In a letter sent last week to Mr Rumsfeld, Anthony Principi, the secretary of veterans’ affairs, demanded that the Pentagon disclose data on US troops’ exposure to chemical, biological or radiological weapons in the event of a war on Iraq.
Mr Principi’s letter, seen by the Financial Times, indicates the level of anxiety within the administration about the unpredictable consequences of another war in Iraq. It also raises questions about the Pentagon’s most recent attempts to improve the medical aspects of military operations.
“Much of the controversy over the health problems of veterans who fought in the 1991 war with Iraq could have been avoided had more extensive surveillance data been collected,” Mr Principi wrote. “I want to ensure we apply this lesson if there is another war with Iraq.”
Between 25 and 30 per cent of the 697,000 US troops who served in the Gulf war are thought to be ill – “over and above the control population”, according to the latest estimate of the veterans affairs department’s research advisory committee on Gulf war illnesses.
Many Gulf war veterans have experienced unusually high incidences of fatigue, joint pain, blurred vision, skin rashes, loss of memory and even fatal neurological illnesses.
Some of those who complained of these symptoms in the 1990s were turned away with diagnoses of post-traumatic stress, and then denied deployment-related benefits.
Politically the Pentagon’s handling of Gulf war syndrome created deep divisions among the Pentagon, the veterans affairs department, and numerous veterans’ groups. The controversy revived post-Vietnam war worries that the US was neglecting its obligations towards discharged service men and women.
In 1998 the Pentagon installed its “Force Health Protection” programme in response to the complaints.
Mr Principi said his department wanted access to “any unclassified data” on testing of troops for exposure to biological, chemical or radiological attacks. He also called for extensive environmental monitoring, calling such tests “critically important in our later health assessment”.
The Pentagon has declined to comment on the specifics of the letter. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of the Pentagon’s deployment health support division, said: “We are confident that our operational leaders understand the importance of the health of people who move into harm’s way.”
Mr Principi also urged the Pentagon to issue medical questionnaires within a month of the ending of any fighting in Iraq.
“These data are essential for the [veterans affairs department] to address the types of post-war health questions that, when left unanswered, lead to unnecessary controversy and mistrust among our veteran population,” he said.