WASHINGTON -- While insisting that he knew of no evidence showing that U.S. troops had been exposed to chemical or biological weapons during the Persian Gulf war, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he supported a wide-ranging government investigation to "get to the bottom" of the mysterious illnesses reported by thousands of gulf war veterans.
Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, said in an interview that while chemical-detection alarms had sounded repeatedly during the war, U.S. commanders in the gulf had been unable to confirm the detections and had believed them to be false alarms.
"They saw nothing that substantiated the alarm evidence. The alarms went off, and it wasn't clear that the alarms' going off was necessarily" evidence of "the presence of chemical weapons."
He noted that U.S. commanders "didn't see anybody becoming ill, and chemical weapons usually make you ill rather immediately."
Asked what information about the chemical alarms had been reported to the Pentagon during the war, Powell replied: "I may well have been aware of them, but not in a way that caused me any alarm. There had been no offensive use of chemical weapons. No one was falling ill."
The Pentagon revealed earlier this year that thousands of troops might have been exposed to nerve gas and other Iraqi chemical weapons when U.S. combat engineers blew up an ammunition depot shortly after the war. Since then, other former Pentagon officials and military officers have declined to be interviewed on the subject, notably retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. gulf commander, and Dick Cheney, the former defense secretary.
Although there is no convincing evidence that U.S. troops were made ill from exposure to Iraqi chemical or biological weapons, the silence of such key government figures from the war has added to the suspicion of ailing veterans that the Pentagon is withholding evidence that might explain their health problems.
Powell, who stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in September 1993, agreed to a telephone interview yesterday after a list of written questions was submitted to him.
Powell said he had no explanation for the illnesses reported by many gulf war veterans and did not have any reason to believe that chemical or biological agents were responsible for their problems.
"I have no idea if there was any release of such agents in a way that might cause harm to anyone, and I don't want to say if it was possible or not because I don't know," Powell said. "Nor do I know if such agents were actually released."
But he added, "We have to, as a government, do everything possible to try to get to the bottom of it and follow the trails where they might lead us."
Government studies have shown that while gulf war veterans did not die and were not hospitalized at unusual rates in the first 2 1/2 years after the 1991 war, they have reported other serious health complaints at a rate far higher than troops who did not serve in the gulf.
Pub Date: 12/03/96