ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A special White House panel said Friday that the Pentagon had lost so much credibility in its investigation of the release of Iraqi chemical weapons in the 1991 Persian Gulf War that oversight of the investigation must be taken away from the Defense Department permanently.
In its final public hearing after a two-year inquiry, the panel called on the White House or the National Security Council to draw up plans to transfer oversight to an agency other than the Defense Department -- possibly one with subpoena power, some panel members suggested.
"The Pentagon is not credible to continue inquiries that veterans and the public do not find persuasive," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
Pentagon officials, Caplan said, "are inclined to see things from the point of view at which they started: deny that there were chemicals on the battlefield."
The panel's executive director, Robyn Nishimi, said that after years of inaction and misstatements by the Pentagon, "the well has been poisoned in essence, and the government's credibility continues to be questioned."
A Defense Department spokesman, Capt. Tom Gilroy, defended the department's investigation of chemical exposures in the war but said the Pentagon was willing to accept additional oversight if requested by the White House.
"We welcome insight," Gilroy said. "We're committed to a thorough and complete investigation."
The committee, which was formed by President Clinton in May 1995 and which met Friday to edit a draft of its final report, also called for Congress to create a special government program that would periodically review scientific research to determine whether veterans are entitled to disability payments because of health problems resulting from their service in the Gulf War.
The draft report suggested that the government contract with an outside scientific organization, possibly an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to carry out the program.
Thousands of Gulf War veterans have reported a variety of mysterious ailments, including chronic digestive problems, rashes and memory loss, that they attribute to their service in the Gulf.
While scientists are divided on the question of whether exposure to Iraqi chemicals could be responsible for the health problems, there is mounting evidence to show that thousands of U.S. troops were exposed to at least low levels of poison gas during and after the war.
The Pentagon estimated this year that as many as 100,000 U.S. troops had been exposed to low doses of the nerve gas sarin as a result of a single incident: the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot in March 1991. It was only last year, after years of denials, that the Defense Department acknowledged the possibility that large numbers of troops had been exposed to poison gas in the Gulf.
In an interim report in January, the White House panel said the limited scientific research on the issue showed that it was unlikely that chemical weapons were responsible for the health problems reported by the veterans. But the panel still called for millions of dollars in new research on the issue.
Since that report, the Pentagon has acknowledged that chemical weapons had probably spread much farther across the battlefield than was originally thought. Research studies published in The Journal of the American Medical Association also suggested that many Gulf War veterans had been made ill from exposure to a group of chemicals, including low levels of nerve gas.
As a result, several committee members asked that the final report reflect a distinct possibility that exposure to trace levels of chemical weapons might have played some role in the veterans' ailments.
And on Friday the full committee agreed to revise the final report to add wording to make clear that the research on the issue was minimal and that only years of research "may clarify the conundrums surrounding Gulf War veterans' illnesses."
Chemical weapons are not the only suspected cause of the illnesses of Gulf War veterans. The Pentagon is investigating other possibilities, including exposure to pesticides and smoke from oil-well fires. Many scientists have suggested that wartime stress also plays an important role in the ailments.
The report last January was supposed to be the panel's last, but President Clinton extended the panel's mandate through October, in part to oversee the Defense Department's investigation of the possible exposure of U.S. troops to chemical or biological weapons.
Members of the panel said Friday that while the Defense Department deserved credit for broadly expanding its investigation of the issue since last year, the Pentagon was continuing either to ignore or to minimize the importance of evidence suggesting that much larger numbers of U.S. troops had been exposed to chemical weapons.
Caplan said Pentagon officials "view this through a lens that allows them to conclude that something happened only in the face of overwhelming facts."
He noted that in several incidents, the Pentagon had discounted the findings of its own well-trained troops whose equipment, then considered the best on the battlefield, detected nerve gas and other chemical weapons.
"The Pentagon sees the burden of evidence as falling on those who argue otherwise," Caplan said. "I find that not a credible stance. I find it distasteful. I find it unpersuasive. I find it, in fact, unbelievable."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company