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DoD News Briefing - September 19, 1996

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
September 19, 1996 3:40 PM EDT

Thursday, September 19, 1996 - 3:40 p.m.

Mr. Bacon: Sorry I'm late. I don't know whether to call this a late afternoon or early evening briefing.

I went to the State Department with the Secretary for the so- called 2 plus 2 meetings. That's [when] the Defense Minister and Foreign Minister of the U.S. and Japan meet annually. It went on much longer than we anticipated, so that's the holdup.

It's actually pretty interesting. As part of our efforts to reduce the impact of U.S. forces on Okinawa, we're looking at moving an air base, the Futenma Air Base. One of the options for doing that is to set up a facility out in the water called a Floating Offshore Facility, or FOF. It sounds better in Japanese than it does in English, I think. That was one of the topics discussed at the meeting this morning.

I have no announcements, and I'd be glad to take your questions.

Q: Can I ask why, the fact that the Pentagon is going to notify 5,000 Gulf War veterans of possible chemical exposure, why was that released at 8:30 last night? (Inaudible)... announced last weekend. The Pentagon announced last weekend that 5,000 troops were going to Kuwait before Kuwait had accepted them, and now you're announcing at 8:30 at night something like this on a very sensitive issue, and I'd like to know why.

A: You certainly may.

On the first point, last weekend, that was a mistake. It was entirely my mistake that we announced the troops moving prematurely from Fort Hood to Kuwait. It was something that did happen, but happened several days after we had thought it was going to happen, so I take full responsibility for that and apologize for any confusion it caused you.

Yesterday, we started working on this actually in the morning. The wheels of bureaucracy turn very, very slowly. It took really until about 7:30 or 8:00 at night for us to get a sign-off on this release. The momentum was going and we just decided to release it. I apologize for doing it late and doing it clumsily.

I guess since you made an editorial remark, maybe you would allow me one as well. We've been criticized for years for not releasing information on Gulf War illness, now we're being criticized for the way in which we're releasing information on Gulf War illness. I think that's a step in the right direction. I hope we'll be able to release more information at earlier times of the day later on. That's my goal, and it's the goal of this Department, to try to get as much information out as possible.

Q: There was no bare bones information earlier in the afternoon to make the first editions of newspapers. Prime time television shows it, but no word that Dr. White had ordered this. That you could have released it all?

A: Charlie, in retrospect, we could have given you a heads- up that something was coming. There was no way we could have gotten this released much earlier than it was released, however.

Q: Why was there no Pentagon official available on Capital Hill today? Congressman Shays was upset, I guess. He had asked for some testimony and he says this is just further evidence of the Pentagon's cover-up of the Gulf War Syndrome illness. Do you know any reason why...

A: We released this information that we released last night to Congressman Shays this morning. It's one of the reasons we were pushing so hard yesterday to get the information cleared through the government and released. We could not really go beyond the bare bones facts that we provided in the release yesterday. He had asked first for some... He had asked for a variety of people to come testify. Finally he asked for Dr. Steve Joseph, the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs. The Department decided that Dr. Joseph didn't have anything to add beyond what he'd said before when he'd testified before the Shays Committee.

Q: What do you say to those veterans who continue to insist that the Pentagon is covering up in this matter?

A: I say we're doing our best to get the information out. I understand that this has been slow. I understand that we have looked clumsy at times. If we were covering this information up, we would not be releasing it at any time during the day. The fact is, I have spent personally a lot of time on this over the last couple of months. It is incredibly and shockingly, I must say, difficult to put together accurate stories about what happened. We're dealing with events that happened years ago. We're dealing with documents that have come to light through many different channels. One document, as you know, was frankly lost. It was something that was reported to the government in 1991 and was not refound until 1995 when President Clinton launched a new effort to try to develop a picture of what happened.

I say be patient. We're doing our best to get this information out, and indeed, one of the reasons we took the action we did yesterday in making the announcement was because we want people to come forward to us with information. And we think that will accelerate the process for getting a picture, accelerate our efforts to get a picture of what happened in some of these places.

Q: Can you explain how it could take five years after the event to determine that in fact there were U.S. forces involved in destroying these weapons, these arsenals that they uncovered, without it coming to the attention of this building?

And the second part, is Secretary Perry satisfied with the way this whole thing is being handled?

A: No one is satisfied with the speed at which we're releasing information. We would all like to release information more quickly. But we want the information to be accurate information. We would like not to have to correct statements that we make. That has proven to be difficult. We have had a harder time than we anticipated putting together pictures of who was where when, and who did what when they were there. It is a process, as I say. It turned out to take longer than we would like.

