Albion Monitor /Features

Credibility Gulf

by Amy Waldman

Clinton ended an acrid standoff between veterans and the Pentagon about the effects of Agent Orange
In September, Bill Clinton ended a war the U.S. military had been fighting for more than two decades -- against its own soldiers. He signed legislation agreeing to compensate veterans for the health problems and birth defects believed to have been caused by the military's use of dioxin-containing Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

In one fell signature, Clinton ended an acrid standoff between veterans and the Pentagon, which had first denied the use of dioxin, then resisted releasing its spraying patterns, then insisted that no one could prove that Agent Orange caused spina bifida.

Technically, the Pentagon was right: Even today, the mechanism by which dioxin does its damage in the human body isn't known. Of course, until just a few months ago no one knew how cigarette smoking caused lung cancer either -- knowing how isn't the same as knowing if. Regardless, the Pentagon's stonewalling had long ago pushed the issue from the logic of the lab into the emotion of the political arena. Definitive scientific proof or not, Clinton was calling a truce.

"The Department of Defense is engaged in probably one of the most serious cover-ups in the history of military affairs"
So when the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses recently released a draft report concluding that there is no Gulf War "syndrome," no single disease traceable to the Persian Gulf War causing the variety of symptoms that veterans have experienced -- but also stating that DOD's investigation has "lacked vigor, fallen short on investigative grounds, and stretched credibility" -- you could see the handwriting on the wall.

Once again, wartime experience had spawned thousands of sick veterans, who came home not with bullet wounds or shrapnel in their flesh, but with initially invisible symptoms that could stem from physiological or psychological causes. And once again, the Pentagon had attributed it all to stress, resisted investigation, and withheld crucial information.

Now the issue is gathering political momentum (with the Agent Orange debacle fresh in politicians' minds), and you can be sure that eventually Congress will pass, and the president will sign, legislation to compensate sick veterans, even if no one can prove that their Gulf experience caused the illnesses.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has butted heads with the Pentagon repeatedly on Gulf War syndrome, says that regardless of whether the ailments are attributable to stress or, as he believes is more likely, physiological causes, "We can't just walk away. We have a hell of an obligation."

The time frame for resolution will likely be much more compressed than for Agent Orange, because now policymakers and the public are wont to suspect the worst. "The Department of Defense is engaged in probably one of the most serious cover-ups in the history of military affairs," says Paul Sullivan, a Gulf veteran and founder of the National Gulf War Research Center. "The cover-up continues," Rep. Christopher Shays huffed in a September House hearing. The allegations by two former CIA analysts that the CIA has withheld evidence of numerous exposures during the Gulf War have only added to the suspicions.

If there is such a thing as institutional stubbornness, the Pentagon has it
But the focus on sinister conspiracies obscures what may be a more persuasive explanation for DOD's response, first to Agent Orange, and now to Gulf War syndrome: If there is such a thing as institutional stubbornness, the Pentagon has it. All bureaucracies react to something that could cost them face much the way a sea anemone touched by a finger does -- they close up and seal off. But DOD is particularly prone to such reactions, which makes the science worth studying in the story of Gulf War syndrome behavioral as much as biological.

More than most bureaucracies, the military faces very public tests of its effectiveness. Since it failed one of those tests in Vietnam, exposing itself to years of abuse, humiliation, and low public esteem, the Pentagon has been especially defensive, and eager for redemption -- which the Persian Gulf War provided. It dispatched the military's Vietnam complex, sending institutional pride to new heights. It was the mythical "perfect war." Then along comes not only a nasty set of illnesses, but a plethora of investigators muddying the myth by churning up questionable decisions, vulnerabilities, and just plain mistakes on the military's part.

The apparent stonewalling seems to have been an attempt to paper over bungling or negligence that would tarnish the Gulf victory, as well as the careers and reputations of those associated with it. This same phenomenon surfaced in the investigation of the terrorist bombing at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

A report by a retired Army general concluded that many of the casualties were preventable: Commanders had failed to take basic anti-terrorist precautions, despite ample warning, and Pentagon policymakers had been lax in their intelligence gathering. The report also insinuated that the commanders and Pentagon officials had been less than honest about both the precautions they took and their estimates of the size of the bomb (they claimed it was 20,000 pounds, which meant any precautions would have been inadequate; the report concluded it was only 5,000). The inclination was to prioritize protecting the institution over protecting the troops.

