The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report focusing on the actions needed to improve the accuracy and communication of information regarding testing and storage locations of Agent Orange outside of Vietnam.
Why Did the GAO Compile This Report on Agent Orange?
The House report accompanying a bill for Fiscal Year 2018 included a provision that GAO review the government’s handling of Agent Orange on Guam. To gather information, GAO reviewed agency policies, documents, and available archival records; interviewed Department of Defense (DoD), VA, and other agency officials; and met with a non-generalizable sample of 38 veterans and a veterans service organization (VSO). In doing so, GAO uncovered that the DoD’s official list of herbicide testing and storage locations outside of Vietnam that is posted on the VA website is inaccurate and incomplete. This report examines (1) information the federal government has about the procurement, distribution, use, and disposition of Agent Orange; (2) DoD and VA efforts to make information about where Agent Orange and its components were tested and stored available; and (3) challenges associated with Agent Orange testing.
What did the GAO Report Find?
Generally speaking, GAO found that DoD’s official list of herbicide testing and storage locations outside of Vietnam lacks clarity in descriptive information; omits both testing and storage locations; and omits additional time periods covered by testing events. GAO also recognizes that this list has not been updated in over a decade, despite a significant amount of evidence and research collected regarding its shortcomings.
Information on the Procurement, Use, and Destruction of Agent Orange
The federal government has some information on the procurement, use, and destruction of Agent Orange. Additionally, available documentation indicates that at least one vessel carrying Agent Orange passed through Guam on its route to Vietnam, but such information is incomplete. Specifically, GAO analyzed the available logbooks for 152 of the 158 shipments (approximately 96 percent) of Agent Orange to Southeast Asia and found that the vessels carrying herbicides generally made stops at both foreign and U.S. ports. However, there is no evidence to show whether any cargo was offloaded. Therefore, while the documentation establishes that at least one ship carrying Agent Orange stopped in Guam, it does not identify that it was used there. Importantly, DoD has decided to move forward with testing for the acid form of the components of Agent Orange in Guam. It is expected to complete updates for the sampling and analysis plan, field sampling, analysis, and reporting in early 2019.
Veterans Have Expressed Confusion About How to Obtain Information on Potential Exposure
While DoD and VA each have methods for communicating information to veterans and the public about Agent Orange, they do not have a formal process for communicating the most accurate available information to veterans about potential locations where they could have been exposed to Agent Orange. The list is intended to do so, but it is both inaccurate and incomplete, and DoD does not have a process for managing it. Yet since it is published multiple places on the VA website, veterans take this list to be complete and factual. As a result, veterans may not have complete information about their risk of exposure to Agent Orange during service. Additionally, VA’s Claims Adjudication Procedures Manual section regarding Agent Orange exposure directs VA adjudicators to review the DoD list to determine whether herbicides were used and whether to concede exposure. Thus, VA may not have accurate information when making decisions on veterans’ claims related to herbicide exposure.
The GAO report concluded that the list was not as up to date as the available records would allow because DoD and VA lack clearly identified responsibilities for validating this information and criteria have not been developed and used to determine which locations and dates to include on the list. However, in May of 2018, DoD and VA reportedly formed a joint Herbicide Orange Working Group to address the issues with the DoD list and identify criteria for including information on the list. More recently in July of 2018, a DoD official noted that the group was working to identify the appropriate steps to take, but could not yet report any specific actions that were being implemented or provide any documentation on the group’s efforts.
Challenges Associated with Agent Orange Testing
The GAO report acknowledges that testing to determine whether Agent Orange was present in a certain location is challenging because the components of the herbicide degrade over time and can come from multiple sources. Again, the limitations of the available documentation make it difficult to identify which specific herbicides or components were tested, as well as when and where. More so, the lack of information makes it challenging to distinguish between small-scale and large-scale testing.
At the conclusion of its report, GAO makes six recommendations: four to the Secretary of Defense and two to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Recommendations for DoD
- Assign responsibility for ensuring that the list of Agent Orange testing and storage locations is as complete and accurate as available records allow
- Develop a process for updating the revised list as new information becomes available
- In collaboration with VA, develop clear and transparent criteria for what constitutes a location that should be included on the list
- In collaboration with VA, develop a formal process on how to best communicate information to veterans and the public regarding where Agent Orange was known to have been present outside of Vietnam
Recommendations for VA
- In collaboration with DoD, develop clear and transparent criteria for what constitutes a location that should be included on the list
- In collaboration with DoD, develop a formal process on how to best communicate information to veterans and the public regarding where Agent Orange was known to have been present outside of Vietnam
In response, DoD agreed with all four of GAO’s recommendations for it while it was unclear as to which recommendations VA agreed with.