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DoD News Briefing - July 21, 1996

Presenters: Kenneth Bacon, ASD (PA) and Dr. Stephen Joseph, ASD(RA)
June 21, 1996 3:45 PM EDT

Friday, June 21, 1996 - 3:45 p.m.

Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense)

Good afternoon, I'm sorry to keep you waiting. Since the Gulf War ended, some veterans have expressed concern that they might have been exposed to chemical weapons during or after the conflict. The Department of Defense has found no evidence that Iraq used chemical weapons during the war and the Department has found no clinical evidence that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons. Nevertheless, the Department has continued to investigate all possible causes of the illnesses that some DESERT STORM veterans are suffering.

In the spring of 1995, President Clinton announced that he would leave no stone unturned in our efforts to determine the causes of the illnesses being experienced by some Gulf War veterans and to provide effective medical care for those who are ill. This has resulted in a wide range of new initiatives on Gulf War illnesses, including efforts to re-examine records for evidence of possible exposure to chemical or biological weapons.

The President established the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses to review the full range of U.S. government activities related to the health consequences of service in the Gulf. In line with that directive from the President in March of 1995, the Department established the Persian Gulf Investigation Team and ordered it to begin a broad review of all information, including intelligence findings and operational records, that might help explain health problems suffered by DESERT STORM veterans. This was launched personally by John Deutch when he was the Deputy Secretary of Defense and it has been carried on by him at the CIA.

The Team launched an inter-Agency search for information collected before, during, and after the War. Many of these documents have been made available to the public on Gulf-Link, one of the Pentagon's internet services. For the past year, the team has been reviewing evidence suggesting that Iraq may have stored chemical weapons at the Kamisiyah Ammunition Storage area in southern Iraq, the site which is right here. It is also known as Tel Al Lahn and I can't explain why it's identified on the map as Tel Al Lahn but I will refer to it throughout as the Kamisiyah Ammunition Storage Depot. It has two names. The spelling I'm using is K-A-M-I-S-I-Y-A-H Ammunition Storage Area or Depot.

The information under review by the Persian Gulf Investigation Team includes information obtained from the United Nations Special Commission which is also known as UNSCOM. UNSCOM has informed us that, as part of its ongoing effort to verify Iraqi declarations, it inspected the Kamisiyah ammunition storage area last month, that's in May. During that inspection, UNSCOM concluded that one bunker had contained rockets with chemical agents. U.S. soldiers from the 37th Engineer Battalion destroyed ammunition bunkers at this site in early March 1991, shortly after the war ended. Based on a new review of the available information, it now appears that one of these destroyed bunkers contained chemical weapons.

The troops who destroyed that bunker were trained demolition experts accompanied by chemical weapons experts. They were unaware at the time that the bunker contained rockets with chemical agents. They had inspected the bunker with chemical detectors prior to its destruction and found no evidence of chemical agents. Detectors in use during destruction also did not confirm the presence of chemical agents.

The Kamisiyah area including the ammunition storage site is located southeast of An Nasiriyah and northwest of Basrah as you can see on the map. It contains several different storage areas. The one that I'm talking about is -- this is the storage that I'm talking about right here. It's a diagram of the whole storage area that I'm calling Kamisiyah. These storage areas included an open pit and an open storage area where chemical weapons were found by UNSCOM in October of 1991. That's several months after the bunkers were destroyed by our troops in March.

Iraq declared Kamisiyah as a chemical weapons storage site shortly after the Gulf War and UNSCOM first visited the site in 1991, finding evidence of chemical weapons at the site. Since the May 1996 re-inspection, however, UNSCOM has concluded that chemical weapons were also in one bunker slightly more than one mile from the location where the chemical weapons were previously detected. Defense investigators as part of the ongoing Administration effort to learn as much as possible about the possible causes of Gulf War illness are intensely studying Iraq's chemical weapons activities and are trying to document as precisely as possible the actions of U.S. troops during and after the fighting.

They have now been able to confirm that U.S. troops did indeed destroy the bunker in question in March of 1991. The troops were about three miles from the site when the bunker was detonated.

Defense investigators have interviewed some of the American troops who were present at the event, and efforts will continue to locate health personnel who were in the area at the time. The Department has also started an examination of health data from the 20,000 DESERT STORM veterans who have registered with the Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program (CCEP) to determine if servicemembers who were proximate to the Kamisiyah Ammunition Storage Depot have presented clinical findings distinct from other participants in the clinical evaluation program.

I repeat again, the Department of Defense has found no evidence that Iraq were used weapons during the war and, so far, we have found no clinical evidence that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons.

Q: What agents were involved?

