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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
May 23, 1997 2:05 PM EDT
Kenneth Bacon, ASD(PA): Good afternoon. ... First, Dr. Bernard Rostker, who is the Secretary's Special Assistant for dealing with Gulf War illness, will make a statement about his latest case study and answer your questions.... Dr. Rostker.

Dr. Rostker: We released today the second in our case narrative series. This case narrative is about an incident that happened at Camp Monterey, a bivouac area some 15 miles north of Kuwait City. The incident occurred on September 16th, 1991. There was an initial -- there was a transporting of some materials that were left over from the Iraquis. A box spilled, a white substance came out, and there was a chemical reaction.

There was an initial reading from the Fox vehicles that were called that sarin was present. When a full mass spectrometer reading was taken, it was indicated that CS riot agent and tear gas crystals were present.

We received this information from a lawyer representing a contractor, or an employee of the contractor, who was maintaining the Fox vehicles, and it was presented to us as an indication that sarin was present. We sent the material to three different laboratories. It all confirmed the mass spectrometer, not the materials, but the tape from the Fox vehicle, and all three laboratories confirmed that the mass spectrometer reading indicated CS.

This case will become, I think, more important in the future as we deal with other Fox vehicle readings. This is a case where the Fox vehicle is working perfectly and, yet, the initial screen, like a partial fingerprint, resulted in a reading of sarin. A full fingerprint, if you will, resulted in a reading of CS and we were able to get into the mechanics of the mass spectrometer in the vehicle and understand why that kind of situation would result.

The next case that we will be presenting in a number of weeks will be the Marine breeching operation and, at that time, we will have a full paper on Fox vehicles as well as the paper on the Marine breeching operation.

With that, I'll be happy to take any questions.

Q: Is this some kind of a flaw in the Fox vehicle that it first registered sarin? Has that been corrected?

A: No, it is not a flaw in the vehicle. You have to understand that the vehicle is fundamentally an alerting mechanism. It operates in two modes. There is effectively a quick read, a continuous read mode, in which samples are taken and processed very rapidly. They are processed for -- looking for -- ten critical chemical warfare agents, and they do what is known as a four ion test. They are not doing a full fingerprint of the chemicals.

In that case, there are a number of interferences that might have the same signature, the same partial signature. In this case CS and sarin had the same partial signatures. The way the parameters are set in the system, when you get any signature that would be associated with sarin, even if it is like CS which has partially the same signature, the system is designed to alert for sarin.

It is designed to alert, or to eliminate, any false negatives -- in other words, if sarin was there and we missed it -- because the penalty for having sarin in the air is death, and we don't want to risk that. When you set the parameters you have to have a trade-off, and the trade off is with the false positives, and that's what happens.

The penalty in operation for having a false positive is you mop up and you take another reading either with the mass spectrometer or with the 256 kit. In this case, in real time, they took a full mass spectrometer reading and found it was CS and they proceeded accordingly.

The problem is that you can't take a full mass spectrometer immediately. There is a heated probe head that in the scanning mode, in what is known as "air high mode", has high temperature, 180 degrees. The full mass spectrometer is done in a low temperature mode at 120 degrees and, therefore, the head has to cool and that takes five to ten minutes.

In certain combat situations where you're on the move, you don't have the opportunity to stop, take the additional readings. And that's fine because you're in an alerting situation, not trying to develop evidence for subsequent analysis. In terms of subsequent analysis, the only thing that is reliable is the full mass spectrometer, and that takes additional time to perform.

Q: How many were exposed at that point in time and what is their physical condition?

A: About 20 people were exposed. They were exposed to CS. There is no lingering physical problems with CS. We will make notification to all of those 20, plus we will notify all those that were at Camp Monterey who might be concerned that they were exposed in any way to a low level chemical exposure of sarin. So we will notify the immediate core group plus the broader group.

Q: Are any of these 20 people on the registry? Have they claimed any illness?

A: I don't know that, but there were no indications at the time and we've interviewed people from Camp Monterey, so there were no lingering illnesses at the time.

Q: Why would there be CS there? Why would there be tear gas?

A: You would have to ask the Iraquis because it was their chemical, but CS is a riot control agent and they may have had it there for some use. We don't know.

Q: What kind of container was it in?

A: It was in a metal container. It was being moved out of a warehouse area. If you go on GulfLINK right now, the case is there plus pictures and you can pull off of GulfLINK or we can make available to you pictures of Camp Monterey and the maps.

Q: I wanted to clarify something. The mass spectrometer tapes are what were reviewed by the (inaudible).

A: Yes, that's correct.

Q: Not the material that was tested.

A: That's correct. The mass spectrometer tapes. And this is a case where we had absolutely full documentation, not only the automatic readout, but the operators pressed the print button to get the full readout of the mass spectrometer. So we had the maximum information possible.

Q: As a set up, could you discuss this upcoming explosion happening at Dugway?

A: Sure.

Q: What do you hope to learn, what would be the format?

A: As you remember, we have been working with the CIA to refine, but not over-refine, our ability to do the fallout analysis for Khamisiyah. There were three issues fundamentally. One, the right model to use, and we have been relying on IDA and their panel and they have advised us as to what would be an appropriate model. The second issue was weather data and we have vastly expanded the amount of weather data, including classified data from the Navy for that time period.

And then the third was how much of the material was actually released, and there are two parts to that: how many rockets were there and how many were blown up, and then what happened with those that were blown up. The pictures we have of the pit area immediately after show a bunch of broken boxes and troops without protective gear standing next to the boxes two days after the explosion.

That is kind of interesting about why they wouldn't be contaminated and the physical aspects, so that raised questions in the CIA analyst's mind as to what was the actual condition. And so we jointly made the determination that we would like to test what would happen to rockets of a similar kind if they were blown up, and we have done that.

We have taken 122mm rockets that we had captured. We have duplicated the front end of the rocket in terms of the container that nerve agent would have been -- would have contained the nerve agent. We put simulant into it and we're in the process of a series of explosions to blow that up. We're doing it individually and in stacks.

Next week will be a stack and you are all invited, if you would like to go to Dugway and see the explosions. There will be videotapes available of the entire series for you, either there or here after that series. The explosion is scheduled for Wednesday evening. If the weather is not correct for safety reasons, it could be put off until Thursday morning.

When we get this data, CIA based upon the interviews and the photographs, will build a composite of how much of what kind of rockets were broken, were fully exploded and vaporized, and make a judgment as to the source that may have been released. We will then put it into a Navy model which has been endorsed by IDA with the new weather data, and by mid July we'll have a quite sophisticated assessment of potential fallout.

The key, the most critical piece of information, is the source information, how much was actually released, and I think we'll have an excellent understanding of that potential.

Q: Thank you.

A: Thank you very much.