WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pentagon and CIA came under renewed fire Thursday from a presidential panel, including assertions they were overly cautious in investigating health problems among Gulf War veterans. It accused the Defense Department of obstructing the panel's work.
In a move to strengthen their credibility, the Defense Department and the CIA jointly appointed former Sen. Warren B. Rudman as an adviser on Gulf War veterans' illnesses.
Rudman's role will be to ``find the facts,'' Defense Secretary William Cohen said.
The New Hampshire Republican will be a kind of ombudsman, Cohen said, and will focus on questions about the handling and use of intelligence information during the 1991 Gulf War that could have prevented some troop exposure to chemical agents.
Cohen's spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, said Rudman would not be paid for his work, which Bacon said would be part-time. He said Cohen expects Rudman to be his ``eyes and ears'' by consulting with veterans as well as with intelligence specialists.
At the White House, press secretary Mike McCurry welcomed the Rudman appointment. He said the former senator's spirit of openness and knowledge of government's inner workings qualify him well to oversee the investigations.
Rudman met Thursday with Bernard Rostker, who is directing the Pentagon's investigation of Gulf War illness issues. Afterward Rostker told reporters he was happy to have Rudman involved.
``I think we're going a great job,'' Rostker said. ``I'm thrilled to tell the story of what we're doing.'' He acknowledged that when he encounters Gulf War veterans they often are quick to question the government's trustworthiness.
``It's a difficult question ... to have to hear, but it's not undeserved,'' Rostker said, adding that Rudman's input should help in that regard.
A memorandum released Thursday by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses blasted the Pentagon and the CIA on several fronts including the allegation of Defense Department obstruction.
``We remain guarded in our assessment of DOD's willingness to provide access to information critical to our work,'' the panel said in its memo to Cohen.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department did its best to cooperate with the presidential panel but believed it was prudent to take an intentionally deliberate approach to resolving chemical-exposure questions.
``We're doing the most we can to make this as open as possible,'' Whitman said.
Although scientists are divided over whether exposure to chemical weapons can cause the kinds of health problems Gulf War veterans have reported, the presidential panel said the Pentagon should have pursued the matter more aggressively.
``In the face of substantial, credible evidence to the contrary, DOD's consistent denials to June 1996 of the possibility of exposure of U.S. troops to chemical warfare agents cannot be justified,'' the panel said.
It added that the Pentagon passed up chances to obtain information about possible troop exposures and as a result ``undermined its credibility with much of the American public.''
By appointing Rudman as an adviser, Cohen and George Tenet, the CIA's acting director, hope not only to dispel any notion they are hiding information about Gulf War illnesses but also to repair damage to their agencies' credibility. Rudman is vice chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
The presidential panel, which has no direct connection to Rudman, said in its Thursday memo that it remains convinced that overwhelming evidence exists of a chemical agent release at Iraq's Khamisiayah Ammunition Storage Depot shortly after the war ended Feb. 28, 1991.
The report said the Pentagon was too slow to reach conclusions, took an approach that was too legalistic and improperly interfered with the oversight panel's work.
``The Defense Department should move as quickly as possible toward conclusions about the incidents under investigation and, when in doubt, err in favor of targeted notification of troops about possible health risks,'' the report said.
Regarding the White House panel's work, the report said Pentagon officials used the federal Privacy Act to prevent panel investigators from having unfettered access to relevant information.