In the years following the Gulf War, several organizations and individuals filed FOIA requests to find answers about chronic health problems facing Gulf War veterans. The evidence they found eventually forced the government to admit that servicemen had been exposed to chemical weapons while serving in the Gulf.
The requesters left evidence on the FOIA logs generated by the agencies they contacted. The following log pages and and entries are from the 1995 FOIA log of the Secretary of the Army(pdf file/588kb, opening in new window). (The full log, about 150 pages in length, was obtained by Michael J. Ravnitzky, an attorney and FOIA researcher, on May 8, 1996. He later donated the log to the FOI Center.)
The only method available to search these paper pages was to go through them manually, but these entries were not difficult to find. Some of the entries might have been legible after OCR scanning. But the process would have been more time-consuming than just looking through the pages.
The easiest way to search the logs would have been if the document originally were in an electronic format. With more agencies using databases and spreadsheets to compile their FoI logs, searching for patterns has become remarkably easy. If the electronic database for the following log had existed, the entries below could have been found in minutes. One of the more notable finds in this log would have been the multiple requests from Patrick G. Eddingtion, whose research later became front-page news.
You may wish to have the pdf file available (pdf file/588kb, opening in new window) when reading the following.
Bottom of page 1 -- On April 13, 1995, the Gulf War Veterans of Massachusetts requests logs from the 4th Battalion (Bn), 64th Armored (AR) and the 124th Military Intelligence (MI) Battalion, both units that served in the Persian Gulf War. The dates, Aug. 2, 1990, to May 1, 1991, bracket the time that these units were active in the Gulf.
Top of page 2 -- On May 16, 1995, the Gulf War Veterans of Georgia requests Nuclear and Biological logs and Operations officer's logs for the period covering the outbreak of the Gulf War to a few months after its conclusion. Because the entry is at the heading of the log page, the dates of response by the Army are clearly shown.
Bottom of page 3 -- On July 25, Patrick Eddington makes the first of several requests for logs (Follow the link for further details about Eddington). Eddington's first request is for logs from command and staff operations and NBC staff during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. NBC is the military acronym for "Nuclear, Biological and Chemical."
Bottom of page 4 -- A request about statements from John Deutsch, then the deputy secretary of defense, later the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Further research would have revealed that Deutsch staunchly refuted any claims that U.S. servicemen were exposed to chemical weapons during Desert Storm. The identity of Paul Sullivan is also significant. As early as 1993, news articles cited Sullivan as a spokesman for servicemen who said they suffered from Gulf War Syndrome. Sullivan also was the spokesman for the Gulf War Veterans of Georgia, which had requested documents about nuclear and biological logs in 1995 and 1994.
Middle of page 6 -- Eddington makes requests for logs about individual units during the time of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Notice the reference to NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) units.
Bottom of page 7 -- The final entry in this log about the Persian Gulf War/Desert Storm. This is another request from Eddington, whose identity was generally unknown until October 1996, when the former CIA analyst went public with his charges that servicemen were exposed to chemical weapons during Desert Storm. However, Eddington did leave a footprint by writing letters to newspapers, including The Washington Times. On Dec. 7, 1994, almost two years before Eddington went public, the Times published a letter in which Eddington claimed the U.S. military had been "criminally negligent and obstructionist where the issue of ongoing medical problems of gulf war veterans is concerned." Eddington did not identify himself as a CIA employee, but did give his address as "Fairfax, Va."
These entries -- particularly those from Eddington -- reveal an obvious pattern. Groups are looking for the day-by-day actions of military units that participated in the Persian Gulf War, particularly those units that would have detected chemical weapons.
One could have filed FOIA requests for the same information. But getting the information, assuming the FoI requests were readily granted, still would have meant sifting through mountains of paper and electronic databases created by the U.S. military. And, unless you were a military or intelligence expert, you might have missed the smoking guns that these requesters found.
Instead, a journalist could have contacted the requesters to ask: (1) What are you looking for? (2) What have you found? and (3) Are you willing to share your documentation? It is clear that Eddington, Sullivan and the veterans groups were eager to release information to publicize the events in the Gulf.
What these veterans and the former CIA intelligence expert did find became one of the most stunning news stories of 1996. The key revelation was that U.S. artillery blew up an Iraqui chemical munitions depot near Kamisiyah, sending a dense cloud of smoke over southern Iraq. After four years of denial, the Pentagon finally admitted that as many as 5,000 servicemen may have been exposed to the plume of smoke -- which was alarming, because the military also admitted that the depot had stored sarin nerve gas and other chemical agents.
Although the causes of Gulf War Syndrome are still in dispute, it is clear that these FoI requests were a key element in the dedicated research that broke down government denials. If you had "FOIAed the FOIAs," you could have followed the trail of these military detectives.