After a 20-month investigation, the panel that has led the chief congressional inquiry into the illnesses of Persian Gulf War veterans will ask that the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs be stripped of their authority over the issue.
In its final report, the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight said the congressional investigation showed that “a variety of toxic agents in the Gulf War,” including Iraqi chemical weapons and pesticides, were probably responsible for the health problems reported by thousands of veterans.
The report, which is expected to be made public this week, says that the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have so mishandled the investigation of the veterans’ health problems that Congress should create or designate an agency independent of them to coordinate research into the cause of the ailments.
“Sadly, when it comes to diagnosis, treatment and research for Gulf War veterans, we find the federal government too often has a tin ear, a cold heart and a closed mind,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who has overseen the House investigation. A copy of the report, which is expected to have bipartisan support and to be approved by the committee in a vote this week, was obtained by The New York Times.
The report will be released only days ahead of a separate study by a White House panel of experts that will be nearly as harsh in its criticism of the Defense Department.
In a draft of that study, the White House panel, called the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, said that the Pentagon had “an institutional culture and pervasive inclination” to ignore or dismiss evidence suggesting that American soldiers may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons. “Lack of due diligence means only certain facts come to light,” it said.
A Defense Department spokesman said the Pentagon would withhold comment on the House report until it received a copy.
Congressional officials say they hope that the release of such blistering criticism from two sources - Capitol Hill and the presidential committee - will force President Clinton to remove the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs from any further oversight of the investigation of the illnesses reported by Gulf War veterans.
If the White House does not act, they say, members of Congress will offer legislation to accomplish the same goal, possibly through a bill that would turn over responsibility for the investigations to the National Institutes of Health or some other federal agency.
The House report said that the agency given responsibility for the inquiries should direct federal research money to studies involving the treatment of the neurological problems that are commonly reported by Gulf War veterans and that may be the result of chemical exposures.
In the introduction to the report, Shays, chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on Human Resources, said that the investigations by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs were “irreparably flawed” and had been “plagued by arrogant incuriosity and a pervasive myopia that sees a lack of evidence as proof.”
“We reluctantly conclude that responsibility for Gulf War illnesses, especially the research agenda, must be placed in a more responsive agency, independent of the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs,” he said. “We find current approaches to research, diagnosis and treatment unlikely to yield answers to veterans’ life-or-death questions.”
The report acknowledged that the mystery over the illnesses reported by veterans would probably linger for years.