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

Presenters: Dr. Bernard D. Rostker, Special Assistant for Gulf War Illness
May 01, 1997 2:30 PM EDT
Illnesses Thursday, May 1, 1997 - 2:30 p.m.

 

Dr. Rostker: I think I'll take your questions.

Q: A couple of specific things I wanted to get your reaction to. Maybe the first thing is this question about the standards for evaluating detection/exposure incidents. The PAC seems to be criticizing you for raising the bar too high when it comes to making decisions about whether or not there have been exposures of chemicals. It says that, in its terms it says that adherence to a courtroom standard of evidence that's inappropriate. Can you just comment on that?

A: We're not using a courtroom standard of evidence. As you know, I'm not a lawyer, and when asked that question at Salt Lake City, which was the PAC hearing, I used a term which we, frankly, batter around in the Pentagon dealing with a prevalence of evidence. What I meant to say was common sense. We're going to be looking at each case individually; we're going to judge the state of the evidence in each case individually; we'll make a call on each case individually. We will have, if you remember, the PAC asked that we get involved in the art of risk communication -- a term of art meaning a communications plan geared to the particular concerns of individuals who might have been exposed, and we will have a risk communications plan for each of our cases.

I have a full-time risk communications consultant. In fact the physician who used to work for the PAC now works for one of our consultants, and we have her engaged full time. We've also contracted with one of the national authorities and a risk communication team will assess each of our cases. So we really have no difference with the PAC in terms of the overall philosophy, the need to get on with it, the need to communicate.

In the case of Khamisiyah, there's such uncertainty that we're working with the CIA towards a specific time table which frankly, in dealing with the PAC staff last week, they indicated to us was acceptable as long as we stuck to the time table, and that was part of the PAC letter. So we were a little surprised to see that in the formal letter.

Q: In layman's terms, in response to the charge that you're requiring too much evidence before you come to a conclusion, how do you plead?

A: We plead not guilty. We plead that it will be a reasonable amount of evidence, that any reasonable person can make a judgment. The PAC certainly misunderstood the reference that I made in their testimony.

Q: How does it feel, Dr. Rostker, to be slam dunked yet again by the PAC?

A: Let me say I respect the PAC. Their initial report was right on and was a great help to us. I'm disappointed that yesterday's letter report did not reflect the substantial work we've been doing with the PAC. It reads as if it was written the day after the testimony in Salt Lake City, and we've had substantial interactions with the PAC which were not reflected in that letter. But I not only welcome the PAC'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 -- just as Senator Rudman's involvement will enhance that check.

Q: Do you feel that between the Rudman announcement and the congressional commission and the Institute of Medicine and all of this, that there are more people doing oversight now than doing actual work?

A: I can tell you there's a lot of people doing work. I think I still have the vast majority on the work part.

No, it's an important part of the whole process. As you know, I've been out on the road meeting with veterans and holding town halls, and I have sort of a standard stump speech. It's built around three questions that we are often asked. 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.

The second question is, are you listening and do you care about us, and 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 the government who's dedicated to service to have to hear, but it's not undeserved in terms of what we have done on this issue. The answer that I give to why should we trust you has to do with the openness of our process, the publishing of case narratives, and the scrutiny that we're under. Part of the safeguards for the American people are the fact that we testify before Congress, that there's a PAC, that there's going to be GAO study, that we will have the opportunity to have what we're doing viewed and critiqued by somebody with the substantial credentials of Senator Rudman.

I think we're doing a great job. I think we have turned this around in terms of the process. And I'm thrilled to tell the story that we're doing to anybody. When I get feedback from people and suggestions, that is part of the process that makes it well.

When I was asked about how I would feel about somebody who had Rudman's credentials, I thought that was just terrific. I have been a great fan of the Senator's from afar, and it was a real privilege to meet him.

Q: You talked about trust being one of the things that you talk about when you're on the road -- establishing trust and why should we, veterans, trust you.

A: Yes.

Q: That's well and good, but how do you maintain that when a Presidential Advisory Committee comes out and throws darts and asks questions or makes statements that not everything is being done that should be done.

