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THE RECENT announcement by the Pentagon that some U.S. soldiers in the gulf war may have been exposed to chemical weapons left several observers shaking their heads with disbelief.

In a hastily called June 21 press conference, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon claimed that "new" information about the bombing of an Iraqi bunker prompted the sudden announcement. But a senior government official - and others who've been following the issue for years - claim the Pentagon has known about this for almost five years."The Pentagon has known about it since October of 1991," the senior official told us. "(The Pentagon) wanted to low-key (the announcement). The big questions are going to be: When did (the Pentagon) find out they had (the evidence), and how long did they have it? How come it wasn't put forward for the last five years?"

Defense Department officials have steadfastly denied that exposure to chemical agents could be a cause for the mysterious gulf war syndrome. When vet-er-ans first began complaining of unex-plained symptoms, the Pentagon tried telling them it was all in their heads by blaming it on post-traumatic stress disorder. When that didn't work, the DOD began speculating on other possible causes, including insect bites, bad food supplies, insecticides and oil-fire fumes.

At one point, and without any factual basis except the lessons learned 20 years earlier in Vietnam, officials offered up the "alcohol substitute" theory:

"No inquiry has been made on the extent of substance abuse (e.g. solvent sniffing, etc.) in a population that was abruptly deprived of alcohol," says a 1994 Pentagon report reviewed by our associate Aaron Karp.

A commission investigator discovered an October 1991 U.N. report buried in Pentagon files revealing that chemical weapons were probably present at the Kamisiyah Ammunition Storage Depot, which was destroyed by air strikes in the days shortly following the cease-fire.

The commission threatened to release the information itself in early July if the Pentagon continued to stay silent.

Fearing the information would leak out, the Pentagon decided to pre-empt the media late on a Friday afternoon. "Your call was provocative," Bacon later admitted. "We decided with your call we should go ahead and announce it as soon as possible."

Although Bacon admitted that the Pentagon had a report of the incident as early as 1991, he claimed it was lost in the shuffle. "We had a report, but we have a lot of papers," Bacon said. " . . . I don't know where the report was from '91 to '95."

Yet some lawmakers who've reviewed the transcript don't believe the Pentagon was motivated by anything more than a desire to save face.