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When President Clinton appointed a special committee to look into Gulf War Syndrome, he told members to "leave no stone unturned" in getting at the causes of U.S. veterans' illnesses. One investigator took the president's words seriously -- and paid the price.

Published September 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

two years after President Clinton appointed a special commission to investigate the causes of various illnesses collectively known as "Gulf War Syndrome," we're no closer to an answer. After holding a final set of public hearings last week, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses is now working on a final report that it's scheduled to present to President Clinton next month.

While the panel is not expected to change its earlier conclusion -- that the syndrome is caused primarily by wartime stress and not chemical arms -- it has called for the Pentagon to be banished from overseeing the investigation. Because of inaction and misstatements emanating from the Pentagon, especially its denials that U.S. soldiers may have been exposed to chemical weapons, "The well has been poisoned in essence, and the government's credibility continues to be questioned," said the panel's executive director, Robyn Nishimi, in a statement last Friday.

That statement is something of an irony to former committee investigator Jonathan Tucker, who was abruptly fired by Nishimi in December 1995 for reasons that the panel has never explained, except to say that Tucker resigned. Tucker said he was fired because he was too aggressive in pursuing evidence about exposure to biological and chemical weapons. Tucker had wanted to interview Gulf War veterans and government whistle-blowers as well as officials from various government agencies.

Tucker is the director of the chemical biological weapons non-proliferation project at the Monterey Institute for International Studies and until his ouster, he had been the sole senior policy analyst dealing with chemical and biological weapons on the panel's staff. A former arms specialist at the U.S. State Department and at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Tucker was in Iraq in January 1995 as part of a United Nations special commission investigating Iraq's biological warfare capabilities.

Salon talked with Tucker about his experience with the government panel, issues of credibility and the continuing mystery of Gulf War Syndrome.

Not long after the president's committee provisionally concluded last January that chemical agents were "unlikely" to blame for illnesses reported by tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans, you testified on Capitol Hill that the conclusion was "vastly premature" because too little scientific research has been done. Do you think its final report will be any less "premature"?

It's interesting, because five members of the 11-member panel recently went public in the New York Times, expressing their reservations about the committee's original conclusions. They suggested at least leaving open the possibility of a link between chemical exposures and Gulf War illness. One of the panel members, Rolando Rios (a lawyer from San Antonio who is a decorated Vietnam veteran), said, "I personally think it was inappropriate for us to say that it was unlikely that chemical weapons were responsible for the health problems. How can we say it's unlikely if we haven't done the homework?"

Why would he say that?

Throughout, the committee has made the most conservative possible interpretation of the exposure and medical data and they've ignored much of the new evidence. They have said that their conclusions were based on the available medical data, but since there's virtually no conclusive data, they could easily have come to the opposite conclusion, which was that the available data did not rule out the possibility of a link between exposures and illness. I also think that in the past several months, there has been considerable new evidence that supports a linkage between exposures and Gulf War illnesses.

What sort of evidence?

Robert Haley at the Southwestern University Medical Center at Dallas published a report about a week after the advisory committee's January report concluding that many veterans were suffering from three primary syndromes due to subtle brain, spinal cord or nerve damage, but not to stress. He said that the damage was due to exposure to a combination of PB, an antidote given to troops prophylactically to protect them from chemical warfare agents, DEET, an insect repellent, and various organophosphorous pesticides. His study has been criticized because it was based on self-reported data and was a fairly small sample, but I think it was at least suggestive of a link between exposure and nerve damage.

Had such combinations of chemicals been looked at before?

Not extensively. In fact one of the tragedies of the Pentagon's refusal to admit the possibility of chemical warfare exposure until five years after the fact is that no research in this area was funded by either the Department of Defense or the Veterans Administration. So the evidence is just beginning to come in now. Conclusive evidence probably won't be in for another year or two, as many of the studies have just gotten under way and many involve extensive epidemiological research or lab research.

Any other new evidence?

