A Pentagon report that chastises Air Force and Army medical services for jockeying to take care of the Marines wounded during a 1983 bombing in Beirut was wrongfully classified "secret" last year by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not because it would breach national security, but because it would embarrass the Pentagon and alarm military personnel, members of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee charged yesterday.
During the first of several hearings to discuss military medical care, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) voiced what appeared to be a consensus of criticism from the subcommittee members over the decision to classify the report.
Kennedy said the report did not reveal national security secrets -- a revelation that would have required classification and would have limited its circulation -- but rather uncovered an "appalling" lack of coordination by military medical officers during time of combat.
The report, dated April 1984, reviewed the bombing in which 241 servicemen died. The Pentagon investigators concluded that the U.S. European Command lacked the proper plans in case of combat. In addition, the investigators said, Air Force and Army rivalry lead to inefficient evacuation of the wounded.
Maj. Gen. Francis J. Toner, deputy director for strategic mobility of the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded to repeated challenges from Kennedy about the secret nature of the report by saying: "I can only say it was the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it would do us harm or danger if released."
"Yeah, from who?" Kennedy retorted. "The parents of the young people serving or the Soviet Union? . . . . The document has some of the most embarrassing information about our preparedness that I've seen."
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said the report showed that if the military had to deal with 200 casualties rather than the 100 it did the day of the bombing, the "system might have failed."
"And if 200 people would have overloaded the system then, what would happen" in the event of war? Nunn asked. The casualties were initially flown to West Germany.
The criticism came in the first of what Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), manpower and personnel subcommittee chairman, said would be a series of hearings to discuss "a number of problems" in military medical care. The Senate subcommittee hearing followed a day of testimony yesterday by the House Armed Services investigations subcommitte into the same issue.
Military medical care has come under criticism in the past year as internal audits have pointed to deficiences in planning and staffing at military hospitals around the world. Other incidents, such as the recommended court-martial of Navy surgeon Cmdr. Donal M. Billig -- who has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the deaths of four patients at Bethesda Naval Hospital -- have given impetus to the investigation, Wilson said.