Military leaders and their troops have a relationship fraught with authoritarianism, paternalism, and, from the soldiers' point of view, a great deal of faith -- because they must entrust their well-being to their superiors. Whatever the etiology of Gulf War syndrome, it has strained that already fragile relationship, exposing the gulf between troops on the ground and the decisionmakers who often determine their fates.

The Pentagon has been making admissions kicking and screaming every step of the way.
Imagine a reporter who goes into a story with a hypothesis, then either discounts or tries to discredit any evidence -- no matter how compelling -- that contradicts that hypothesis. Now you have a pretty good idea of how the Pentagon approached Gulf War illnesses.

Its working hypothesis was that the symptoms would ultimately prove to be traceable to some known disease or to the ordinary stresses of wartime service. "When you send a large number of healthy young people to a very stressful environment," Dr. Stephen Joseph, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said this April, "surprise, surprise! Some proportion of them come home with a variety of illnesses."

The corollary to that hypothesis was a denial that factors unique to the Gulf War could be causing the health problems. So from the start, the Pentagon took a hard line on Gulf War illnesses, insinuating that they were purely stress-related, or all in veterans' heads. Doctors at Veterans Affairs' hospitals took their cues from DOD. To be fair, the military's toughness comes partly from the fact that a fit force is essential to mission performance, and tolerating unexplained sicknesses opens the door to malingering, fakery, even cowardice. But the military's resistance seems particularly vehement when to acknowledge such sicknesses could reflect negatively on its own performance.

The most plausible suspect for the reported illnesses was exposure to chemical and biological weapons in the Gulf, yet that was the possibility the Pentagon most adamantly resisted. Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of defense, said in sworn Senate testimony on May 25, 1994: "There were no confirmed detections of any chemical or biological agents at any time during the entire conflict." Assistant Secretary Joseph testified before the House Veteran Affairs Committee on March 9, 1995: "There is no persuasive evidence of such exposure, even after much scrutiny." On 60 Minutes in 1995, John Deutch, then deputy defense secretary, said troops had never been exposed to chemical agents "in any widespread way."

As early as 1993, an investigation by the Senate Banking Committee had challenged such assertions, suggesting that the United States' own actions may have exposed its troops to low levels of chemical weapons when allied forces bombed Iraqi munitions facilities during the war and detonated Iraqi weapons immediately afterward.

The Pentagon -- led by John Deutch, now director of the CIA -- summarily rejected the possibility. James Tuite III, the lead investigator on the Banking Committee report says, "The U.S. government policy that has existed since we wrote the first report is that 'it didn't happen,' They've been making admissions kicking and screaming every step of the way."

Quite possibly the largest administration of an experimental drug without informed consent in American history
Given the mystery  ailments veterans were reporting, and our knowledge of Iraq's chemical weapon stockpile, why was DOD so adamant that troops couldn't have been exposed? It seems the Pentagon feared exposures of its own -- to recriminations about its failure to prepare troops adequately. The first step in that failure was one of omission: the military's inadequate preparation for chemical and biological warfare. American troops hadn't faced chemical weapons since World War I, so over the years the military had devoted decreasing attention to what seemed an abstract threat, putting few resources into engineering more sophisticated protective and detection gear.

In May of 1991, the General Accounting Office noted that the Army active and reserve units it visited "had not been adequately trained or equipped to survive and sustain operations in a chemical environment." Soldiers were ill-prepared to function in unwieldy, claustrophobic protective gear; three of four reserve units didn't even have the needed gear. Had Saddam Hussein used chemical or biological weapons, our troops would have been in trouble.