A pharmacologist at Duke University, Mohammed Abou-Donia, conduced studies on hens, which are apparently a good model for humans in this area, and concluded that PB, DEET and permethrin, an insecticide, cause neurological symptoms similar to those reported by Gulf War veterans. Another study, conducted by Abou-Donia and the VA Medical Center in Durham, N.C., found that when rats were given PB and put in a stressful situation, the PB was able to cross the brain barrier and suppress levels of AChE -- the brain enzyme that's inhibited by nerve agents or organophosphorous pesticides. That is, when there was stress, PB -- which does not normally enter the brain from the bloodstream -- was able to do so and to cause pharmacological effects. Other studies have also provided evidence that stress may make the blood-brain barrier permeable to PB.

So wartime stress may have played a role in Gulf War Syndrome?

That's right. An enabling role, but not a primary role. There's another study, conducted by Frank Duffy, a neurologist at Children's Hospital in Boston, who testified before Congress that past studies performed or funded by the U.S. Army had indicated both in monkeys and humans that exposure to sarin (a nerve gas) could produce long-term alterations of brain function. Then there have been studies that indicate that neurotoxic environmental exposure can cause a chronic deregulation of the immune system causing multi-system illnesses. Veterans not only have neurological symptoms, they have symptoms in other organs.

Then why is the panel seemingly so set on pinning the blame solely on psychological stress?

The committee itself admitted that their initial conclusions were based on the available literature, and that virtually no work had been done on low-level exposures, particularly in conjunction with other types of toxic exposure. Part of this has to do with the military's traditional all-or-nothing approach to chemical exposure. That is, either one is exposed to a lethal dose or that there are no effects. They have not done extensive studies of possible subtle, chronic effects of low-level exposure.

The Pentagon still denies that any chemical weapons were used in the Gulf War.

Yes, though they have admitted there was indirect exposure as a result of the demolition of the Kamisiyah depot (in Iraq) after the war. More recently, they've admitted that during the air war a depot at Ukhaydir -- where Iraq had stored hundreds of weapons filled with mustard gas -- was bombed and most likely exposed U.S. troops to low levels of mustard gas.

You testified in April before a House committee that Iraq might have used gas against U.S. troops, contradicting the findings of the Pentagon and the CIA.

Yes, just looking at the declassified operational logs and the declassified intelligence reports, I concluded that it was at least possible that Iraq had engaged in sporadic use of chemical weapons. There were a number of detections during the ground war as well as the air war, with reliable detection methods, of small quantities of both nerve and blister agents.

Which the Pentagon has dismissed.

They claim that all of these detections were false alarms, that they were incorrectly used, that there was interference from the oil fires or other reasons.

For example.

In the early days of the air war at Al Jubayl there were troops from the 24th Naval Construction Battalion who were deployed in the vicinity, and about 3 in the morning of the 19th of January they reported a double explosion in the sky followed by a massive shock wave that was strong enough to knock down tents and knock people to their knees. The alarms went off, troops were told to get into their chemical protective gear and go to their bunkers.

When they emerged from the bunkers some time later and took off their masks, many of them reported a kind of mist in the air that caused a burning sensation on the skin, profuse nasal secretions, choking -- clearly some type of exposure to a toxic chemical. When they reported this to their commanding officers, they were told it had been a sonic boom and not to worry about it. I've spoken personally to a number of Seabees who were present, who said their skin was burning at the time, that later their skin blistered and in subsequent weeks they developed non-specific symptoms of fever and musculo-skeletal pains, swollen glands, gastrointestinal problems, chronic diarrhea. Many of these symptoms have persisted ever since and have turned into chronic symptoms.

Do you think the commanding officers really believed it was a sonic boom?

I have no way of knowing, but I find it suspicious. Some of the people I spoke to, radio operators who were working in command centers at the Seabee encampment, tell me that they were ordered to burn their logs for the period of the incident or they were ordered under severe threat not to discuss the incident with anyone. Veterans from this unit, the Seabees, were the first to claim they had been exposed to Iraqi chemical warfare during the war.

What does the Pentagon say about this?

