President Clinton is altogether correct to appoint an independent panel to oversee the investigation into whether thousands of Persian Gulf War veterans were contaminated by their exposure to chemical agents.
The very least these vets, who have cited a variety of physical and psychological ailments since their service in Desert Storm, deserve are some straight answers from the government that put them in harm's way. Still, the Pentagon has been painfully slow to acknowledge any health-related problems, let alone accept responsibility for them.
Ever since scores of gulf war veterans began complaining about mysterious maladies, the Defense Department has hastened to first deny and then down-play the existence of such problems. But the steady accumulation of anecdotal evidence, buttressed by medical analyses, suggest that the government has not kept faith with these individuals -- which in turn underscores why the government cannot be trusted to handle this.
The stinging conclusion comes from two independent reviews conducted by a presidential panel and a House committee, which have recommended rigorous oversight of this inquiry.
The presidential panel, consisting of medical and public-policy specialists, noted the Pentagon's reluctance to investigate thoroughly possible chemical detections as well as its tendency to minimize the deleterious effects of possible exposures.
A house subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., was even more pointed in its report, which was approved by the full committee, blasting the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments for their "arrogant incuriosity and pervasive myopia that sees a lack of evidence as proof."
That institutional arrogance has prompted the Pentagon to stonewall thousands of veterans about the likelihood that their exposure to chemical agents caused them grief. Only when the preponderance of evidence suggested otherwise did the Defense Department grudgingly concede that, yes, nearly 99,000 GIs may have been exposed to toxins that could be causing them physical and psychological problems. Granted, it has yet to be scientifically determined that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between chemical exposure and the problems that bedevil gulf war vets. But that does not excuse the foot-dragging, buck-passing and evasion by those in authority.
Ten months ago, President Clinton rejected veterans demands for an outside probe to determine whether their illnesses and afflictions are related to chemical agents they encountered in the Persian Gulf. Since then, it has become abundantly clear that they had cause to question the Pentagon's ability to conduct a complete and credible inquiry. The men and women who put their lives at risk in Desert Storm deserve nothing less.
Copyright 1997 San Diego Union Tribune