Pentagon loses gulf war data Gone: 80% of records on U.S. troop contact with chemical arms

Move, computers get blame

Senators criticize Defense Department handling of issue

February 28, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Pentagon officials acknowledged yesterday that more than 80 percent of its records concerning the chemical or biological weapons that U.S. troops encountered during the Persian Gulf war are missing -- far more than previously known.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, several senators raised doubts about the military's competence in the matter.

The Pentagon said some records, covering August 1990 to March 1991, were lost in an office move and computer glitches wiped out others, a development that one senator called "really very perplexing."

The senators also criticized the Defense Department yesterday for waiting years to investigate reports that U.S. soldiers might have been exposed to chemical weapons.

The Pentagon acknowledged this week that the CIA told top Army commanders about possible chemical weapons in an area that included the Kamisiyah weapons depot, shortly before that depot was destroyed by U.S. troops in March 1991.

Some Army units were informed, the Pentagon said, although the troops who actually blew up the depot were not.

Some gulf war veterans contend that chemical weapons caused the dizziness, stiff joints and other serious and mysterious ailments about which many veterans have complained.

The CIA received information from the United Nations in the fall of 1991, months after the weapons depot was destroyed, that there was evidence of chemical weapons in the depot. That information was passed on to the Army.

But there is no sign of any aggressive effort to investigate it.

"The handling of this entire matter shakes the foundation of trust we expect men and women to have in the government that asks them to risk their lives in battle," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat. "Today, Persian Gulf veterans and many other Americans do not believe their government is being truthful."

The Army acknowledged in June 1996 that American troops might have been exposed to chemical weapons in the destruction of Kamisiyah.

But Levin pressed Deputy Defense Secretary John White yesterday to explain why the Army failed to push ahead with the CIA's information in late 1991.

"There's a frustration here in the way in which the Defense Department has handled chemicals being found at Kamisiyah," Levin said. "We should know by now what happened. Who sent it? Who got it? What did they do about it?"

White said Pentagon records show that one unit, the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., was asked in November 1991 about its location and activities at the time of the Kamisiyah destruction.

The unit was at one time in the Kamisiyah area, but it moved out before the demolition. But the person at the fort who was contacted does not recall such communication, White said.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, meanwhile, criticized the Pentagon yesterday for what it called "failures and errors" in failing to corroborate the CIA's information for five years.

Despite the lost records, failed follow-ups and the possibility that about 20,000 troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons, there was no evidence of sickness at the time -- even among those troops who destroyed the Kamisiyah depot.

Some military officials have asserted that the effects of exposure to chemical agents would have been evident among those troops almost immediately.

"Somebody would have come up with these symptoms, and they didn't," said retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded allied troops in the war.

"One milligram [of nerve agent] can cause fatality. I don't know for the life of me what caused it. All I know is, they're sick, and by golly we've got to take care of them."

Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said more than 25,000 gulf veterans have been extensively examined, and an additional 4,000 are in the process of evaluation.

To date, Joseph said, there is no evidence of "a single unique illness or syndrome," and if one existed, it would likely be detectable in such a large group. Still, the research is not complete. "We have to keep looking," he said.

Also yesterday, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, introduced legislation to authorize the Pentagon to provide medical care to reservists and National Guard members who became ill after service in the gulf war.

Such personnel are now ineligible for military or veteran medical care if they suffer from a chronic illness and had served in the war.

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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