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2012-03-27

Pentagon Stays Silent on Whether Suspect in Afghan Massacre Took Controversial Anti-Malaria Drug

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As Staff. Sgt. Robert Bales is charged with murdering 17 Afghans, we speak with reporter Mark Benjamin, who revealed the Pentagon recently launched an emergency review of a controversial anti-malaria drug known to induce psychotic behavior. Mefloquine, also called Lariam, is used to protect soldiers from malaria, but has been known to have side effects including paranoia and hallucinations. It has been implicated in a number of suicides and homicides, including within U.S. military ranks. In 2009, the Army decreed that soldiers who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries should not be given the drug. But this month, just nine days after Bales’ shooting rampage, the Army issued an emergency decree calling for the review to be expedited. "The military announced that this drug should not be given to people who have brain problems like traumatic brain injuries," Benjamin says. "What the military has discovered is that out on the battlefield, those rules aren’t being followed, and some soldiers who do have these kinds of problems are getting this drug." The Pentagon says there’s no connection between its review of mefloquine and the murders, but it’s refused to confirm or deny whether Bales was given the drug. Benjamin reports for the Huffington Post that the Pentagon initially ordered the review of mefloquine in January. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Did a controversial anti-malaria drug known to induce psychotic behavior help cause the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier earlier this month? That’s the question posed by a new exposé in the Huffington Post.

Reporter Mark Benjamin has revealed the Pentagon recently launched an emergency review of mefloquine, also known as Lariam. The drug is used to protect soldiers from malaria but has been known to have these side effects, including psychotic behavior, paranoia and hallucinations. It’s been implicated in a number of suicides, homicides, including within U.S. military ranks. In 2009, the Army decreed soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries should not be given the drug.

The Huffington Post reports the Pentagon initially ordered the review of mefloquine in January. But this month, just nine days after Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was detained for killing 17 Afghan civilians in a shooting rampage, the Army issued an emergency decree calling for the review to be expedited. The Pentagon says there’s no connection between mefloquine and the murders, but it’s refused to confirm or deny whether Bales was given the drug. Bales reportedly suffered traumatic brain injuries while serving in Iraq in 2010.

Mark Benjamin is the reporter who broke this story for the Huffington Post. He’s joining us from Washington.

Mark, tell us what you found.

MARK BENJAMIN: Good morning, Amy.

Well, what I found is that the Army is looking into some very troubling circumstances. Well, the military wide is looking at some troubling circumstances. And what they’re looking into is, the military has discovered that in—it seems to be violating its own rules. In 2009, the military announced that this drug called mefloquine is in fact very, very dangerous, which is what I’ve been reporting on for many years, and basically said, "Let’s only use this drug in very, very limited circumstances in places like Afghanistan, and let’s definitely not give it to people who have any brain problems." Now, the reason why is because this is a relatively unusual drug called a quinolone, and it goes into—it crosses the blood-brain barrier and goes into the human brain and, in certain brains, can do very serious damage. So the military announced that this drug should not be given to people who have brain problems like traumatic brain injuries.

What the military has discovered is that out on the battlefield, those rules aren’t being followed, and some soldiers who do have these kinds of problems are getting this drug. And that obviously can increase the likelihood of a problem like a psychotic break. Now, this review just happens to be ongoing, apparently, at the time that Bales, the staff sergeant, went—apparently went on this shooting spree, killing 17 people including nine children. Now, the Army is just—and the military will not say whether or not he took this drug, but this review is happening at the time that these murders took place.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say that soldiers were taking it, did they have to take it? Were they forced to take it?

MARK BENJAMIN: Yes. I mean, when you’re out at an outpost—mostly, mefloquine is not used by the military because of the dangers, but at some outposts like, for example, relatively remote outposts in Afghanistan, like the one Bales was working at—he was at a relatively remote outpost in Kandahar—medics will sometimes resort to this drug because it’s easy to prevent malaria. You only have to take this pill once a week. Other, you know, pills that prevent malaria, you have to take every day. So it’s easy when you’re in a, you know, rough and tumble outpost like that to just give your guys one pill a week and not have to worry about malaria.

