The Pentagon's downplaying of troop exposure to chemical weapons during the Gulf war is coming under heavy fire.
At emotional congressional hearings this week, active-duty veterans of the battle to liberate Kuwait testified that their equipment frequently indicated the presence of chemical arms. In at least two instances, they saw containers of such weapons.
In addition, the writer of a 1994 Pentagon report said Tuesday that his panel did not get all the information available on the presence of chemical weapons in the Gulf. Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel laureate, said the panel might need to revise a finding that no evidence exists linking chemical-weapons agents and illnesses that Gulf-war veterans blame on exposure to them.
After six years of intermittent debate, the issue is becoming a full-blown political and public-relations problem for the Pentagon - and it isn't likely to go away soon.
"Last March, when we began these hearings, the Pentagon position on chemical and biological weapons in the Persian Gulf war consisted of three noes: no credible detections, no exposures, and therefore no provable health consequences among Gulf-war veterans," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, who chaired two days of hearings into the matter Tuesday and yesterday. "Today, two of the three pillars of denial have crumbled under the weight of reluctantly disclosed facts." The committee is investigating whether low-level exposure to Iraqi chemical or biological agents by coalition troops during the 1991 conflict may be responsible for a variety of veterans' illnesses.
The Defense Department recently admitted that as many as 20,000 soldiers may have been exposed to chemical agents during the destruction of Iraqi ammunition at Kamisiyah in March 1991. But senior officials have insisted that the many indications from detection equipment carried by the troops were "false alarms."
The government has begun backtracking from those assertions, however. A presidential advisory panel recently said that detections of chemical arms by Czechoslovak troops, widely regarded as the most sophisticated in dealing with chemical weapons, were credible. And the Pentagon now says it is examining records of 20 other detections previously dismissed as false alarms.
Witnesses at the congressional hearings said top brass are ignoring the evidence of individual soldiers. Marine Gunnery Sgt. George Grass, a chemical-weapons expert, testified that the mass spectrometer in his Fox chemical-detection vehicle found lethal levels of s-mustard, a chemical agent, at the captured Al-Jabbar airfield. His division command insisted that the readings were false. Surveying an Iraqi ammunition dump on Feb. 28, 1991, he found concentrations of s-mustard, ht-mustard, and benzene bromide near 155-mm shells and boxes marked with skulls and crossbones. He gave his computer printouts to his commanders and never saw the papers again.
Maj. Michael Johnson, an Army chemical-weapons expert, testified that his unit and a British team were called in August 1991 to investigate a leaking vat near a girls' school in Kuwait. Both his Fox vehicles detected h-mustard, phosgene, and phosgene oxime in liquid and vapor coming from the tank. A British chemical-weapons team member accidentally spilled liquid from the tank on his wrist and had an immediate reaction resulting in hospitalization. British authorities have since said that analysis of the soldier's gear showed the liquid was jet fuel, but Major Johnson said the uniform was burned on site. He wrote a report on the incident in 1994, but his superiors told him to file it.
Marine Maj. Randy Hebert, who was a member of an engineer battalion, testified that while clearing mines, his unit was warned it was under chemical attack. Told the alarm was false, he removed his gas mask. Later he began to feel "funny," he said. His health deteriorated steadily and he is now diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, which he blames on exposure to chemical agents. He now cannot speak clearly and was helped in testifying by his wife and father.
"The key question all of us want to know is how come it took the Pentagon five years to acknowledge [exposures]," said Rep. Bernard Sanders (Ind.) of Vermont. "The American people ... have a right to know who is responsible for what might be termed an apparent coverup."
The Pentagon has steadfastly denied such a coverup. It said Tuesday it would fund a private $2.5-million study into the effects of low-level exposure to chemical-weapons agents.