Gulf War Chemical Incident Logs Missing

by Jon Elliston

Dossier Editor

U.S. veterans of the 1991 war with Iraq continue to be plagued by an assortment of ailments commonly referred to as Gulf War Syndrome. A suspected cause of the widespread but unidentified illness is exposure to chemical weapons. The fight to pin down the origins and cure will be tougher than ever, say public officials and veterans groups, in light of the Pentagon's recent disclosure that most of its reporting on Gulf War chemical incidents has disappeared.

According to an internal Defense Department report made available to Congress on February 27, 1997, about three-fourths of the military's chemical logs compiled from August 1990 to March 1991 are missing. Only 36 pages of what should be a 200-page record can be located.

The records were stored on floppy discs and sent after the war to the U.S. Central Command in Florida and the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Maryland. According to the new Pentagon report, the loss of at least some of the records was caused by a computer virus spread by U.S. officer who installed infected game software on an Army computer used during the war. Other records have vanished, says the report, because of sloppy record keeping and disorderly personnel transfers after the conflict.

Among the gaps in the military's chemical record are the logs for early March, 1991, which would contain details on a controversial incident in which U.S. troops who were destroying Iraqi ammunition may have been exposed to nerve gas and other chemical agents. As many as 20,000 troops were within range of the toxic clouds that emerged from the demolition, which took place at Khamisiyah in Iraq.

President Clinton recently directed the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, a panel he appointed in 1995, to investigate the case. In a letter to the committee Clinton asked they find the answers to two questions: "(1) When did we have sufficient evidence to conclude that chemical munitions were present at Khamisiyah and that U.S. forces conducting demolition activities may have been exposed to chemical warfare agents; and (2) once we had that information, what actions were taken by whom to investigate this alarming possibility." In their December 1996 report on their findings thus far, the committee said that "the evidence of CW [chemical warfare] agent release at Khamisiyah is overwhelming" and that "exposure should be presumed for nearby troops, although the exact levels are unknown."

Commenting on the vanished chemical logs, Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the loss of such records is "just incomprehensible -- the Department of Defense is entitled to the benefit of the doubt for a reasonable time, but it's past its quota." Senator Jay Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that with the new revelations over what the Pentagon knew and when it knew it, there is evidence of "a cover-up of major proportions." Rockefeller charged that "military commanders and high Pentagon officials failed our troops and the American public" by not coming clean on the chemical exposure issue.

Veterans groups shared that view. Paul Sullivan, of the National Gulf War Resource Center, remarked that "the Pentagon has botched not only the handling of the records but also the investigation of the handling of the records." Matt Puglisi, who directs Gulf War-related programs for the American Legion, said that though the loss may be attributable to a bureaucratic foul-up, "there's certainly the appearance of a cover-up, and that needs to be investigated aggressively."

The military was already on the defensive regarding its disclosure of chemical incidents that may have harmed U.S. troops, due to a string of incidents that has raised serious doubts about the Pentagon's interest in getting to the bottom of Gulf War Syndrome. Last October a private publisher, Insignia, embarrassed both the Pentagon and the CIA when it re-posted on the Internet over 200 intelligence reports on chemical and biological weapons that had been removed from GulfLINK, a Defense Department site. This February, the CIA declassified two reports that show it informed the Pentagon in late 1991 that there was evidence to suggest that soldiers were exposed to toxic gas during the demolition at Khamisiyah; the Defense Department had not shared that information with veterans who may have been effected.

The disappearance of the chemical logs is especially suspicious in light of the fact that in 1994, the Pentagon's general counsel mistakenly told the Senate Banking Committee that no such records existed at all. James J. Tuite III, then an investigator with the committee, says now that he believes "there was a conspiracy to destroy documents related to the Gulf War -- there's no other way to put."

Responding to allegations that the missing logs suggest either severe mismanagement of records or a cover-up, Secretary of Defense William Cohen conceded that the military's initial efforts to investigate Gulf War chemical exposure had "not been well handled" but said that now he is "satisfied we're making a very thorough, very honest effort to get to the facts." Whatever its intentions, the Defense Department will have a difficult time explaining "the facts" without the crucial chemical records it has lost.