The concern is that at a place like that, they’re not screening people for contraindications, like, "Hey, did you have a head injury before? Because if so, you shouldn’t take this pill." The concern is that out there in the bush, they just sort of hand this pill out, and the people that shouldn’t get it do get it. Now, whether or not Bales took this drug, we do not know. The Pentagon will not say. If he took the drug, could it have led to this kind of psychotic behavior? Definitely. It says that on the drug label, and we’ve seen it time and time again, even with very elite Special Forces soldiers who have taken this drug and gone on murderous rampages and suicidal rampages.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us examples, Mark Benjamin.

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, I spent most of my time working with Peace Corps volunteers, who also took this drug and have had serious problems, and very elite Special Forces soldiers. The reason why I focused on Special Forces soldiers is that, statistically, they’re very unlikely to do things like commit suicide. They’re relatively stable people. I found a series of Special Forces soldiers who took this drug and then resorted to acts of violence, murder and suicide.

There was a—a typical pattern emerged. I can give you one example. In 2004, I concentrated on a very experienced Special Forces soldier named Bill Howell at Fort Carson, Colorado. Howell took the—seemed to be a very, very stable guy, took the drug during a tour in Iraq, had severe mental problems. And what’s interesting, I think, is that, typically, when a person has a problem with this drug, it’s actually relatively easy to figure out, because typically what happens is they don’t just have mental problems, they have physical problems, too. They have a rash. They have gastrointestinal problems. They have, often, vertigo. They’re dizzy. They have eye problems, loss of some of their vision. So, you know, it’s almost like someone is being poisoned. It’s not—you know, it’s not just that they’re acting funny. That’s what happened with Bill Howell. He had a psychotic break, I think you would describe it, beat up his wife, hunted her around the house with a—almost like an animal, out into the yard, and then put the gun to her, and then put the gun to his own head and shot himself in front of his wife, who described him as sort of just not being there, not being there.

One of the things that concerns me is that some of these soldiers, when we have an opportunity to interview them, seem to really be not well connected. I mean, they sometimes talk gibberish. I mean, it looks like brain damage, which is sort of what this attorney is describing how—that’s how Bales is behaving. Now, of course, that could have been caused by battlefield trauma. It could have been caused by his brain injury. I just think it’s important to pay attention to this story, because if it turns out that mefloquine comes up, it is true that this could have been a factor, if he took it, and in fact, it could have been a major factor.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the drug’s manufacturer?

MARK BENJAMIN: The drug has been manufactured by Roche Pharmaceuticals for several decades. What is interesting about this drug is it was actually, initially, invented by the U.S. Army. The Army invented it after—years after Vietnam, because malaria was such a problem in Vietnam. The U.S. Army invented it, gave the patent to a manufacturer named Roche Pharmaceuticals. Roche Pharmaceuticals has, for years, particularly over the last decade when I’ve been reporting on the drug, resisted, I think it’s fair to say, putting increasing warnings on its drug label. It has done so reluctantly under pressure from the FDA. The current label for Lariam, which is the brand name—mefloquine is the generic name—does list things like psychotic episodes, hallucinations, anxiety, that kind of thing.

The other thing that’s interesting about the drug label that Roche puts out is that it says on the drug label an interesting thing about Lariam. I mentioned how it crosses the blood-brain barrier. Sometimes people—or actually, frequently, when people have a problem with this drug, the percentage that do, once the damage is done in the brain, it’s done. In other words, it’s not like you can just wait until this drug gets out of your system, and then you’re OK. Typically, once the damage is done to your brain and your central nervous system, it’s done. It’s like being hit in the head with a hammer. And it says that on the drug label. It says that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you stop taking the pills. If you have problems, they last, quote, "long after," unquote, people stop taking the drug. So it’s—I think it’s safe to say that it, in some situations, can be a very dangerous pill.

AMY GOODMAN: Looking at a report from CBS News—you’re talking about the soldier at Fort Bragg. Four soldiers accused of killing their wives, two of them committed suicide, the other two await trial. So many brutal crimes, so similar, so close in time, raise questions. The Army sent a team to investigate. All taking Lariam. Do you think that could—that is possible?

