A White House committee investigating the illnesses of Persian Gulf War veterans chided the Pentagon yesterday for being slow to investigate 11 possible chemical warfare incidents during the 1991 conflict in which U.S. troops could have been exposed to poison gas.
The recommendation from the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses came with a blunt suggestion: "When in doubt, err in favor of targeted notification of troops about possible health risks and the availability of free diagnosis and treatment programs established by the government."
The incidents, including reported gas detections by Czech and French troops, have been investigated previously, but the presidential committee is anxious that the Pentagon review how it examined the incidents and reach a conclusion about the likelihood of gas exposure.
As expected, the committee's latest report sharply criticized "substantial mismanagement and lack of communication" between intelligence agencies and military forces during the 1991 war with Iraq.
The committee said that both the military and intelligence agencies "clearly possessed" information that Iraq had stored chemical weapons at a huge munitions depot overrun by U.S. forces at the end of the conflict, but that word of this danger did not reach the troops who destroyed a large cache of chemical Iraqi weapons found there.
What happened at the Khamisiyah depot has become one of the major issues the committee has been asked by President Clinton to investigate. It is the one incident during the conflict at which a large number of U.S. military personnel are believed to have been exposed to chemical fallout and has become a symbol of the mistrust between the ailing Gulf War veterans and the government.
As the report was released, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has asked former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) to be his special adviser on the sensitive veterans issue. Until now, the Pentagon's handling of that issue was been overseen by Bernard Rostker, an assistant Navy secretary.
Members of the presidential committee have questioned whether Rostker, who has assembled a staff of more than 140 people, has been aggressive enough in pursuing answers to questions about the mysterious ailments that have been claimed by veterans of the brief war with Iraq. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said yesterday there was "absolutely no connection" between the Rudman appointment and any unhappiness with Rostker's work.
Bacon did say, however, that there was "a direct connection" between the appointment and the latest report from the presidential panel. "The secretary wanted an independent view of the adequacy of these findings and an independent view of what we're doing to meet the suggestions in the report," Bacon said.
Rudman, who will not be paid for his part-time assignment, will be asked to serve as an ombudsman, to oversee the thoroughness of the Pentagon's own investigation, Bacon said. That is the same assignment as Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White gave Rostker when he appointed him last year.
In its report, the presidential committee said it continued to have difficulty securing information from the Pentagon about likely chemical exposures of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region. Citing the Pentagon's claim the Privacy Act prevents disclosing some information, the panel declared: "We remain guarded in our assessment of DOD's willingness to provide access to information critical to our work."
The committee's harsh language had been expected after the March disclosure by Central Intelligence Agency officials that the agency had reason to suspect chemical arms were placed at the Khamisiyah depot as early as the mid-1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. While "some level of military services" were alerted to the dangers, the committee said it could not determine "whether the appropriate commanders were aware of the heightened concern about Khamisiyah."
As it did in a public meeting in Salt Lake City in March, the committee expressed frustration over the Pentagon's delays in checking 11 other incidents in which U.S. troops could have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons. It suggested that the Pentagon officials may be using too high a standard to determine whether any such exposures occurred, saying that they were insisting on "the best evidence" or a "preponderance of the evidence" standard.
"The committee believes that for matters involving the health of veterans, adherence to courtroom standards of evidence is inappropriate," the report said. "We plead: `not guilty,' " Rostker told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
The Navy official also expressed disappointment in the report, saying it failed to consider steps his staff has taken since the Salt Lake City meeting.
The committee said in a January report to Clinton that stress could be a likely cause of the illnesses and that more research was needed into the likelihood that the U.S. troops could have been exposed to low-levels of chemical agents during the war.
Most scientific research indicates that low levels of chemical exposure cannot account for most of the ailments reported by Gulf War veterans.
@CAPTION: Ex-senator Warren B. Rudman is to act as a special Pentagon adviser.
@CAPTION: The Khamisiyah depot, shown after destruction in 1991, is where a large number of U.S. troops could have been exposed to chemical fallout.
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