It issued a report denying there had been any Iraqi chemical use or exposure. It claimed if anything there had been the intercept of an Iraqi Scud missile in the vicinity and perhaps some troops were exposed to oxidizer for the Scud fuel. That report was criticized by a number of veterans' advocates, particularly Jim Tuite, the former investigator for Sen. Don Riegle, D-Mich., who conducted hearings on this issue back in '94. He thought that the Pentagon's study was more intent on refuting what the soldiers had reported rather than finding out what had happened.

Your own experience with the Gulf War panel seems to raise the same issue, the apparent discrepancy between what the veterans say and the official view.

I was present at the panel's first meeting when the first lady spoke and reiterated the president's mandate to "leave no stone unturned" in getting at the causes of Gulf War illnesses. I took that mandate very seriously.

How did you go about it?

First, I carefully read the Riegle report and other published materials in which veterans claimed they had detected chemical warfare agents. I then arranged for official briefings from a number of government agencies including the defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Army, Chemical and Biological Command in Aberdeen, the Army Chemical School in Fort McClellan, Ala. All of them categorically denied that Iraqi chemical weapons had been present or that U.S. troops had been exposed to low-level chemicals from bombed facilities.

A united front.

There was only one thing the DIA admitted: that a Czech chemical defense unit working for the Saudis in northern Saudi Arabia near King Khalid Military City had detected low levels of chemical nerve agents in the atmosphere during the air war. The DIA said the Czech detection equipment was reliable, better than comparable American equipment, and it concluded that the detections were valid. But they couldn't provide a credible explanation for how it had come about. This seemed to me to be a fundamental contradiction.

What were the circumstances of your dismissal from the panel?

I was in communication with Pat Eddington (a CIA official who was attempting to conduct an independent investigation on chemical exposures even though his position was strongly at variance with the agency), another whistle-blower in the Veterans Administration and a number of veterans' advocates, many of them quite outspoken in their criticism of the Pentagon. These people had filed extensively for documents under the FOIA and they made these available to me. My boss, Robyn Nishimi, had given me a number of warnings, through e-mail and through her deputy, that I was not to contact sources who were considered too sensitive.

Did she say these people were too "sensitive" or that they were just nuts?

She didn't say. She just said, "I don't want you talking to these individuals." I think they were perceived as too controversial or too political. Then in November (1995), as we were preparing for a meeting of the panel in San Diego, she called me into her office and had a memorandum that basically said I was terminated.

From her?

Signed by her. She asked me to sign it, but said that if I didn't it would still be effective. She told me to clean out my office within an hour. I was in a state of shock. I said, "What are the grounds of my termination?" And she said, "I'm not going to go in to that, I'm just not satisfied with your performance." I went into my office and the deputy staff director watched me pack up my belongings to make sure I did not take any sensitive documents. I also noticed the hard drive to my computer had been removed. I was then escorted out of the building by the personnel director, all within an hour. As I've characterized it before, I thought things like this only happened in the movies.

Why do you think you were fired?

My speculation, and this is pure speculation, is that my aggressive approach was antagonizing certain officials, probably at the DoD or elsewhere, and was making them less cooperative with the committee. One problem with the presidential committee was that because it did not have subpoena power, it depended upon the voluntary cooperation of the Pentagon, the CIA and the VA. I think that senior committee staff, to avoid antagonizing them, were tacitly complicit in the suppression of dissenting views within those agencies.

Why has Gulf War Syndrome become such a hot potato?

There are many different reasons. For the VA, it's primarily an issue of the resources that will be needed to deal with illness. For the DOD, it's more than that. It's tarnishing the glorious victory in the Gulf to admit they were not prepared for Iraqi chemical warfare -- and that they're still not prepared. If it is established that low levels of chemical warfare produce chronic illness, that would have enormous financial and doctrinal implications for chemical warfare defense that the Pentagon is reluctant to come to grips with.

Then there's the whole question of responsibility. If the U.S. is seen as not being prepared to defend U.S. troops against chemical weapons, some heads will have to roll. Also, very senior officials early on made categorical statements -- including Secretary of Defense William Perry, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili -- that no Iraqi chemical weapons were present and that there had been no use and no indirect exposures. Once they had gone public, it was very difficult for their underlings to publicly question the conventional wisdom.

By Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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