By Roger Fillion
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Clinton announced on Saturday he would create an independent panel to review the government's research into whether Iraqi chemical weapons were responsible for illnesses among Gulf War veterans.
The president also unveiled plans to make it easier for the veterans to get health treatment and other benefits for problems tied to their tour of duty, even if it can't be proved their illnesses stemmed from chemical weapons exposure.
Clinton said he would work with Congress to craft the legislation needed to ensure the program was permanent.
"The men and women of our Armed Forces put everything on the line for us. I am determined that we show the same resolve for them," Clinton said in a statement.
The moves stem from recommendations issued Saturday by a presidential advisory commission. It charged the Pentagon had bungled its probe of Gulf War illnesses linked to the 1991 military campaign to force Iraq from Kuwait.
The commission, in advocating that the Defense Department surrender control of the probe to a special oversight board, said the Pentagon "cannot itself lead an investigation ... that will be viewed as credible.
"We have concerns about that investigation and the conclusions they've tended to draw when the data are not solid one way or the other," said Dr. Joyce Lashof, who chaired the 11-member panel of veterans, health care professionals and policy experts.
Former Sen. Warren Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, will head the oversight board. It will help guide the Pentagon probe into why some 60,000 Gulf War veterans have complained of problems ranging from loss of memory to chronic headaches.
Gulf War veterans' groups have accused the Pentagon of not taking their initial complaints seriously, and then allowing the problem to go on for years before undertaking a major investigation in 1996 that was ordered by Clinton.
A major point of contention is the Pentagon's repeated claim that it has no firm evidence that any of the illnesses stem from possible exposure to chemical or biological agents.
The president, responding to the advisory panel's recommendations, also announced plans to:
-- Ask the National Academy of Sciences to review existing scientific research to determine whether certain illnesses are more common in Gulf War veterans than other veterans.
-- Set aside $13.2 million for new research into low-level exposure to chemical agents and other possible causes of illness.
-- Create a "force health protection" program to monitor and protect U.S. troops in future conflicts or peacekeeping operations.
The advisory committee's recommendations come as a blow to the Pentagon. In September, Defense Secretary William Cohen rejected suggestions that his department surrender control over the Gulf War illness probe.
Cohen, responding to the advisory committee's report, said Saturday the Pentagon "is committed to doing everything possible to explain and treat Gulf War illnesses and to improve health care for the men and women in the military."
He pledged to make use of the committee's recommendations as well as the guidance offered by the new oversight board led by Rudman.
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