In the months preceding Operation Desert Storm, the Pentagon was well-aware that troops were ill-equipped to face deadly nerve agents. That was why it began grasping for an internal defense -- a medical antidote -- to exposures. Here, too, the military was lacking in up-to-date research or effective antidotes, so in desperation, it latched on to a drug called pyridostigmine bromide (PB), which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration only for treatment of the neurological disorder myasthenia gravis. Research indicated that at smaller doses, and in combination with other antidotes, PB could serve as a prophylactic against the nerve gas soman.

Despite the fact that PB can have side effects on myasthenia gravis patients, DOD did minimal testing on people without the disease: The studies were tiny, and most excluded women and any men who were on other medications, smoked, or had health problems such as asthma. Even then, at least one subject stopped breathing; another lost consciousness. Yet just a few months later, the military began giving PB to some 400,000 male and female troops regardless of their health.

Over the past few years, concerns have arisen that PB, in combination with other toxins troops were exposed to, may have something to do with veterans' illnesses. Only this year has the DOD agreed to look into that possibility. Not only that, but it now appears that while PB would have been effective against soman, it does not work against sarin -- the chemical agent that Saddam had in large quantities -- and may actually exacerbate its effects.

There's more. To administer PB to the troops for a purpose other than which it had been approved, DOD had to obtain FDA permission. Usually such permission requires the procurement of informed consent from those taking the drug; DOD insisted it didn't have time to obtain consent from hundreds of thousands of troops, and so the FDA agreed to waive the requirement. The result was quite possibly the largest administration of an experimental drug without informed consent in American history; soldiers had to take the drugs under threat of court martial (although, because it was self-administered, congressional investigators estimate that a third of the troops in the Gulf did not take PB, or stopped taking it when they felt side effects).

The military's poor record keeping may make it impossible ever to determine conclusively what has made any individual veteran sick
As a condition for granting the consent waiver, the FDA had insisted, and DOD had promised, that military commanders would inform their troops what they were taking and what the side effects might be. DOD said in its application for a waiver: "Recipients of [PB] S will be given substantial information regarding proper use of the drug and its risks and benefits." FDA Commissioner David Kessler wrote back that he was granting the waiver "[b]ased on [DOD's] agreement to provide and disseminate additional information to all military personnel regarding the risks and benefits."

So there was a contract -- and it was broken. One survey found that 63 of 73 veterans who had taken PB did not receive information. In a DOD survey of 23 medical personnel, 16 said no information on the possible side effects of PB had been provided to them; thus they couldn't provide it to the troops they were responsible for. The military also failed to record who took which drugs or vaccines, thus ignoring explicit FDA regulations and DOD guidelines on keeping records. "We recognized early on after the war S that recordkeeping and reporting were less robust than we had hoped," says Mary Pendergast, an FDA deputy commissioner. Military researchers and doctors could swear by their firstborn child that PB's administration would be carefully monitored -- but they were entirely dependent on commanders in the field to keep those promises. DOD, incidentally, is pressuring the FDA to make permanent the interim rule that allowed the waiver of consent in the Gulf War. As of now, the FDA has no way to make sure that, with future waivers, DOD will better inform troops or conduct more careful medical surveillance.

The negligence evident in recordkeeping on PB was in fact part of a pattern. Spend a little time investigating what may have made veterans sick in the Gulf War, and its image as a "clean" war dissolves faster than soap. The victory may have been swift, our casualties may have been few -- but the conditions were anything but clean. When an Institute of Medicine report called the Gulf a "hostile environment," it wasn't referring to the Iraqis -- but to extreme heat, humidity, rainfall, dust and sand, sandflies and other insects, smoke from oil well fires, leaded diesel fuel and fumes, pesticides and insecticides, chemical agent-resistant paints, solvents, and depleted uranium shells.

Conditions were unsanitary; food and water were exposed to many of the same unpleasant things as the troops. And some troops headed for the Gulf received as many as 17 different live viral and killed bacterial vaccines simultaneously, as well as PB and other experimental drugs. It's quite likely that some combination of these exposures could be making veterans sick. Yet there was no recordkeeping on who was exposed to what during the war or who fell ill with what symptoms at the time. Nor was there any post-war follow-up on possible health effects of this toxic soup.

