Gulf War Syndrome and the Press — The Aftermath

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Gulf

The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 1997
Letters to the Editor

Michael Fumento continues to spread his unfettered falsehoods and fractional truths about patriotic Gulf War veterans who are truly ill and those who report on them, this time on your March 4 editorial page.

He portrays our correspondent, John Hanchette, as cavalier for reporting the congressional testimony of Michigan veteran Brian Martin, whom Mr. Fumento considers an exaggerator of symptoms in the continuing debate over Gulf War illnesses. Mr. Martin was granted a service-connected, 100% disability rating by the VA for his various serious illnesses.

Mr. Fumento’s further implication that other witnesses are faking war-induced cancer symptoms because lymphomas take many years to develop is not only scurrilous, but erroneous. Medical experts report that some lymphomas, especially in those with suppressed immune systems, develop quite rapidly.

He implies that VA doctors discussed Mr. Martin’s medical records with him and had affirmed that no other veterans had displayed Mr. Martin’s symptoms. In the magazine article from which this fulmination was drawn, Mr. Fumento admits that the VA doctors would not reveal Martin’s medical records under doctor-patient confidentiality strictures. Mr. Martin showed Gannett News Service his federal medical records.

Mr. Fumento scoffs at the idea that Mr. Martin and other troops at Khamisiyah might have been injured by chemical exposure, when the same Pentagon he always cites for authority sets the number of those who may have been exposed to Iraqi nerve agents at about 21,000.

He also is about two years behind the news curve, quoting outdated and inconclusive federal studies, at least one of which the prime author already has denounced. Even the Pentagon — which for years denied it —
admits that thousands of Gulf War veterans truly are ill. The thrust of research now is not if they are sick, but how they got that way.

Jeffrey Stinson
Managing Editor/News
Gannett News Service
Arlington, Va.

Someone Isn’t Telling the Truth

The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 1997
Letters to the Editor

Jeffrey Stinson, managing editor of Gannett News Service, in his April 7 Letter to the Editor, says that my March 4 editorial-page piece "Gulf War Syndrome and the Press" called his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter John Hanchette "cavalier." No it didn’t. It said he was dishonest.

Yes, Brian Martin was granted a 100% disability rating. Clearly a man who would so much as claim to have glowing vomit every day for 10 straight months has some real problems, even if they’re strictly mental.

Hence, a disability rating makes sense. That hardly means he has all or even most of the symptoms he claims and that Mr. Hanchette relayed as being factual. It also doesn’t get Mr. Hanchette off the hook for refusing to tell his readers about his star witness’s claim of glowing vomit. This even though it was in Mr. Martin’s congressional testimony, about which Mr. Hanchette wrote. Repeatedly in two phone conversations with Mr. Stinson I asked if Mr. Hanchette’s readers had a right to know about this. Now, in his letter, Mr. Stinson again refuses an opportunity to answer.

I also charged that Mr. Hanchette gave special credence to some of Mr. Martin’s non-existent symptoms by saying they were "according to federal medical exams," when I knew from talking to Mr. Martin’s doctors that none of their patients had some of those symptoms. Now Mr. Stinson compounds the fabrication by saying, "Mr. Martin showed Gannett News Service his federal medical records."

If that be the case, Mr. Hanchette knew for an absolute fact that one of the symptoms Mr. Martin mentioned in that congressional testimony and that he relayed to Gannett readers, "burning sperm," was not in there except perhaps as a claim. No Gulf vet has "burning sperm." Yes, some women are allergic to sperm or semen in general and will develop rashes — though not blisters, as some have claimed — but it’s not anybody’s sperm or semen specifically that’s the culprit. Yet Mr. Hanchette and his colleague Norm Brewer built a whole article around this declaring, "Sometimes the semen causes blisters, rashes and itching on exterior skin."

Mr. Stinson says I implied that "other witnesses are faking war-induced cancer symptoms because lymphomas take many years to develop." Wrong.

I said the cancer was real, but couldn’t possibly have been related to Gulf service because the development time was far too short. In one case, the claim was that it developed in days. In the case that Mr. Hanchette wrote about, the vet claimed it developed in a few weeks. Mr. Stinson says, "some lymphomas, especially in those with suppressed immune systems, develop quite rapidly." Yes, but "quite rapidly" means a couple of years, as opposed to 10 years or more. It doesn’t mean weeks or days. Moreover, there’s no evidence that either of these soldiers had depressed immune systems.

