= Yahoo! - Panel Said to Lash Pentagon on Gulf War Probe Wednesday September 24 5:48 PM EDT

Panel Said to Lash Pentagon on Gulf War Probe

Charles Aldinger

WASHINGTON (Reuter) - A White House advisory committee has prepared a draft report lashing the Pentagon's investigation of Gulf War veterans' ills and recommending that an outside agency take over the probe, a source close to the panel said Wednesday.

The preliminary draft of a report to be delivered to President Clinton by Oct. 31 stresses that the Defense Department has lost credibility with the public because of its initial handling of the probe, the source told Reuters.

The source, who asked not to be identified, confirmed a Washington Post report that the draft recommends that the White House put another agency or organization in charge of the investigation.

The Pentagon has found no common cause of ills ranging from memory loss to joint pain among thousands of U.S. veterans of the 1991 war and says there is no evidence that the ills were caused by Iraqi chemical or biological arms.

"What we say is that there should be a plan written (by the White House) that basically looks at an outside entity to take the lead role in the investigation," the source said.

"The problem is that, even if the (Defense) Department is doing a good job right now, it has lost so much credibility with the public that any final conclusions reached might not be believed."

Gulf War veterans' groups have accused the Defense Department of not taking their complaints seriously and allowing the problem to go on for years before beginning an in-depth investigation under orders from Clinton last year.

Gary Caruso, deputy director of the Presidental Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, a group made up of military, health and scientific experts, declined to comment on specifics of the draft report. He called it "a work in progress."

The Post said the 35-page draft suggested the department may be institutionally incapable of acknowledging that chemical exposures could have occurred in the Gulf.

But the source told Reuters the draft report also said recent Pentagon efforts had "been less superficial than earlier attempts" at determining whether there was release of chemical or biological agents during or after the war.

The Pentagon has reported that as many as 98,000 U.S. troops could have sustained some chemical exposure from the destruction of Iraqi chemical arms at the Kamisiyah arms depot in southern Iraq shortly after the war ended.

The committee has said it believes there was at least some chemical exposure of U.S. troops, but that the exposure does not equate to the health effects being reported by many veterans.

Bryan Williams, a Defense Department spokesman, said the department would be disappointed with a negative report and was not willing to give up its lead role in the investigation.

"We owe it to the veterans who served in the war and we owe it to future veterans," said Williams, adding that he had not seen the preliminary draft.

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