A: We are not sure.

The Department has launched an effort to cross-check the Army's geographical information system which tells where soldiers were during DESERT STORM with the clinical data to look for any new health patterns. As part of the ongoing research effort, analytical projects to model the effects of destruction of the bunker and the prevailing weather conditions in the area at the time are underway. And further research on the possible impact of low level exposure to chemical agents is planned.

Our understanding of this episode is still partial. Sorting through vast numbers of documents is painstaking detective work. I want to emphasize that this new information is the product of an aggressive effort begun about a year ago, more than a year ago, at the direction of President Clinton to try to determine the causes of illnesses being experienced by Gulf War veterans. This effort included the formation of the Presidential Advisory Committee as I've already mentioned.

We are releasing this information as part of our continuing efforts to make as much information on these issues available to the Gulf War veterans and to the public.

Q: You said that there's no clinical evidence that U.S. soldiers were exposed to chemical agents. Do you take this a prima facie evidence that there was exposure or is there other non-clinical evidence that there was some exposure?

A: I think I'd like to have Dr. Steve Joseph, who is the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs answer that question. Steve.

Dr. Joseph: If I could just add one thing to what Ken said. We do know the response to the question about what was in the munitions. We do know that there was Sarin in some munitions and mustard gas in others. If I understand your question, the answer is that from our work so far, and I have to emphasize that it's very preliminary, what we've done is taken all the comprehensive clinical evaluation program clinical data and matched to a preliminary look at units which were in the area, and we have found to date no unusual frequency of either participation in the CCEP or of illnesses or symptoms in the CCEP. Also, the preliminary information that we have, and again, I would say it's very preliminary, is that there are no reports, that we have located, acute illness in that area at that time. I think that's the basis of Ken's statement. I am not aware of other evidence except for the clinical evidence that would speak to the other part of you question.

Q: Can I do a follow-up please. Going back to the Sarin and mustard gas, correct if I'm wrong but Sarin, I think, is a nerve agent that dissipates rather quickly. Mustard gas has been around since World War I, and we know it's a blistering agent and we're quite familiar with what it does to the human body, both internally and externally. Therefore, my question is, you know, what's the mystery if those are the only two agents? Secondly, as parenthetic to that, is there any indication there were biological agents stored with these weapons? And, lastly, as Ken said, if Iraq has admitted that these chemical agents were stored there, did they give you a longer list of what was there?

Dr. Joseph: I'll defer your last question to someone else to answer. The second question, do we have any indications of biological agents in the area. The answer to that both on clinical grounds and other grounds is no to date. Your first question, what's the mystery? Perhaps the best way to answer that is to say there are two things that one would look for here. One, if indeed there was actual exposure of American troops to a release of nerve agent, mustard or whatever else, was there any acute illness in the troops in the area? The answer to that is from our preliminary evidence so far. No, we're still looking, but no. The second part is, if there was no acute illness related to a possible exposure, might there be any clinical evidence that we can isolate from our other studies that might relate to long-term chronic health effect in the absence of acute clinical incidence.

Q: Well, there we're not communicating. What I was trying to get at --

Dr. Joseph: And, the answer to that is no -- no at the moment.

Q: Excuse me, let him just answer that second question.

Q: Well, but he's not answering my question. What I'm trying to say is that we know what mustard gas does to the human body --

Dr. Joseph: Yes.

Q: And, to the lungs. So, therefore, if there's a question about what illness we have in the Gulf War Syndrome, can't you really rule out mustard because you know what mustard does? The same thing with Sarin, can't you do that?

Dr. Joseph: That is certainly so with regard to acute clinical illness from exposure and, as I said, we have seen nothing yet or heard nothing yet in looking for acute effects, [the answer] is no. As you know, there are some people who claim and there's debate about this in terms of medical fact that it is possible to have long-term chronic effects in the absence of acute clinical illness. And, we have not found that either in the CCEP study to date or in our very preliminary look at the situation with Tel Al Lahn.

Q: Have you gone through the 37th Engineers? Could you tell a little more about that outfit? What it was doing there and who it was attached to?

Dr. Joseph: We can't tell you much now. We're in the process of trying to find out exactly who was there through the Army's information and to cross-check that with the clinical study that's been going on. We're in the early stages of doing this. This has just happened.

One of the reasons we're having this announcement is to call attention to what happened in this area with this bunker so that people who may feel they have relevant information can come forward and contact the investigators who are following this as well as the medical people.

Q: You mean, you don't know what unit that 37th Engineers, was with? Would you say?

Mr. Bacon: The 37th Engineers was working in support of the 82nd Airborne.

