CHEMICAL WEAPONS DEBATE
NOVEMBER 11, 1996
Were U.S. soldiers exposed to chemical weapons in the Gulf War? After a new report is leaked to the press, critics claim the Pentagon - which says there is no clear evidence to substantiate Gulf War Syndrome - is "in denial," and is losing creditability. Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
LEE HOCHBERG: Bill Hobbs was sent home from the Persian Gulf War early, fatigued and losing his memory. Military doctors didn't know what was wrong. He's back in Portland, Oregon, today, working as a transportation engineer, still suffering those symptoms. But he says he knows now he's not just imagining them.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Sept. 11, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth reports on efforts to limit chemical weapons.
May 24, 1996
Lee Hochberg updates the latest efforts to explain the illnesses of those who served in the Persian Gulf.
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BILL HOBBS, Gulf War Veteran: I don't feel like I'm on such thin ice. I just feel like finally now that they're admitting things that, you know, I'm feeling a little more vindicated, and maybe I wasn't crazy.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Pentagon last month acknowledged that 20,000 Persian Gulf veterans may have been exposed to nerve gas during the war. The admission comes after five years of denials. Thirty thousand vets complained of the mysterious symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome when they returned home.
Thousands, like Hobbs, went through an extensive battery of medical studies and examinations, the Pentagon maintaining throughout that they had not been imperiled by chemical weapons. Then this summer, it announced 400 Army engineers might have been exposed to the toxic nerve gas Sarin when American engineers blew up an Iraqi ammunition depot called Kamisiyeh shortly after the war. Later, it said 5000 troops might have been exposed. Last month, it raised the number to 15,000, then upped the total to 20,000.
BILL HOBBS: I was just thinking, wow, those dirty SOB's. Why didn't they release the information four years ago? And, you know, maybe it would have at least psychologically helped some of the people that had been sick with mysterious ailments and stuff--it would probably have saved a lot of pain and anguish if they'd been up front and open with the information starting back in ‘92.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Pentagon's top physician says the government is only now discovering that its forces might have been exposed. Dr Stephen Joseph says this mysterious gap in the military's combat logs from March of 1991, which should have recorded the Kamisiyeh bombing or other incidents in which chemical or biological agents were detected.
DR. STEPHEN JOSEPH, Department of Defense: When the war was over, there were probably, I wouldn't say billions, but certainly millions and millions of those pieces of paper, and the troops were packing up to come home. Now some of those, some of those records are very carefully kept in archives, but many of those records, particularly the less formal ones, in the pack-up to go home were, you know, were just, just disposed of.
LEE HOCHBERG: Dr. Joseph says he's not surprised that in the rush to leave Iraq after the war, Pentagon leaders also overlooked a United Nations memo that said chemical weapons had been stockpiled at Kamisiyeh.
DR. STEPHEN JOSEPH: I think it's not surprising to people who've looked at the issues that a U.N. report coming into the building at the time it did and in the context it did was just a leaf, a leaf in the autumn.
BILL HOBBS: The only reason there's gaps in the records is because someone's holding their cards real close to their chest, and they're not showing them.
LEE HOCHBERG: Veterans like Hobbs are skeptical of the Pentagon's explanation.
BILL HOBBS: When you've got the President of the United States saying to Saddam Hussein if you release chemical and biological weapons, we're going to drop nuclear weapons on you, you bet somebody's really paying attention to that stuff. They're not just going to go, oh, yeah, well, we'll just throw it here in the side--we'll get to it.
SPOKESMAN: Taubin and Soman are nerve agents. Your--I think that's a mustard agent--
LEE HOCHBERG: Hobbs wasn't near Kamisiyeh when troops blew it up, but like many vets who no longer trust the Pentagon is telling the whole story, he believes he was poisoned elsewhere in the Gulf.
BILL HOBBS: Czechoslovakia anti-chemical units measured trace concentrations of Sarin, a nerve paralyzing substance at the start of the Persian Gulf War.
SPOKESMAN: When you were there.
BILL HOBBS: When I was there.
LEE HOCHBERG: He's soliciting combat logs from the Pentagon, surfing the Internet for clues, scribbling rudimentary maps.
BILL HOBBS: You know they have the bombings here in Kuwait and Iraq and the wind is blowing south, and it's detected down here at the King Phiad military city and I'm right in-between the two.
LEE HOCHBERG: Intelligence experts are examining more complex pictures.
