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DoD News Briefing: Dr. Bernard Rostker, Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses

Presenters: Dr. Bernard Rostker, Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses
November 18, 1997

Dr. Rostker: We are releasing today four additional reports: three information papers and a case narrative. I don't think there is anything spectacular in these. Two of the case narratives deal with the MOPP gear and the M-8 alarms. They are background papers to provide the people who have been following the debate over the time: the technical information about what is a MOPP gear, how it's used, what are its capabilities. The same with the chemical alarms.

The case narrative on Tallil deals with one of the air bases that was a prime suspect of containing chemical weapons. It had been used during the Iran-Iraq War. After the war, chemical paraphernalia was found on the base and was reported. By that, I mean protective gear, masks, and the like. It contained the kinds of bunkers that we expected at the time to see chemical weapons stored in, and they were attacked. The issue was whether they did, in fact, contain chemical weapons. Tallil was occupied by American troops and we have, as reported in the case narrative, talked to the troops who were there who did not find chemical weapons. Tallil was physically inspected by the United Nations in December of 1992 and they did not find chemical weapons.

Moreover, as reported by UNSCOM to the President's Advisory Committee last December, UNSCOM undertook a study of the production, fill, and distribution of chemical weapons and did not trace chemical weapons going to Tallil. They reported to the PAC that chemical weapons were at An Nasiriyah, Khamisiyah and Maymunah and that chemical weapons did not go further south than Khamisiyah, which is the furthest southern depot in Iraq. And so this report meets our commitment to examine -- as the President said, "leave no stone unturned" -- this major site. We have assessed that it is unlikely that chemical weapons were there. We use the term "unlikely" because there was one bunker that had been destroyed where the roof had collapsed, and there was no positive determination that in the rubble of the bunker there might not have been chemical weapons. But we do know that the Iraqis cleared the site and did not decontaminate the site, so that's further evidence that it is unlikely that there were chemical weapons there.

The last information paper deals with the Navy's forward laboratory in the theater during the war, and I think you will find it very interesting because it directly addresses some of the issues of biological warfare. At the onset of Operation Desert Shield, the command surgeon for Central Command, who is a naval officer, asked the United States Navy Research Unit that is in Cairo -- and we have a major research unit in Cairo and have had one since 1945, working on issues of local disease, doing vaccines, doing epidemiological work. That forward lab was commanded at the time by Capt. Mike Kilpatrick, who is a member of my staff now, and they put in theater an advanced laboratory that took samples from the troops from various collection points throughout the theater during the war.

They also were called in when the issue of dead animals became a point of contention. I think many of you have heard the stories of piles of dead animals with dead flies on it. The dead animals were natural -- autopsies were performed on some of the animals. The piles represent the way the herdsmen collect their animals for reimbursement by the state. Since the piles could attract flies, environmental units went out and sprayed the piles with insecticide. That accounts for the dead flies.

The advanced unit took samples looking for various biological agents, and Ken has talked about that, and none was found. There has been a question of "How did we know about biologicals." Well, the laboratory was in a position with advance units up to the Saudi border and into Kuwait after the war to make these collections. We have another chart which, I think, talks to the issue, since among the Marines they were able to collect health statistics, talks to the issue of environmental health during the war. There was at the very beginning, as we came into the theater, some outbreaks of diarrhea and the like. But as the situation stabilized, as we were able to bring in environmental health units, the level of sickness among our troops dramatically decreased, to the point where this was clearly the healthiest force that we ever deployed in any war. This is all documented, again, in that case narrative.

So, with that, we have brought forward, I think, 12 case narratives, and we have continued to press forward in the series, and we look forward to seeing you over the weeks and months ahead as we work our way through these rather long but full accounts of what happened in the Gulf. I'll be happy to take any questions you may have.

Q: Looking at what air strikes could happen over Iraq, is something in attacking chemical weapons inspection sites or other types of depots, has your office been asked by planners now the do's and don'ts about attacking facilities like that?

A: No.

Q: Is there a factor consideration?

A: There is a always a factor in consideration, but I think the fundamental question always is to destroy the materials at their source as far into Iraq as possible and not let it be brought to a position where it could threaten our troops. But we have not been asked to do any modeling and the like. There are other agencies in the federal government and the military that would do that kind of tactical planning. But, as Ken has said, this is a diplomatic issue at this point, not a military issue.

Q: Bernie, could you go to that first chart again? I just wanted to ask now, what sites again had been inspected at the time and found to be clear of these nerve agents.

A: Tallil was one. We now -- the U.N. was brought to, and nerve agents were found at Khamisiyah. I believe the U.N. has been to An Nasiriyah, which was the major area, and also found no munitions. The only place where we have at this point found munitions was Ukhaydir, which is near Baghdad, and Khamisiyah. In Khamisiyah, that's where they found mustard rounds and sarin rounds.

Q: UNSCOM has found material near Baghdad and on An Nasiriyah. Is that correct?

A: No. Khamisiyah and in the Baghdad area.

Q: Okay. And UNSCOM did the searches recently.

A: In 1992.

Q: Oh, okay, in 1992. So we don't really know what's there now.

A: They have tracked materials produced during the war, and then their charter has been since the war to monitor the Iraqi capacity to create weapons of mass destruction.

Q: And then, finally, what storage places that were bombed during the war have not yet been visited or evaluated in your study?

A: I don't have, but we did a lot of bombing during the war, as you know. We clearly have visited all of the sites in Kuwait. We visited all of the sites in this area in March. Our troops did not find any chemical weapons; it was only the U.N. after the fact in March of 1991 that chemical weapons were found at Khamisiyah by the U.N.

Q: Okay. There are a lot of allegations that there were chemical weapons at Tallil.

A: There was more concern that there were chemical weapons --

Q: Oh, I'm sorry. At Tallil.

A: There was one report that there may have been chemical weapons at Tallil. It was referred to as Battle Position 101, which faced Tallil. There was suspicious materials found at Tallil in the defensive material. That was why it was important to go in and look at it.

Q: But among the folks who are alleging that they have Gulf War Illness, have they identified Tallil as a site they were operating near or around at the time?

A: We did have troops around Tallil in this whole area. The only release that we know of in the area that we have been able to document is the release from Khamisiyah.

Press: Thank you very much.

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