WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William Cohen took issue on Thursday with a White House panel's recommendation in a draft report that the Pentagon should be stripped of its oversight of government investigations into the illnesses reported by thousands of ailing veterans of the Persian Gulf war.
"I think that the Pentagon is fully capable of conducting an investigation," Cohen told reporters. "So I would disagree with that recommendation."
Since the advisory committee was formed by President Clinton in May 1995, several members have expressed growing concern that the Pentagon has lost its credibility among many gulf veterans because it has ignored or minimized evidence suggesting that large numbers of American troops had been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons.
In a public hearing three weeks ago, the panel called on the administration to transfer oversight of investigations into the possible sources of a variety of ailments suffered by veterans from the Defense Department to some other agency. In a draft report, which may still be revised, the panel recommended that a private scientific organization like the National Academy of Sciences replace the Pentagon in reviewing research of the illnesses to determine whether veterans are entitled to special disability payments.
The panel plans to present the final draft of its report to Clinton on Oct. 31.
Over the last five years, thousands of Gulf War veterans have reported suffering loss of memory, rashes, and chronic digestive problems, which they attribute to the time they served in the war. A variety of theories of what caused the illnesses have emerged among scientists inside and out of the government. They include, in addition to chemical weapons, stress and exposure to oil-well fires and pesticides.
Cohen acknowledged that the Pentagon had done an inadequate job investigating the illnesses reported by Gulf War veterans for several years after the war, but he argued that military efforts had greatly improved over the last year.
Cohen said: "I believe that the Pentagon is fully capable of conducting such a continuation of its own investigation, making its findings public and whatever deficiencies might still exist, making those public."
Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon's top official dealing with the Gulf War illnesses, said: "It's a very unfair rap to say, 'You were bad in '94, and therefore you can't be trusted again.' " He argued that the military needed to investigate what happened during the war, so it could change procedures, training and equipment to avert illnesses in the aftermath of future wars.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company