By Clark Brooks, Greenville Online

The National Academy of Sciences and the General Accounting Office have in the past questioned whether the U.S. Air Force was impartial enough to examine the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans.

Congress funded the Ranch Hand study to help settle compensation claims filed by veterans who said they were harmed by exposure to Agent Orange.

But a National Academy of Sciences report in 1980 said the study should not be done by the Air Force, which sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides in Operation Ranch Hand.

The Air Force commitment to do the study was contrary to Pentagon policy at the time, according to an Institute of Medicine report on the Ranch Hand study published earlier this year.

AdvertisementThat policy can be characterized by Maj. Gen. Garth Dettinger’s 1978 testimony before a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee, the report said. Dettinger, then Air Force deputy surgeon general, said there was “no evidence of any lasting health damage to anyone” involved in defoliant operations.

The NAS panel in 1980 concluded the Air Force might be “lacking in impartiality.”

But the Air Force did conduct the study after its scientists included in the study design a clause that said Air Force management would not interfere. But management tried, the U.S. General Accounting Office said in a December 1999 report.

“According to documents we reviewed dating from 1984 and 1985, Air Force management and the White House at the time tried to direct certain aspects of the Air Force scientists’ research,” said the report by the GAO, now the Government Accountability Office.

The Air Force downplayed the health effects of Agent Orange, the GAO report said, and put too much emphasis on negative results without pointing out the study was too small to detect rare illnesses.

“In spite of the study’s sensitive and controversial nature, early study reports contained language that may have been misinterpreted to mean that the study showed herbicides were safe,” the GAO report said.

For example, Ranch Hand reports published in 1984 and 1987 described the overall study conclusions as “reassuring,” and the Air Force deputy surgeon general said at a 1984 press conference the results showed “nothing that would keep us from using herbicides such as Agent Orange again.”