Faced with mounting bipartisan criticism, the Pentagon yesterday promised to reassess its response to mysterious illnesses affecting several thousand Persian Gulf War veterans. It put its second-ranking official in charge of the review.
The decision removes Stephen C. Joseph, the Pentagon's senior doctor, from responsibility for the department's response and replaces him with Deputy Defense Secretary John White.
A congressional source said the action came after senior administration officials sharply criticized the Pentagon's handling of the issue during a Tuesday meeting.
Capt. Mike Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman, said last night that the action was not a rebuke of Joseph, a former New York City health commissioner.
"It is an effort on the part of Dr. White to focus the attention and resources of the department and, in President Clinton's words, `to leave no stone unturned' " in the search for what may have made the veterans ill, the spokesman said.
The review will "look across the board at all DOD activities," including intelligence and other areas not under Joseph's authority, Doubleday said.
The new review was disclosed in a letter made public at the start of a highly critical Senate hearing yesterday at which Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, demanded Clinton fire Joseph.
"It's time to face the music -- way past time. It's time for a change at DOD," Rockefeller said, urging the ouster of Joseph, a public health academician who has served as assistant defense secretary for health affairs since 1994. A Rockefeller aide said the senator was not satisfied by the letter, written by White, and still believes Joseph had failed to move aggressively to discover why so many veterans from the 1991 conflict are suffering from a number of mysterious maladies known as the "Gulf War Syndrome."
More than 3,000 veterans from the war against Iraq have reported suffering from sore joints, headaches, chronic fatigue and other ailments they have said they believe were the result of exposure to Iraqi chemical or biological weapons.
Last week the Pentagon acknowledged that as many as 5,000 American troops may have been exposed to chemical agents as U.S. forces blew up ammunition in a remote weapons site.
Rockefeller and a bipartisan chorus used the joint hearing by the Senate intelligence and Veterans Affairs committees to express exasperation for why it took the Defense Department five years to confirm the veterans' complaints.
"We can do better. And we must do better," Rockefeller asserted. "That is why I have decided to call upon the president to bring new health leadership to the DOD."
Joseph maintained that the government's response to complaints of ailing Gulf War veterans had been instigated long before he took charge of the Pentagon's health programs in March 1994. He strongly defended the federal government's response, telling senators it would take more scientific studies to discover what happened to the troops.
"We cannot hurry science," he cautioned.
Although Joseph acknowledged that intelligence agencies knew of the presence of chemical weapons at a remote Iraqi site called Khamisiyah in 1991, he said their medical significance only recently was realized.
"This was not in our awareness until June of this year," he said. "I'm not making an excuse. I'm telling you what happened."
The criticisms were bipartisan. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said the government had given the veterans "a great stiff-arm" and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) denounced "a shameful campaign of obstruction and delay" over the veterans' illnesses.
Senate intelligence committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) expressed surprise at the White letter, describing it as an obvious attempt to blunt criticism of the Pentagon.
In the letter to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, White said the Pentagon was "redoubling our efforts, broadening the scope of our investigations and adding additional resources" to investigate the illnesses.
White said the Defense Department would use more outside help reassessing the veterans' complaints and that he was directing Joseph to consider still more research projects.
The Army's inspector general has been ordered to conduct an inquiry into the destruction of weapons at Khamisiyah where some of the chemical bombs were destroyed shortly after the cease-fire, White said.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry's intelligence assistant also was asked to conduct an inquiry into whether the Pentagon mishandled early intelligence reports by United Nations teams on the chemical weapons destroyed at the site.
Joseph and Kenneth W. Kizer, undersecretary for veterans affairs, remained firm in their belief that, as Kizer put it, "there is no Gulf War Syndrome in the strict medical sense of the term."
Ailing veterans from the war have exhibited a number of complaints, but these do not point to a "single, unique disease," Kizer said.
Moreover, both doctors told the committees that all medical research indicates long-term chronic illnesses are usually presaged by acute clinical signs and symptoms, something few of the Persian Gulf veterans have exhibited.
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