Under Toxic Fire: How the Clintons Helped Cover-Up Gulf War Syndrome

There would be no stone left unturned, President Bill Clinton assured Americans on Veterans Day six days after his re-election in November 1996, 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 could be attributed to psychological stress experienced by the vets.

George H.W. Bush’s determination to punish Iraq led to the Gulf War illnesses, but Clinton was 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 would 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 became the First Lady’s therapeutic project, though as the years unscrolled less-and-less was heard from her on this thorny eruption of mass “psycho-somatic” illnesses.

The report of the presidential commission could 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 were those used to conceal what happened in 1991.

Another finding of the presidential commission proved highly pertinent. The nine-person panel said emphatically that the Pentagon ca not 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 had 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 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 gtp
downwind pattern.” His superiors dismissed this observation as “a false positive.” The final fallback position was enunciated by the late Les Aspin, Clinton’s first defense secretary. In November 1993, Aspin declared 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 1996, 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 soon 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, 1996 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.

Hundreds of such approved shipments in the mid- to late 1980s were recorded by the Department of Commerce. One of the more bizarre features of some of the Gulf War illnesses is that they appear to be transmittable through sexual contact. More than 20,000 spouses and partners of Gulf War vets have reported experiences of such symptoms as chronic fatigue, menstrual irregularities, rashes, joint and muscle pain, and memory loss. Transmission by biological agents could help explain such reports.

As early as August 1990, the Defense Department was preparing to inoculate U.S. troops and support personnel with vaccines designed to counteract nerve gases, botulism, and anthrax. But there was no known antidote against Sarin, Tobun, and VX nerve agents. Anecdotal evidence had suggested to Defense Department scientists that pyridostigmine bromide (PB) might be effective against Soman. PB had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration only for treatment of people suffering from myasthenia gravis, a fatal deterioration of the muscles. The drug had never been widely tested on healthy humans.

The Defense Department was warned by its own scientists that PB should never be used when people might be exposed to Sarin, since it would merely magnify the latter’s potency. Use of PB under any circumstances would also produce severe side effects. There were 35 experiments with the drug with U.S. service people before the Gulf War. Observed side effects included nausea, vomiting, slowed heart rate, diarrhea, increased salivation, increased bronchial secretions, and pupil constrictions. In one of the first tests of the drug on a U.S. Air Force pilot, the man suffered cardiac arrest almost immediately. After that incident army researchers said in August 1990 that PB should not be used by individuals with “asthma, peptic ulcers, liver, kidney, heart disease or hypersensitivity to PB and related drugs.” Another memo prepared by Defense Department medical researchers in the same month said that “because of the side effects associated with PB, all subjects will be admitted to Lyster Army Hospital as in-patients so that they will be medically monitored during periods of testing. A drug will be available at the test site to counteract the possible side effects.”

On top of that, the Defense Department had been warned by James Moss, a researcher working for the Department of Agriculture, that when PB is used in combination with organo-phosphates, the toxicity of both chemicals significantly increases. Moss’s research focused on diethyltoluamide, a chemical familiar to many American campers, particularly on the Outer Banks and in the Upper Midwest as DEET, the active ingredient in anti-mosquito sprays. It’s in the cockroach and ant spray Raid too. Moss found that when DEET is used in combination with PB, the former becomes seven times as toxic as when it is used by itself. PB becomes four times as toxic, Moss also found, when it is used in combination with DEET. DEET and its chemical relatives were widely used in the Gulf War by Allied forces against sandflies, mosquitoes, and scorpions. The chemicals were rubbed on the skin, sprayed in the air, and saturated on tents. Moreover, all of the uniforms issued to Gulf War personnel were impregnated with permethrin, a pesticide made by Dow. Permethrin has been found to double the toxicity both of DEET and of PB. The same trend was found with other pesticides used in the war, including lindane, widely used as a treatment for lice.

The patent on DEET is co-owned by the USDA with the S.C. Johnson Co., which manufactures it under license. Indeed most of the pesticides now in use in U.S. agriculture were developed in U.S. CBW programs.

At a 1994 hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Moss testified on the toxic combo of PB and DEET. Soon thereafter he sent a fax to S.C. Johnson Co. expressing his concern. Two days later USDA officials called in Moss and told him to quit his research, and keep quiet about his findings. “If I was to talk about my ideas about DEET toxicity,” Moss told reporters, “I [understood that] I could have trouble finding a job and could be blackballed.” In an attempt to create a paper trail and to protect himself as a whistle-blower, Moss detailed these attempts to censor his research in internal memos to his superiors. That same summer Moss’s research contract with the USDA expired and his eight-year term with the department came to a summary end. The director of Moss’s laboratory at the USDA said Moss had not been renewed because he had engaged in “unauthorized” research.

