May 1, 1997

Pentagon to Name Adviser on Gulf Illnesses


WASHINGTON -- A White House panel said Wednesday that the government was still not doing enough to investigate the cause of health problems reported among gulf war veterans, criticism that helped prompt the Pentagon to appoint former Sen. Warren Rudman as a special adviser on the issue.

The appointment is expected to be formally announced Thursday, the day after the White House received the report in which the panel said the Defense Department and the CIA were not moving fast enough to determine whether American troops may have been exposed to Iraqi nerve gas and other chemical weapons in the Persian Gulf.

Officials said that the appointment of such a respected figure as Rudman was meant to signal the administration's determination to end any perception that the Pentagon and the CIA were hiding evidence that might help explain the health problems of thousands of gulf war veterans.

Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, retired from the Senate in 1992 and is now vice chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

In the report to the White House on Wednesday, the experts panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, said the Defense Department was too cautious in making conclusions about incidents in which troops may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons.

Though scientists are divided on the question of whether exposure to low levels of chemical weapons can lead to the sort of chronic health problems seen among gulf war veterans, the panel suggested that more veterans should be notified of the possibility that they were exposed to the poisons.

"The committee believes that for matters involving the health of veterans, adherence to courtroom standards of evidence is inappropriate," the report said. The Pentagon, it said, "should move as quickly as possible towards conclusions about the incidents under investigation and, when in doubt, err in favor of targeted notification of troops about possible health risks."

The report also charged that the Defense Department was using federal privacy laws as a "shield" to prevent the committee from obtaining information about possible chemical exposures during the war. "We remain guarded in our assessment of DOD's willingness to provide access to information critical to our work," the committee said.

A copy of the report, which is also expected to be made public Thursday, was provided to The New York Times.

Spokesmen at the CIA and the Defense Department said they had no comment on the report because they had not yet seen it. In the past, both agencies have pledged full cooperation with the White House panel, and in recent months have greatly expanded the number of investigators assigned to the matter.

A senior White House official involved with the issue said that though the Pentagon and the CIA may have moved too slowly in the past, "the right things are happening now, and President Clinton has a strong commitment to make sure that all the facts come out." He added, "The CIA and the Pentagon are being responsive, and they deserve credit for that."

Still, the advisory committee remained critical of both agencies in Wednesday's report, especially of their investigation of the March 1991 demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot near the village of Kamisiyah. Thousands of American troops may have been exposed to low levels of nerve gas in that incident.

The report said the CIA and the Pentagon had no excuse for delays in producing a long-awaited model of potential fallout from the demolition.

A preliminary model suggested that low levels of nerve gas might have traveled as far as 165 miles south from the depot -- over areas of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq where hundreds of thousands of American troops were stationed after the war.

The CIA and the Pentagon have not completed the model, saying that there are too many uncertainties about what actually happened during the demolition and that a hastily completed model might unnecessarily alarm gulf war veterans and their families.

The advisory committee rejected those arguments. "The committee finds none of the barriers raised to date by CIA and DOD presents insurmountable obstacles or in any way justify the delay in immediately completing the modeling," the report said.

The report to Clinton on Wednesday offered no new clues to the health problems reported by thousands of gulf war veterans.

In what was supposed to be its final report, the committee said in January that it did not believe that chemical weapons were responsible for the health problems of gulf war veterans, although it called for more research on the issue and criticized the Pentagon for failing to conduct a "credible" investigation of chemical exposures during the war. The panel has suggested that wartime stress is likely to be a major factor in the ailments.

In accepting the report in January, Clinton asked the committee to remain in business for at least several months, to oversee the government's investigation of gulf war illnesses.

In interviews, members of the White House panel said that they were especially concerned over the delay in the release of the fallout model.

"People deserve an answer," said Arthur Caplan, a committee member who is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. "The modeling should move as rapidly as possible. To some extent, answers can be given now that go from the worst case to the best case."

Another panel member, Rolando Rios, a lawyer from San Antonio, said that while he had been impressed by steps taken by the CIA and the Pentagon to expand their investigations, "I still believe that there was some conscious or unconscious coverup -- I still feel there's a resistance to accepting responsibility."

Rios said he also thinks the White House panel may have gone too far when it suggested in January that chemical weapons were probably not responsible for the health ailments of gulf war veterans.

"I wasn't sure then that I embraced that statement wholeheartedly, and I'm even less sure now," he said. "I personally think that some of this could be explained by chemicals."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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