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Report Assails Pentagon's Gulf War Illness Inquiry

Military: White House panel calls probe of possible chemical exposure superficial, urges independent review.

November 08, 1996|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A special White House panel is sharply critical of the Pentagon's investigation into possible exposure of U.S. troops to chemical weapons during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and calls in a draft report for an independent inquiry, sources said Thursday night.

The preliminary language is contained in a 200-page draft report that the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses is to discuss at a meeting here next week before it issues a final version in December.

While highly critical of the Pentagon for failing to pursue the possibility earlier that Gulf War veterans were exposed to chemical agents, the panel does not endorse the claims of some veterans that Defense officials covered up evidence of chemical exposure.

The draft report also offers no firm explanation of why so many Gulf War veterans have complained of symptoms such as chronic fatigue, aching joints and muscles, and memory loss--informally called Gulf War syndrome, the sources said.

Indeed, while the draft criticizes the Pentagon's handling of the exposure issue, it dismisses as "highly unlikely" suggestions that massive numbers of soldiers encountered toxic agents during the 1991 conflict.

For those reasons, the findings are expected to stir additional controversy, both inside the administration and among Gulf War veterans and their spokesmen, many of whom already are complaining that the report is too timid.

The committee of scientists and physicians was appointed by President Clinton after Gulf War veterans complained that the Pentagon was being too rigid in declaring that it could not find a single cause for the illness. The panel has had access to all the Pentagon's files on Gulf War illness, including classified intelligence documents. It also has taken testimony from veterans and outside experts.

Physicians and military officers have been divided over whether a Gulf War disease exists. A clinical study of 22,000 veterans conducted by the Pentagon found that the symptoms do not point to a common recognizable cause.

The White House panel's staff already has stirred consternation within the Defense Department by criticizing the Pentagon's handling of disclosures that U.S. troops blew up chemical weapons bunkers at Khamisiyah in southern Iraq after the war had ended.

In the wake of those disclosures, the department had to reverse its earlier insistence that no U.S. troops were exposed to chemical agents during the war. It now estimates that as many as 20,000--and possibly more--were at risk.

Despite the Pentagon's admission, veterans' groups maintain that American soldiers encountered chemical agents at dozens of other sites, including two incidents during the war in which nerve gas alarms were reported by Czech experts. The Defense Department has conceded that the Czech reports were "credible" but has declined to accept assertions by critics that they constituted any kind of proof that U.S. troops were exposed to toxics then.

Both the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have insisted that nerve gas detection devices used during the Persian Gulf War frequently emitted false alarms. They have said that intelligence reports of nerve gas often were proven wrong.

In criticizing the Pentagon, the draft report says that the department's investigation has been so superficial that it has "severely undermined public confidence" in the government's efforts.

As a result, the draft contends, any additional investigations should be turned over to an independent body that would not have as great a stake in the outcome. It did not, however, specify what entity should conduct the inquiry.

The furor over the Gulf War illness issue has intensified visibly since the disclosure that U.S. troops may have been exposed to chemical agents in the Khamisiyah incident. The Pentagon and CIA have been trying to construct a computer model of the weather and wind at the time in an attempt to determine just how many troops may have been involved. But the effort is going slowly.

Several of the reviews that the committee is likely to get back from those it asked to look over the material are expected to be critical of the language in the panel's report, suggesting that some wording may be altered when the panel meets Thursday for its last session before issuing a final report.

The Pentagon is revamping its own machinery for dealing with the Gulf War illness issue. Last month, Defense Secretary William J. Perry established a new investigative body, to be overseen by Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White.

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this story.

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