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Clinton Rejects Plea for Panel To Investigate Gulf War Illness

By Art Pine and Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

President Clinton on Tuesday rejected demands by veterans for an outside agency to take over the Defense Department's investigation of Persian Gulf War illnesses and instead extended the life of a presidential advisory panel so it can keep watch over the Pentagon's efforts.

Clinton also endorsed a proposal by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown to allow Gulf War veterans more than two years to document their ailments and still qualify for easier access to VA disability benefits. Some say their symptoms did not show up until too late.

The compromise gestures came after the presidential advisory commission, which comprises a dozen physicians and scientists, issued a report concluding that nerve gas exposure during the 1991 war was unlikely to have caused any of the ailments they are suffering.

Although the panel criticized the Pentagon for failing to take the issue seriously until recently, the report said the Defense Department and VA have provided good medical care to the veterans and now appear to be investigating the problem in earnest.

Neither the panel's findings nor Clinton's decision to ask the group to exercise "oversight" of the Pentagon's efforts was a surprise. The committee, which studied the issue for 19 months, had signaled its conclusions in a draft report two months ago.

Clinton promised a veterans' group Tuesday that despite some shaky starts, "we will not stop until we have done all we can to care for our Gulf War veterans, to find out why they are sick, and to help to make them healthy" again. "We are on the right track," he asserted.

Nevertheless, Persian Gulf veterans' organizations were critical of the report, dismissing it as incomplete and calling for another independent study of the issue, possibly by a special prosecutor equipped with subpoena powers.

"We are very disappointed," said Chris Kornkven, spokesman for the National Gulf War Resource Center, a coalition of 24 veterans' groups. He said the panel had "done a great disservice to veterans of the Gulf War who claim they are sick."

Separately, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) disclosed the results of a survey of some 2,000 Persian Gulf veterans in Iowa suggesting that they were up to three times more likely to suffer one or more symptoms than service members who were not in the 1991 war.

However, outside analysts said the study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was based on a telephone survey of veterans, without any opportunity for medical officials to confirm their illnesses.

The survey is to be included in a series of studies made public Wednesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Officials said the others, based on a mail survey of 240 naval reservists, would seek to link Gulf War illness to exposure to organophosphates.

The advisory committee report did little to resolve the mystery surrounding Gulf War illness. In all, some 60,000 of the 697,000 U.S. troops who served in the Persian Gulf War have complained of symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to muscle aches and memory loss.

The panel's findings were in line with those of four previous studies of the Gulf War illnesses, by the Pentagon, the VA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the prestigious U.S. Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

As has been the case in the other studies, Tuesday's report concluded that, despite all the research, there currently is no evidence that would link the symptoms to the contaminants they encountered during the U.S. intervention there.

It also discounted as unlikely the claims by veterans who say their ailments were caused by exposure to a variety of chemical contaminants, from oil-well fires in Kuwait to pyridostigmine bromide pills, which were given to U.S. soldiers to protect them against chemical weapons.

However, the report urged the government to step up efforts to find out how many U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to nerve agents near Khamisiyah, where troops destroyed an Iraqi weapons bunker just after the war ended. The Pentagon is now investigating.

It also endorsed the administration's decision to intensify research on the possible effects of low-level exposure to organophosphorus nerve agents such as sarin, soman, or pesticides, all of which were present during the Gulf War.

And the report reiterated a finding from previous studies that at least some of the symptoms may result partly from wartime stress, which often affects the brain and the body's immune and cardiovascular systems.