President Clinton has decided to create a special Federal oversight board to help direct the Pentagon's investigation of whether Iraqi chemical weapons are responsible for some of the health problems reported by thousands of Persian Gulf war veterans, Administration officials said today.
Mr. Clinton's decision, the officials said, was in response to the recommendations of a White House expert panel that has harshly criticized the Pentagon's handling of the inquiry.
The officials said the independent board would be led by former Senator Warren B. Rudman, who is already an adviser on the issue to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, and would remain in operation for at least a year. A senior White House official said the board would probably have about five members, including Mr. Rudman, and a staff here.
The President has also decided to approve an additional $13 million in Federal grants for research on the possible causes of the veterans' illnesses, the officials said.
Veterans groups hailed the unusual move of naming an outside board to monitor the Pentagon's work, describing it as a slap at the Defense Department over an issue that has strained the Government's credibility with many veterans.
"Certainly taking away the lead role of the Pentagon shows clearly that the President no longer has confidence in the Pentagon to have the lead role in this investigation, and rightfully so" said James J. Tuite 3d, a board member of the National Gulf War Research Center, an umbrella organization of veterans groups.
A spokesman at the Defense Department said he had no immediate comment on the White House decision. In recent weeks, the Pentagon has aggressively defended its gulf war inquiry, noting that its team of investigators had been expanded to more than 100 in the last year.
The final report of the panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, and a White House statement announcing the President's decision are to be released on Saturday. The report will end a two-year investigation by the expert panel, which had been asked to study the mysterious ailments, including chronic digestive problems and memory loss, reported by gulf war veterans.
The expert panel, and a House committee in a separate report last week, did not identify a single cause of the ailments. But the panel said the Defense Department had so mishandled the investigation of chemical exposures in the war that the Pentagon should be stripped of oversight for the inquiry.
It was only last year that the Pentagon announced that thousands of American troops might have been exposed to poison gas as a result of the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot in March 1991, a few days after the war. In its most recent estimate, the Pentagon said that as many as 100,000 troops, or one out of every seven American military people who served in the war, might have been exposed to nerve gas as a result of the demolition of the Kamisiyah ammunition depot.
In a draft of the report, the Presidential panel found that the Pentagon had "an institutional culture and pervasive inclination" to ignore or dismiss evidence suggesting that American troops had been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons.
A senior White House official said Mr. Clinton had decided to set up the oversight board to monitor the Pentagon investigation because "he wants to be sure that there is confidence in the investigative process -- he wants people to have faith."
The House panel, the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, which conducted the principal Congressional investigation of the issue, found in a separate report last week that the inquiries by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department were "irreparably flawed" and "plagued by arrogant incuriosity and a pervasive myopia that seeks a lack of evidence as proof."
The committee found that American troops had probably been sickened by "a variety of toxic agents in the gulf war," including Iraqi chemical weapons and pesticides. While the White House panel has said current research suggests that chemical weapons are not responsible for the veterans' health problems, it has called for millions of dollars in new research on the issue.
Administration officials said the President would also accept the recommendation of the White House panel that an independent agency, possibly the National Academy of Sciences, be asked to monitor epidemiological studies and other research on gulf war veterans to determine whether they are entitled to special disability compensation.
"This entity would look to see whether there are clusters of illnesses that are prevalent among gulf war veterans," one official said. "And if there is a biological plausibility to those clusters, then the Secretary of Veterans Affairs would be authorized to compensate individuals."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company