The consequence of the military's poor record keeping is that we are left in an epistemological bog that may make it impossible ever to determine conclusively what has made any individual veteran sick. "The information you need to tease all of this out is five or six years old," says Dr. Arthur Caplan, the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee. "We can only speculate about the causes -- where people were, what they were exposed to."

Exposure doesn't matter, officials say, because the exposures were low level, and low-level exposure can't hurt you
A Pentagon that for five years resisted investigation is suddenly very interested in such speculation -- particularly into whether troops were exposed to low levels of chemical weapons and the possible consequences of that exposure. The CIA is trying to model wind patterns in Iraq in March of 1991 to determine whether nerve agents from detonated weapons wafted toward American troops. DOD is attempting to reconstruct that detonation by harvesting the five-year-old memories of some 20,000 soldiers who were in the area. And for the first time, DOD has budgeted millions of dollars to research the potential harm of low-level exposures.

The reason, of course, is that this past June, the Pentagon acknowledged that on March 4, 1991, American soldiers detonated a bunker full of Iraqi ammunition at a location in Southern Iraq commonly referred to as Khamisiyah. In doing so, they unknowingly exploded rockets containing chemical agents, possibly exposing themselves and other troops to low levels of those agents. A few months later, the Pentagon acknowledged that the March 10 destruction of a pit, also at Khamisiyah, may have exposed still more troops.

More recently, DOD said there may have also been a March 12 exposure. As one frustrated journalist said at an October Pentagon briefing, "In the past two months, from that podium, [the number of soldiers possibly exposed] went from a couple of hundred Army engineers to a couple thousand, to 5,000, then 15,000. Now we're at 20,000. You say there may be even more..."

Particularly embarrassing was the fact that the United Nations had first reported the possibility of such exposures in 1991, in a report given to DOD and supposedly distributed to the White House, State Department, CIA, and U.S. military commanders around the world. The report disappeared into the bowels of the bureaucracy -- for five years. Granted, a lot of documents came in, during and after the war, so it's certainly possible that the report was just filed and forgotten (just as it's possible that those Rose law firm billing records were innocently lost and found). And that's the Pentagon's defense: On Nightline recently, Stephen Joseph said that the report was lost in the "fog of the moment."

That's certainly a fair characterization of wartime -- except that the report was filed in October of 1991, seven months after the fog of war had ended. So perhaps DOD took five years not to find the report -- but to release it. Equally possible, however, is that Pentagon officials truly didn't find the report until recently, because they weren't looking -- they had decided that there were no exposures. Cover-up? Maybe. Closed minds? Certainly.

The same mindset has surfaced in response to the possibility that troops massing before the ground war were exposed when U.S. forces bombed Iraqi chemical weapon storage facilities in Southern Iraq, releasing chemical agents into the air. At the time, the Czechs, who have the world's best chemical detection equipment, recorded numerous readings in the vicinity of American troops; the Pentagon has always said the detections, although "credible," showed nothing because the facilities were far from -- and the wind was blowing away from -- American troops.

But James Tuite believes the Pentagon's analysis of wind direction may be incorrect; if so, hundreds of thousands more soldiers may have been exposed to low levels of chemical agents. The Pentagon, though, continues to insist that the transmission of chemical agents to American troops was impossible.

Nowhere has the Pentagon's closed mind been more apparent than in its fallback defense to accusations that troops were exposed: It doesn't matter, officials say, because the exposures were low level, and low-level exposure can't hurt you. In fact, no one knows for certain whether low-level exposure has long-term effects; there has been scant research on the subject, and almost none by the military itself. But DOD maintains that there are no harmful long-term effects if there are no immediate mass casualties or traumatic symptoms. As recently as October 22, a senior defense official insisted at a background briefing: "We are going to spend a lot of money to see if we can identify some potential health effects from exposures even at subacute levels. But as of today, we know of no reason that there should be a health effect from that exposure."

