U.S. gulf war panel widens probe into chemical weapons But Pentagon committee resists turning over inquiry to outsiders


WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon announced yesterday a sweeping expansion of its investigation into whether U.S. soldiers were exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and suggested that it would resist calls to turn over the inquiry to outside investigators.

The announcement came after a draft report of a White House panel described the Pentagon's investigation as "superficial" and recommended that the inquiry be taken away from the Defense Department and given to independent investigators.

The panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, is expected to complete deliberations over its report at a public hearing today and to present the report to President Clinton next month.

Members of the panel have said that while chemical weapons were probably not responsible for the overwhelming majority of the illnesses reported by gulf war veterans, clusters of soldiers were almost certainly exposed to chemical weapons and some may be sick as a result.

In what appeared to be a response to the committee's specific criticisms, the Defense Department acknowledged that it had not done enough in the past in studying the issue of possible chemical exposures, and said that it would expand the size of its team of investigators on the issue to 110 people from 12.

Department officials also said that there would be an intensive investigation of several incidents in which U.S., Czech and other soldiers detected the release of nerve gas and chemical weapons in the war.

At a news conference to announce the expanded investigation, John P. White, the deputy defense secretary, would not address the specific criticisms in the draft report of the White House panel but said it would be a mistake to take the investigation away from the Pentagon.

White, who has been responsible recently for the department's handing of the issue, said that he had created a new post of special assistant for gulf war illnesses, and that it would be filled by Bernard Rostker, an assistant Navy secretary.

"He will build on our prior work," White said, "but he will refocus and substantially increase the level of our effort."

Rostker acknowledged that Pentagon investigators had made too little effort in the past to gather information from gulf war veterans who may have been exposed to chemical weapons. "We haven't involved the vets in a two-way communication, and I think we have lost the opportunity to gain insight in that," he said.

He said new investigators assigned to the team would have backgrounds in intelligence and military operations and would pTC study several incidents in which nerve gas and other chemical agents were detected by U.S. soldiers and other troops.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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