WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon said Thursday that all full copies of the chemical-warfare logs maintained by the military during the 1991 Persian Gulf war had disappeared, even though copies on paper and on computer disks had been stored after the war in locked safes at two different locations in the United States.
In a new report on the missing logs, the Defense Department said its investigators had conducted an exhaustive search and had been able to track down only 36 pages of the estimated 200 pages of classified logs that were supposed to record any incident in which chemical or biological weapons were detected on the battlefield.
The logs were first reported missing last year and their disappearance has alarmed veterans who believe they may have been made sick by exposure to chemical or biological weapons during the war, and who believe that the Pentagon is hiding evidence of the exposure.
Thursday's report heightened speculation by veterans groups and members of Congress that there had been either criminal incompetence within the Defense Department -- it can be a federal crime to mishandle classified material -- or a cover-up.
The report said that the logs, which were recorded on floppy computer disks and on paper printouts, had been shipped after the war from Saudi Arabia to the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., where they were kept in a safe.
A separate computer disk containing the log information was stored after the war in a safe at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md., and Thursday's report said that paper printouts of the logs were made daily during the war as a backup and then filed away at the U.S. military command post in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
But the report said that virtually all of that information has vanished.
The report suggested that there was an honest explanation for many of the gaps in the logs: A computer virus destroyed some of the logs during the war, while some of the computer disks and the printouts may have been misplaced in an office shuffle at the Central Command headquarters after the war. The Central Command was the component of the military that oversaw U.S. troops in the gulf.
Still, members of Congress said the disappearance of nearly 80 percent of the logs was alarming and suspicious.
"Just incomprehensible," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and is overseeing an investigation of gulf war illnesses. "The Department of Defense is entitled to the benefit of the doubt for a reasonable time, but it's past its quota."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. John Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, said that "if the Pentagon had a shred of credibility left on the Persian Gulf war illness issue, the American people would be willing to stretch their imaginations enough to believe this latest tale -- sadly, the Pentagon has squandered the trust of the American people."
The gaps in the logs include the period from March 4 through March 10, 1991, when U.S. troops blew up an Iraqi ammunition depot that is now thought to have contained tons of nerve gas and other chemical weapons.
The 36 pages, which had previously been made public, demonstrate in meticulous detail how U.S. commanders received and disregarded several reports of chemical detections during the war.
There is still no conclusive scientific evidence to show that any U.S. soldiers were made sick by exposure to chemical or biological weapons during the war, and Thursday's report offers no new information about the medical problems reported by gulf war veterans. Scientists are divided on the question of whether exposure to low doses of chemical weapons can lead to chronic health problems.
But Thursday's report does add to the growing body of evidence that Defense Department officials mishandled -- and may even have destroyed -- evidence that would have demonstrated that the exposures did occur.
After years of denials, the Pentagon acknowledged only last June that some U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to nerve gas and other chemical weapons, and it has since conceded that more than 20,000 troops may have been exposed to the nerve gas sarin and other chemical weapons in the demolition of the Kamisiyah ammunition depot in March, 1991, a few days after the end of the war.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon acknowledged that Army officers had received warnings from the CIA in February 1991, in the middle of the gulf war, that chemical weapons might be stored in the vicinity of the depot but failed to pass on the information to the soldiers who later carried out the demolition.
Veterans groups have pointed to the missing chemical logs as evidence of possible conspiracy to hide evidence of exposures. The American Legion, one of the nation's largest veterans groups, has called for a criminal investigation of the matter.
When investigators working for the Senate Banking Committee made a formal written request for the chemical logs in 1994 as part of an investigation of gulf war illnesses, the Pentagon's general counsel said that no such logs existed.
James J. Tuite III, a former Senate investigator who led the Banking Committee inquiry, said Thursday that the subsequent acknowledgment that there were detailed logs -- and that most of them are missing -- led him to conclude that "there was a conspiracy to destroy documents related to the gulf war -- there's no other way to put it."
The Pentagon report was released this month to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which then made the document public at a hearing Thursday on gulf war illnesses.
Bryan Whitman, a Defense Department spokesman, said that the Pentagon had not intended for the report to be made public yet, and that he could not answer questions about the document because the investigation of the missing logs was still under way. "I don't want to comment on an ongoing investigation," Whitman said.
He said, however, that the Pentagon's exhaustive investigative of the issue was proof of its commitment to gulf war veterans to find the truth about gulf war illnesses and possible chemical exposures during the war. "It's through the efforts of the Defense Department that this information is coming to light," he said.
At the Senate hearing, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led U.S. forces in the war, said that he still doubted that ailing gulf war veterans were made sick by chemical weapons.
"We never had a single report of any symptoms at all on the part of the 541,000 Americans over there," Schwarzkopf said. "So my sense of logic says, look, if we're talking about something where one milligram can cause a fatality then certainly somewhere along the way if this stuff had affected our troops, somebody would have come up with these symptoms, and they didn't."
The retired general said that he was therefore shocked at the Pentagon's announcement last year that thousands of troops may have been exposed to nerve gas because of the demolition of the Kamisiyah ammunition depot.
On Wednesday, President Clinton ordered an independent panel of experts to investigate why soldiers who blew up the depot were not told that the site may have contained chemical weapons.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company