We are frustrated, I know the veterans are frustrated. This Administration and this Pentagon have made a commitment to do a better job and that's what we're trying to do. That's why we're releasing information.

Q: For the record, it probably might have been more helpful to ensure that the faxes that went out to news organizations late last night were followed up with a phone call. I understand that if you really want information to go out, we would have been happy to have published late last night the DoD phone number. So we're hours behind in that effort. We'd certainly like to join you in producing this information, but I do have to say that we get phone calls from our members and from citizens who believe that the Pentagon is involved in a cover-up when this kind of information comes out late at night, behind the time of the television news shows, after most Pentagon correspondents go home. There is such a thing in federal agencies as a lid. Perhaps it would be well worthwhile here in the Pentagon to let us know whether any paperwork is going to be handed out after most people have a close of business hours.

A: It is painful and yet ironic that we are being accused of a cover-up for having released information yesterday. I apologized for the way in which it was done and the time at which it was done. I'm through apologizing. We will try to do better in the future.

Q: To get to the substance of this information that you've released. You are now saying exactly what, that you have found another instance in which chemical weapons were destroyed, and therefore, greater exposure to American troops?

A: Potentially greater exposure to American troops. And what we announced in June was that a bunker destroyed after the end of the war in March of 1991, March 4th I believe, contained chemical weapons. We were able to confirm that after getting additional information from the United Nations inspectors in May of this year. As you know, the United Nations inspectors are working on cataloging and trying to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction held by Iraq. They have been destroying some of these weapons at Khamisiyah themselves, as a matter of fact, or they have several years ago.

When we were able to confirm through working with UNSCOM that there were chemical weapons in Bunker 73 at Khamisiyah, we made a public announcement, and one of the things we did was ask for people to come forward. In the meantime, we started approaching people through telephone calls who were in the engineering units involved in that destruction. In the course of that, one or two, I believe, sometime this summer, maybe three or four people, but I think the first person mentioned it in July that they had also destroyed weapons in a pit that was several kilometers, I believe, away from Bunker 73.

We went back and checked with UNSCOM, who has checked with Iraqi officials, and we have now confirmed that there were chemical weapons in the pit that had been destroyed by some American units. They were destroyed on March 10th.

We don't know how many chemical weapons were in that pit, so it's difficult for us to model the dispersion of whatever chemicals might have occurred. So we're trying to do two things. We're trying to figure out a way to model the dispersion, and in the meantime, we have expanded the radius, we've expanded the radius in which we're looking for people. From approximately five kilometers, that's where we started in June, to about 25 kilometers. We may sometime expand it beyond that, but that's what we've started doing, and that's what the expanded search for people encompasses, a broader radius.

Q: Aside from this model, has anyone turned up ill or sick from this area? Have any of these troops, including the ones who destroyed the weapons, turned up sick with apparent results from being exposed to...

A: It is my understanding from talking to officials in Health Affairs, that we have not been able to find any unusual patterns among the people who were involved. In other words, we can't find a way to link those who have illnesses to a common cause that might be related to this exposure. We're not saying it isn't. We so far haven't found it. One of the points here is to find out whether there is a link. That's what we've set out to do. That is the question that the veterans are asking and the question that many of you are asking.

Q: Without establishing that link, have there, indeed, been some people reporting that they have been feeling ill effects?

A: The answer is yes, there are people who have registered in the comprehensive clinical evaluation program, which is the program that's been set up to monitor people who report symptoms. There are people who are in this area who have been registered with this program.

We have not been able to find a pattern that makes it possible to say 'aha, we know now that there were chemical weapons destroyed and therefore, there's a possibility of exposure, and therefore it's easy to explain what happened to these people. In other words, we now have an explanation for why they're ill.' The scientists have not made this connection.

We are still looking at the data. One of the reasons we want to invite more people to come forward is to see if we can establish relationships.

Q: You know what these weapons do? You know what the effects of them are. Have any people reported symptoms which might have resulted from this kind of...

A: There are two parts to that question. The first is, were there any acute symptoms at the time the weapons were destroyed. The answer to that, as far as I can tell, seems to be no. There weren't people complaining of nausea or other symptoms that might be associated with exposure to chemicals at the time the weapons were destroyed.

Then the question is, if you look at the population of people, the universe of people who might have been in the dispersion area during this time, is there a greater incidence of illness among these people than other people in the theater? Or is there a way to tie their illness to this exposure? I think that's the point we should look at, is there a way to tie their illness to this exposure. So far we have not found it.

I'm very aware of anecdotal reports in the press, and very aware of articles that have made the case that there is a heavier incidence of illness among people who are in these units than elsewhere, but we have not found that ourselves yet.

