THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY DR. JOYCE LASHOF AND ADMIRAL PAUL BUSICK
The Briefing Room
11:40 A.M. EST
MR. JOHNSON: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the White House briefing room. Today, following the presentation that the President and Dr. Lashof and the First Lady just gave you, we'll be pleased to answer your questions. Here to answer those questions is Dr. Joyce Lashof, the Chair of the President's Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses. She will deal with questions that you might have about the committee's report. Also, to respond to your questions about the administration's response and other questions about the administration's handling of this issue will be Rear Admiral Paul Busick of the United States Coast Guard, who is currently the National Security Council Staff Senior Director for Gulf War Illnesses. So if you have questions, we'll be pleased to try to entertain them.
Q Dr. Lashof, just a few minutes ago, at stakeout out here, Senator Specter said that they are going to be holding hearings on Thursday on the Hill, and he was talking about the possibility of a cover-up by the Pentagon. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you think that that's --
DR. LASHOF: We found no evidence of a cover-up in our work.
Q Could we use another word? I mean, was it adequately -- was the information adequately conveyed to the public about what they had found?
DR. LASHOF: Let me put it this way: They were very slow and the actual investigation for the possibility of exposure was, we say in the report, superficial and inadequate initially. I think now --
Q Was it intentional or --
DR. LASHOF: We have no way of judging what their intentions were. We were critical of the lack of effort and they now have made a commitment. But they can answer that, and I would turn that question to Paul Busick.
Q Dr. Lashof, in the context of the Defense Science Board investigation of '94, which was presented as a thorough, exhaustive study of exposures, how do you rate that study compared to what you've found out?
DR. LASHOF: Well, we obviously uncovered, and it was brought to light, the incident at Khamisiyah, that apparently was not known at that time.
Q Admiral Busick, would you be able to answer the first question?
ADMIRAL BUSICK: Sure. I think that the Defense Department has acknowledged that it needs to do more and has moved very quickly recently to do more. I think that the Secretary of Defense has taken the allegations of a cover-up very seriously, and the Deputy Secretary of Defense has instructed the Secretary of the Army to launch an Army Inspector General investigation into the incident at Khamisiyah.
Q Admiral, why was the Department so slow, though?
ADMIRAL BUSICK: When we get the Inspector General's investigation, then we will have more information about what to do, and we look forward to having that.
Q Why was the initial investigation so slow? You obviously had had the experience of Agent Orange in Vietnam. There was a precedent for this. Why wasn't there a better effort made initially?
ADMIRAL BUSICK: I think that the PAC report has stated that the Defense Department had two triggering events that they viewed as critical. One was whether the Iraqis presented -- or used offensive chemical weapons, and the second was whether there were acute symptoms.
Q And what did they find?
ADMIRAL BUSICK: Neither of those have been found to be the case, and that's in large part why there was no belief that there was a chemical event.
Q Dr. Lashof, did your inquiry find any evidence of widespread exposure of American troops to chemical weapon, one? And two, do you have any chemical evidence to suggest that low-level exposure causes any of the symptoms that Gulf War veterans are now reporting?
DR. LASHOF: The only evidence of exposure that we were able to find collaborating evaluate on was the event at Khamisiyah. There are reports of other site-specific reading on M-254s and FOX vehicles that need to be further investigated. And that's why we've asked for further investigation of possible exposures. But the only that's been documented at this point as to an actual source --there are other reports of detections, but an actual source has only been identified in Khamisiyah.
To your second question of low-level exposure and is this the cause of the illness, we have no clinical evidence now of long-term health effects from high-level exposures from times when people are ill. The research on long-term effects from low-level is not really available at this point.
In my view, it would be unlikely to see results from low-level when we don't see long-term effects from high-level exposure. But we believe that research needs to be done around this, and there are, and we suggest in the committee report, that there are two populations that could be looked at. One is the Japanese in the subway who were exposed, and the other are the pesticide applicators who often are exposed for long times to very low levels. And we think these could be investigated and that question put to rest.