The great irony of the Gulf War may be that, after all the anxiety over whether Saddam would use chemical agents on our soldiers, we did it ourselves
Why the certainty when the evidence is inconclusive? Because the military has a stake in such exposures being harmless: Military doctrine in the Gulf was that no precautions needed to be taken for low-level exposure. The military has not developed devices able to detect subacute levels of chemical agents -- because theoretically they can't hurt you. Soldiers were told to ignore frequent chemical alarms on the same grounds. If such exposures turn out to be harmful, the DOD will have only its own doctrine to blame. The great irony of the Gulf War may be that, after all the anxiety over whether Saddam would use chemical agents on our soldiers, we did it ourselves. This could be, says Paul Sullivan, "the world's largest friendly fire incident."

The possible errors compound because military doctrine has shaped postwar medical doctrine. Dr. Frances Murphy, Director of the VA Environmental Health Service, conceded in testimony in September that VA research had placed a low priority on low-level chemical agent exposure "because military and intelligence sources had stated that U.S. troops had not been exposed to chemical agents." Indeed, many of the studies and examinations that were done on vets reflected early policy assumptions -- specifically, the certainty that a known disease explaining the symptoms would be found. There were no control groups, few neurological studies -- just clinical evaluations that turned up routine illnesses, but no explanation of the symptoms. And some tests were just plain stupid: One 1994-1995 study of 10,020 ill Gulf War soldiers found that they had most of the same ailments as the general population and were largely able to stay on the job. Only one problem: The study included only active-duty soldiers, who would be less likely to admit to being sick because it could impede their career advancement. And many of the sickest vets had already left the service.

Among those who have left the military since the war, of course, are Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf. Neither has had much to say about the revelations of possible low-level exposures during the war; both could be useful to the investigation. In March of 1995, Stephen Joseph testifed before the House Veteran Affairs Committee about the "hundreds of false chemical alarms" activated by dust, heat, smoke, low batteries, etc. "Schwarzkopf's experience was that these alarms were taken seriously and immediately investigated and that there was never actual confirmation of actual chemical presence." If Schwarzkopf told Joseph that, he was lying: Paul Sullivan of the National Gulf War Resource Center obtained Schwarzkopf's command logs through the Freedom of Information Act; they show both numerous reports of chemical alarms sounding and an order from CENTCOM -- the central command where Schwarzkopf was in charge -- to ignore them. There is also an eight-day gap in the logs between March 3 and March 12, 1991 -- when the detonations at Khamisiyah took place. Schwarzkopf, unfortunately, isn't granting interviews now.

As the evidence and pressure began to stack up, the military went into damage control mode
Powell was at the Pentagon during the war, and hence bore less direct responsibility for responding to reports of chemical detections. But he has some. In response to written questions about what reports he was getting at the time, and how he responded, Powell says simply that at the joint staff level there were "periodic reports" that chemical alarms had sounded, but "that there was no official evidence in those cases of chemical agent detection." One presumes, then, that there was no official response.

Powell also was charged with readying the troops for battle. Despite all the revelations about both PB and troops' underpreparedness for chemical and biological warfare, he says, via his spokesman, that in hindsight he "know[s] of nothing" he would have done differently to prepare troops for the presence of chemical and biological weapons.

And on the question of whether low-level exposures could be harmful, Powell stands by the Pentagon: "There would be no reason to believe that unless an individual were to come under a chemical attack that he or she has been exposed." The reluctance to revisit the historical record of a glorious triumph is understandable -- but don't Powell and Schwarzkopf owe their troops help in puzzling out what happened and preventing mistakes that were made from being repeated?

If Powell and Schwarzkopf haven't been entirely forthcoming, it may be because they have been conditioned by years at the Pentagon -- an institution not known for a "leave no stone unturned" philosophy. Indeed, as the evidence and pressure began to stack up, the military went into damage control mode, much like a corporation facing a product liability suit. (DOD's attitude did change somewhat when the Presidential Advisory Committee suggested removing the investigation from DOD's jurisdiction. Overnight, a newly contrite Pentagon expanded its investigation team from 12 to 110 people).

