OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN DONALD W. RIEGLE, JR
The CHAIRMAN. The Committee will come to order.
Let me welcome all those in attendance this morning.
This is a very important hearing and we'll take whatever time we need today to pursue all of the issues that Members want to raise. Of course, we have a follow-on hearing later in the afternoon.
I'm going to give an opening statement that summarizes what brings us to this hearing this morning. Then I'm going to call on Senator D'Amato and other Members in the order in which they've arrived.
I also want to acknowledge the presence in the room of some of our Gulf War veterans who are suffering from the Gulf War Syndrome. I appreciate very much both their service to this country and their attendance the morning.
Back in 1992, the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, which is the Committee which has Senate oversight for the Export Administration Act, held an inquiry into the United States export policy to Iraq prior to the Persian Gulf War. During that hearing it was learned that U.N. inspectors had identified many United States-manufactured items that had been exported from the United States to Iraq under licenses issued by the Department of Commerce, and that these items were used to further Iraq's chemical and nuclear weapons development and missile delivery system development programs.
The Committee has worked to ensure since that time that this will not happen again and the Export Administration Act legislation we reported out yesterday by a 19 to nothing bipartisan vote is an illustration of that.
Nearly a year ago, several Persian Gulf War veterans from Michigan contacted my office to complain that the Department of Veterans' Affairs was not adequately treating the myriad of medical symptoms that they were suffering from. These veterans were suffering from what has come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome.
Many of them were being treated symptomatically, with no long lasting, positive effects on their health. Others were being referred for psychiatric evaluation because personnel in the Department of Veterans' Affairs were at a loss to explain their physical symptoms.
We'll come back to that later today.
Then, in July 1993, the Czechoslovakian Minister of Defense announced that Czechoslovak chemical decontamination units had detected the chemical warfare agent Sarin in areas of northern Saudi Arabia during the early phases of the Gulf War. They had attributed the detections to fallout from coalition bombing of Iraqi chemical warfare agent production facilities.
In September 1993, I released a staff report on this issue and, in turn, issued an amendment to the fiscal year 1994 National Defense Authorization Act, that provided preliminary funding for medical research of the illness and an investigation of reported exposures and sicknesses of our Gulf War veterans.
When I released that report, the estimates of the number of veterans suffering from these unexplained illnesses varied from hundreds, according to the Department of Defense, to thousands, according to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It is now believed that tens of thousands of U.S. Gulf War veterans are suffering from the symptoms associated with the Gulf War Syndrome. Meanwhile, hundreds, and possibly thousands, of servicemen and women still on active duty are reluctant to come forward for fear of losing their jobs and, in turn, losing their medical care and coverage.
These Gulf War veterans are reporting muscle and joint pain, memory loss, intestinal and heart problems, fatigue, nasal congestion, urinary urgency, diarrhea, twitching, rashes, sores, and a number of other symptoms. They began experiencing these multiple symptoms during and after, often many months after, their tour of duty in the Gulf.
I might say that in virtually every case, these veterans were in excellent physical condition when they went over to the Gulf. In fact, under the voluntary Army arrangements, you have to be in exceptionally good condition today just to qualify for service in the Armed Forces, and that was particularly true for many who were asked to serve in the Gulf War. So we're talking about people with exceptionally strong health profiles before their service in the Gulf.
The Department of Defense, when first approached regarding this issue by the Committee staff, contended that there was no evidence that U.S. forces were exposed to chemical warfare agents. However on September 7, 1993, a Defense Department medical official told my staff that the issue of chemical and biological warfare agent exposure had not been explored because it was the position of "military intelligence" that such exposures never occurred.
Then, during a November 10, 1993, press briefing at the Pentagon, the Department of Defense acknowledged that the Czech government did detect chemical agents in the Southwest Asia theater of operations. After analyzing the results of the Czech report, the Department of Defense concluded that the detections were unrelated to the "mysterious health problems that had victimized some of our veterans."
The Ranking Member of this Committee, Senator D'Amato, and I have released today a report detailing an inquiry into this issue that provides important new information based upon Government documentation and other official reports.