MARK BENJAMIN: Yes, I do. In fact, that was a separate case that I also spent a lot of time on the ground at Fort Bragg investing that case. Those soldiers did take Lariam. They did exhibit some very strange behavior and some of the physical problems. One of the soldiers, named Bill Wright, interestingly, did kill his wife and then killed himself in jail later. We did have a chance to talk with his attorney quite a bit. And he, again, exhibited some of these same problems. In fact, he, you know, a very elite soldier, had trouble putting together sentences while in prison. You know, he couldn’t talk right. This was, interestingly, a civil affairs soldier who was not exposed to combat. He was, you know, digging wells and that kind of stuff very early in the war in Afghanistan. So, you know, the only thing that we could find that would cause him to basically have a psychotic break was this pill. And he took the pill and had a psychotic break and killed his wife and ultimately killed himself.

AMY GOODMAN: Now soldiers who are suffering the side effects of Lariam have—are seeking compensation?

MARK BENJAMIN: That’s right. There are a variety of veterans and veterans’ groups that are concerned about the long-term implications of this drug. I mean, for example, there’s, you know, Veterans Against Lariam on Facebook. And it’s interesting how motivated some parts of the veterans’ community are about this drug. And, you know, one other thing I would note, whenever I write a story—I haven’t written about mefloquine for years. I had sort of given up, until this event took place. And when you write a story like I did in Huffington Post yesterday, boy, the email—I mean, it just pours in from veterans, also Peace Corps volunteers, but veterans saying that they have had some really troubling experiences with this drug. I don’t have time to vet all those stories, but, boy, if my inbox is any indication, there are a lot of soldiers out there—

AMY GOODMAN: Mark, what if you refuse to take it? What if you’re a soldier, and you’re just not going to let them give it to you, you’re not going to take it?

MARK BENJAMIN: There are cases where that occurs. Mostly what I have heard happens is soldiers realize there’s a problem with this drug, and they take it from the medic, and they tell the medic that they are taking it, and they throw it over their shoulder. I’m not aware of any case where anybody has said to a medic, "I’m not going to swallow this pill." They just quietly don’t do it. So, you know, I would say, hypothetically, disobeying a direct order in the military is a really bad idea and can get you into big, big trouble and get you thrown in jail. So it’s not like anybody has any choice about these things. But I—

AMY GOODMAN: And the Pentagon’s response to your article, Mark?

MARK BENJAMIN: The Pentagon response has been that, you know, "This review, we’re looking into this drug. Yes, there is a problem out there on the battlefield. Yes, it seems that this drug is going to some of the wrong people, people like Bales, who should not be given the drug. But it has nothing to do with the Bales events." They say it’s completely unrelated. And it may be. And then they say, "But we’re not going to talk about Bales and whether or not he took the pills." And I think that that’s a situation that probably will not stand. I think, one way or another, the Pentagon is going to have to come out and say either this guy took the drug, or he did not. And if he did not, you know, I’m done. I’m not going to write about it anymore. But I think it is a pertinent question that needs to be answered.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the military or other groups giving out Lariam to communities, for example, in Afghanistan, in Iraq?

MARK BENJAMIN: I’m not aware of it being handed to civilians, you know, for example, in Afghanistan or Iraq. But there are other government entities that have used it for years. One example that I think I mentioned was the Peace Corps. It’s easy to find Peace Corps volunteers who say they’ve, you know, had real problems with this drug. It’s very easy to find Peace Corps volunteers who said they started having problems with the drug and just didn’t take it. They’d rather just get malaria or risk getting malaria. There are State Department officials that I’ve run into who have been stationed around the world who have claimed—claim to have serious brain damage from taking the drug. So there—it’s mostly, you know, federal government officials, that this is a drug that the federal government invented and the government has been handing out to government officials for a long, long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, we’ll link to your article, an investigative reporter who just broke this story in the Huffington Post called "Military Scrambles to Limit Malaria Drug Just After Afghanistan Massacre."

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