Q: And, about how many troops were there?

Q: Do you have any idea about round numbers?

Mr. Bacon: We don't know for sure, but we believe from 300 to 400 troops were involved in the actual detonation of the bunkers.

Q: Where were they based?

Mr. Bacon: Do you know where the unit was based, Paul?

Mr. Wallner: No, I don't. It was conducting operations up in that area.

Q: And, where in the States?

Mr. Bacon: I don't know. We'll find out.

Mr. Wallner: The 82nd Airborne is at Ft. Bragg.

Q: Did you say Iraq admitted the weapons were there or just admitted chemical weapons in the general area?

Mr. Bacon: They had told us that there were chemical weapons in the general area. We knew about the weapons in the pit. What -- what is new here is that one of the bunkers that was exploded, we have learned as of last month, did contain weapons that had chemicals in them and we believe at some time. There has been no -- I want to point out -- that at no time have we detected through any monitoring device a chemical agent. It wasn't detected at the time NBC crews went in to the area to check them out before the detonation teams went in. It wasn't detected conclusively after -- at the time they were detonated. And, when the UNSCOM team rechecked, what they found were no traces of chemical elements in 1996, when they rechecked. What they found were shell linings, polyethylene shell linings inside the shell which are characteristic of shells that carry chemical weapons. But, in 1996, there were no traces of chemicals there and, as I point out, no detective devices used by the NBC teams when they went in to check for these weapons found.

Q: How many weapons are there? Do we know?

Mr. Bacon: No.

Q: Then your determination that there were chemical weapons there is based on the Iraqi admission in spite of the fact that monitoring devices didn't show any evidence of chemical agents?

Mr. Bacon: It's based -- what the new information here, we've known for a long while there were chemical weapons in the area. The new information here is that one of the exploded bunkers probably had chemical weapons inside it. That is based on, as I said, a finding -- that is based on sort of the -- an analysis of what the inside of the shells looked like while finding a liner that was typically used by the Iraqis in weapons that carry chemicals.

Q: Was it too long after the fact to determine whether there was actually chemical agent contained in these warheads, these shells?

Mr. Bacon: I want to tell that the information on which the UNSCOM people based their conclusion was the liner. It was not a trace of any chemical agent.

Q: Dr. Joseph, to what extent does this take you back to square one in this whole investigation of the causes of Gulf War syndrome?

Dr. Joseph: I don't think it takes us back to square one at all. I mean, I think we now have what the investigation team and the declassification effort were set up to look for. We now have a circumstance where one has to focus to see if a) there was exposure of troops and b) if there are any health effects from that. We now have in our possession tools that we didn't have at square one. One, we have the 20,000 CCEP patient registry and the VA patient registry. And, two, we have the Army geographic locator study. So, we're positioned now to look at this area, look at our clinical data, look at what units were there at -- at what time and see if there are any matches. I think we're far ahead of square one. But, what it does, what this incident or what this does provide us is an area on which we must now focus our investigations.

Q: Dr. Joseph, just briefly, mustard is very pervasive and if troops are three miles away they could have been easily contaminated before, during, or after, but coming back to the Sarin, doesn't Sarin dissipate very quickly and if troops were three miles away would they have been in harm's way?

Dr Joseph: It would depend on the concentration. It would depend on the environmental conditions, the wind conditions. It would depend on where the troops were if they were protected or not. I think, trying to come to the heart of your question, if there were any acute health effects from those troops who were closest, the engineers from either mustard or Sarin, we would know it -- we would have known it then. We -- we have no record of anything being noticed at that time. We will continue to look for it but I think we would have known it. The issue really turns on were there any low-level chronic health effects from the dispersion of any exposure that took place.

Q: When did the UN and when did Iraq declare that there was a chemical weapons storage depot? You mentioned October '91, for the UN?

A: Yes.

Q: What did they do in October of '91?

A: The -- it was after the war that Iraq declared that chemical weapons had been stored in this area.

Q: Were there other areas that they admitted to or was this the principal area?

Mr. Bacon: There have been other areas as well and other areas reported by UNSCOM. What -- and we are now going back and looking at the -- at what sort of troop exposure may have occurred in those areas. But I want to stress here what happened. We had reports back in 1991 that went to some part of the government. The reports were relocated as a result of the Persian Gulf investigation team that was set up in the spring of 1995, to President Clinton's direction. It was an effort to delve back into the information to take a look at everything we had. There are vast amounts of information and many of -- some of it is in Arabic. There are, as I say, operating reports from unit's intelligence information, things we collected during the war. This is an effort to go back and review what was there and the review produced what it was intended to produce, which is a new look at what we had and we are now bringing that forward.

