"I have discussed these issues with the secretary and have directed the staff to implement a few actions regarding the committee," said Jose Riojas, Shinseki's interim chief of staff, in a May 16 letter to James Binns, the group's director. "In summary, I have directed that one-half of the members remain and one-half be replaced in accordance with VA policy," Riojas wrote.
Binns, Riojas wrote, is invited to remain as chairman of the board for one more year to "assist the transition process."
Rather than having an independent staff, the board's staff may now be provided by regular VA personnel. Before, the board oversaw those people.
Shinseki's directive is a retaliation for a 2012 no-confidence vote from the board to the VA and a March House hearing in which a whistle-blower testified that the VA intentionally misled the public about research that would lead to costly benefits for veterans, said Paul Sullivan, a former VA official who now works as a veterans' advocate.
Sullivan also wrote the legislation that created the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
"They are retaliating by firing the chair, removing half the members, and reducing the scope of the committee," Sullivan said. "Without a doubt, it is a complete gutting of the board."
The VA issued a statement, but did not address the committee's concerns:
"VA recognizes and respects the service and dedication of veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War and remains committed to working with the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses to improve their health and well-being," it reads.
Josh Taylor, a VA spokesman, said the changes in the committee's charter were decided last fall, long before the March hearing.
The committee's new charter removes this language: "The committee shall assess the overall effectiveness of government research to answer central questions on the nature, causes, and treatments for health consequences of military service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the 1990-91 Gulf War."
"With these sweeping changes, VA is undoing 15 years of progress and trying to reset the clock on our 1998 landmark legislation," said Anthony Hardie, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and member of the committee.
The committees's work led to a 450-page 2008 report that showed Gulf War illness is a physical condition, rather than one caused by stress or psychiatric illnesses. The report also showed that the symptoms are related to toxins, such as sarin, anti-nerve-agent pills and insect repellents, that the troops were exposed to during the war.
A 2012 report by the group also said that VA staff was working to reverse those findings. For example, a survey VA sent out to Gulf War veterans focused on psychiatric issues, rather than physical exposures.
"It has been accepted science since 2004 that Gulf War Illness is not a psychiatric problem, when Secretary (Anthony) Principi on the recommendation of the RAC forbade further research based on the premise that it was caused by stress," Binns wrote in a letter to Riojas. "It is extremely alarming to see hard-line staff seeking to undermine this knowledge."
In its statement, the VA said it disagrees with that idea.
"VA is clear in its commitment to treating these health issues and does not endorse the notion some have put forward that these physical health symptoms experienced by Gulf War veterans are a result of PTSD or other mental health issues from military service," it reads. "We know that much work remains and are committed to continuing to improve the provision of disability benefits, health care benefits, and other benefits and services to these veterans.
In March, committee members testified during a hearing with Steven Coughlin, a former VA epidemiologist, before a House committee where Coughlin said VA officials purposely hide or manipulate data to avoid paying costly benefits claims to Gulf War veterans.
"In the spirit of candor and directness, I find your assertions to be unwarranted with regard to the department's handling of the Coughlin allegations and the hiring strategy for the chief research and development officer," Riojas wrote Binns.
The committee's role, Riojas wrote Binns, should not be as "watchdog for all Gulf War-related work at VA. VA has robust oversight and investigation capability to address alleged wrongdoing."
In response, Binns wrote, "Congress . . . created the (committee) precisely to provide this kind of independent advice, because of the demonstrated inability of VA and DoD (Department of Defense) staff to face this problem honestly and conduct an effective research program to solve it."
The 1997 congressional report that led to the creation of the board found that "efforts on Gulf War issues" by the VA, the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Food and Drug Administration were "irreparably flawed." The report also stated, "We find current approaches to research, diagnosis and treatment unlikely to yield answers to veterans' life-of-death questions in the foreseeable, or even far distant, future."
Binns said the staff members behind the recent reversals "are some of the same people that Congress was concerned about in 1997."