A: We do that by stating the costs, by working hard, telling the truth, and having a transparent process, and being able to answer questions.

Let me give you an example, if I might. The PAC makes a big deal in this paper, as they did in Salt Lake City, about the Privacy Act. The Privacy Act is a reality. It's there to safeguard people. There are criminal penalties for violation of the Privacy Act -- both in terms of fine and jail terms. And as we went forward and we were providing information, it became clear that the PAC did not meet the terms of the Privacy Act.

That's not just us talking, it's the General Counsel's office, and in fact the White House reviewed it with the PAC members.

We've done three things to support the PAC that's not reflected in their critique. The first thing we've done is any person the PAC wants to talk to, because there will be a lead sheet, and they'll say is this a true interview, for example. We will contact that individual and ask for the individual to grant a waiver to his Privacy Act privileges safeguards.

We initiated a change in all of our interviews procedures now, it's already in effect, so we ask the person we're interviewing whether they will waiver their rights under the existing Privacy Act statement.

And we went and changed the Federal Register, following the procedures in the law, to allow us to amend the Privacy Act Statement to give the PAC full access immediately.

The PAC had a further concern in that they didn't have direct access to the classified and the databases, like GulfLINK, except the more sububstantial ones that may still be classified. So I assigned a database analyst to work directly with the PAC to have full access without going through the staff. Since the 1st of February my staff has put in over 400 hours of our hours, briefing staff personnel on the various studies. So we've come a long way.

Q: Two questions. Can you offer any more specifics at this point as to what's holding up production of the model?

A: Yes, in fact Bob Walpole from the CIA is my compadre in this. We're in this together, and Bob's prepared to speak specifically, if that's all right.

Q: I have another question that's probably related, too.

A: All right.

Mr. Walpole: The PAC report, as Bernie had said earlier, did not surprise us in that most of what's in it they indicated in Salt Lake City, March 18th. Those that were there remember that. There we had briefed them on the need to do the ground simulation testing.

Since Salt Lake, Bernie and I have begun to co-chair a team of people to ensure that the ground testing takes place and that it takes place in an expeditious manner. The schedule that was attached to the PAC report that you should have says that testing will start May 15th. As of this morning, the read is that we're on schedule and we should begin testing by then.

The purpose for that testing is to give us a much better understanding of what the rockets would do with chemical agent if detonated in an open pit. We had that complete understanding of what happens in a building so we were able to model Bunker 73. We don't have that understanding, and the test will allow us to have a better handle on that.

The PAC report mentions that perhaps we should be using EPA guidelines and the laws that they have set up for determining accident response. We understand those guidelines and those are good guidelines if you have a spill, for example, at the Harbor Tunnel where you have to determine if people in an area have to be evacuated, and that's why a worst case scenario works in that regard.

We're not talking about that. We're talking about looking in the past and determining not who has to be evacuated, but what is our best estimate of what happened. Since we don't have a handle on what happens to rockets when they're detonated in that manner, we had to do this ground simulation testing.

Q: Is this the test that's going to take place at Dugway?

Mr. Walpole: This will take place at Dugway, and it will be a series of tests, of individual rockets and some in smaller stacks so we can get a handle on, with detonations and charges placed the way the soldiers say they placed them, whether the crates break, and once the crates break, what happens to the cylinders containing the agent, and we'll be using a simulant, not a real chemical agent, obviously.

Q: So you're going to actually reconstruct how you assume or know that the rockets were stacked and how the detonators were fused and all of that.

A: Have we got a handle on the larger number of rockets yet? We're still with the small number of rockets, correct?

Dr. Rostker: I think we're working towards the larger, but it's not going to change the time line.

Mr. Walpole: It won't change the time line. If we are limited to a small number of rockets, we will only do stacks of nine. If we're able to get, in the timeframe that we're looking at, a larger number to where we can have a full stack similar to the ones that we had at Khamisiyah where the numbers ranged from 50 to 90, a stack of 70, for example, would give us a closer replication. I have to be careful with the word replication, because we stated in our letter to the PAC that we'll never be able to replicate what was in the pit.

