There appears to be broad support for the creation of a new panel, independent of the Department of Defense, to oversee the Pentagon's investigation of possible chemical weapons exposures during the Persian Gulf War.
The appointment of such a panel is one of the two main suggestions made yesterday by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, which issued its final report before disbanding.
"It's a real positive step," said Matt Puglisi, director of Gulf War programs at the American Legion. "It may well signal that the government has turned the corner and is moving away from the political questions of Gulf War illnesses and moving toward the medical and health care questions."
"I think it's an improvement to move it [the chemical weapons inquiry] one step from the DoD [Department of Defense]," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who has been among the fiercest critics of the Pentagon on this issue. "The oversight board would be better than the alternative, which is to do it in-house."
"I really think this is an opportunity to move forward," said James J. Tuite III, a former Senate committee investigator who in 1994 headed the first independent effort to fully interview Gulf War veterans who had reported possible exposure to poison gas.
"The makeup of the panel, however, is going to be as important as the decision to appoint it," he said.
Even the Pentagon's chief official on Gulf War veterans matters said he welcomes the suggestion.
"We have always thought that the appropriate way to go about seeing how we're doing is with external oversight," said Bernard D. Rostker, the department's special assistant for Gulf War illnesses. "We welcome it and look forward to it."
The presidential advisory committee, appointed by President Clinton in May 1995, issued its full report in January.
The document included much praise for the government's handling of many of the health issues of Gulf War veterans but said the Pentagon's investigation of possible chemical weapons incidents was "superficial and unlikely to provide credible answers to veterans' and the public's questions."
Clinton extended the life of the committee so that it could report to him on the progress of many suggestions it had made, not only to the Defense Department, but also to the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services. The document released yesterday is a report of what has happened in the last eight months.
While noting some improvements, the advisory committee said it still believed that the Pentagon "cannot itself lead an investigation on possible CW [chemical weapons] . . . exposures that will be viewed as credible."
Clinton announced yesterday that former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) will head a five-person oversight panel, whose purpose is to ensure that the Pentagon's investigations "meet the highest standards."
It appears the panel would oversee the military's work, not perform the investigations itself. The Pentagon's work is expected to be finished by next September.
Other members of Rudman's panel have not been named. Who they are will be crucial to the group's usefulness, Shays and Tuite said.
"It is important to get people who are knowledgeable about what they are supervising, who know where the records are kept, how the inspector general's office works, things like that," said Tuite, who now heads a private foundation investigating Gulf War issues.
"I want to see how independent it is," Shays said of the panel. "There is a tendency on the part of other government agencies, the Congress and the press to give DoD officials the benefit of the doubt, even when they are clearly part of the problem."
In its other major recommendation, the presidential advisory committee said that an independent scientific agency, such as the National Academy of Sciences, should permanently monitor the health of the Gulf War veteran population, which numbers about 700,000 men and women.
Specifically, the agency would periodically review epidemiological studies to see if there are excessive numbers of cases of specific diseases in the veteran population. If there are, and if there is "a plausible biological mechanism" by which a disease in question could be linked to service in the Persian Gulf, then the secretary of veterans affairs would be notified.
The secretary would then either make a "presumption of service connection" for veterans with the illness -- a decision that would affect disability and medical benefits -- or would have to explain why such a presumption is not warranted.
A VA spokesman said yesterday that the department has already contacted the National Academy of Sciences asking it to perform this role as scientific reviewer.
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