they have only recently become lethal). But there are specialists and researchers who work along the frontiers, like Dr. Jibhong Jayavasu, who for years have vainly asked for equipment to do chemical analyses immediately after the gas attacks. Dr. Jibhong works at Arania Pratet, on the Cambodian border.
4. Concerning the deposit of chemical weapons at Ban Hue Sai, I have the testimony of a university student who lives there. This firsthand account is challenged by Mr. Vickery on the basis of his opinions concerning more suitable places traditionally chosen by the Soviets. But his is not a refutation, only a tedious argument ad hominem.
5. The fact that Townsend did not write about his protest to the Red Cross in his reports does not mean that he did not make the protest. He in fact made it on November 4, 1982. In a meeting on that date, Townsend asked why the International Red Cross refused to accept gas victims, and he named the cases in question. Father Bourlet, director of COERR, was present at the meeting. On December 2, 1982, at a meeting of the Coordinating Committee for Services to Dispersed Persons in Thailand, Dr. Jibhong pleaded with the doctors to obey their professional oaths, and to stop following political and personal interests. This statement as well disappeared from the minutes. But the witnesses are alive.
The relief organizations are under the sway of orders from UNHCR, and they have made some pro-Vietnamese political choices. If this were not true, it would be impossible to explain the stonewalling of journalists. This also explains why certain Catholic organizations, simply because they are not pro-Vietnam or pro-Soviet, are boycotted. And it is absurd to look for confirmation of these stories in American documents, since the United States is conducting an ambiguous policy on the question of poison gas in that part of the world.
In Panat Nikon, entering clandestinely into the refugee camp, I interviewed the Vietnamese Captain Nguyen Quan, a deserter, who fought with chemical weapons. The captain told me how and where he was trained, which chemical weapons he used, and where they were used. His report, of which I have a copy, was given to the Americans, and they promised to permit him to move to the United States. This promise was then broken—Quan says—when he refused to strike from his report the passage in which he wrote that the Vietnamese used some quantities of gas left behind by the Americans in Vietnam. The Vietnam syndrome creates such complexes, evidently.
6. The Brown case. The story of Adelia Bernard exists as an official document, in the official record of the Australian government (Hansard) for May 1981. It was certainly transmitted officially to the UN, which has never referred to it. Why? I have tapes (both audio and video) of Mrs. Bernard’s story, and I wrote it just as she told it. By the time I did so, it had already been published a year before in the Rome paper il Tempo, and had not been denied. The only reaction to the story, which was written by the journalist Clara Falcone, came from groups in Rome friendly to UNHCR, who described Miss Falcone as a “maniac,” the same treatment that is now being given to Mrs. Bernard. But Adelia Bernard is not crazy, and is not a “maniac.” She is the daughter of an Italian admiral and is married to an Australian businessman. She works as a member of a Catholic refugee organization, COERR, and has had contacts with the Vatican during a trip to Rome, during which she was praised by the Italian press.
When my story first appeared in il Giornale Nuovo in Milan, Mark Brown himself did nothing. Instead, I received a written denial from Leon Davico, of the Information Office of UNHCR, similar to the one he has now sent to COMMENTARY. I published Mr. Davico’s letter in il Giornale Nuovo, and I invited Mark Brown to a face-to-face encounter with Adelia Bernard, in front of television cameras. She agreed, and Mr. Davico replied that Mr. Brown had also accepted. But when it came time to organize the debate, Mr. Brown withdrew.
7. It would be unfortunate if morbid curiosity about Mrs. Bernard’s story caused us to lose sight of the basic problem: the shameful behavior of UNHCR. UNHCR has conducted a pro-Soviet and pro-Vietnamese policy. It has forced Cambodian refugee children to return to Cambodia, after negotiating the question directly with Phnom Penh. These children were subsequently sent to Eastern Europe for “reeducation.” In response to this scandal, the Dutchman Van Bowen, the head of the Human Rights section of the UN, resigned, and Edmond Kaiser, the founder of the humanitarian organization Terre des Hommes, accused UNHCR of having stained with blood the Nobel Peace Prize which it had received in 1981. Against such policies all protest seems useless (even including the one in January 1982 by Thai lawyers in Paris who declared that the majority of child prostitutes in Thailand were recruited in refugee camps under UNHCR control).
The refugees in these camps have also endured forced recruitment by the resistance; kidnappings; vendettas; assassinations; and even crucifixions. Mr. Vickery, who has spent so much time around the camps, has he seen or heard nothing of all this? Probably not, since he is so intent on reading the reports of the “specialists.” Or does he dismiss the accounts of the refugees themselves because he considers them tainted by anti-Communism?