The report establishes, first of all, that, contrary to the Department of Defense assertions, there is clear evidence that the chemical agents detected by the Czechs and others were at sufficient levels to harm U.S. troops.
Second, it establishes that the chemical agent detectors used by U.S. forces during the Gulf War were not sufficiently sensitive to detect sustained low levels of chemical agent and to monitor personnel for contamination. U.S. Army Material Safety Data Sheets, called MSDS, indicate that chronic exposure to levels of over 1/10,000th milligram per cubic meter of Sarin is hazardous and requires the use of protective equipment. The minimum amount of chemical agent required to activate the automatic chemical agent detection alarms that was commonly used during the war was 1,000 times greater than this amount.
In other words, the levels for the alarms used in the war were set at a rate 1,000 times greater than the actual level that we know from other military records to be damaging and hazardous to people if they are exposed to them over a period of time.
Third, the report provides detailed weather and information from unclassified satellite imagery which confirms that during much of the war, the smoke plumes from the coalition bombings were moving directly over U.S. troop positions.
Fourth, it explains that the United States did not have effective biological agent detectors deployed with the capability to confirm whether or not troops were being exposed to biological agents.
During a November 1993, unclassified briefing for Members of the United States Senate, in response to direct questioning, a DoD official said that the Department of Defense was withholding classified information on the exposure of U.S. forces to biological materials.
Then in a Department of Defense-sponsored Conference on Counterproliferation held at Los Alamos National Laboratory on May 6 and 7, 1994, this same official admitted that biological agent detection is a priority development for the Department of Defense since there currently is no biological agent detection system fielded with any U.S. forces anywhere in the world.
Fifth, it provides evidence that the United States shipped biological materials to Iraq which contributed to the Iraqi biological warfare program.
The report also draws upon direct eyewitness accounts from full interviews of more than 600 Gulf War veterans who were directly interviewed by Committee staff. A representative cross-section of 30 of these individuals is presented in full detail in the report, but it is very illustrative of the entire body of interviews that we have now taken, and we are continuing to take interviews and we will continue to do so.
The information provided by the veterans indicated that exposure to chemical and possibly biological agents was widespread-widespread! Detections were confirmed by chemical specialists deployed in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, and in Iraq.
Despite the fact that during the air war, the chemical alarms continued to sound frequently, and despite the fact that the Czech, the French, and some United States commanders were confirming they were sounding because of trace amounts of nerve agents in the air, from the coalition bombings of Iraqi chemical facilities, storage depots and bunkers, United States troops were often told that there was no danger. Some reported to the Committee that they turned the alarms off because they sounded so often during the air war.
After the war, in addition to tens of thousands of other chemical munitions, U.N. inspectors-now listen carefully to this-U.N. inspectors found and destroyed 28 SCUD chemical warheads containing the chemical nerve agent Sarin.
According to a Department of Defense official, these warheads had been obtained from the former Soviet Union. The report also cites an increasing number of cases of spouses and children who report the same symptoms as the veterans, indicating a strong possibility of the transmissibility of the syndrome. This is an extremely worrisome issue that now confronts those families in the country. The emerging pattern of information in this area in terms of family problems of spouses and children requires immediate additional investigative effort. And I don't want to hear the Defense Department or anybody else in the Executive Branch of Government say that we don't have the money to do this job. We waste money on a million other things.
It's time we got to the bottom of this problem.
The report also recommends the immediate declassification and release of all classified or special access information relating to Iraqi chemical and biological warfare programs and information related to the detection or discovery of chemical, chemical precursor, or biological warfare-related materials. It's time to put it all out into the light of day.
It demands that a thorough and detailed epidemiological study be conducted on all Gulf War veterans-on all of them-to determine the origins and causes of the illnesses and the report of transmission of the syndromes to family members. It calls for the establishment of a comprehensive medical testing regime for all symptomatic Gulf War veterans and their family members.