Q: How many sites did they say, did Iraq say they had placed these weapons?

Mr. Bacon: Well, I believe the answer is eight, but I'm not certain on that. But the issue is where were the sites in relation to American troops. Sites that were far away from American troops, sites that were attacked solely by air are different matters than sites where troops may have been nearby on the ground and so that's why we're making a special effort to put together the geographical information with the clinical information here.

Q: Is there evidence that there was chemical activity in this bunker, was it the shells and paperwork that you later went back and looked at again, or just the shells, the shell casings that you referred to?

A: The paperwork directed us to the area and the shell casings which UNSCOM monitored. It was UNSCOM that made the positive identification by looking at the shell casings.

Q: From looking at the shell casings and they were directed there because of paperwork that they found, is that correct?

A: Yes. What was your question?

Q: My question then is, with all due respect, what reason do you have to believe the Iraqis? Is it at all possible that the paperwork was redone or that the shells were placed there at some time afterwards since the Army, the U.S. Army, never picked up any monitoring of this substance? What reason do you have to believe the Iraqis here?

Mr. Bacon: We aren't basing this solely on what the Iraqis have reported. We're basing it on what UNSCOM investigators have found.

Q: Do you think it is at all possible that shells were placed there afterwards?

Mr. Bacon: It is possible and that's -- it is possible, we don't know that. What we know is that this was first investigated or examined by NBC people, experts in March, before the bunker was destroyed. They found no evidence of chemical agents when they went in.

UNSCOM went in the fall of 1991. And, they reported that there were chemical weapons in the area. They also reported that they thought there was some in a bunker. That report resurfaced after the effort -- the inter-Agency effort was created in 1995. We went back and based on UNSCOM information -- based one on that report and two on UNSCOM information as I described earlier about the linings of the shells. UNSCOM concluded that there had been gas or some agent, some chemical agent in the those shells in a bunker called Bunker 73. And, so, we still have not found, as I said, any detection at any time in our own investigation of chemical agents there.

 

We are basing this on information provided by UNSCOM.

Q: You had NBC when they blew it up? You had NBC monitoring sites when the Engineers blew this up. Is that correct?

Mr. Bacon: Yes.

Q: Ken, is there any theory of how there could have been a release of chemical agents without it being detected by our equipment?

Mr. Bacon: No. I -- I can't speak to those theories now. As I say, this --

Q: Is it possible for a release without it being detected?

Mr. Bacon: Theories -- theories, I'm not dealing with the theories, I'm just trying to report to you what we know.

Q: Are you looking at the equipment again to see whether it could have been faulty?

Mr. Bacon: Well, we've done alot in improving detection equipment since the Gulf War and we're always trying to improve detection equipment.

Q: But is it being looked at to see whether it could have failed?

Mr. Bacon: Well, we will do many things. I can't say that we will do that. One issue would be finding the exact detective devices that we used at that time. So, I think it would be hard to go back and recreate all of the conditions that existed at that time.

Q: Are you concurring with --

Q: Could you tell me how many people you've said you've already talked to?

Q: [inaudible] if it was based on the lining of the shells, how do you know that it contained Sarin and mustard gas?

Dr. Joseph: I'm not an expert in chemical weapons, so I - - I'll give you a layman's response to that. There are characteristics of the shells of the ordnance. When the ordnance is exploded that a chemical weapon expert would say that this ordnance is one that would be used to house chemical agents. In addition, during the UNSCOM investigations, they found actual traces, actual Sarin gas in some of the ordnance.

Q: In some what? Sorry

Dr. Joseph: In some of the ordnance.

Q: Was this is October of '91 or last month that they found the traces?

Q: The first time --

Q: Which was the [inaudible]? -- say the date, would you please, Doctor?

A: October of 1991 is when they found the trace.

Q: When? Knew this is '91? And, we're just hearing about it today? The use of another agency had this information? What agency had it? Was it classified? I remember this Administration, Deutch in particular and then Dorn in '94 showing us that there was no chemical weapons in the theater of operations?

Mr. Bacon: Based on the information that they had at the time, those statements were absolutely correct.

Q: It's inoperative now, I assume?

Mr. Bacon: No, I'm not saying they were inoperative at all. We are investigating this information. One of the reasons this information is here, one of the reasons we have it is because of the panel that John Deutch set up when he was still Deputy Secretary of Defense. This has been discussed prior to this date. There is an account of this on the Internet on the web site that's run by the President's Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran's Illnesses. If you want to check it, you can do it at http, write this down. You're a computer expert www.gwvi.gov\

Q: There's probably more information there than we're getting here today.

