Six years after the Persian Gulf War, the British government has acknowledged that it may have unwittingly poisoned troops who fought there. And under sharp questioning by lawmakers Wednesday, a top defense official conceded that the government had been misled about the use of organophosphate pesticides around British forces in the Gulf.
Nicholas Soames, minister of state for the armed forces, denied any cover-up but said he had received “flawed and inaccurate” information about use of the toxic chemicals from civilian and military officials in the Defense Ministry. Some of those officials, who were not identified other than that they had worked in the surgeon general’s office, may face charges, he said.
But rejecting a Defense Ministry report that effectively exonerated Soames of deliberately lying to Parliament in earlier statements, the opposition Labor Party called for his resignation. “He knew all about this, he made a great error of judgment, he should resign,” said David Clark, who speaks on defense issues for Labor.
Mirroring a similar health alarm among their U.S. counterparts in the Mideast combat, about 1,100 British Gulf War veterans say they still suffer effects of their service. They blame a potent cocktail of inoculations and preventive drugs, as well as the extensive use of pesticides, for a wide variety of illnesses.
Associations representing ailing Gulf vets say more than 100 have died and as many as 4,000 of the 51,000 British soldiers who served in the 1991 war may be afflicted. Some veterans’ children have been born with birth defects, they say.
The British government has been reluctant to accept that there is such a thing as Gulf War syndrome or, indeed, any connection between service in the Persian Gulf and illnesses characterized by symptoms such as chronic fatigue, emphysema, chronic headaches, sleeplessness, depression and skin problems.
A Defense Ministry report presented to Parliament said there had been “serious flaws in the advice offered to ministers.” In December, Soames apologized to Parliament for inadvertently underestimating the extent to which troops had been exposed to organophosphates. The ministry report said officials learned in 1995 about the use of pesticides but did not follow up. In June, when better information became available, they were too slow to react, the study said.
In failing to provide full information, the report said, ministry officials were guilty of “a fundamental failure [to observe] working practices.” Military officers among those responsible would face the equivalent of criminal charges, the parliamentary select committee was told.