Mr. Stinson is right that I scoffed at the idea of troops suffering from chemical exposure. As Gen. Schwarzkopf recently testified, there is no evidence that during the war so much as a single soldier reported symptoms of such exposure.

As I noted in the March Reason article that Mr. Stinson apparently has read, saying the cloud that came up from the destroyed bunker at Khamisiyah that had contained nerve gas weapons could have gone on to "expose" 15,000 or more troops in the ensuing days would be "like pouring a small dose of arsenic into a reservoir serving 15,000 people and claiming they’ve all been `exposed’ to a deadly poison."

Mr. Stinson says I’m "about two years behind the news curve, quoting outdated and inconclusive federal studies." No. All five studies came to conclusions and the conclusions were all the same: that the very term "Gulf War Syndrome" is a misnomer. The last of these came out just in December, the one before that, from the Institute of Medicine [IOM], in October. Interestingly, though Mr. Hanchette wrote a 900-word story about the IOM report, he focused entirely on the minutiae, without giving his readers the least hint about the IOM’s main conclusion.

Mr. Stinson is also wrong in saying the "prime author" of one of those studies "already has denounced" it. The reference is to the head of one of the earliest two panels, Joshua Lederberg, and he did not denounce it. He said that one specific issue, that of low-level chemical weapons, might have to be revised. He did not say he would change his conclusion that Gulf vets were no sicker than anybody else.

Finally, Mr. Stinson writes, "Even the Pentagon — which for years denied it — admits that thousands of Gulf War veterans truly are ill." They never denied it, nor did I. Nor have I ever written that "Gulf War Veterans [Are] Faking Illness," to use the title of Mr. Stinson’s letter. The question is, among the 700,000 vets who served in Desert Storm, are they having any more illness than one would expect in a group that size? The answer from federal panel after panel, study after study, is that with the exception of a few types of stress-related illnesses, no.

Apparently Mr. Stinson believes that winning a Pulitzer means never having to say you’re sorry.

Michael Fumento

CBS Disputes Criticism Of Gulf War Report

The Wall Street Journal, April 1997
Letters to the Editor

Michael Fumento’s March 4 editorial-page commentary "Gulf War Syndrome and the Press," subtitled "Ed Bradley’s 60 Minutes ’was a total farce,’ said Maj. Riggins," may be the shabbiest, shoddiest piece of op-ed reporting to which the Journal ever fell victim.

Right off the bat, Maj. Randy Riggins, the battalion executive officer of the 37th Engineer Battalion, told us that he never said what Mr. Fumento quotes him as saying and told us the Ed Bradley story on Kamisiyah was "a great piece . . . a call to arms to alert the American people to Kamisiyah."

Here’s the truth: Our segment, reported by Ed Bradley, concerned the 37th Engineer Battalion’s detonation of an ammunition depot at Kamisiyah in March 1991. These soldiers blew up a bunker that the Pentagon has admitted contained chemical weapons. They were exposed to the fallout from that explosion. We talked to dozens of Kamisiyah veterans, young men, who appear to have an unusual incidence of illness, and for which many have sought medical treatment.

Mr. Fumento claims we relied on the word of a Sgt. Brian Martin, a man he believes to be unreliable, that only one soldier put on a chemical suit during the explosions at Kamisiyah.

That is false. First of all, Mr. Martin never told us that. But more important, if he had, we would not have reported it, because we know it to be false. As a group, the veterans told us that some put on their suits in a timely fashion; some put them on minutes after the explosion, and two told us that they never put them on at all.

One who did not put on his suit until several minutes after the alarms went off was Spc. Andrew Reibley. If Michael Fumento had watched our segment in its entirety, he would have heard Mr. Reibley’s account. The soldiers of the 37th were spread out over several miles. Spc. Reibley was with a group of men who did not even hear the alarms when they went off. It was not until one of the chemical officers came by this group and warned them that he put on a suit.

We never said that Sgt. Dan Topolski, a chemical officer, was the only soldier to put on a suit. We said, "Sgt. Topolski put on a suit and others did not." Mr. Fumento, in his editorial, inserts the word "only."

