1997: Chemical Arms in Gulf War: Medical Mystery and Credibility Crisis

New York Times

January 2, 1997 — Six months after the Pentagon’s momentous announcement that American troops may have been exposed to clouds of nerve gas and other Iraqi chemical weapons shortly after the Persian Gulf war, no one yet knows the cause of the chronic health problems reported by tens of thousands of gulf war veterans.

Some of the illnesses may be the result of exposure to chemical weapons, as many gulf war veterans insist. Other veterans almost certainly suffer from the physical aftereffects of wartime stress, a phenomenon seen after other wars, or from exposure to a number of other chemicals, including pesticides, smoke from oil-well fires or the experimental drugs that were given to the troops to protect them from nerve gas.

Yet, even if the medical mystery is never solved, this much has become painfully clear to many of the 700,000 men and women who served in the brief but intense war against Iraq and its President, Saddam Hussein, in 1991: The files of the Defense Department and other Government agencies held extensive evidence suggesting that American soldiers had been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons in the war, even as the Government assured the veterans and the public that no such evidence existed.

After years of denials, the Pentagon now acknowledges that more than 20,000 troops may have been exposed when a battalion of American combat engineers blew up the Kamisiyah ammunition depot in the southern Iraqi desert in March 1991.

Almost daily since that announcement last June, the Government has been confronted with new disclosures on the issue — about the thousands of chemical-detection alarms that sounded throughout the war, about the eagerness of American commanders to dismiss what soldiers considered to be valid chemical detections, about the callousness that many veterans faced when they sought medical care after the war.

While the relationship between these episodes and the veterans’ health problems remains unclear, the resulting credibility crisis from so many years of denial has only added to the misery of gulf war veterans whose health has faltered since the war.

Many of them are now left with the suspicion that military commanders cared more about the perception of the war as a military triumph than about getting to the bottom of the health problems reported by those who were sent to fight. Many ailing gulf war veterans are unwilling at this point to accept any explanation from the Pentagon.

The Government’s denials may also have had a direct effect on the way in which veterans’ health problems were addressed.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which is ultimately responsible for the medical care of ailing gulf war veterans, has said that it held off for years on any major research on the health effects of low-level exposure to nerve gas and other chemical weapons because of the Defense Department’s assertions that there was no evidence of exposures.

The Pentagon Position: Following a Policy Of ‘The Three No’s’

James Turner, an investigator for a special White House panel that has studied the issue, described the Pentagon’s public policy for most of the last five years as ”the three no’s: there was no use, there was no exposure, there was no presence” of chemical weapons.

It was a mindset that apparently took hold at the highest levels of the Government. In his Senate confirmation hearings last year as Director of Central Intelligence, John M. Deutch, who had been the Pentagon’s chief investigator on gulf war illnesses, said he believed that ”at present we have no compelling evidence of chemical or biological use in the gulf war — presence or use.”

In May 1994, three Cabinet officials — The Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry; the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jesse Brown, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala — signed a joint letter to the Senate in which they said that ”there is no classified information that would indicate any exposures to or detections of chemical or biological agents.”

Mr. Deutch said in a recent interview that his testimony was based on the best information available to him at the time. But he acknowledged that in light of the evidence about the Kamisiyah depot, it was ”understandable that people are skeptical” about the Pentagon’s motives.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the American-led alliance in the gulf war, said that while he had no information during the war to suggest that American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons, he considered the Pentagon’s handling of the issue in the first years after the war ”almost scandalous.”

A review of thousands of Government documents and hundreds of interviews with Government officials, scientists, doctors and veterans’ advocates undermines the Pentagon’s claims since the war that it had aggressively investigated the causes of the illnesses reported by gulf war veterans.

The Pentagon has insisted that its earlier errors in public pronouncements were the result of incomplete, inadequate information. Secretary Perry said in December that any perception that the Defense Department had tried to withhold information on the issue was ”dead wrong.”

The denials began early. Only hours after American ground troops poured across the sandy border from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait at the start of the ground war, General Schwarzkopf stepped from his military command bunker in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh on Feb. 24, 1991, to announce that he was ”delighted” with its progress.

The Initial Reaction: Dismissing Reports Of Chemical Weapons

The fear that the Iraqis would retaliate by using deadly chemical and biological weapons seemed to be unfounded. ”We’ve had some initial reports of chemical-biological weapons — chemical weapons — but those reports to date as far as we’re concerned have been bogus,” he said. ”There have been no reported chemical weapons used.”

The evidence gathered to date shows that in the early hours of the ground war, General Schwarzkopf had no proof that chemical or biological weapons had been released on the battlefield. Yet, over the next several hours — and days and months and years — evidence arrived at the Pentagon suggesting that the initial judgments were wrong.

Even as General Schwarzkopf was meeting with reporters in Riyadh, American marines stationed 300 miles north along the Kuwait-Saudi border had begun to detect nerve gas and mustard agent using the most sophisticated chemical-detection equipment in the American military — the Fox vehicle, a mobile chemical laboratory jammed with computerized detection equipment.

