THE GENERAL Accounting Office has issued a disturbing report about the Veterans Administration's handling of the Agent Orange question. The auditors say the VA failed to provide adequate information to veterans about possible side effects of the herbicide and to monitor Agent Orange claims adequately. The VA responds that the GAO's data are outdated and that its own procedures have been greatly improved in the last year. But even if all the problems highlighted in the GAO report were to disappear overnight, a basic and complicated question would remain: what do we really know about the long-range harm attributable to Agent Orange?

Three million Americans served in Vietnam. More than 90,000 of them have claimed some kind of injury -- ranging from dizziness and nausea to cancer and birth defects in children -- from contact there with Agent Orange. These veterans are asking for three things: health care, information about risk to themselves and their families, and disability payments for any harm they have suffered.

Health care is the easiest to provide. Congress has already directed the VA to give priority to Vietnam veterans who suffer from any ailment that might have been caused by the herbicide. For practical purposes, this means that any of the suspect illnesses in these vets, not demonstrably caused by something else, will be treated on a priority basis at VA hospitals and outpatient clinics. The presumption is in favor of the veteran, as it should be.

Accurate information about the chemical and its proven risk is more difficult to provide. Here arises the question of long-range disability compensation. Agent Orange has been linked to a severe skin disease called chloracne, and veterans suffering from it are receiving compensation. But in a whole range of other afflictions -- from cancer to birth defects -- the connection has not yet been proved. Congress has ordered the VA to conduct an epidemiological study -- matching a group of Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange with a group of them who were not -- to determine if scientific evidence can establish a connection, or even if there is a significantly higher incidence of certain illness among the Agent Orange group. Many in Congress believe that the work could be done better and faster by the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, and the VA has recently asked Health and Human Services Secretary Schweiker to allow the center to take over the project.

It is important to keep in mind that every single one of these claimants served in a combat zone in the most unpopular war in American history. To each of them is owed a special obligation. If there is no connection between certain diseases and Agent Orange, these veterans want to know it. If they are not at greater risk of cancer or deformed children than the rest of us, they will be relieved. But if the epidemiological study shows a link, there can be no question of the national obligation to pay the costs. Responsibility for that study is being shifted, correctly, to CDC. It is time to get on with it.