Q Just to follow up that, if I might, given the uncertainty about whether any more than one chemical alarms went off at Khamisiyah, do you regard the exposure at Khamisiyah as a case of potential exposure or actual exposure?
DR. LASHOF: I think we feel that -- we know that there were weapons that contained chemical agents at Khamisiyah that were exploded. Therefore, we have to assume that there was exposure to the troops from that release from those weapons that were destroyed at Khamisiyah.
Q Even if chemical alarms didn't go off?
DR. LASHOF: I was going to say, I thought there was a chemical alarm that went off there and one positive detection. We'll get back -- I can get this. They have to research that and they can get back to you with further detail.
Q You've termed so far today the Pentagon's response to this problem as being inadequate, superficial, incredible, intransigent, various other adjectives. Yet your conclusion is that they will be able to do the follow-up with a tenfold investigative staff. Isn't there a dichotomy there?
DR. LASHOF: I do not believe there is a dichotomy. In fact, I'm glad you asked the question about that. We feel it's very essential that the follow-up be done and that it be done under very strong oversight with a public view of it. The committee's work, actually, on this issue I think has been misrepresented. I have held back from reporting on the mischaracterizations until our work was finally completed, but let me point out that I think it's unfortunate that our deliberations have been cast in the light that suggests that we have backed off from any suggestion of an independent investigation.
At the committee's September meeting, the staff briefed us on its investigations on the exposure half of the chemical and biological weapons issue. In the transcript of that meeting, the staff reported -- and I will quote from that transcript because I'd like this to be on the record correctly because it has been misrepresented: "The Department of Defense has assets that cannot be replaced in pursuing those investigations. DOD has to play a critical role in investigating possible exposures. And credible review cannot be accomplished internally by the Department of Defense, however. To be credible amongst veterans and the American public in general, there is a need for outside, independent oversight review and involvement." Now, that was the quote from our September meeting.
At the November meeting, the committee met to review and complete the recommendation process. For the recommendation in question, our discussion at the November meeting centered around adding language to provide greater context and depth to the recommendation -- adding language to the report, that is. And I'm aware that many people portrayed this discussion as a reevaluation of staff's recommendation. As the record clearly shows, however, this is just not true. Our position has been clear from the outset, and our final recommendation reflects that position. The investigation must be done by DOD, but it must be done under very vigorous and extensive oversight. And I think that the President's action today to extend the committee fully meets the intent and the spirit of that recommendation, and we intend to be vigorous in our oversight of this.
Q Admiral Busick, the veterans groups have been on record as saying that in the case of the missing logs and missing records, that there is an issue, potentially criminal issue of chain of custody, whether they are missing or whether they do exist but have been misplaced. What's the current situation with that?
ADMIRAL BUSICK: I think the Department of Defense has started the investigation to reconstruct what's occurred. I know that the Department of Defense has launched an Inspector General investigation into the events surrounding Khamisiyah and that will include the look at logs.
Q Doctor, this study seems to focus mostly on stress and in the three that you all list early on about what you've found you can't find any casual link between the illnesses and these types of pesticides and chemicals and the like. What caused the stress?
DR. LASHOF: Going to war is a stressful situation and having alarms going off around you, the oil well fires, the general conditions under which people were living and working. All of these add stress, and different people are going to react to stress differently and different degrees of stress have different effects on individuals.
Q Could you see this as any different than any other type of wartime scenario?
DR. LASHOF: Well, we see effects of stress in any war; that is correct. Whether it's more or less, we have no data on that, one way or the other.
Q You seemed careful in the previous session to say that you found no causal link between any individual factor and the veterans illnesses.
DR. LASHOF: That's correct.
Q Does that leave the door open to synergistic effects, particularly between stress and, for instance, various chemical agents or even the PB pills?
