January 8, 1997

Credibility on Gulf War Illness

A Presidential panel that is overseeing the Pentagon's controversial investigation into Persian Gulf war veterans' illnesses issued a two-pronged verdict yesterday. It found little evidence yet that Persian Gulf war veterans have been sickened by exposure to any of nine potential hazards, but plenty of evidence that the Pentagon's investigation into one of those hazards -- possible exposure to chemical warfare agents -- has been so inept that it has lost credibility.

The panel quite wisely urged that further investigation of possible exposure to chemical weapons be conducted by, or at least overseen by, a group independent of the Defense Department. President Clinton responded by asking the panel itself to continue its oversight for nine more months. He also urged the Veterans Administration to consider extending the period of eligibility to collect disability payments for ailments possibly related to service in the gulf war. The only pity is that neither the President nor the panel went further and endorsed a longer-lasting, more powerful independent authority to run the whole investigation into gulf war illnesses.

Yesterday's report, by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, concluded that many veterans have illnesses that are probably connected to their service in the gulf. But the panel found it "unlikely" that the health effects are due to chemical warfare agents, smoke from oil-well fires, pesticides, vaccines or other frequently mentioned risks. It left open the possibility that exposure to combinations of these hazards might have caused illnesses.

The only causal factor the panel clearly identified was stress, which it described as a likely contributor to a broad range of illnesses. That does not mean these illnesses are imaginary or "all in the heads" of the veterans. It simply means that the stress and disruption of wartime service can produce physical illness, as it has in past wars. The panel's judgments on all these medical issues are broadly consistent with previous scientific reviews and with the Defense Department's views.

But these scientific judgments, which are always subject to revision as new evidence comes in, are not necessarily definitive. More research is needed on combination effects and on very-low-level chemical exposures. But whatever verdict is ultimately reached will have to overcome doubts about the Government's integrity in handling this investigation. Even as the report was issued, Senator Jay Rockefeller charged that there had been "massive indifference" to the plight of the veterans, and Senator Arlen Specter charged that there was a cover-up by the Pentagon. Although the oversight panel's chairwoman noted the Pentagon's recent efforts and said there was no evidence of a cover-up, the panel's report called the initial stages of the investigation slow and superficial.

That is why it is crucial to bolster the credibility of the whole inquiry. President Clinton's extension of the oversight panel's life does not insure quite as much independence as is necessary. The President's solution would leave the Pentagon running the investigation while one or more outside groups oversaw and commented on the proceedings. A better solution would give some independent body the authority to order investigations and studies by the Pentagon and the final say in interpreting their results. That is how the investigation into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger was handled from the start. It may not be too late to impose such a structure on the gulf war investigation.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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