Friendly Fire

Gulf War Syndrome and How It All Began

There would be no stone left unturned, President Clinton assured Americans on Veterans Day six days after his re-election, in efforts to get to the bottom of the array of illnesses colloquially known as Gulf War syndrome. With his next breath Clinton heaped praise on the presidential advisory committee on Gulf War illnesses, whose prime finding, leaked three days earlier, had been that there is no Gulf War syndrome and that any adverse symptoms associated with the name can be attributed to psychological stress experienced by the vets.

George Bush's determination to punish Iraq led to the Gulf War illnesses, but Clinton has been responsible for the cover-up of how those illnesses developed. Shortly after Veterans Day, Hillary Clinton told an audience at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas that one of her priorities in the second term will be to work on issues related to these Gulf War illnesses. Indeed it was Hillary who pushed in the spring of 1995 for the creation of this same presidential panel that eventually laid the blame on stress, the relief of which is now the First Lady's therapeutic project.

The draft report of the presidential commission can hardly be called scientific, since the results of a hundred epidemiological studies, which the panel commissioned, have not yet been processed. In other words, the only stones not left unturned by Clinton are those used to conceal what happened in 1991.

Another initial finding of the presidential commission is highly pertinent. The nine-person panel said emphatically that the Pentagon cannot be trusted to investigate itself. The panel called for an independent probe of whether Allied forces in the gulf in 1991 had been exposed to chemical and biological weapons. Previous Pentagon investigations, they wrote, "have lacked vigor, fallen short on investigative grounds, and stretched credibility." Clinton gave this recommendation short shrift, saying that he believed Defense Secretary Bill Perry "has moved in an expeditious fashion." Clinton endorsed the Pentagon's position that it alone has the technical expertise to exhume the truth in this affair.

From the very first moment, back in 1991, when the possibility of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) deployment was raised, the Pentagon has denied that such weapons were ever used, that troops were ever exposed, that there are illnesses associated with Iraq's chemical/biological arsenal of weaponry. In marked contrast, Czech CBW experts who were part of the Allied force notified Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's HQ on January 19, 1991, two days after the initial bombing of Baghdad, that they had detected two chemical "events" near Jubayl. Schwarzkopf's office promptly issued an order to all U.S. commanders to "disregard any reports coming from the Czechs." On November 10, 1993, the Pentagon admitted in a congressional hearing that it believed the Czech report to be valid. When asked why the army had not investigated the "events" reported by the Czechs as a possible source of the syndrome, Maj. Gen. Ronald Blanck, commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, said they did not explore this because "it was the position of military intelligence that such exposure never occurred."

But the U.S. Army had more than the Czechs to contend with. U.S. chemical alarm systems had gone off nine times during the war, most significantly on January 28, when Maj. Stephen B. Leisenring reported a low-level chemical cloud that set off "12 alarms in a conventional downwind pattern." His superiors dismissed this observation as "a false positive." The final fall-back position was enunciated by the late Les Aspin, Clinton's first ddefense secretary. In November 1993, Aspin said that the detection of chemical and biological agents in the gulf "is totally unrelated to the mysterious health problems that have victimized some of our veterans."

Aspin's posture remained that of the Pentagon until June of this year, when a CIA analyst, Larry Fox, discovered that the U.S. Army had destroyed as many as a thousand Iraqi missiles loaded with the nerve gas sarin and with mustard gas at Khamisiyah. The Army admitted this but claimed that only 400 engineers might have been exposed. That estimate has now climbed to 20,000.

But even the 20,000 figure is relatively modest in comparison with CIA estimates that as many as 100,000 troops may have been exposed to sarin after Allied bombing missions destroyed Iraqi weapons plants west of Baghdad. The CIA reckoned that as many as 20 metric tons of sarin had been released into the air. The CIA documents pinpointing this and other chemical and biological exposures of U.S. troops were placed on the Internet on November 3 by two analysts formerly under contract to the CIA. That Internet site was disabled two days later, presumably by Agency hackers.

Aside from the matter of cover-ups during and after the Gulf War, there's no doubt whatsoever that the Pentagon was well aware in advance of the Allied mission to the gulf that there was a distinct possibility the Iraqis would use chemical and biological weapons. One reason for their foresight was that the Iraqis had used nerve gas against the Kurds and had used biological agents against Majnoon Island in the war with Iran.

The Pentagon was also aware that vital ingredients for these weapons had been supplied by U.S. corporations in a secret export drive supported by both the United States and British governments. Chiefly involved here were lewisite, an ammonia-like vesicant used in chemical weapons, and ingredients for sarin and for another nerve weapon called soman, as well as for yet another nerve weapon, VX. So far as biological weapons were concerned, there were approved U.S. sales to Iraq of anthrax, botulism, histoplasm capsulatum (a tuberculosis-type disease), brucella melitensis (a bacterium that causes chronic fatigue), clostridium perfringens (a bacterium causing gas gangrene), plus numerous shipments of E. coli.

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