Former assistant defense secretary Lawrence Korb saw the same give-no-ground mentality in the early 1980s: "I had a big battle with the counsel at DOD about Agent Orange. I was saying, 'Just admit it.' They said, 'No, we'll be liable' We had to fight it out through the courts. The secretary [of defense] listens to the general counsel, who listens to the Justice Department." And, Korb adds, "God help you if you ignore the lawyers' advice and you're wrong."

Indeed, there is much DOD doesn't bring up to the press unless forced to. When the Pentagon can stall, it will
The fear of liability means no individual can publicly question or contradict the policy that has been set. Official policies are coordinated, then adhered to like glue. "When the big dogs sign on," says one longtime Pentagon official, "it becomes an item of religious or normative truth." And, when it comes time for promotion, the Pentagon, like most bureaucracies, rewards team players. Intertwined with the institutional inclination toward self-protection is the individual tendency toward careerism: the desire to advance to a generalship, or from one star to two. There's no surer way to discourage independent opinions.

A similar closing of the ranks emerges in DOD's control of information. DOD sees itself in a public affairs war with the public and Congress, and it will do what it takes to win. That includes assembling the largest public affairs apparatus of any bureaucracy in the world, and at least occasionally, it seems, using a classification system ostensibly developed to protect national security to protect the figurative rear ends of DOD officials.

Last February, for example, DOD and the CIA suddenly pulled around 1,000 documents off DOD's Gulflink Internet site, citing "intelligence sensitivities." If the material truly were sensitive, DOD had committed a gross national security blunder: The documents had been sitting on Gulflink for months, allowing interested parties plenty of time to access them. The documents happened to contain information about Khamisiyah, so perhaps the sudden worry about premature declassification had more to do with damage control than national security.

Further evidence comes from a memo sent by Paul Wallner, staff director of a Pentagon panel on Gulf War veterans' illnesses, to various DOD departments.

The memo subject is the "Identification and Processing of Sensitive Operational Records"; it addresses high-level concern about the posting of "potential sensitive reports or documents" on the Internet. It requests that declassifiers forward such documents to an investigation team before declassifying them to allow "time to begin preparation of a response on particular 'bombshell' reports," and then provides criteria for "sensitive" documents:

a. Documents that could generate unusual public/media attention.

b. All documents which seem to confirm the use or detection of nuclear, chemical, or biological agents.

c. Documents which make gross/startling assertions

d. Documents containing releasable information which could embarrass the Government or DOD. Statements such as "we are not to bring this up to the press" fit in this category.

Indeed, there is much DOD doesn't bring up to the press unless forced to. When the Pentagon can stall, it will. An exchange from an October 31 press briefing:

Q: Have you found any records of reports from Khamisyah on March 4 and March 10, 1991?

Kenneth Bacon [assistant secretary of defense for public affairs]: I'm not aware that we have. I will check. I just -- I'm not aware that we have.

Q: You were checking on that the last time.

Bacon: Yes. And sometimes it takes longer to make these checks than I or you would like."

Bacon is well aware that the Pentagon press corps occasionally suffers from attention deficit disorder. In the next two briefings, on November 5 and 7, there were no questions about the missing records -- or any other part of the Gulf War syndrome investigation. You can bet Bacon's not going to volunteer an update.

"It's the classic stall, delay, divert attention. People in Congress get distracted, go on to other things"
Defense officials seem to have thought that if they held out for long enough, the siege would eventually end. Jim Gottlieb, minority staff director and chief counsel of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, says, "It's the classic stall, delay, divert attention. People in Congress get distracted, go on to other things," a truth especially valid when there is no potential for partisan gain. Gulf War syndrome began under President Bush and continued under President Clinton.

Were it not for a few resolute congressmen -- Rep. Shays, former Sen. Don Riegle, who launched the Banking Committee investigation, and Sen. Rockefeller, who chaired the Veteran Affairs Committee until 1994 -- the Pentagon might have gotten lucky. These congressmen, veterans' groups, and a few journalists, particularly The New York Times's Philip Shenon, have kept DOD's feet to the fire.

In the quest to reconstruct what happened in the Gulf, however, we shouldn't lose sight of something equally important: what happens the next time around. The Presidential Advisory Committee soon will deliver its final report on the military's actions and disband, but as of now, no mechanism exists to ensure the committee's recommendations for the future are taken.

