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Iraq: U.S. Defense Department Inadequately Prepared For Chemical Warfare

Washington, 2 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading U.S. senator says there is not enough evidence to either prove or disprove that American troops were exposed to chemical or biological weapons during the Gulf War.

Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), chairman of the Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee, made the statement Tuesday in Washington to mark the release of a report into the causes of the Gulf War Syndrome. The report largely agrees with the U.S. Defense Department's claim that chemical weapons were probably not to blame for mysterious health problems reported by soldiers returning from the Persian Gulf in 1992.

The conclusions of the report surprised many in Washington as the committee has long been critical of the Defense Department's handling of soldiers' complaints of sicknesses they believe were contracted during the Gulf War.

Still, while agreeing with the Defense Department's conclusions, the report strongly criticizes the agency's handling of health complaints by soldiers and blasts the reluctance of the U.S. Veteran's Administration to take swift action in ensuring that troops returning from the Gulf War received good medical care.

Specter acknowledged that while the exact causes of the soldier's illnesses may never be known, he personally believes it is due to a combination of factors including extended exposure to the fumes of the oil fires in Kuwait, inhalation of sand and dust particles, pesticides which were sprayed inside soldier's tents and on their uniforms, and possible exposure to some kind of nerve gas.

Specter also says the Defense Department was guilty of not adequately protecting American soldiers sent to the Gulf War because they were not given enough proper training in the event of a chemical or biological attack.

Specter says: "There is no doubt that the military was grossly delinquent in sending our 700,000 troops into the Gulf War being unprepared for the problems which they were going to face....The investigation found a lack of command emphasis on chemical and biological defense prior to the Gulf War that resulted in readiness shortfalls during the war."

According to Specter, those same mistakes are currently being repeated in Bosnia. He adds that defending American troops against biological or chemical attacks in Bosnia is simply "not a priority" for the Defense Department.

He said: "There has been no improvement on this front in Bosnia. And it is a conclusive fact that this is something to be guarded against."

To emphasize his point, Specter cited a recent Defense Department review of American troops in Bosnia indicating that unit commanders there were "not fully integrating chemical and biological defenses into the unit training mission."

Specter also says that the Defense Department is doing next to nothing to protect ordinary American citizens from the possibility of a chemical or biological attack.

For example, he says that the U.S.'s only factory that produces a vaccine against anthrax is currently shut down for renovations and won't be operational until 1999. As a result, says Specter, there will not be enough of the vaccine to go around until the year 2003.

He also says that the number of vaccines approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration is very low and could result in a "terrifying prospect" if the U.S. was ever the recipient of a chemical or biological attack.

According to Specter, the findings reveal how much at risk America and the world are to chemical and biological attacks, especially if such weapons were to fall into the hands of terrorists.

Specter concludes: "So, what we are looking at is a Department of Defense which is unprepared, and an America which is unprepared, for the problems of biological and chemical warfare and what may occur as a result of terrorism."

Specter urged the Defense Department to improve its ability to forecast, identify and respond to a wide range of exposures that could cause health problems. He also says he is introducing legislation in the Congress to ensure that veterans are given good health care and compensation for their ailments.