There were 13 stacks there. We don't know the purity of the agent in the rockets. We don't know exactly how the charges were placed on each individual stack, so there will be no replication. What we're trying to do is find out how the agent reacts relative to the crates, find out how much could have been released, find out if there are sympathetic detonations, these types of questions.

Q: Could I just ask the, would the results that you get from that contribute to which models you're working on?

A:: We will be running multiple models. The reason we have created this joint effort, we're going to have our modeler continue the efforts...

Q: That's SAIC?

A: That's SAIC. Continuing the model we had used for the bunker for Al Muthan and Muhamadiyat, so we have that continuation, not changing horses midstream.

We will be using the models he used plus other updated models that we've been able to get a hold of. In addition, Bernie has another modeler that...

Dr. Rostker: We're going to be using Navy models that were recommended by the IDA panel.

Mr. Walpole: So between those two modelers working this effort -- one using models that are dependent on the weather side of the equation, and one using models that are... I shouldn't say dependent. Are heavily weighted toward the weather side.

Q: Which one is that?

A: That's the model the IDA has recommended. Then using models that we used which are weighted toward the source term side of the equation which is NUSSE4 and the VLS Track, those models. Then by using both those models, have the models work together, we should get a much better handle on what happened with the Khamisiyah event. We felt that with the ground testing completed in a manner that would get us a model by the 21st of July, was an appropriate way to get a much better handle than doing a worst case scenario that didn't reflect reality.

Q: You'll have results by July 21st?

A: That's correct. Published by July 21st.

Q: Is it fair to say that you're now saying that you really didn't have, of course, the full source terms, and that even with all the modeling work that's gone on by everybody so far, you really didn't have a good understanding of open pit detonation? You really didn't know what happened at Khamisiyah?

A: We have said all along we don't have a real good understanding and didn't for open pit detonation. The other models that we did, the three sites I mentioned, were all in buildings, and ground testing from the '60s provided that data. This is an open pit one and that's been our problem from the very beginning.

Q: If we can just condense this for a moment. (Laughter) We can all follow everything that you just said, but the committee seems to be frustrated with what I guess they perceived... You were seeking too good an answer, and the message to you seemed to be, look, why not just give us a range of what might have happened instead of continuing to try to work on a problem that you might not be able to solve. Why couldn't you just give them a range of possibilities?

A: The answer to that would be, what would be the value in doing that? Bernie's got the answer for that.

Dr. Rostker: It gets back to this issue of risk communication. We're not in the business of scaring people, we're in the business of giving reasonable results and there was so much uncertainty that we were very uncomfortable in doing that. In fact we don't have projections that we could even share with the PAC at this point.

As of a week ago, the July 21st delivery was okay with the PAC staff, so that's why it really surprised us.

Q: Will we get it July 21st, too? Will it be released to everyone? Is that a PAC meeting day or something?

A: No, it was just when we believed... There's no reason not to, Jamie.

Q: Will there be a briefing here?

A: Yes. Let me also say, one of the other things they said at Salt Lake City was can't you get on with some of the medical evaluations around Khamisiyah, and we are in the process of doing an assessment of the combined VA-CCEP participation rates for units in the entire theater on those dates geographically disbursed around Khamisiyah, and I hope to be able to release that analysis within a week or so. I've seen a draft of the paper. It needs some work, but then we'll put it in coordination and then we'll get it to you. That will be much, in a week, two weeks kind of timeframe.

Q: What was the acronym you used?

A: CCEP is the Defense Health Registry and the VA, and often they talk about their data, we talk about ours. In this case we put all of the data together, so we're looking at the combined data. But again, because of privacy considerations, since we... They can't share their data with us, it turns out; we are doing it at a more gross level, looking at participation rates for the units as they were disbursed around Khamisiyah.

