Two independent reviews of the Government's handling of Persian Gulf war illness have now made it inescapably clear that the Pentagon is too biased to conduct a credible investigation. Even after what appear to be genuine efforts to expand and upgrade its inquiry, the Pentagon -- in the view of a Presidential panel and a House committee -- remains so blindly convinced that chemical weapons exposures are of little import that it cannot seem to conduct a hard-digging inquiry. Whatever the Pentagon ultimately concludes, neither veterans nor the public will believe that it has taken an objective look.
The only way out of this deepening mess is for the President to put an independent agency in charge of the inquiry. If the White House fails to act, Congress will need to step in with legislation mandating that a more credible body be put in control.
The weightiest charge of bias came in a report submitted to the White House Friday by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, an 11-member group that includes a range of medical and public policy expertise. The report has not yet been released, but a draft version made available to the Times reporter Philip Shenon was unusually harsh in its criticisms of the Defense Department.
Although the panel praised the department for its upgraded research programs and improved communications with veterans, it issued a scathing critique of the Pentagon's handling of one crucial element of the puzzle -- the possibility that exposure to chemical warfare agents may account for some of the illness reported by veterans. As the panel described it, much that the Pentagon has done, from battlefield surveys in 1991 to present-day analyses, has biased its conclusions against the possibility that low-level exposures to chemical agents were a factor.
To begin with, all alarm and detection systems used during the war were set to detect only nerve agent concentrations that could cause acute symptoms or death. They could not detect lower levels of chemicals that might have delayed effects, and the main detectors could not detect any level of mustard gas. Moreover, the highly touted Fox vehicles bearing more sophisticated detectors were seldom able, under battlefield conditions, to conduct the 20-minute, full-spectrum analysis needed to confirm the presence of an agent. Even when they did, only the most prevalent agent could be identified, making it possible that heavy smoke from oil-well fires might mask less-dominant chemical warfare agents. With final confirmation seldom possible, the Pentagon dismissed virtually all claimed detections of chemical warfare agents as unproven, a stance that brings sharp disagreement from the panel.
From a credibility standpoint, the most damning criticism was of repeated and continuing bias in the Pentagon investigation, even during the last 10 months, well after the Pentagon claimed to have cleaned up its efforts. The panel complained that the Defense Department has failed to investigate thoroughly and promptly possible chemical detections, failed to present balancing but conflicting statements from its own experts, and downplayed information that contradicts its relatively complacent view about chemical agent exposures. It noted that one of the Pentagon's own consultants, the Mitre Corporation of Bedford, Mass., had uncovered evidence that marines may have been exposed to poison gas as they crossed some minefields. Although the Pentagon dismissed the report as being of poor quality, the panel judged it "impressive, high-quality" work worthy of investigative follow-up.
The panel's indictment follows an even more critical report prepared by a House subcommittee on government oversight, chaired by Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, and approved by the full committee. In the introduction to that report, Mr. Shays called the investigations by the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments "irreparably flawed" and "plagued by arrogant incuriosity and a pervasive myopia that sees a lack of evidence as proof."
What actually caused the illnesses reported by veterans, and whether chemical warfare agents played any role, are still open questions.
But on a highly emotional issue involving sick veterans, it is crucial that the investigation be diligent and scrupulously fair. The Pentagon's continued involvement in the inquiry is clearly vital; it has the data and much expertise. But the Pentagon has forfeited its right to remain in charge.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company