Rostker says investigation has
unearthed 66,000 new documents

WASHINGTON, April 30, 1997 (GulfLINK) — Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon’s special assistant for Gulf War illnesses, has told Congress his organization is using a "very pro-active approach" to search for Gulf War documents. Working closely with the Army, Rostker’s group has recently produced 66,000 pages of new information.

"We will fully disclose everything we learn when we learn it," Rostker said in testimony to a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Health and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on April 16, 1997.

Rostker said, "We are truly committed to finding out everything we can to determine the possible causes of these illnesses while providing the best possible care for those who are ill. The Defense Department continues to approach the problem of Persian Gulf veterans illnesses in a far-reaching, inclusive and comprehensive manner. When we realized that the Khamisiyah demolition operation had the potential of chemical exposure for our troops, we directed our investigative team to expand the search to all possible operational, intelligence and medical sources which may shed light on the causes of illnesses suffered by many of our veterans."

Rostker explained that he has organized his investigations "around a formal case management system." Each investigation produces a "case narrative." The first case narrative on Khamisiyah, was published a few weeks ago and the second, on Camp Monterey, is expected to be released in a few more weeks.

Rostker said the case narratives are prepared by his office’s Investigations and Analysis Directorate (IAD), which is divided into three specialized teams. The largest of these teams, the Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents Team, is looking at 25 cases of suspected or reported chemical detections.

The Environmental and Occupational Exposures Team is investigating reports involving exposure to depleted uranium, pesticides, and related potential causes of illness.

The Medical Planning Issue Team is investigating such issues as immunizations, pyridostigmine bromide, and drug interactions, stress and infectious diseases.

Rostker said, "Our investigation is one that deals concurrently with the past, the present and the future. We are attending to the health needs of our veterans, seeking them out and responding to their concerns. We are examining the past through a very thorough, painstaking investigation to find out what occurred that could be affecting the health of many veterans. We are also looking at the future and applying the lessons learned to implement the necessary changes to military doctrine, procedures and equipment to protect our troops in the future."

Rostker also noted that President Clinton’s recent announcement enlarging the eligibility of Gulf War veterans for compensation for Gulf War illnesses expands the government’s responsibility to provide disability payments.

Rostker explained that the government has always compensated veterans who have a disabling ailment attributable to their military service. In the case of Gulf War veterans with ailments that do not fit traditional diagnoses—those known collectively as unexplained illnesses or Gulf War illnesses—the government did not originally provide disability compensation because there was no scientifically proven link between the undiagnosed illnesses and the Gulf War.

That has now changed completely, Rostker said. "In the case of symptoms that may be attributed to Gulf War veterans’ illnesses, the benefit of the doubt regarding service connection will be in favor of the veterans," he told the committee. He emphasized that compensation has now been severed from the question of what has caused Gulf War illnesses.

In the question and answer period of the hearing, Rep. Vic Snyder, Democrat of Arkansas, asked if the Defense Department’s classification rules were hiding important documents. "Are we satisfied that our effort to declassify old secrets is adequate, or is that still an obstruction?" Snyder queried.

Rostker said, "At this point, I know of no classified document that is being withheld because of classification. We get a lot of documents. As soon as we see it as a document relevant in any way to the health or the operations that we are investigating, we ask it to be declassified and posted on GulfLINK. . . . And we share it with the President’s Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses, in classified form, immediately. Literally, the sun does not set before I bring those documents to the Advisory Committee and we start the process of declassification."

Later on, Rostker added, "We literally are still discovering new documents. The Army has put out a field team and is again going back to bases overseas and literally thousands of documents which had not come up in previous searches are now coming up."

Rep. Terry Everett, Republican of Alabama, noted that Rostker’s investigation of the demolition of chemical weapons at Khamisiyah says U.S. troops only blew up the bunkers there after they got an all-clear signal from an explosive ordnance team, indicating no chemicals were present. Everett said, "I don’t understand why they got the all-clear."

Rostker said, "We don’t understand either. If you were, for example, to talk to the company commanders of the 37th Engineers, who blew up Khamisiyah, they would tell you—as they did in a press conference just a number of weeks ago—that to this day they do not believe there were chemicals at Khamisiyah."

Several other witnesses appeared before the panel that day.

Robert Walpole, special assistant for Gulf War illnesses at the CIA, told the subcommittees the CIA now doubts that chemical munitions at Khamisiyah were blown up in an open pit on two separate days: March 10 and March 12, 1991. A few weeks ago, Walpole said he believed there were two separate demolitions in the pit on those days, based largely on a newly discovered log entry showing the previously unknown March 12 demolition.

But Walpole said the CIA only had two eyewitness reports at that time and they were contradictory. He said the CIA subsequently interviewed four more eyewitnesses. "These interviews called into serious question the log’s credibility; we learned it was prepared after the fact and that we should not rely on the March 12 date," Walpole said. "With the log’s credibility in question, the prudent approach would be to model, one event on March 10."

Colonel Thomas P. Leavitt, chief of inspections for the Army Inspector General, testified that his team has thus far interviewed 350 people—including 150 who were actually at Khamisiyah—in and effort to track down what happened at Khamisiyah.

Rep. John C. Cooksey, Republican of Louisiana, then asked the panel to hear a witness who was not on the schedule—Maj. Gen. Robert Flowers, the commanding general of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. Cooksey said he had encountered Flowers on Mississippi River business and learned that Flowers had been at Khamisiyah.

Flowers said he was the officer who sent the 37th Engineer Battalion to Khamisiyah. He said he went to Khamisiyah himself to "ensure that technically and safety-wise everything was proper."

He commented, "When I went for the initial rehearsals, I asked a question of the battalion commanders if someone had inspected for chemical weapons, and was told that a special weapons detachment had been through and had basically told the commanders that there were no chemical weapons there. We did have our detection equipment there, but I don’t recall any detection or monitoring device registering a chemical."

In the afternoon session, Matthew L. Puglisi, assistant director for Gulf War veterans of The American Legion and an artillery forward observer with the 2nd Marine Division during the Gulf War, said, "The nation is confronted with veterans made ill by their wartime service. It should devote all the resources necessary to making them healthy. It should not lose focus on this most important task by focusing on peripheral issues. The ongoing investigations into CIA, DoD and CW agents will not pay one disabled veteran’s overdue utility bill; it will not compensate one disabled veteran; it will not have any positive, measurable impact on veterans’ lives other than to provide information about events that took place over six years ago," Puglisi said.

The final witness of the day was Jeffrey Ford, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a national umbrella organization for Gulf War veterans. He praised Rostker for the efforts his new office is making to try to get to the underlying causes of Gulf War illnesses.

Ford told of meeting with Rostker and his team March 26, and with their persistent help, uncovering a major file on Gulf War incidents that had been stored in California and never forwarded to Washington.

"This file revealed 1,174 previously uninvestigated reports related to Khamisiyah," Ford testified. "Those reports have now been forwarded to the appropriate investigators. After solving a systemic problem that had existed for some time, I truly felt the two-way communication promised by Dr. Rostker was beginning to bear fruit. He tells me his team is addressing some 63 separate case scenarios and at this time nothing is being ruled out in the investigation. Every concern I voiced was being looked into, and more."