Gunnery Sgt. George J. Grass, a chemical-detection specialist, told Congress in December that his vehicle detected chemical weapons repeatedly in Kuwait in the first days of the ground war. Yet, all of his reports, like those of other chemical specialists, were dismissed by his commanders. Sergeant Grass said he had talked to several other Fox vehicle operators since the war ”and every one of them has verbally acknowledged the positive identification of chemical weapons in their area of operation.”

(Pentagon officials say that while the Fox vehicles can produce false alarms, especially when chemicals are detected in the air instead of on the ground, they are now studying all of the detections to determine if they were in fact valid.)

The Americans were not alone in detecting chemicals. During the earlier air war against Iraq, Czech and French soldiers in the American-led alliance said they had detected chemical weapons in northern Saudi Arabia. On Feb. 3, 1991, a French military spokesman, Gen. Raymond Germanos, said low levels of nerve gas and other chemical agents had been reported ”a little bit everywhere” after the relentless bombing.

The ground war was over in 100 hours. As American soldiers overran areas of the southern Iraqi desert, they were under orders to destroy Iraqi military equipment and ammunition sites.

An early, important target was the Kamisiyah ammunition depot, about 100 miles northwest of Kuwait. The depot was vast, with concrete bunkers spread across almost 20 square miles of desert.

Although the Pentagon has said the bunkers were inspected for chemical weapons, members of the 37th Engineer Battalion, the unit responsible for the demolition, said there was no time, equipment or expertise for a thorough search.

”How would we really know what’s inside those bunkers?” asked James R. Riggins, a retired major who was the executive officer of the 37th. ”We’re obviously not chemical-weapons specialists.” As the detonations began on March 4, the chemical alarms began to sound and soldiers pulled on their rubberized chemical warfare suits.

Under the cease-fire that ended the war, United Nations weapons inspectors were allowed to visit Kamisiyah and other Iraqi weapons storage sites in search of evidence of chemical or biological weapons.

In the fall of 1991, only months after the war, they found evidence that chemical weapons had been stored at Kamisiyah. The Iraqis who had worked at the site acknowledged that shells filled with nerve gas had been stored there.

The inspectors then filed a series of public reports to the United Nations Security Council, outlining what they had found at Kamisiyah. The Pentagon has acknowledged that it received the reports but has said that they were overlooked in the flood of other intelligence data reaching the United States in the months after the war.

By late 1991, groups of gulf war veterans had begun showing up at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, complaining of health problems that seemed unusual for men and women who had been in peak physical condition when they were sent to the gulf a year earlier.

Recent studies suggest that while gulf war veterans did not die and were not hospitalized at unusual rates in the first two years after the war, they did report health problems, including digestive problems, chronic fatigue and pains in the joints, at rates far higher than troops who were not deployed to the gulf.

Donald W. Riegle Jr., then a Democratic Senator from Michigan, heard from several ailing Michigan veterans and agreed to begin an investigation of gulf war illnesses in 1993 under the auspices of the Senate Banking Committee, of which he was chairman. The committee had some jurisdiction over the issue because there were questions about American export laws and whether American companies had shipped chemical or biological agents to Iraq.

The Senate Inquiry: Trying to Track Down Some Elusive Data

The inquiry began with a request for all Pentagon documents relating to the ”detection of, or investigations into, the detection of chemical agents, biological agents or radiological agents” during the gulf war.

The letter, dated March 16, 1994, and signed by Mr. Riegle, asked specifically for copies of the combat logs that had been maintained during the war in the headquarters compound of the United States Central Command, the element of the Defense Department that oversaw the war under the direction of General Schwarzkopf.

The response came on April 15, 1994, in a letter from Stephen W. Preston, the Pentagon’s acting general counsel. Mr. Preston said that the Central Command had told him that the logs did not exist.

”Central Command has conducted a search and has identified no documents that meet this description,” he wrote. ”If you provide a more specific description of the documents that this category is intended to cover, I will ask Central Command to repeat the search.”

James J. Tuite 3d, the Banking Committee’s lead investigator, said that in subsequent telephone conversations with the Pentagon he made it clear that the committee wanted a new search, and that it wanted any logs that recorded chemical or biological detections. ”They understood exactly what we wanted,” he said. But the logs were never made available to the committee.

In a joint letter to Mr. Riegle dated May 4, 1994, Secretary Perry, Secretary Brown and Secretary Shalala said they were ”committed to a full and accurate resolution of the issues surrounding the health problems experienced by the men and women who served in the Persian Gulf war.”

But they insisted that ”there is no classified information that would indicate any exposures to or detections of chemical or biological weapons agents” — an assertion that has since been shown to be false.