He says our report claimed "only the chemical weapons sergeant" . . . "put his suit on right away." He then proceeds to call us liars for a falsehood he created!

Our producer, Liza McGuirk, never hung up on Mr. Fumento, as he claims. Further, she answered a series of questions from him, but he never addressed any of the editorial’s claims about the 60 Minutes piece.

Our report was carefully edited and accurate in every respect. Because this catalog of falsehoods appeared in an op-ed piece, and not in your news columns, does that absolve you of responsibility for it?

Don Hewitt
Executive Producer
60 Minutes
CBS News
New York

60 Minutes on Gulf War: The ’Unedited’ Version

The Wall Street Journal, March 7, 1997
Letters to the Editor

In his Letter to the Editor yesterday regarding my March 4 editorial-page piece "Gulf War Syndrome and the Press," Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes (and the producer of the infamous "60 Minutes" segment that kicked off the Alar hysteria) admits that "we know it to be false" that only one soldier put on his chemical protection suit at Khamisiyah. So why did Ed Bradley (the reporter of the Alar segment) indicate as much?

Mr. Bradley’s exact quote was that the chemical weapons Sgt. Dan "Topalski put his suit on right away. Others did not." Mr. Hewitt’s letter thus misquoted his own reporter.

Far more importantly, he omitted Mr. Bradley’s very next sentence: "He is the only man in this group who is not sick." This strongly implies that only Sgt. Topalski suited up immediately, or perhaps even that many soldiers never suited up at all. Yet everyone who was at Khamisiyah that I talked to said they did suit up as soon as they got the warnings.

All, that is, except for Pfc. Brian Martin, who regularly tells reporters that they didn’t even have access to their suits. 60 Minutes apparently decided to accept Pfc. Martin’s words as gospel despite Mr. Martin’s other "questionable" claims, such as having glowing vomit "every day" for 10 straight months and other medical problems his doctors say they’ve never seen in any vet.

Maj. Randy Riggins was the battalion executive officer. In a phone conversation with me today as I write this, he told me that it was indeed fair to say that Mr. Bradley’s statement that the soldiers did not put on their suits right away was "a total farce." He said that what he told 60 Minutes when they called him after my article appeared was that he didn’t think the entire segment was a farce, that it accurately portrayed the demolition at Khamisiyah. I never claimed otherwise.

Nor did I even simply quote Maj. Riggins out of context; I used his "farce" comment right in the same paragraph in which I talked about putting the suits on.

Mr. Hewitt also doesn’t say that Mr. Bradley even went so far as to offer an explanation as to why soldiers didn’t suit up. "With continued use," said Mr. Bradley, the gear "didn’t last long, and since there had been so many false alarms, they were running out of suits." The next clip showed Sgt. Topalski saying the battalion commander had issued "a directive that people would go into a mask-only posture and seek the cover of a tent or poncho liner, and people were not to use their suits unless specifically told to do so."

Maj. Riggins claims no such directive was ever issued, that Sgt. Topalski is mistaken. But in any case, Mr. Bradley used Sgt. Topalski’s quote wildly out of context. Sgt. Topalski at that point wasn’t talking about Khamisiyah, but rather where the battalion had been encamped previously, in Rhafa, Saudi Arabia. "I had told them [60 Minutes] specifically that we were not told that at Khamisiyah, we were told that at Rhafa," Sgt. Topalski said to me. There was no such directive at Khamisiyah, and Mr. Bradley knew it.

Further, Sgt. Topalski told me, "I never once told Bradley I was healthy. I said I had a lot of problems, but I said they could be attributable to something else" besides the Khamisiyah blast. The other vets I interviewed confirmed he had said this.

It’s true producer Liza McGuirk "never addressed any of the editorial’s claims about the 60 Minutes piece." Why? When I tried to confront her about discrepancies between Mr. Bradley’s claims and those of the very vets he interviewed, she said, "I’m not going to talk to you any further. I’m afraid I have to get off the phone." She then hung up. It bears reiteration that Ed Bradley did not return my calls.

Mr. Hewitt concluded that, "Our report was carefully edited and accurate in every respect." I don’t dispute at all the first part of that sentence.

Michael Fumento