Future wars will again pose the risk of weapons of mass destruction. If the dangers soldiers face in the future have less to do with traditional weaponry than invisible, long-term exposures, how will traditional medicine and science assess the health effects? And we can be sure there will be health effects, because troops today are little better prepared in terms of detection capability, protective equipment, or medical antidotes.

The GAO recently assessed the U.S. military's preparedness for chemical and biological warfare and concluded, "Units designated for early deployment today continue to face many of the same problems experienced during the Gulf War. [E]quipment, training, and medical shortcomings persist and are likely to result in needless casualties and a degradation of U.S. war-fighting capability."

In light of the Pentagon's refusal to face -- let alone learn from -- the past, there is a growing disconnect between the soldiers who will endure the casualties that the GAO warns of, and their leaders, who sometimes seem to hold their reputations and careers more dear than their troops. Military leaders weren't malicious, but they were careless. Given that, how can those who have volunteered for battle trust those who send them there? "Their record has been unconscionable," says Paul Sullivan. "I'm a soldier, so I don't say that with a whole lot of pride in my voice." Military leaders won the war in the Gulf; now they have to fight for the hearts of the soldiers who helped them do it.

"Because Deet was marketed worldwide as an insect repellent, studies on its potential toxicity would obviously be of a sensitive nature"
One of the more promising avenues of research into the causes of Gulf War syndrome was stumbled upon accidentally by an enterprising scientist -- and almost snuffed out by equally enterprising bureaucrats.

In 1993, Dr. James Moss was researching how to overcome cockroach immunity to various insecticides at a Department of Agriculture lab in Gainesville, Fla. By chance, he realized that combining small, usually harmless doses of the pesticide Deet with similarly small doses of the insecticide permethrin could do much more damage to cockroaches than such small quantities of either substance could do alone.

Moss was intrigued. He had followed the mystery surrounding Gulf War illnesses and knew the troops had doused themselves, their clothing, and their tents with insecticides, including permethrin and Deet; he learned that some had also taken pyridostigmine bromide (PB), a prophylactic antidote to nerve gas. When he tried small-dose combinations of the insecticides and PB, the consequences were even worse for the cockroaches.

Eureka! thought Moss. Perhaps a heretofore unexplored synergy between small amounts of multiple toxins had something to do with the problems reported by Gulf War veterans. He called both the manufacturer of Deet, S.C. Johnson Wax, and officials of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the USDA branch employing him, to alert them to his findings.

They did not share his excitement -- and they let his lab know it. Moss was soon called into the office of his lab director, Dr. Gary Mount, and told not to talk to anyone about his research. "I explained to Dr. Moss," Mount said later, "that because Deet was marketed worldwide as an insect repellent, studies on its potential toxicity would obviously be of a sensitive nature." Mount advised Moss to end his Deet studies and "concentrate on his assigned project." Another researcher present at the meeting said Mount had asked Moss "whether Jim was aware of the damage that unsubstantiated charges could have on S.C. Johnson Wax and the Department of Defense."

The USDA campaign to stop Moss's research accelerated, with implicit threats about his professional future
In Mount's defense, he was simply following orders: ARS's national programs director had called from Washington and ordered Mount to tell Moss to stop talking. "I assumed [the director] was concerned and upset because Deet is registered with EPA for use on human skin as an insect repellent," Mount explained. "Thus, any indication that it was being tested as a toxicant or synergist for a toxicant would be considered sensitive by interested industry and government representatives." And then there was the lab's own interest: Deet had originally been synthesized by the USDA, and the Gainesville lab had field-tested it; over the years, the insect repellent had become a lab staple. It's not hard to see why the ARS was as fearful as any corporation about having its product's reputation damaged.

So the damage control began. This being a bureaucracy, the most effective way to control Moss was to focus not on the fact that he may have broken scientific ground, but on the fact that he had broken the rules: He had strayed from his original assignment. He had not been hired to do Deet research, and it didn't matter whether he had discovered the cause of Gulf War syndrome or the cure for male pattern baldness: He was out of bounds.

