BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Pentagon on Wednesday denounced a new, previously unpublicized top-secret report prepared for the Defense Department that found that hundreds, if not thousands, of Marines might have been exposed to chemical weapons when they crossed Iraqi minefields into Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
The $2 million report, which has not been made public, was described by a senior Pentagon official as "sloppy" and "a wild goose chase." His comments left the Defense Department in the awkward position of publicly dismissing the work of the expert consultants it had hired.
The department said its own, far more detailed investigation, issued in a study earlier this week, showed that it was unlikely that the 1st and 2nd Marine divisions had been exposed to chemical weapons when they crossed into Kuwait over Iraqi minefields Feb. 24, 1991, the first day of the ground war.
During the invasion of Kuwait, chemical-detection specialists with both Marine divisions reported the presence of Iraqi chemical agents on the battlefield.
The top-secret consultants' report was prepared at the Defense Department's request by a defense-research company, MITRE Corp. of Bedford, Mass., which was formerly associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The report's existence was disclosed in Buffalo on Wednesday in testimony at a hearing of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, a White House panel of experts that is trying to determine the cause of health problems reported by thousands of gulf war veterans.
The Pentagon had recently shared the consultants' report with investigators for the White House panel who have security clearances. James Turner, the committee's chief investigator, asked Wednesday that the report be made public to insure "an open, full and public discussion" of the sharp differences between the Pentagon and its own outside consultants. The Pentagon has yet to decide if the report will be released to the public.
Turner said in an interview: "All of our analysts who have looked at the overall MITRE draft report have been very impressed with the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of the document."
The senior Pentagon official overseeing the investigation of veterans' illnesses, Dr. Bernard Rostker, acknowledged Wednesday that the consultants had determined there was the distinct possibility the Marines were exposed to chemicals when they crossed Iraqi minefields as they entered Kuwait on the first day of the ground war.
But he described the report as "a sloppy piece of work" that "is an embarrassment not to me but to MITRE." The consultants reached their conclusions, he said, on the basis of interviews with two Marines who had manned chemical detection vehicles during the invasion of the Kuwait and who had reported the presence of nerve gas and other chemical weapons.
Rostker said the Pentagon reached its conclusion on the basis of a far more exhaustive investigation that included interviews with many more Marines and a review of the computer tapes produced by the chemical detection equipment.
"Their material is paltry compared to the job we have done," Rostker said of the consultants' report. "It was very superficial, and you could have gotten the same conclusion by reading the popular press."
He said that the MITRE study was supposed to focus on the release of chemical agents from an Iraqi ammunition depot demolished shortly after the war -- not on the chemical detections reported by the Marines -- but that the consulting firm had "gone off on a tangent" and pursued an investigation not requested by the Pentagon.
MITRE had no comment on the Pentagon's criticism of its report. A company spokesman, Peter Alexandrakos, referred all questions about the report back to the Defense Department.
Last week, the Pentagon said that recent computer models showed that about 100,000 U.S. troops might have been exposed to nerve gas released from an Iraqi ammunition depot that was blown up by American troops in March 1991, shortly after the war.
It is the only instance in which the Pentagon has conceded the strong possibility that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons during or after the war.
In its report earlier this week, the Pentagon said its investigation suggested that the Marines who say they detected chemicals on the first day of the ground war were probably mistaken, and that an analysis of the records produced by their equipment showed it had produced false positives for chemical weapons.
But staff members for the White House panel suggested Wednesday that the Pentagon was too eager to dismiss the accounts of the Marines, and the possibility that chemicals were present on the battlefield when the Marines crossed into Kuwait.
"Our contention is that the door is still open, that there is a possibility," said Gary Caruso, the panel's chief spokesman and deputy director.
While the committee has found that chemical weapons were probably not responsible for the ailments of gulf war veterans, it has called for millions of dollars in new federal research on the potential health effects of exposure to low levels of nerve gas and other chemical agents.
"We feel that the presumption should weigh in favor of the veterans," Caruso said. "That's how we feel about the issue. Maybe our basic disagreement with the people from the Department of Defense is that they feel that the presumption should weigh in favor of the Department of Defense."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company