A: Could be. Look it up.

Q: Ken, could I ask, you said you've got some preliminary studies going on. How many people from those units have you actually spoken to so far and have you determined that people were wearing protective gear at the time this stuff was exploded?

Dr. Joseph: All of the clinical data that I gave you before is not based -- none of the clinical data that I gave you before is based on a re-examination, or an examination of any of the individuals who were there since we got this data. All of it is based at looking at our clinical evaluation program data and matching the units there with units who were in the area.

Q: Look, sir, I don't understand your language. What you're saying is you're looking at paperwork, you're not talking to real people?

A: Exactly.

Q: Okay.

Dr. Joseph: And, that's exactly the point. What we have done is taken the clinical data on the 20,000 patients and said how many of these patients we know alot about were in that area. And, of the units who were in that area, are there more people in the group who have presented themselves with illnesses and symptoms following Persian Gulf service than there were among units who were not in that area.

Q: Raised an obvious question here. Are you checking other places as well?

A: Yes.

Q: Again, do you know if MOPP gear --

Q: Were they all wearing protective gear?

Q: Do you know how many?

Dr. Joseph: The ordnance and NBC people who went in to the site before demolition were in MOPP gear initially. When they found no detectable agent, they and the rest of the engineers during the process of the demolitions were not in MOPP gear.

Q: How many other places are being checked, now, doctor?

Dr. Joseph: Well, we will go back now and look at all possible sites or all suspected sites where there were chemical weapons. I think Ken's number is a good one -- half a dozen, eight, ten sites, whatever we now dig out and again do this match with our patient survey.

Q: Did you talk to the NBC people, not the engineers?

A: I have the answer.

A: This is Paul Wallner who works in Deputy Secretary White's office.

 

Q: Last name?

A: Wallner. The investigation team has talked to the individuals from the engineer battalion, the EOD and the NBC folks, a few of them. They haven't talked to all of them, yet. There's still some that they need to talk to. But they have talked to those people again, and they're the ones that told them what happened at the time.

Mr. Bacon: We have time for one more question. But before that -- before that question, I'd like to say that the 37th Engineer Battalion is based at Ft. Bragg. Yes?

Q: Have you been able to assess whether these weapons were ready to load onto planes, to use on a moment's notice, very short notice, or were they in an area where they would have taken a long time to use in the Gulf War?

Mr. Bacon: I can't answer that question but what I can say is that we have no evidence that chemical weapons were used during the Gulf War.

Q: Could I just try to clarify just one thing? If elements of Sarin were discovered at this site in October of '91 by UN inspectors, what has changed in the last 24 hours? Why this sort of last minute briefing on this? What -- what's changed?

Mr. Bacon: It's only this week, as I understand it, or in the last -- it's only recently that we got a positive report back from UNSCOM's analyst about the finding that there were actually evidence of chemicals and that is through the shell liners in Bunker 73, one of the bunkers that was exploded.

Q: The information was classified? Explain that to us?

Mr. Bacon: I didn't say it was classified. I said we only got the UNSCOM verification recently.

Q: But, they reported this in '91? You indicated earlier some other government agency had this information and I assume since '91, is that correct?

Mr. Bacon: The issue was how do we best look at all the evidence we have and pull it together into some comprehensive pattern. That's what the Persian Gulf investigation team was set up to do in the spring of 1995. It has done that and this is one of its findings. Rather than wait until we have answered every single question that anybody could ask about this, we're announcing what we found in part to encourage people to come forward with more information that might be related to this.

Q: I'm still asking, was this information in the hands of the American government in 1991 and it was classified by some other agency?

Mr. Bacon: I do not know what its classification was.

Q: Was it in the hands of the government in 1991?

Mr. Bacon: We had a report to the government, but remember we had -- we have a lot of papers about the Gulf War about DESERT STORM and it was when we watched in '95 the systematic effort to go through what we had that we found a pattern that led to the announcement we're making today.

Q: Who would you like people to talk to?

Mr. Bacon: There is a -- you could --- there is an 800 number to call which I once had but I don't think I have now. You can get it from DDI but there is an 800 number that people can call with information about --

Q: Which is Bunker 73? Is it that whole thing or is it one of those?

Mr. Bacon: It's right here, I believe.

Q: Ken, I'm sorry if I missed this, but what was the date that Bunker 73 was destroyed?

Mr. Bacon: It was exploded in the first week of March of 1994 and -- 1991. It was sometime between March 4th and March 7th, I don't have the exact date. And, finally, the number to call -- there is a toll-free incident reporting line which is 1- 800-472-6719. Thank you very much.

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