WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William J. Perry said yesterday that any perception that the Pentagon had intentionally withheld evidence from the public about possible causes of illnesses among veterans of the Persian Gulf war was "dead wrong."
He said the Pentagon had learned only recently of an incident in March 1991, shortly after the war, in which as many as 20,000 U.S. troops might have been exposed to chemical weapons as a result of the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot.
"The perception among some that the Defense Department is deliberately holding back information or that the Defense Department does not care about the suffering of the veterans of that war -- those perceptions are dead wrong," Perry said at a year-end news conference at the Pentagon.
He said those perceptions were shared by "some in the media and a lot of the public."
Perry, who is about to step down as defense secretary, said the controversy was one of the major disappointments of his three-year tenure at the Pentagon.
"It's been an enormous frustration to me that we've not been able to deal with those perceptions, overcome those perceptions, along with the frustration that we have not been able to identify the illness. Therefore, we have not been able to provide a fully adequate treatment. But we are providing the best treatment we know how to provide."
He denied that information had been intentionally withheld from scientists who conducted a 1994 Pentagon investigation that discounted links between chemical weapons and illnesses reported by thousands of gulf war veterans.
The chairman of that panel, Joshua Lederberg, a geneticist and Nobel laureate, said this month that the panel's conclusions probably would have to be revised as a result of new evidence suggesting that soldiers had been exposed to chemical weapons.
Pub Date: 12/20/96