Fact or fiction: Congressman claims evidence links Lyme disease to US military bioweapons research


U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class William J. Camp Jr., left, noncommissioned officer in charge, uses a chemical agent detection pen to determine the substance at a simulated crime scene.

(New Jersey National Guard photo by Mark C. Olsen)

A lawmaker who wants the Pentagon to investigate whether military biological weapons experiments with ticks cause Lyme disease insists he is not spreading conspiracy theories.

"Why wouldn't we want to know?" Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told Task & Purpose. "Let the IG [inspector general's office] decide that — and put this to bed forever — if indeed it's a fable, if it's untrue."

Smith authored an amendment to the House version of the Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Pentagon to investigate if the military released infected ticks onto an unsuspecting American public "by accident or experiment design."

But experts say they are skeptical of any link between U.S. military bioweapons research and the outbreak of Lyme disease.

"Ticks and Lyme Disease would be a very strange choice as a deliberate bioweapon because ticks are difficult to work with, don't have wings, and Lyme would hardly be a force reducer," said Robert Peterson, an entomology professor at Montana State University.

Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb declined to discuss Smith's amendment because the Defense Department does not comment on proposed legislation.

"DOD takes extreme care in all of our research programs to ensure the protection of our personnel and the community," Babb said.

When Smith announced his amendment, he cited the book "Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons," which looks at U.S. military experiments with ticks.

"There's just too much evidence for a reasonable man or woman to just turn the page and say: 'Put on your tinfoil fat. This is just a conspiracy theory,'" Smith said. "And yet, people with credentials will say that, which begs the question: Why would they even say that?"

Kris Newby, who wrote "Bitten," said she discovered circumstantial evidence linking the outbreak of Lyme disease in the 1960s to the U.S. military.

As proof, Newby cites an interview she had with Dr. Willy Burgdorfer, the American scientist who discovered what causes Lyme disease, who told her shortly before his death that he had been instructed to keep his research into a possible cause for Lyme disease a secret.

"My hypothesis is that was the biological weapon they were trying to cover up," said Newby, a science writer at the Stanford School of Medicine in California.

But Newby said she cannot definitively link Lyme disease to the U.S. military's bioweapons research efforts conducted at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

"I can't connect all those dots right now," said Newby, who survived Lyme disease. "My theory is that it was a genetically engineered Rickettsia [bacteria] but, as a journalist, I can't prove that."

Others find the idea the notion that the U.S. military infected ticks with Lyme disease more than a little far-fetched.

"I've heard a little bit about this story and speculation and whatnot — it's a really intuitively weak accusation," said Jeffrey Lockwood, who teaches natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming.

Lockwood wrote "Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War," about the U.S. military's biological warfare experiments with ticks, flies, and fleas. It turns out the Army did conduct research into whether ticks could be used to spread tularemia, relapsing fever, and Colorado fever during the Cold War.

Despite these experiments, Lockwood said he is "profoundly dubious" that the U.S. military looked into using ticks to transmit Lyme disease.

Ticks are not the best vector to spread bioweapons because they do not go very far and Lyme disease is a slow-acting pathogen, Lockwood told Task & Purpose. Other tick-borne diseases are far worse to humans.

"Weaponizing Lyme disease with a tick vector just doesn't add up to make a whole lot of sense," Lockwood said. "On the other hand – quite frankly – U.S. military weapons development hasn't always made a whole lot of sense."

UPDATE: This story was updated on Aug. 9 to more clearly reflect Kris Newby's comments.

U.S. Air Force airmen from the 405th Expeditionary Support Squadron work together to clear debris inside the passenger terminal the day after a Taliban-led attack at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Brandon Cribelar)

Blasts from Taliban car bombs outside of Bagram Airfield on Wednesday caused extensive damage to the base's passenger terminal, new pictures released by the 45th Expeditionary Wing show.

The pictures, which are part of a photo essay called "Bagram stands fast," were posted on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service's website on Thursday.

Read More Show Less
The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan, June 17, 2017 (U.S. Navy photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

Shortly after seven sailors died aboard USS Fitzgerald when she collided with a merchant ship off Japan in 2017, I wrote that the Fitzgerald's watch team could have been mine. My ship had once had a close call with me on watch, and I had attempted to explain how such a thing could happen. "Operating ships at sea is hard, and dangerous. Stand enough watches, and you'll have close calls," I wrote at the time. "When the Fitzgerald's investigation comes out, I, for one, will likely be forgiving."

The investigations, both public and private, are out, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report assessing the changes to training implemented since the collisions.

So, am I forgiving? Yes — for some.

Read More Show Less
Belgian nurse Augusta Chiwy, left, talks with author and military historian Martin King moments before receiving an award for valor from the U.S. Army, in Brussels, Dec. 12, 2011. (Associated Press/Yves Logghe)

Editor's note: a version of this story first appeared in 2015.

Most people haven't heard of an elderly Belgian-Congolese nurse named Augusta Chiwy. But students of history know that adversity and dread can turn on a dime into freedom and change, and it's often the most humble and little-known individuals who are the drivers of it.

During the very darkest days of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Chiwy was such a catalyst, and hundreds of Americans lived because of her. She died quietly on Aug. 23, 2015, at the age of 94 at her home in Brussels, Belgium, and had it not been for the efforts of my friend — British military historian Martin King — the world may never have heard her astonishing story.

Read More Show Less
A Ukrainian serviceman watches from his position at the new line of contact in Zolote, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine Nov. 2, 2019 (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

More than $20 million of the Pentagon aid at the center of the impeachment fight still hasn't reached Ukraine.

The continued delay undermines a key argument against impeachment from President Trump's Republican allies and a new legal memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Read More Show Less
(Glow Images via Associated Press_

Average pay, housing and subsistence allowances will increase for members of the military in 2020, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

Read More Show Less