DR. LASHOF: I think it does leave that door open. We do recommend further research specifically on the synergistic effects between pyridostigmine bromide and pesticides. You are correct that we say stress is a contributing factor and we don't know what other factors it could relate with. We really have a lot of epidemiologic research ongoing, and until that research is completed we're not going to be able to answer some of the questions you're now -- you and the vets, appropriately, and we are asking.
Q Doctor, do you come away from this study thinking that the U.S. military force structure should somehow be altered so that the Guard and Reserves aren't relied upon so heavily in wartime performance?
DR. LASHOF: That's not an issue that was in the realm of our committee to consider.
Q Doctor, much was made a few months ago of a claim by two former CIA analysts that documents that they had examined demonstrated beyond doubt Iraqi use of chemical weapons and a CIA cover-up. Are you satisfied you got those documents from the CIA and did they show any evidence of Iraqi chemical use during the war?
DR. LASHOF: We reviewed those documents and do not see that they present any evidence that the Iraqis used weapons during the war.
Q Did we use any?
DR. LASHOF: No.
ADMIRAL BUSICK: Can I follow up on that? Again, the Director of Central Intelligence found that the accusation, the allegations that there was a cover-up on CIA were important, and they have also launched an Inspector General investigation into that issue.
Q Dr. Lashof, can you address the issue of why Dr. Jonathan Tucker was dismissed, I guess over a year ago -- a member, a researcher on the committee?
DR. LASHOF: I'm aware of the circumstances concerning his departure and I will not discuss personnel matters. I know that the staff acted appropriately in that.
Q Do you think that has damaged your credibility at all, dismissing one of your top researchers? He's now saying that there was disagreements among himself and some of the members I think on the research --
DR. LASHOF: I think our report on that stands as a good record. We've obviously dealt very heavily into this area. We have an excellent investigator who has taken on that area and done an excellent job, and I think -- look at the report.
Q Just a very basic kind of technical question, but are you, at this point, aware -- do you feel that you are aware of every single chemical that people in that region may have been exposed to, as opposed to how these chemicals may have worked together? In other words, is there any factor, any chemical factor, that you feel you do not know existed there that might have been used?
DR. LASHOF: Well, it's always hard to know something that you don't know. (Laughter.) I believe we know everything that's been issued to them. We know everything that you could logically think about. If there's something that's illogical, unknown out there, I don't know how anyone knows what they don't know. But, there's obviously no evidence that anyone has information that they're keeping from us. We certainly know everything that's been issued. We know what oil well fires burned. We know what diesel fuel was used. We went into this extensively.
Q Do you have fixed in your mind a population that shares these multiple symptoms? How may active duty, how many veterans?
DR. LASHOF: No, the only data -- we do in the report review briefly the data from the comprehensive clinical evaluation protocol of the Department of Defense, and then the VA has a registry, and we give a table that shows what percentage had symptoms of ill-defined conditions and PTSD and so forth.
Q What do you have fixed in your mind as the population who are complaining or have some illness as a result of this? What is it?
DR. LASHOF: You mean, how many, numbers? The only numbers we have are the numbers who have gone in for examinations. And until we have the epidemiologic studies, we don't know what percentage that represents, whether it represents who has been ill or not. We've got to await those studies.
Q Dr. Lashof, do you think that nine more months of operations by your committee will produce a definitive conclusion as to what's behind these illnesses?
DR. LASHOF: I think we'll be able to elucidate a great deal more. I don't think a definitive solution will be known in nine months. It depends really on what the results of the major studies that are ongoing now show as to how far we can go in nine months. They may open up avenues that are new that will need further exploration. They may give us answers. I really couldn't speculate.
MR. JOHNSON: Excuse me, Paul would like to respond to that.
ADMIRAL BUSICK: I think the objective on the part of the administration here is to get to credibility in terms of process. One of the major factors that we wanted the PAC to stay on for was to address the issue of the process that the Department of Defense is using to get to the answers that we need, in terms of investigations into low-level chemicals and those kinds of issues. If we can get to a credible process that has been independently verified, then we'll be a long way down the road toward the answers that we need to get at. That's the objective.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 11:58 A.M. EST