JAMES TUITE, Congressional Investigator: It shows that from the area over Iraq's largest chemical research, production, and storage facility, we have a plume coming down towards the area where the troops are located.
LEE HOCHBERG: James Tuite, who headed Senator Don Riegle's 1994 investigation into Gulf War illness, says exposure of 20,000 troops at the Kamisiyeh bunker is only the tip of the iceberg.
JAMES TUITE: We would be irresponsible not to conclude that all of our soldiers may have been exposed. We're looking at our targeting 28 facilities that I am aware of so far, several of which have been confirmed to contain ton after ton of chemical nerve and blister agent, being targeted, thrown up into the air, detected hundreds of miles downwind in areas where those forces were located--we're talking about the entire assembling force for the invasion of Iraq and Kuwait.
LEE HOCHBERG: Tuite alleges the Pentagon knew about possible exposures shortly after the war, but later lied about it to Congress. In 1994, the Pentagon it told his committee it knew of no chemical weapons or exposures in the Gulf. but this recently declassified memo, written right after the war, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State, the CIA, and the White House, reports there were chemical munitions stored at three ammunition storage facilities at Kamisiyeh.
JAMES TUITE: There is question that the Pentagon began to cover up the fact that this happened during the war. These are documents that they've had in their possession since right after the war. They're asking you to believe that they don't know what happened during the war, that the documents have just disappeared, that somehow when Congress asked for this information, they didn't know about it, despite the record that indicates that they do.
DR. STEPHEN JOSEPH: While I can't tell you what happened to those operational records, or whatever, I'm confident that this department is very aggressively and very openly trying to understand everything that we can about not only Kamisiyeh but the whole Gulf War illnesses issue. I do not believe the conspiracy theory, nor the stonewalling theory. If I did, I'd be out of here.
LEE HOCHBERG: To further muddy the water, two former CIA intelligence analysts said last month they've seen classified CIA documents that report 60 releases of nerve gas and other chemical weapons near U.S. troops. And according to the New York Times, a Presidential panel on Gulf War illnesses has finished a draft of its report for the President.
The Time's story said the draft concludes it's unlikely that most health effects were caused by chemical exposures, but 15 incidents where nerve or chemical agents were detected need to be investigated. The draft reportedly recommends the Pentagon should be removed from the investigation, because its research has been superficial, its attitude patronizing and dismissive of veteran's health complaints. The Pentagon's Joseph denies that.
DR. STEPHEN JOSEPH: We've tried very hard both to reach out--and I think the idea of us being patronizing or dismissive, again, it doesn't fit with what believe we have done and certainly what our doctors and nurses, who actually do the work, have done.
LEE HOCHBERG: Whether or not the delay in releasing information about chemical exposures could have been prevented, critics say it was cosily. Oregon Health Sciences University neurotoxicologist Dr. Peter Spencer is conducting the nation's largest probe of Gulf War illness. He says key studies that might link the illness to chemical exposure went unfunded, because the Pentagon insisted chemicals were not suspect.
DR. PETER SPENCER, Oregon Health Sciences University: There's no question that if these data on potential Sarin release were available earlier, that, um, researchers around the country would have been speeded towards the goal of all of us to get to the bottom of these unexplained illnesses.
LEE HOCHBERG: Congressional investigator Tuite says the Pentagon's unwillingness to acknowledge a failure in dealing with chemical weapons has needlessly delayed a re-evaluation of American doctrine on chemical weapons.
JAMES TUITE: It is not bad for the soldiers who served in the Gulf, it's bad for the soldiers who have to operate under that doctrine in the future. We have the same equipment deployed, we have the same doctrine deployed, and we have a Pentagon in denial.
DR. STEPHEN JOSEPH: There were no deaths in the theater anywhere that might have been in any way plausibly associated with chemical exposure--there is no evidence of acute illnesses that, again, might have symptoms that you would expect to be of response to exposure to a nerve agent--that would tend to say that it's unlikely that there are long-term health effects.
LEE HOCHBERG: Despite that, the report from the Presidential panel concludes the Pentagon has lost credibility with the public. Veterans like Hobbs say they'd think twice before serving again.
BILL HOBBS: Who's going to want to go in and serve their country if they know that well, you know, these guys who went X number of years ago did their bit, these problems came up, and they were just left hanging out in the breeze?
LEE HOCHBERG: The Pentagon says it may never know how many soldiers were exposed. It was hoped a CIA computer model would help calculate wind, weather, and cloud dispersal patterns, but the CIA sent the model to outside scientists for further review. The agency won't say when its study will be complete.