In an effort to protect Moss, Sen. Jay Rockefeller wrote to then-USDA Secretary Mike Espy in May, June, and July of 1994, trying to save Moss’s job and to ensure funding for his research. Espy didn’t answer until Moss’s warnings had been aired on CBS News on October 14 of that year. And then Espy merely said that the USDA would not continue this line of inquiry, but would transfer all of Moss’s data to the Department of Defense.

Aside from Moss’s work, the Army had known as early as 1986 that there was a PB-pesticide connection, and that the two had a mutually and destructively enhancing effect when used in combination. Though most of the relevant documents were destroyed by the Army, a memo screening a potential subject for research (an Air Force pilot called Craig Clark) notes that he was an acceptable candidate because “there is no sensitivity to pesticides or recent significant exposure.”

Contemplating all these warnings (plus one other suggesting that to be effective against Soman, PB would have to be used in enormously dangerous amounts) the Army made haste to extract from the FDA the relevant waivers to use the vaccine. The FDA initially resisted, citing concerns about liability. By January 1991, with war imminent, the pressure grew. The Defense Department threatened to invoke emergency powers that would exempt them from any review by the FDA. The FDA then would be without access to Army research findings.

In the case of both PB and the botulism vaccine, the FDA finally gave the Defense Department an interim partial waiver from normal restriction on the use of “investigational drugs.” This category, known as IND, normally requires written and informed consent from the patient, close scrutiny of the patient’s condition, and the compilation of detailed medical case histories.

Even under the FDA’s waiver, the Defense Department was still supposed to keep individual records on all recipients and records of all reports of adverse reactions. None of these conditions were met.

At the start of January 1991, the Army began administering the three vaccines–PB, anthrax and botulism–on a mandatory basis to as many as 400,000 troops, contractors, and journalists. The recipients were given the vaccines without any information on potential side effects. In fact most of the medical personnel administering the vaccines were unaware of the hazards. The vaccines were given to women, some of them pregnant, even though the relevant drugs had never been tested on healthy women. Nor was there any research on how the vaccines might react with other medications such as birth control pills. In all, 28,000 women were given the vaccine drugs. Unlike the extensive screening given to the research subjects, none of the Gulf War personnel were screened for any diseases or conditions. This becomes important, because if side conditions are not surveyed, then ensuing ailments cannot be analyzed with adequate case histories.

The botulism vaccine was given too late for it to have had any use in the war. The Defense Department didn’t begin administering it until January 23, 1991, after the beginning of the air war. None of the recipients of the botulism vaccine received the full course–three shots–necessary for full immunization.

After the end of the Gulf War, the Defense Department aggressively pressured the FDA to issue a permanent waiver of informed consent, saying “not to finalize it provides an arguable defect under the Administrative Procedures Act and leaves the Department of Defense and the FDA open to greater liability.” In another bid to eliminate liability, the Army told Gulf War vets that they have no legal standing because the so-called Feref Doctrine prohibits military personnel from suing the federal government for injuries suffered as part of military service.

The Defense Department cited a decision written by Antonin Scalia in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Feref Doctrine, saying–in Scalia’s words–that to do otherwise would “call into question military discipline and decision-making.”

While the Army stonewalled here in the U.S. and while Hillary Clinton consulted her stress-meter, what of other nations in the Allied force in 1991? On November 12, 1996 more than 1,000 British vets sued their government, claiming that they had been poisoned by a toxic combination of pesticides liberally sprayed on their uniforms and tents and by anti-nerve gas tablets they were compelled to take. To back up their claims, the British vets used a report by Dr. Norman Jones, who was a contractor for the British Defense Ministry. Jones’s research shows some vets were particularly vulnerable to this nerve gas tablet.

The Czech government has officially recognized Gulf War syndrome and began compensate ailing vets and, most importantly, allowed them to be evaluated by non-military doctors. The French soldiers were not given antidotes and vaccines and have reported few, if any, cases of Gulf War syndrome.

As the cover-up slowly unraveled, it became clear that the U.S. Army, along with the British Defense Ministry, was involved in a gigantic experiment, with very little idea–despite many dire warnings–of the consequences of its vaccines and antidotes. This may not be contrary to U.S. and British laws, but it certainly violated the Nuremberg Codes promulgated after World War II in response to experiments performed by Nazi scientists using chemicals and biological materials on their victims. (Many of those scientists later found employment in U.S. research labs, military, and civil.)

One final way to study Gulf War Syndrome, of course, is to look at the dismal health histories of farm workers here in the US. They’re in the front lines all the time, bombed daily by the pesticides, which are the descendants of Soman, Sarin, and Tobun.

This is an extensively expanded version of a chapter from Grand Theft Pentagon.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3