Mr. Walpole: The PAC seemed to be pushing us in Salt Lake to do a worst case so that we could warn people, for distances further out. Since everyone has been invited to come forward and indicate what concerns they have, and when we pre- briefed our Khamisiyah paper to the veterans organizations, we gave them our number as well and said contact us with any questions or comments.

It's open to anybody to come forward. The value of a worst case scenario plume doesn't add to that invite.

A: In fact, as I'm learning things about risk communication, I'm advised that we were through in the late '80s, the issue of worst case, and that the prevailing concept within the folks who make this a living, is the most reasonable case. We're going to build towards that and we'll have a paper for you citing the technical literature on all of that.

Q: You used the word disappointed to describe the tone of the PAC report.

Dr. Rostker: Yes.

Q: Is it fair to say you think the conclusions were unfair? And if they're unfair, does that hinder your ability to work with the PAC?

A: No. I used the word disappointing. We'll continue to work with the PAC. I was surprised because I thought we had progressed further than that in terms of our working with the staff, but the PAC has a job to do and we have a job to do and we talk with them constantly.

Q: Apart from Khamisiyah, do you know of any other incidents that at this point would cross the bar to...

A: No. In the material that the PAC published is a matrix that we provided them. You can see how we are organized. There are a number of cross-cutting papers that inform much of the analysis, and the most important being probably the Fox Vehicle paper because it establishes the issue of, or Fox Vehicles that are prone to false alarm rates. We have that story. That paper is in process. But these are the major chemical events that you would recognize during the war and our schedule for putting them out.

There's no show stopper that we know of yet, but it's an ongoing investigation and I haven't seen all of it.

Q: Apart from Khamisiyah there are no other incidents in which you believe there is strong evidence of chemical exposure.

A: Not that I know of yet. The Marine breaching operation is a very intense one, and we're working on that paper, but we have not drawn any conclusions.

Q: Do you think there will be any other appointments like Senator Rudman? It seems like every time there's a negative report, there's a new group formed, there's someone else coming in to sort of oversee the investigators. Will this be the last one or will there be others?

A: Tell me the future.

Let me say that every one of them have actually been extremely helpful and fit into the mosaic. One of the issues was coordination, and I can talk to that in terms of DoD. We have not only my effort, which is more than Khamisiyah, as you can see from this matrix, and what's not shown on this matrix is a whole team standing up on environmental issues like DU and pesticides and the oil fires we'll be re-examining. So I've got a very large plate. When somebody comes along and says you can take your Deputy Director from the Investigation and Analysis Directorate and take her off the chem logs because we're going to put seven people on the chem logs, I say go to it. Because I'm going to be receiving that report, as will the Secretary, and I will be in a position to integrate that, integrate the Army IG, integrate Jajko's material, integrate the CIA's material. The Khamisiyah narrative which you all have is, as you know, an interim report. It's always been our intent to republish it as we gain more information. So these pieces fit nicely together. I would hope that if we have an area where it is clear a more intensive look is necessary, that, in fact, the Secretary will authorize additional resources to look more intensely in that issue.

Let me cover one other thing, and this is alluded to in the PAC paper. If for any reason any of us see any behavior, find any behavior that would indicate culpability in a legal sense, we certainly will involve additional resources to track all of that down. We haven't seen it to date, but I feel I have the resources of the entire Department of Defense to call on, and if we get to the point where in any of this we have to burrow further, I will not hesitate to ask for those additional resources.

Q: You mentioned in your opening statement something about calling in the national authorities, some independent risk assessment or risk communications team. I took from that the inference that you were going to have that team look at and critique the decisions your people have made so far on whether to accept particular incidents or not...

Dr. Rostker: We don't...

Q: ...what your authority is...

A: The authority is Dr. Cavello at Columbia who is the noted authority in this area, and he's been actively consulting with us, but each of our cases requires a separate and special assessment, and we're prepared to do that. It won't just be Dr. Cavello. He will assist us so that we have a number of people looking at each one of our cases and making sure we have the right risk communication strategy that goes for it, and that's, in fact, what the PAC called for, and they were right to call for it.

Press: Thank you.