I want to say, we have not ruled anything out. We are continuing to follow the science on this. That's one of the aspects that's been frustrating. Science sometimes takes a long while.

Q: Are you aware that a division commander now fears that his entire division was exposed since they were in the perimeter moving, operating? And does that mean that today's 5,000 announcement will mean tomorrow's 25,000 announcement in terms of size of the dragnet that you've put out?

A: That is exactly the type of statement that we're trying to follow up. The evidence we have so far is very fragmentary on how much of the 24th Infantry Division might have been in that area or how close it was to Khamisiyah. That's one of the things we're trying to reconstruct.

The Army does have a geographical information system that attempts to locate basically all the soldiers in the Gulf War theater, but it does it by unit. And sometimes it reports units being places and we don't know how much of the unit was actually there as opposed to some place else. But that's one of the things we're looking into.

We are trying to combine information from a lot of sources, and some of it comes from the Army Geographical Information System, and some of it comes from talking to people, anecdotal accounts, etc. Some of it comes from unit histories, talking to medics in units or medics associated with units, and put this together. This is part of the process that's taking a long while, but we are working on it.

Q: It sounds to me as though there is a likelihood that today's 5,000 number is going to grow.

A: I think there is a possibility that the number will grow. How great a possibility, I don't know. One of the reasons there's a possibility is because we have not yet been able to produce, or the CIA, which is the agency trying to do this, to produce an adequate model of how wind patterns might have carried these agents after the weapons were destroyed. And the reason they haven't been able to do it, as I understand it is, that their computer became waterlogged during the floods, or the computer of the contractor they're using was affected by the floods of several weeks ago. That's what I've been told. But they will come up with a model, and it will be a model. It will not be a precise picture of what happened, but a computer model of what they think happened, given wind velocities and patterns of that period.

Q: Do you know whether those troops which destroyed these munitions at the Bunker 73 and the pit were wearing nuclear, biological and chemical protective gear?

A: There are conflicting accounts on that. That's one of the things we're trying to nail down. The other area in which there is conflicting evidence, and I'll just tell you that there's a conflict because I don't know what's correct, is that there were some alarms that went off and people may have suited up after the alarms went off. Then there were more precise tests made and there were conflicting accounts of what those more precise tests showed about chemical traces in the atmosphere at the time. So we have a lot of conflicting information. We are working on what we hope will be an accurate account of what happened. We're not there yet. It's still filled with the type of conflicts that you people deal with all the time. We're trying to resolve them.

Q: Understanding the difficulty of the geography of the event, the earlier incident involved the 37th Engineer Battalion, and you mentioned the 24th Infantry. Is there any other...

A: Wait a minute. I want to be clear about the 24th Infantry Division. Retired General Barry McCaffrey, I believe, mentioned that in a newspaper article. He was the commanding general of the 24th at the time. And he has said this in a NewsDay article.

I don't have independent confirmation of that.

Q: All I was looking for was whether you had any identification of the military units that might have been in that area.

A: I do not have a list that I would vouch for at this stage.

Q: Do you know if there were any foreign soldiers in the area?

A: I do not. We're having a hard enough time trying to find out how many American soldiers were in the area, let alone foreign soldiers.

Actually, that's an interesting point, though, because one of the reasons that we were so slow to get on this was that the UNSCOM report, the one that was lost, the UNSCOM cable that was lost in 1991, did not mention American forces, I believe. It only mentioned coalition forces. That's my recollection. That our early information only mentioned coalition forces.

Q: One of the credibility problems in listening to the soldiers who were there testifying is that they claimed that they have been trying to tell the Defense Department for years that there were chemical weapons in these ammo dumps, and they have had the door shut on them repeatedly in their attempts to try to communicate this information to the Defense Department. Maybe they're lying, I don't know. But they certainly are frustrated, and they're sick as well.

A: I can't talk about the past, but I can tell you that we're listening now.

Q: I'd like to clarify something in my own mind. There are two registries out there in which people who suspect they may have been affected can sign up. One is with the VA and involves 40,000 to 50,000 people. One is with DoD and involves 22,000 to 23,000 people.

Has the Department checked to see if any of these numbers are within the area that you're now talking about, the 25 kilometers?

A: Probably not yet, but we certainly will. We have begun to check from Bunker 73 that we announced in June. Whether we've checked on what we now call the expanded radius and how far, I don't know. But that's exactly what we're trying to do is check this.

Q: If this is all on computer, why should it take so long to check out...

A: We will get an answer to you on that.

Q: Is DoD satisfied now, with the news of this pit, that it's now nailed down all the incidents of the destruction of chemical weapons in the theater after the end of the Gulf War, or do you think...

