Pentagon adds high-profile adviser on Gulf illness

Associated Press, 05/02/97 01:27

WASHINGTON (AP) - Stung by renewed criticism of its handling of Gulf War illness investigations, the Pentagon appointed former Sen. Warren Rudman to review its work and advise on ways to improve the military's cooperation with the CIA.

Both the Pentagon and the CIA have encountered heavy criticism, especially from veterans groups, for not aggressively seeking answers to whether exposure to Iraqi chemical weapons may have caused the mysterious Gulf War illnesses.

The Pentagon and the CIA recently have acknowledged that timely intelligence information about the presence of chemical warfare agents at an Iraqi weapons depot was not conveyed to the right people at the end of the Gulf War.

It is not yet clear that exposure to chemical warfare agents can cause the kinds of chronic health problems thousands of Gulf War veterans reported after returning home. But it is a theory the Pentagon initially was reluctant to pursue.

In a memorandum to Cohen released Thursday, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses blasted the Pentagon on several fronts. Among other things it accused the Pentagon of obstructing its work by using the federal Privacy Act as a shield against the panel's access to information.

The panel also said the Pentagon's public credibility had been undermined by its denials, prior to June 1996, of the possibility of U.S. troop exposure to chemical warfare agents.

Bringing Rudman into the picture as an adviser was an attempt to restore credibility, officials said.

Rudman's role will be to ``find the facts,'' Defense Secretary William Cohen said.

The New Hampshire Republican will be a kind of ombudsman, Cohen said, and will focus on questions about the handling and use of intelligence information during the 1991 Gulf War that could have prevented some troop exposure to chemical agents.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Rudman earned a reputation in the Senate for having little tolerance for double-talk.

``He will need that same wariness when dealing with the DoD and the CIA, both of which have spent much of the past six years covering up information,'' said Rockefeller, top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Cohen's spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, said Rudman would not be paid for his work, which Bacon said would be part time. He said Cohen expected Rudman to be his ``eyes and ears'' by consulting with veterans as well as with intelligence specialists.

``He has a well-known record as being outspoken, as being substantive, as being direct and of telling people what he thinks,'' Bacon said.

Rudman is vice chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He served with Cohen in the Senate.

Rudman met Thursday with Bernard Rostker, who is directing the Pentagon's investigation of Gulf War illness issues. Afterward, Rostker told reporters he was happy to have Rudman involved.

``I think we're going a great job,'' Rostker said. ``I'm thrilled to tell the story of what we're doing.'' He acknowledged that when he encounters Gulf War veterans they often are quick to question the government's trustworthiness.

``It's a difficult question ... to have to hear, but it's not undeserved,'' Rostker said, adding that Rudman's input should help in that regard.

Although scientists are divided over whether exposure to chemical weapons may be linked to Gulf War illnesses, the presidential panel said the Pentagon should have pursued answers more aggressively and shared more information with veterans.

``The Defense Department should move as quickly as possible toward conclusions about the incidents under investigation and, when in doubt, err in favor of targeted notification of troops about possible health risks,'' the report said.

Rostker said he found the panel's complaints ``disappointing.''

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