WASHINGTON -- After a 20-month investigation, the panel that has led the chief congressional inquiry into the illnesses of Persian Gulf war veterans will ask that the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs be stripped of their authority over the issue.
In its final report, the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight said the congressional investigation showed that "a variety of toxic agents in the gulf war," including Iraqi chemical weapons and pesticides, were probably responsible for the health problems reported by thousands of veterans.
The report, which is expected to be made public this week, says that the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have so mishandled the investigation of the veterans' health problems that Congress should create or designate an agency independent of them to coordinate research into the cause of the ailments.
"Sadly, when it comes to diagnosis, treatment and research for gulf war veterans, we find the federal government too often has a tin ear, a cold heart and a closed mind," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who has overseen the House investigation. A copy of the report, which is expected to have bipartisan support and to be approved by the committee in a vote this week, was obtained by The New York Times.
The report will be released only days ahead of a separate study by a White House panel of experts that will be nearly as harsh in its criticism of the Defense Department.
In a draft of that study, the White House panel, called the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, said that the Pentagon had "an institutional culture and pervasive inclination" to ignore or dismiss evidence suggesting that American soldiers may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons. "Lack of due diligence means only certain facts come to light," it said.
A Defense Department spokesman said the Pentagon would withhold comment on the House report until it received a copy.
Congressional officials say they hope that the release of such blistering criticism from two sources -- Capitol Hill and the presidential committee -- will force President Clinton to remove the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs from any further oversight of the investigation of the illnesses reported by gulf war veterans.
If the White House does not act, they say, members of Congress will offer legislation to accomplish the same goal, possibly through a bill that would turn over responsibility for the investigations to the National Institutes of Health or some other federal agency.
The House report said that the agency given responsibility for the inquiries should direct federal research money to studies involving the treatment of the neurological problems that are commonly reported by gulf war veterans and that may be the result of chemical exposures.
In the introduction to the report, Shays, chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on Human Resources, said that the investigations by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs were "irreparably flawed" and had been "plagued by arrogant incuriosity and a pervasive myopia that sees a lack of evidence as proof."
"We reluctantly conclude that responsibility for gulf war illnesses, especially the research agenda, must be placed in a more responsive agency, independent of the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs," he said. "We find current approaches to research, diagnosis and treatment unlikely to yield answers to veterans' life-or-death questions."
The report acknowledged that the mystery over the illnesses reported by veterans would probably linger for years.
Though some scientists believe that Iraqi chemical weapons and other poisons released on the battlefield are responsible for many of the health problems, which typically include chronic digestive problems and memory loss, other researchers believe that combat stress is more likely to be the cause.
After more than five years of denials, the Defense Department acknowledged last year for the first time the possibility that large numbers of American troops were exposed to chemical weapons during or after the war.
The Pentagon has since estimated that as many as 100,000 American troops, or one out of seven American soldiers who served in the war, were exposed to low doses of the nerve gas sarin released in the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot in March 1991, shortly after the war.
The department says there is no evidence to show that the exposures led to illnesses among the thousands of veterans who have since complained of health problems, but it has agreed to provide millions of dollars in new research on the issue.
Last month, Defense Secretary William Cohen said that the Pentagon should not be stripped of its authority in the investigation of the illnesses of gulf war veterans.
While acknowledging that the Pentagon had done an inadequate job for several years in studying the ailments, Cohen said that the military had mounted a far more aggressive inquiry over the last year. "I believe that the Pentagon is fully capable of conducting an investigation," he said.
Dr. Frances M. Murphy, director of Persian Gulf health programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that though the criticism of the department was unfair, it was not surprising because "we've heard that same rhetoric before from Congressman Shays at his hearings."
"The record shows that VA has a record of being very proactive, starting with the very first health care programs for gulf war veterans as early as 1992," Murphy said. "We kept an open mind about pesticide exposures, about chemical exposures."
The House report does not identify what agency should take over the investigation except to say that it must be "more responsive" and "independent from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs."
"Having demonstrated unwillingness and inability to overcome institutional biases and constraints, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs should no longer control the Persian Gulf war illness research agency," the report said.
"The premise of both VA and DOD approaches to Gulf war veterans' illnesses has been that toxic exposures played no role in causing the mysterious range of maladies known as 'Gulf War Syndrome.' That presumption is no longer warranted."
The report does not single out any one poison as the cause of the health problems.
Instead it offers a list: "Chemical and biological warfare agents, organophosphates found in pesticides and insect repellents, leaded diesel fuel, depleted uranium, oil-well fire smoke, leaded vehicle exhaust, contaminated drinking water, shower water and clothing, parasites, and pyridostigmine bromide and other drugs to protect against chemical warfare agents."
Pyridostigmine bromide pills were widely distributed to American soldiers during the war to protect them against the effects of soman, a nerve gas that Iraq had stockpiled in huge quantities. But recent research suggests that the drug can cause serious health problems if taken when the body is experiencing stress, such as in battle. The depleted uranium, as cited in the report, was from shells designed to puncture tank armor.
"By all accounts -- official, scientific and firsthand -- the gulf war theater was not just a war zone; it was a cesspool of toxic substances," the report said.
"While the research has yet to cement the link between toxic
exposures and delayed, chronic illnesses, the timing, nature and
frequency of undiagnosed illnesses among gulf war veterans strongly
suggest such a link does exist and will -- given the appropriate
interest, funding and support -- be confirmed."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company