WASHINGTON -- The final report of a White House panel will say that the Pentagon has dismissed credible evidence that thousands of Marines may have been exposed to poison gas when they crossed Iraqi minefields as they invaded Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, officials said Thursday.
The panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, will say that the Department of Defense's failure to fully investigate the incident involving the Marines is "highly damaging to DOD's credibility," according to a draft of the report.
The finding is one of several harsh criticisms of the Pentagon that will be contained in the final report, which is expected to be presented to President Clinton on Friday.
The report by the 11-member White House panel, like a congressional report earlier this week, will recommend that the Defense Department be stripped of oversight in the government's investigation of whether U.S. troops were poisoned by Iraqi chemical weapons.
"The committee perceives that public mistrust about the government's handling of Gulf War veterans' illnesses has not only endured, it has expanded," the panel said. "This persistent atmosphere of distrust ill serves the nation."
Kenneth Bacon, the Defense Department's chief spokesman, said many of the attacks on the Pentagon were unfair because they failed to account for the dramatic expansion of the Pentagon's investigation into the health problems reported by thousands of veterans.
"There's a lot to criticize in the way the Pentagon has handled this in the past," he said. "But I think we have been doing a much better job. The sad thing is that this seems to have turned into a contest of finger pointing rather than a unified effort to get to the reasons for the problems."
The Pentagon has acknowledged only one incident in which large numbers of U.S. troops may have been exposed to Iraqi poison gas: the March 1991 demolition of a sprawling ammunition depot in southern Iraq. The Defense Department has estimated that as many as 100,000 troops were exposed to nerve gas as a result of the demolition.
But officials say the report by the presidential committee will report that there is credible evidence that troops were exposed to chemical weapons in a second incident, when thousands of Marines from the 1st and 2nd Divisions crossed the Iraqi front lines on Feb. 24, 1991, the first day of the ground war. Chemical-weapons specialists in both divisions said they detected poison gas.
The White House panel's draft report said the Pentagon had "failed to pursue, acknowledge or even account for" the chemical detections by the Marines. The draft was provided to The New York Times by people who have long criticized the Pentagon's handling of the issue.
Officials say the panel's final report will not offer an explanation for the mysterious health problems, including chronic digestive ailments and memory loss, reported by thousands of Gulf War veterans.
While some scientists have suggested that chemical weapons were the cause of many of the ailments, other researchers said wartime stress was the more likely culprit. The White House panel has said in the past that chemical weapons were unlikely to be the cause of the ailments, but it has called for millions of dollars in research on the issue.
New evidence of possible chemical exposures involving the Marines was uncovered by one of the Pentagon's own consultants, Mitre Corp. of Bedford, Mass., which was given a $2.5 million contract last year to review classified information about the release of chemical weapons during the war.
In a top-secret report to the Pentagon, officials said, Mitre said there was compelling evidence to suggest that Marines were exposed to poison gas as they crossed the minefields, possibly because the mines contained chemical agents, and that additional investigation was required.
While it has declined to release the report, the Pentagon has put itself in the awkward position of denouncing the work of its own consultants as "sloppy" and "a wild goose chase," and has rejected the findings.
The Pentagon said that its own detailed investigation showed that it was unlikely the Marines had been exposed to chemical weapons.
The White House panel disagreed with the Pentagon's conclusions about the Mitre study, saying, "Mitre's full report represents an impressive, high-quality investigation and analysis."
While the draft report by the White House panel praised the Pentagon for expanding its investigation, it said that the Defense Department remained "biased" and that there was still an "institutional culture and pervasive inclination to reimpose DOD's long-standing position that there is no evidence CW agents were present in southern Iraq." CW is a reference to chemical weapons.
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