We have not had a situation like this before and it's not enough to use a Catch-22 part of the Government military establishment to say that if a family member is now sick because of an exposure, that we don't have any procedure to provide health care for them. I think we have to establish a procedure to provide health care for them. That's part of our responsibility. That's what America is supposed to be all about-about honor and decency with respect to our service men and women, and certainly to their families that are now showing these same symptoms and these same medical problems.
The report also calls for the positive presumption of service connection for the purposes of receiving necessary medical treatment and determining disability compensation and vocational rehabilitation eligibility.
We can't have a situation in this country where we have veterans that have served 10, 20, or 30 years, who went over to the Persian Gulf in excellent health and who have come home and who are sick, like some in this room today, and have the military establishment, in effect, walk away from them. And not only not provide the kind of adequate medical treatment and coverage, but to leave them in a situation that when they're out of the service, and if they don't have a service-connected disability adequate to support themselves, they can't possibly go out and get private health insurance. The insurance companies don't want them, or if they do, they charge a premium that those veterans can't afford to pay.
We're not going to have this in America. The Executive Branch had better wake up, from the Secretary of Defense up and down the line. It's time we give a positive presumption of service connection for the purposes of receiving necessary medical treatment and determining disability compensation and vocational rehabilitation eligibility. It's the minimum we can do.
Finally, it calls for Government-financed health care for the spouses and children determined to have contacted a service-connected illness from a Gulf War veteran.
If the Department of Defense intended to conceal these exposures during the Gulf War to avoid the physical and mental disruption their use would have had on our tactical planning and deployment at the time, then there might be some way of understanding, at least in a battle situation, why that might be their thinking. But now that the war is over, hoping to avoid responsibility for the casualties of this conflict is an entirely different matter.
Over the last 8 months, our office has been contacted by over 1,000 Gulf War veterans directly. In addition to veterans from the United States, we've also been contacted by sick veterans of the Canadian, British, and Australian armed services who served in the Persian Gulf and who also suffer from this disabling syndrome.
This is not a mental problem with the veterans. It may be a mental problem over at the Defense Department. It is not a mental problem with the veterans.
The veterans of the Gulf War have asked us for nothing more than the assistance that they have earned. I think any refusal to come to their full assistance and to that of their family members who also have these problems now, would cause any thinking person to just question the integrity of the operation that's calling the signals with respect to getting to the bottom of this issue.
I want to just say one other thing before yielding to Senator D'Amato, and I appreciate very much his leadership and concern on this issue.
I've served here now for 28 years, through seven Presidents. I've seen our Government lie to us before in other war situations. I saw how long it took for our Government to understand we had a problem with Agent Orange. We had sick veterans all across this country trying to cope with the problems, and their family members trying to cope with the problems, but nobody could figure it out in the military establishment. We're not going to have that repeated in this situation.
If I find anybody that comes before our Committee and who, under oath, gives false testimony, incomplete testimony, misleading testimony, or disingenuous testimony designed to create a false picture, were going to pursue that individual with every single piece of authority that we have to see to it that they don't serve in this Government and that whatever the truth is, that the truth come out. We're not going to tolerate that kind of situation.
It has nothing to do with party. I've been in both parties in my service in the Congress and I've served under Presidents of both parties and Secretaries of Defense under both parties. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with what the truth is, and about honor and integrity, and our military structure, and our responsibility to our veterans and their families.
I care a lot more about what happens to the veterans than I do about our former Secretaries of Defense. In fact, at the end of the day, they're a lot more important because they're the ones that go out and get the job done, especially when the dirty work has to be done.
So I'm tired of all of the circuitous, incomplete, and mental lapses that I'm getting out of the military establishment. I want to say it as bluntly as I can because we're not going to settle for that, and if anybody thinks so they're sadly mistaken.
I urge everybody to read this report today. If we have to have a hearing where we bring the veterans in one by one and have 100, 200, 300, or 400 and do it day after day after day to get the attention of the people at the top of this Government, then I'm prepared to do it.
This is not going to be an issue that gets swept under the rug. We've seen that happen before. It's not going to happen now, not with anything that falls under the jurisdiction of this Committee.
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