March 6, 1997

Defense Secretary Defends Pentagon Inquiry Into Gulf War Illness


STUTTGART, Germany -- Defense Secretary William Cohen said Wednesday that the Pentagon was engaged in a "very thorough, very honest effort to get to the facts" about the cause of health problems among veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf war and that he saw no need for an independent investigation of the issue.

But Cohen said he was concerned about the disappearance of most of the chemical-detection logs maintained during the war for American military commanders. He also acknowledged that earlier inquiries within the Pentagon on Gulf war illnesses had "not been well handled."

In a report made public last week, the Pentagon said that after an exhaustive search, investigators had been able to track down only 36 of the estimated 200 pages of the classified logs, in which officers were supposed to record any incident in which chemical or biological weapons were detected on the battlefield.

Groups representing ailing veterans have been alarmed by the disappearance of the logs, which they believe could provide evidence to show that American troops were exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons during the war. The American Legion, one of the nation's largest veterans groups, has called for a criminal investigation of the missing logs.

"I think there's general disappointment in terms of the level of record keeping that took place," Cohen told reporters Wednesday aboard an Air Force plane during an official visit to Germany. "Obviously it has not been well handled."

But he said that an overhaul and expansion of the Pentagon's inquiry last November would result in a "very thorough investigation."

He added: "We'll pursue all the leads that we can. And whatever bad news there is, we will dig through and make public. I'm satisfied we're making a very thorough, very honest effort to get to the facts."

On Monday, the Defense Department said that the investigation of the missing logs would be handed over to the Pentagon's inspector general, Eleanor Hill. As inspector general, Ms. Hill is supposed to function as an independent watchdog of the department.

Asked why the investigation had been given to Ms. Hill and whether that suggested the need for an even more independent investigation, possibly by someone outside the Pentagon, Cohen said, "No, this was an effort on our part to see to it that the public is satisfied that we're going to make a thorough investigation, that we will dig through all the facts."

"It was an effort to augment the investigation that is currently under way to satisfy any skeptics or critics who say it is not independent enough, or that they are not doing a thorough job," Cohen said.

As he handed over the investigation to Ms. Hill this week, Bernard D. Rostker, an assistant secretary of the Navy who was named last November as the Pentagon's senior official on Gulf war illnesses, said he had seen no evidence that anyone intentionally destroyed the log.

There is no conclusive evidence to show that Gulf war veterans were made ill from exposure to chemical or biological weapons.

But the disappearance of the logs has further damaged the Pentagon's credibility on the issue. In its report last week, the Pentagon said some of the logs were destroyed in the war by a computer virus, while other logs might have been misplaced when soldiers who handled the logs changed jobs after the war.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

Return to Gulf Clippings Index ---- Return to Jim Turner's page ----