A: I think we have to be open to the fact that there might be new information, might be additional information. I don't know that there is. I think we have it, but we're trying to keep an open mind about this. I would not rule it in or out at this stage.

Q: If they think they were involved in incidents of destruction of chemical weapons, should they phone the number that's been handed out, or is there another number they should phone...

A: No, they should phone that number. They should phone that number.

Q: They've given up. They really have.

A: I invite them... One of the reasons we are putting this information out is to try to encourage people to call. I can understand the frustration. I just repeat that I know there are charges we have not listened in the past; we are trying to listen now.

Q: Is there anything these troops should be particularly looking for that might be wrong with them, that might be associated with chemicals? Numbness or anything in particular?

A: I am not adept enough with the symptoms to be able to go into that at this time.

Q: On Iraq, can you tell us what, if anything, Saddam Hussein has done in the last few days to comply with the new diplomatic note that was given this week? And secondly, can you talk at all about the Washington Times report, that there are some SAMs and SA-6s in places in the north that they shouldn't be?

A: I'm not going to get into intelligence at this stage. We continue to see encouraging but somewhat ambiguous signs about Saddam Hussein heeding our warning that he should not threaten our pilots. He clearly has stopped shooting at the pilots, Iraq has stopped shooting. That's encouraging. We're watching very carefully to see if he takes other steps that we would consider essential to reducing risk to the pilots.

Q: Other than stopping to shoot, can you be at all more specific or give me an example?

A: We have mentioned radar illumination before, and we've mentioned...

Q: Nothing you haven't mentioned before?

A: No.

Q: You say you've been watching carefully to see if he's taking other steps. I think John Deutch said on the Hill this morning that they were moving air defenses back to garrison...

A: There has been some movement back to garrison.

Q: And you said you're watching carefully to see if he takes other steps that would make pilots safer or protect pilots. Are you saying that if he doesn't take these steps that there would be an attack?

A: I'm saying we're watching very carefully.

Q: I understand the assessment team that went to the Marshall Center in Garmisch, talked with Dr. White yesterday. What did they tell him? Did they recommend any changes? Is that team's function now at an end?

A: I believe they were just giving him a progress report on where they stand. An update, basically.

Q: You don't have any specifics...

A: No, I don't have a readout on what they've told him. My understanding is that they're not prepared yet to announce their findings. As you know, the Marshall Center, through all this, has continued to teach military and civilian leaders from former communist or socialist countries the basics of running militaries in a democracy. They went to assess how well that program is doing, the management of the Marshall Center, and...

Q: That team is continuing its work then?

A: I believe that the team is not in a position to announce its final report at this time.

Q: Will it be a written report? Something formal?

A: I assume, yes, it will be a written report.

Q: The North Korean mini-sub. Do you have an initial readout on what it is doing or what your initial sense is. Was it just a training run which lost an engine, or was it something more significant? Secondly, does the Department have any indications of any North Korean untoward troop movement or any other signs of a military buildup?

A: Taking your second question first, I'm not aware that we have signs of unusual military troop movements or buildups. Quite the contrary. For the last several months, quite a considerable number of months, what we've observed is actually a fairly sharp reduction in some of the training exercises that are traditional for the North Korean armed forces. It's still a very worrisome force -- around a million people arrayed along the DMZ. It's one we watch very closely.

I think, going back to the submarine, which was your first question, we don't yet have a complete picture of what happened there. Anything I would say now would just be speculation about what was going on.

Q: What can you tell us...

Q: Did it come up at the 2 plus 2 meeting this morning?

A: I was actually not at the entire 2 plus 2 meeting. It did come up at the press conference. I think the main point to relay about the comment that Secretary Christopher made was that we appeal to North Korea not to take any more provocative acts such as sending mini-submarines towards South Korea.

Q: Would the Pentagon like to keep the F-16s that have been sent to Bahrain there after this current situation abates, if it does? And what about the F-117s?

A: I think that both of those were sent there on temporary deployments. We'll have to see based on the situation later on how long they'll stay.

Q: Also on Iraq, can you tell me how this building is reacting to reports that the Kurdish faction which took control of Northern Iraq with Saddam Hussein's help, is now asking for protection from U.S. allies to hold Saddam Hussein at bay?

A: Kurdish politics are pretty complex. (Laughter) And I'm not sure I know enough about them to give you an adequate answer. I will say that it shows that changes in the correlation of forces there may be temporary, and I think we have to be open to all sorts of possibilities. They seem to be very good at trying to make coalitions with others. That's all I can tell you.

Q: What's the building doing about it? Anything?

A: No, I can't tell you.

Press: Thank you.

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