WASHINGTON -- Investigators for a presidential advisory commission said Thursday that the credibility of the Defense Department had been "gravely undermined" by its inquiry into the possible exposure of U.S. troops to Iraqi chemical weapons during the 1991 gulf war. They recommended that the investigation be taken away from the Pentagon and handed over to an outside body.
The investigators also concluded that as many as 1,100 U.S. troops -- more than double the number that had been originally reported by the Pentagon -- were exposed to sarin, a deadly nerve gas, when a battalion of U.S. combat engineers blew up an Iraqi ammunition depot in March 1991.
"The Department of Defense has conducted a superficial investigation of possible chemical and biological agent exposures which is unlikely to provide credible answers to veterans' questions," the investigators said in a statement presented Thursday to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, a panel created last year by President Clinton.
"A credible review of these allegations and concerns cannot be accomplished by the Department of Defense."
The findings by the investigators, who work for the 12-member committee appointed by the White House were an indictment of the leadership of the Pentagon, which until this year had insisted publicly that it had no evidence that large numbers of U.S. soldiers were exposed to chemical or biological weapons despite reports of mysterious, debilitating illnesses among thousands of gulf war veterans.
The Defense Department defended its investigation of the issue, with its senior health officer, Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, telling the panel at a public hearing Thursday that the Pentagon's internal inquiry into gulf war illnesses had been "a major contribution to the department and, we would suggest, to the public."
The investigators' findings have not been formally adopted by the commission -- that is expected to happen late this year, as the panel completes its final report -- but there was no substantive criticism of the findings when they were discussed in Thursday's hearing.
The panel is led by Joyce C. Lashof, a physician who is the former president of the American Public Health Association, and includes several other prominent scientists and researchers.
"The Department of Defense's official position has remained essentially unchanged, and that can be summarized as the three no's -- there was no use, there was no exposure, there was no presence," the commission's chief investigator, James Turner, told the panel at the hearing.
"The inflexible reassertion of this position in the face of growing evidence that there were possible low-level exposures -- there were chemical munitions in the Kuwaiti theater of operation, there were releases -- have served to gravely undermine the credibility of the Department of Defense's internal investigation."
He said that the Pentagon team in charge of the investigation had spent too much time on scientific research that would be "more appropriately delegated to other components of the Department of Defense" and too little time in studying intelligence reports and combat logs, and in interviewing veterans who say they have evidence that chemical and biological agents were released.
A member of the commission, Andrea Kidd Taylor, an occupational health consultant, said the Pentagon's handling of the issue had created "the feeling of cover-up, even if there isn't any cover-up."
In testimony before the commission, Joseph, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, rejected the criticism of the Pentagon's investigation, and suggested that the internal inquiry would continue despite the recommendation Thursday that it be handed over to an outside body.
"While we are always open to constructive criticism, let me respectfully suggest that this concern fails to recognize and appreciate the department's complete commitment to investigating the possible causes of Persian Gulf illnesses in the context of its support for all gulf war veterans," he said.
Still, Joseph said that the Pentagon was willing to consider new methods of investigating the issue "if together we can work out an alternative rule of thumb for which things we should look at."
The Defense Department's credibility on the issue has been shaken in recent weeks, especially after the disclosure in June that a group of American combat engineers may have been exposed to nerve gas and mustard gas when they blew up the Kamisiyah ammunition depot in southern Iraq in March 1991.
Pentagon officials initially said they had no conclusive evidence that any U.S. soldiers had been exposed to chemical weapons at the depot but that 300 to 400 troops had been in the vicinity at the time of the explosion.
But based on evidence compiled by the CIA, investigators working for the presidential advisory committee said Thursday that the number of troops who might have been exposed to nerve gas was actually about 1,100. And they reported that the evidence of the release of chemical agents at Kamisiyah was "overwhelming" and that "exposure to troops within 25 kilometers of the demolition activity should be presumed."
Despite the Pentagon's repeated assertion that it had no evidence that U.S. soldiers were exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons, a long-classified intelligence report made public last week showed that senior officials at the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department were informed in November 1991, eight months after the demolition, that chemical weapons had been stored at Kamisiyah.
Joseph said Thursday that it was not surprising that the reports were overlooked in 1991 since at that time, "no one was thinking about a large number of our armed forces coming back and complaining of symptoms and illnesses following their service in the gulf war."
Turner, the panel's chief investigator, was also critical of the Pentagon's "slow, reluctant, on-again, off-again release of information to the public." He said that it had "served to also undermine credible confidence in the Department of Defense's efforts."
James J. Tuite III, a former congressional investigator who is the founder of the Gulf War Research Foundation and has emerged as a chief critic of the Pentagon on the issue, welcomed Thursday's findings.
He described the Defense Department's investigation of gulf war illnesses as "dishonest and irresponsible" and said that it had been influenced by a "vested interest in the outcome of the investigation."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company