There is some dispute over whether Moss truly was outside the parameters of his assignment. But regardless, you would think that after chastising him for unauthorized research, his superiors would have acknowledged the potential significance of his discoveries and let him run with the ball. After all, some of history's greatest scientific breakthroughs -- Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin, Wilhelm Roentgen's of the X-ray, for example -- were accidental.

Fortunately for us, Fleming and Roentgen weren't working for the USDA. Its campaign to stop Moss's research accelerated, with implicit threats about his professional future and refusals to grant him research space at the lab after his contract expired.

A frustrated Moss appealed to the agency's inspector general, who is supposed to provide a check on bureaucratitis. "Supposed to" is the operative phrase here: The IG decided Moss's superiors were right to call a halt to his Deet research because "it was not part of his research assignment and had not been approved through proper channels." Telling him not to discuss his research was equally acceptable, not for the sensible reason that his results had not yet been peer-reviewed, but because his Deet work was "not part of his assigned research project."

The statements collected by the IG on Moss's case evoke a stifling organizational culture of parochial minds and petty jealousies. The actions of Moss's colleagues are proof that adolescent meanness can resurface among adults when pride, power, or purse strings are at stake: When Moss would not go gently back to his assigned research project, his nemeses resorted to old-fashioned ostracism and a smear campaign.

Until Moss began straying into Deet research, his supervisors had never questioned his competence
Dr. Mount confessed that he had summoned Dr. Jack Seawright, a colleague with whom Moss was friendly, and advised him that "he should be cautious about interacting with Dr. Moss and that he should not offer him guidance. I justified my advice by explaining that Dr. Moss had done research that could be considered unauthorized. I also added that he was a disgruntled employee." Mount had warned Seawright he "was giving the appearance to others that he was encouraging and supporting Dr. Moss."

In his own statement, Seawright said, "I have heard repeatedly Dr. Moss referred to as a 'loser' by all of his supervisors, several colleagues in his Research Unit, and also by their acquaintances here in Gainesville." The nastiness upset Seawright, and, as becomes a scientist, so did the logic: "If he was a 'loser,'" Seawright asked, "why was his appointment extended twice, and why did he receive satisfactory ratings during his first three years on the job? With those facts in mind, who did an incompetent job, Dr. Moss or his supervisors?"

In fact, until Moss began straying into Deet research, his supervisors had never questioned his competence. But as he insisted on pursuing his findings, everything from his research to his sloppy work habits was subject to denigration. Determined to press on, Moss submitted research proposals to the Army and approached the Armed Forces Pest Management Board about his findings. That gave ARS more ammunition to accuse Moss of improperly discussing his results. Moss knew that if he testified about his findings to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he would be ruining any hope of a future with ARS. In May of 1994, he testified anyway.

Like many gadflies and whistleblowers, Moss is no angel: He is a "proud man," in Seawright's words, "arrogant and disagreeable to work with," in those of another colleague. He made no secret of his disdain for his supervisors' lesser abilities. As Seawright put it, "Combining a proud personality with a talented intellect and a lack of respect for your boss means trouble most of the time." But whether Moss is difficult is beside the point -- or should have been.

His discovery had the potential to solve a medical mystery, make targeted treatment possible, and help the military safeguard troops in the future. And Moss knew it. "He sincerely believes his research S should be a top priority of utmost importance to the safety of American soldiers," wrote Seawright, who called his erstwhile friend a "stubborn, impatient patriot."

Instead, Moss was forced to end his research and leave the lab. His reputation was so tarnished that he has not found permanent research work since; he has spent the past few years substitute teaching. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who has championed Moss's case, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman (who, not surprisingly, has defended the USDA's actions): "What is especially troubling me about this situation is the fact that some promising research -- however arrived at -- got stifled, and that a talented and dedicated young researcher is now essentially unemployed and unable to get work in his field." The real twist of the knife, Rockefeller noted, is that "the Department of Defense and peer-reviewed research have now confirmed Dr. Moss's early reports."

This article first appeared in Washington Monthly


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Albion Monitor February 15, 1997 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)

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