They're getting away with it again.
The U.S. military is ignoring documented evidence that links a violence-inducing prescription drug with the worst American war crime in decades -- the massacre last year of 16 Afghan civilians by Army Sgt. Robert Bales.
The Army invented the drug, called Lariam or mefloquine, and has consistently avoided reckoning with the consequences, including a string of bizarre murder-suicides stretching back more than a decade.
haven't said whether Bales took Lariam, but I've just obtained
a formal report filed by the drug company with the Food and Drug Administration that says he
did -- the first direct evidence U.S. officials have been aware of the
prospect, and for more than a year. (See event/problem narrative below.)
I got the report from Dr. Remington Nevin, a former Army officer who has studied the drug and published peer-reviewed articles about its dangers. In fact, Nevin and former Army psychiatrist Elspeth Cameron Ritchie just published last month in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatric and the Law Online, noting the "potent psychotropic potential" of the drug. "Severe psychiatric side effects due to mefloquine intoxication are well documented," they wrote, "including anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, persecutory delusions, dissociative psychosis, and anterograde amnesia. Exposure to the drug has been associated with acts of violence and suicide."
Nevin told Congress last year it could become "the Agent Orange of our generation." The alarm apparently fell on deaf ears.
"It remains possible this report was submitted by someone without first-hand knowledge," Nevin told me about the newly disclosed FDA report. "However, by any reasonable standard, the fact that this report clearly alludes to a case that can only be Bales' calls for greater transparency by DoD as to whether he was in fact taking the drug."
Last month, Time magazine wrote about a similar report filed with the Irish drug agency, which refers to the incident as "medically confirmed." Time called that report a "smoking pillbox."
The document reproduced here today is specific about the source -- it says the information came from a pharmacist. The report does not name Bales, but the killing of 17 [later reduced to 16] Afghanis would seem to rule out anyone else. It is hard to see how someone at the FDA could have failed to bring it to the attention of the military, or how the military in its exhaustive criminal investigation of the case could have failed to learn what drugs it had prescribed to Bales.
The Army allowed Bales to plead guilty to the rampage last month and avoid the death penalty. A sentencing trial is scheduled for next month on whether he should receive life in prison with or without parole.
At the time, I wrote a piece asking, "What is the death penalty for?" and wondering why it would have been taken off the table by allowing a plea deal, in the face of deep anger from of Afghan allies. I speculated the Army might want to avoid an unpleasant discussion of its own drug, in return for sparing Bales' life.
At the plea hearing, Bales acknowledged using steroids, and there were also reports of drinking alcohol and snorting Valium. If he took Lariam, however, it could create a classic "but for" defense -- but for the drug the Army prescribed him, it's reasonable to argue the murder would not have occurred.
Absent that, the onus was on Bales for using banned substances, even if they affected his mental state to the point he committed the atrocity. But other soldiers have used alcohol, drugs, and steroids without killing men, women and children and setting some on fire.
As the New York Times wrote of his guilty plea:
"But the curtain of enigma about the man himself, and his descent into darkness and murder on the night of the killings, remained firmly in place. The millions of Americans who have pondered the mechanisms of atrocity since the attacks in March 2012 were left in the dark. Even Sergeant Bales himself, finally pressed by the presiding judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, to explain more deeply what happened, seemed baffled."
“There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did,” he said.
Well, Lariam could be a good reason, not in the sense of an excuse but an explanation, one that might even have rendered Bales not criminally responsible. It would point a finger directly at what, in my view, amounts to a long-running coverup of the drug's toxic effects on both soldiers and civilians. I first wrote about it in 1999 and, with my reporting partner at UPI, Mark Benjamin, published a multi-part investigation.
"A startling pattern of violence and suicide by America's most elite soldiers has followed their use of a controversial anti-malaria drug, an investigation by United Press International and CNN has found," we reported in 2004.
Those articles clearly showed aberrant behavior by highly trained troops who had taken the drug, and included a string of murder-suicides at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2002 among troops recently returned from Afghanistan.
Certainly the VA is aware of the dangers, and has alerted vets it will consider disability claims based on the drug's psychiatric effects. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has written scalding letters to the Pentagon in the past trying to get it to stop - not just dial back - use of the drug, and the Bales massacre could be a direct result of ignoring those requests.
In its report to the FDA on what appears to be the Bales case, the drug manufacturer, Roche, notes Lariam should not have been prescribed to anyone with a history of traumatic brain injury, as Bales had. But that hardly exempts the pharmaceutical company, which tracked suicides from the drug beginning in the 1990s but just used the word "depression" -- on the theory that depression can lead to suicide, so there was no need to mention the more alarming word.
If nothing happens, and Bales is sentenced without any discussion of what role the drug may have played, our government will have basically gotten away with avoiding crucial questions that deserve answers. In less polite terms, the coverup would continue.
It would not be the first time, and, worst of all, probably not the last; the drug company acknowledges effects that include aggression and psychosis can last "long after" someone stops taking it -- and if the manufacturer is willing to go that far, that means they can basically last forever.
This delay and denial is a pattern that has played out not just in the military, which claims it can't understand the rate of suicide in soldiers and veterans, but across-the-board in a failure to detect, track, and acknowledge the sometimes terrible consequences of medical interventions and medicines.
This might be a good time for Sen. Feinstein to write another letter, one marked "urgent," to the Secretary of Defense.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism. His reporting, with Mark Benjamin, on the severe effects of Lariam on U.S. soldiers won best wire-service reporting from the National Mental Health Association in 2005.