A new government report has harshly criticized the Pentagon and a special White House panel over their investigation of the illnesses reported by veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and has found that there is “substantial evidence” linking nerve gas and other chemical weapons to the sorts of health problems seen among the veterans.
The report, by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, says that the Defense Department should also not rule out the possibility that Iraqi biological weapons, especially aflatoxin, any of a group of potent liver carcinogens, might be responsible for some ailments reported by the estimated 80,000 Gulf War veterans who have sought special medical checkups from the government.
It also criticized the Pentagon for trying to discount another potential risk, a tropical disease spread by parasites that produces symptoms that might not surface for years, and questioned whether pesticides had contributed to the health problems.
The report is scheduled for release later this month and is certain to alarm Gulf War veterans who have worried that they were made ill by exposure to Iraqi chemical or biological weapons during the war.
A draft of the report, which is being prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House National Security Committee, was provided to The New York Times by an official who has been critical of the Pentagon’s response to the illnesses of the veterans.
The Pentagon and the White House panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, had both concluded that Iraqi chemical and biological weapons were probably not responsible for the veterans’ health problems, a view shared by a number of prominent scientists.
Both the Pentagon and the White House panel suggested that the physical aftereffects of wartime stress were a more likely cause of the ailments.
But those findings were challenged in the GAO report, which said, “The link between stress and these veterans’ physical symptoms is not well established, and the reported prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among Gulf War veterans may be overestimated.”
It said Pentagon officials and the White House panel were also wrong to rule out the nerve gas sarin and other chemical weapons as a cause of the health problems, because “there is substantial evidence that such compounds are associated with delayed or long-term health effects similar to those experienced by Gulf War veterans.”
Last year the Pentagon announced that more than 20,000 U.S. troops might have been exposed to sarin as a result of the March 1991 demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot where tons of the nerve gas had been stored.
Spokesmen for the Pentagon and the presidential committee said on Friday that they would not comment on the GAO report until it was formally released. The White House panel was set up by President Clinton in 1995, and its members include several scientists and doctors.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who has been a leading critic of the Pentagon’s handling of the issue, said he welcomed the report. “It supports the idea that we should take the Gulf War research program away from the Pentagon and give it to someone who really wants to find some answers,” Shays said.
The GAO report also raised the possibility that clouds of chemical weapons might have reached U.S. troops as a result of the aerial bombing of Iraqi chemical plants and storage depots early in the war.