President Clinton’s advisory panel on Gulf War illnesses suggested on Friday that the White House consider removing the Pentagon from the lead role in investigating veterans’ wartime exposures to chemical warfare agents.
Without explicitly saying the Pentagon should be replaced, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses proposed that the White House “develop a plan” for continuing the investigation. To ensure credibility, it said, oversight of this plan should be performed by an independent organization, such as the National Research Council.
Implicit in this recommendation, one official said, was a suggestion that the Pentagon lacked the public credibility to adequately perform the lead role. The official asked that he not be identified because the panel had not finished writing its recommendations.
A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Capt. Tom Gilroy, said the Defense Department would not comment on the committee’s recommendations until they are final.
The committee’s mandate had been extended last January by Clinton, in part to oversee the Defense Department’s investigation of possible exposures of American troops to chemical or biological warfare agents during the 1991 Gulf War. Some believe further research will show these exposures can explain, at least partially, various physical ailments suffered by thousands of Gulf veterans.
Panel members have been critical of the Pentagon approach, saying it failed to make a prompt and thorough response to indications of chemical exposures.
Chemical agents are not the only suspected possible cause of Gulf War illnesses; the Pentagon is investigating other possibilities such as exposure to pesticides, smoke from oil well fires, depleted uranium and psychological stress.
The panel’s draft report included a recommendation that Congress establish a permanent means of assessing a possible link between Gulf War illnesses and wartime service. It recommended legislation that would direct the government to contract with an outside scientific organization - possibly an arm of the National Academy of Sciences - to periodically review new evidence.
Members pointedly insisted this work not be done or controlled by the Defense Department, whose credibility on Gulf War illnesses has been damaged by what many considered a slow initial effort to investigate causes and a patronizing approach to handling veterans’ health concerns.
The Pentagon came under renewed fire Friday by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who said “years of intransigence, poor record keeping and sloppy handling of drugs, vaccines and chemical weapons destruction” have hurt veterans.
The presidential panel said the White House should develop a plan to continue the investigation of chemical exposures - and that it be done in a way that ensures Gulf War veterans and the general public can play a role in the investigation.
The presidential advisory committee gave no indication Friday that its October report will substantially change the conclusion it reached last January: that it is unlikely chemical exposures had anything to do with veterans’ health problems.
Committee member Marguerite Knox, who served in the Army Nurse Corps in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, said she hoped veterans understood that there were too many scientific uncertainties to enable the committee to answer all their questions.