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Presidential Committee Raps Gulf War Illness Investigation

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 12, 1997 – The presidential advisory committee on Gulf War veterans' illnesses doesn't like the way government agencies are handling the investigation of illnesses thousands of Gulf War veterans say they contracted during the 1991 conflict.

Committee chair Dr. Joyce Lashof said the government is not moving fast enough to determine whether American troops may have been exposed to Iraqi nerve gas and other chemical weapons in the Persian Gulf. Lashof made the comment in an April 30 report to the White House and supplemental letter report to the secretaries of defense, health and human services and veterans' affairs,

After reviewing documents, briefings and interviews from the ongoing investigation, the committee criticized a lack of communication between DoD and CIA. It said the evidence of chemical agent release at Khamisiyah, Iraq, in spring 1991 was overwhelming.

During March and April 1991, Army units blew up Iraqi weapons caches in a bunker and open pit area at the site. Evidence the weapons may have been laced with the nerve agent sarin wasn't apparent at the time and didn't surface in the investigation until 1996. Lashof said somebody in the government knew about the chemicals even before the demolitions took place.

"The intelligence community (including CIA and DoD-based entities) clearly possessed information prior to and during the Gulf War that constituted reasonable cause for concern that Khamisiyah was a chemical munitions storage facility," Lashof wrote in the supplemental letter report. "In the face of substantial, credible evidence to the contrary, DoD's consistent denials to June 1996 of the possibility of exposure of U.S. troops to chemical warfare agents cannot be justified."

Lashof's did note the committee's appreciation of efforts to develop and transmit responses to recommendations the committee made in its final report to the president in January. Those recommendations regarded outreach programs, medical and clinical issues, research and chemical and biological warfare investigations. Based on that report, President Clinton asked the committee to provide continued oversight of the investigation.

"The committee will continue assessing the government's chemical and biological weapons investigations, chiefly the activities of DoD's office of the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, and implementation of the final report's recommendations in outreach, clinical issues and research," Lashof concluded in the latest report. Findings will be included in an in-depth special report the committee is scheduled to send to the president by Oct. 31.

The letter addressed three issues regarding the government's chemical and biological warfare agent investigations: exposure modeling of demolitions at the Khamisiyah pit area, the committee's access to information held by DoD and standards for assessing the credibility of reported detection of exposure incidents. It specifically criticized the delay by CIA and DoD in developing and demonstrating a demolitions model.

"None of the barriers raised to date by CIA and DoD presents insurmountable obstacles or in any way warrants the delay in completing modeling of the Khamisiyah pit," Lashof wrote. "Uncertainties -- including the number of demolition incidents, the number of rockets involved, or the stability of the agent and other characteristics of the chemical agent under specific demolition conditions -- can be accommodated through modeling a range of scenarios."

Lashof said DoD "should move as quickly as possible toward conclusions about the incidents under investigation and, when in doubt, err in favor of targeted notification of troops about possible health risks and the availability of free diagnosis and treatment." The Pentagon has striven to contact 20,000 soldiers believed to have been serving in and around Khamisiyah at the end of the Gulf War. In addition, it has encouraged veterans and others with any information to report their knowledge using a special, toll-free telephone number: (800) 796-9699.

Bernard Rostker, DoD special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, said the tone of the letter disappointed him because it "did not reflect the substantial work we've been doing with the [presidential advisory committee]." However, Rostker said he not only welcomes the committee's involvement and oversight, "but we really need it. It is an important check for our veterans and the American people that we're doing the right thing."

During a May 1 press briefing in the Pentagon, Rostker lauded the appointment of former Sen. Warren Rudman by Secretary of Defense William Cohen to serve as a special adviser on the issue. "Senator Rudman's involvement will enhance that check," he said.

Rostker also talked about a series of "town hall" meetings he's conducting around the country, under sponsorship of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.

He said his standard speech is built around three commonly asked questions. "One is, 'Why am I sick?' The answer is, there's no one answer but we're trying to understand the relationship between what happened in the gulf and what medical science can tell us," he said. "The second question is, 'Are you listening, and do you care about us?' The answer is yes, because of the processes we've put in place.

"The third question is, 'Why should we trust you?' It's a difficult question for somebody in government who's dedicated to service to have to hear," Rostker said. "But it's not undeserved in terms of what we have done on this issue." He said the issue of trust has to do with the openness of DoD's investigative process, publishing of case narratives on the GulfLINK web site and the scrutiny the department is under. "Part of the safeguards for the American people are the fact that we testify before Congress, that there's a [presidential advisory committee], that there's going to be a General Accounting Office study, that we will have the opportunity to have what we're doing viewed and critiqued by somebody with the substantial credentials of Sen. Rudman.

"I think we're doing a great job," Rostker said. "I think we have turned this around in terms of the process. And I'm thrilled to tell the story."

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