A senior senator demanded a top-level shake-up in the Pentagon Wednesday following new revelations that American forces were exposed to nerve gas explosives during the gulf war.
“It’s time to face the music,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I have decided to call upon the president to bring new health leadership to the Department of Defense.”
At the same time Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of Defense John White wrote Senate Armed Services Chairman Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., to promise broadened efforts to study possible low-level exposure to toxic chemicals. He said $5 million would be spent in this research.
Rockefeller joined other senators in pressing CIA, Pentagon and VA officials for explanations concerning the recent Pentagon announcement that American forces may have been exposed to chemical weapons when they blew up an Iraqi weapons complex in March 1991 shortly after the war ended.
Questions at the joint hearing Wednesday before the Veterans’ Affairs and Senate Intelligence Committees focused on why the Pentagon waited until this June to make the announcement despite knowing as early as October 1991 that there were chemical agent rockets at the Khamisiyah weapons complex. Until three months ago, the Pentagon had stated there was no evidence U.S. troops were exposed to chemical or biological agents.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said he felt “a sort of disgust at what the Department of Defense has done.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., called it a “shameful campaign of obstruction and delay.”
Dr. Stephen Joseph, the assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, said that while intelligence offices knew of the chemical weapons at Khamisiyah in 1991, the medical significance did not become apparent until recently.
“This was not in our awareness until June of this year,” he said. “I’m not making an excuse. I’m telling you what happened.”
The Pentagon in June said that 300 to 400 members of the Army’s 37th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C. may have been exposed to nerve agents when they destroyed weapons at the complex on March 4, 1981.
Officials have since revised upward the number of possible exposures. Joseph said Wednesday that 4,000 to 5,000 were in the area on March 4 and 3,000 to 4,000 were nearby when weapons were destroyed March 10.