There were in fact detailed chemical-detection logs at Central Command, and parts of them were eventually made public last year, initially to a veterans group, Gulf War Veterans of Georgia, under a Freedom of Information Act request.  [Note: The request was made by Paul Sullivan, the president of the group in 1994 and 1995.]

Most of the pages of the log were missing, however, including the entries for the eight-day period in March 1991 in which the Kamisiyah depot was blown up. The Pentagon said in December that a search had failed to turn up the missing portions. It had no explanation for their disappearance.

The logs that have been made public show that the Central Command received dozens of reports of chemical detections throughout the war, including reports from the Czech soldiers whose detections were later found by the Pentagon to be valid. During the war, however, the reports were routinely dismissed as false alarms.

Mr. Preston, who now works at the Justice Department, said in an interview that he denied the existence of the logs in his letter to the Senate because this ”was the information that was made available to me” from Central Command. ”I don’t have reason to believe that anyone was deliberately withholding any documents or information,” he said.

The Consequences: Conflicting Testimony And Delayed Research

By early 1994, at least a handful of senior Pentagon officials had begun to change their minds.

In a letter to the Surgeon General dated Jan. 18, 1994, Maj. Gen. Ronald Blanck, director of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, wrote that after meetings with military leaders in the Czech Republic, France and the Middle East, he was convinced that ”clearly, chemical warfare agents were detected and confirmed at low levels” during the war. [This document was also obtained by Sullivan and the Gulf War Veterans of Georgia using FOIA.] 

”The two issues that arise from this are: What was the origin of such agents, and did the agents contribute to the illness described by a small number of United States veterans of the Persian Gulf,” he wrote. ”The answer to the first question has political and military significance but little medical relevance. Of far greater importance to military medicine and to the veterans is the answer to the second question.”

But his information apparently did not reach others in the Pentagon. On May 25, 1994, Mr. Riegle, frustrated by his inability to get important documents from the Pentagon, called a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee to take sworn testimony from officials of the Defense Department.

The witnesses included Edwin Dorn, Under Secretary of Defense for personnel, and Theodore M. Prociv, deputy assistant to Secretary Perry for chemical and biological weapons. In their testimony, the two officials insisted that they knew of no evidence in the Government’s files to suggest that Americans had been exposed to chemical or biological weapons during the war.

”I can say that I do not believe that any chemical agents entered the theater of operations and exposed any of our soldiers,” Mr. Prociv testified. Reminded by Mr. Riegle that he was under oath ”with your professional reputation on the line,” Mr. Prociv said again, ”I do not understand how any of our veterans could have been exposed.”

Mr. Dorn said that chemical-detection equipment had been ”strategically located, and although many detectors alarmed, there were no confirmed detections of any chemical or biological agents at any time during the conflict.” He said in his prepared statement that all of the Iraqis’ chemical weapons and related equipment ”were found stored at locations a great distance from the Kuwait theater of operations.”

But in fact, the Pentagon has made public evidence showing that there were stores of weapons in at least two sites in Iraq within the Kuwait theater of operations, or K.T.O., which included Kuwait and much of southern Iraq. Two former chemical-weapons specialists who operated Fox vehicles testified before Congress in December that they told their commanders that chemical weapons had been found in Kuwait itself.

Mr. Dorn had to be corrected later in the same hearing when a third witness, John Kriese, an analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, acknowledged under heated questioning that Mr. Dorn’s testimony was wrong. ”I thought we had that fixed to be stricken from the draft testimony,” he said. ”It is not correct to say that all munitions were found far from the K.T.O.”

Mr. Dorn, Mr. Prociv and Mr. Kriese declined to be interviewed for this article. Mr. Riegle, who has since retired from the Senate, said it was obvious that the Pentagon had tried to hide the truth from Congress. ”This is such a remarkable abdication of responsibility after the fact that it takes your breath away,” he said.

The Pentagon’s repeated public assurances after the war that it had no evidence of chemical exposures held up research that might have provided gulf war veterans with at least an explanation of what was responsible for their health problems.

The Department of Veterans Affairs set up a special registry and testing program in 1992 for veterans who believed that their health had been damaged in the gulf.

But the department held off on research projects on the health effects of low doses of chemical weapons — research that began only this year. Dr. Susan Mather, a senior public health officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that if the department had known earlier about the evidence of chemical exposures, ”I think it definitely would have made a difference in our research program.”

Veterans groups say that the Pentagon’s denials also affected the reception that ailing gulf war veterans received when they sought medical care at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

”Because doctors were told that chemicals had not been used, many veterans were sent straight to the psychiatric department,” said Paul Sullivan, a spokesman for Gulf War Veterans of Georgia.

A recent report by the General Accounting Office noted that as of July 1995, the Department of Veterans Affairs had denied 95 percent of the more than 4,100 claims it had processed from gulf war veterans who were seeking disability payments for undiagnosed war-related ailments. Said Mr. Sullivan: ”The doctors believed that the soldiers must be faking it.”

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