WASHINGTON -- An internal Pentagon investigation has determined that the CIA provided the Army with detailed warnings more than five years ago that American troops might have been exposed to nerve gas in the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot shortly after the Persian Gulf war.
But because of errors by the Army, the information was not confirmed at the time. It was only last year that the Pentagon acknowledged publicly that U.S. soldiers had blown up the depot in March 1991, and that more than 20,000 troops may have been exposed to a cloud of nerve gas and other chemical weapons as a result.
Two newly declassified CIA reports undermine the Pentagon's repeated assertion that the possibility of chemical exposure of American troops at the depot was brought to the military's attention only last year, and that there had been no delay in following up on the information.
In fact, the documents show that the agency informed the Army in November 1991 that U.N. investigators had visited the ruins of the Kamisiyah ammunition depot in southern Iraq the month before and found damaged rockets filled with sarin, a nerve gas.
The CIA told the Army that the investigators had found direct evidence that American soldiers might have carried out the demolition: the U.N. uncovered an empty American-issue crate with markings suggesting that it had held American military demolition charges used to destroy the depot.
According to one of the November 1991 reports, the Army was warned of "the risk of chemical contamination" of American troops as a result of the demolition. But the Army failed to conduct a thorough investigation, and the information was put aside for more than four years.
The reports offer no new clues to the mystery of whether chemical weapons might be responsible for the health problems reported by thousands of gulf war veterans; many veterans suspect so, but the scientific evidence on the issue is conflicting.
The documents do, however, raise new suspicions about the credibility of the Pentagon and the CIA on the issue.
As part of a renewed investigation of possible chemical exposure during the gulf war, the CIA provided copies of the reports to the Pentagon last March, and the documents remained hidden in files of the two agencies last year even as officials vowed that all information on the incident at Kamisiyah had been made public.
A Pentagon spokesman said last week it was unclear why the documents had not been made public last year, in the midst of investigations by congressional committees and a White House panel.
The sudden appearance of the documents, which were made public this month on a Defense Department site on the Internet, has alarmed members of the White House committee on gulf war illnesses, who say that the documents were not shared with them before they issued their final report to President Clinton last month.
The documents reported on the findings of U.N. weapons inspectors who visited the sprawling depot, which was also known as Tall al Lahm, in October 1991.
"The inspectors found Tall al Lahm littered with damaged and destroyed sarin-filled 122-millimeter rockets," one report said. "The inspectors also noted that the buildings were destroyed by demolitions as opposed to aerial bombardment. They also found an empty U.S. crate labeled as M-48, which are shape charges used by the U.S. military."
The report, dated Nov. 12, 1991, said that the CIA had passed the information onto the Army Central Command, which is known as Arcent, and that the central command determined that troops assigned to the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division had been in the area of the demolition.
"We received information from Arcent to the fact that 24th Mechanized Infantry Division was located in the vicinity, but we are unable to confirm if U.S. troops did in fact destroy buildings at this particular site," the report continued. It urged that "appropriate action" be taken "as the risk of chemical contamination by the 24th I.D. personnel is a possibility."
The reports suggested that when the 24th Infantry reported that it had not destroyed the depot, the Army let the matter rest.
Had the Army pursued the issue, however, it would have discovered that soldiers from another division, the 82nd Airborne, had also been in the vicinity of the blast, and that combat engineers assigned to the 82nd had carried out the demolition. Many of those combat engineers, members of the 37th Engineer Battalion, have since reported serious health problems.
Bernard Rostker, an assistant secretary of the Navy who was assigned last November to head the Pentagon's investigation of gulf war illnesses, said in an interview that the documents were first brought to his attention earlier this month as Pentagon investigators working for his office were preparing a chronology of the events at Kamisiyah; the chronology is expected to be made public this week.
"I got a phone call which said that the team that was preparing the narrative had come across these two messages, and they thought it was significant," he said. "I immediately knew they were significant."
Rostker said that he immediately called the executive director of the CIA, Nora Slatkin, and asked that the two documents be declassified, "and she agreed to it immediately." He said that he ordered that they be made public on the Internet site, known as Gulflink. The existence of the documents was first reported by CBS News.
Asked why the documents were not made public last year, when Pentagon and CIA officials were insisting that they had made public all relevant information about the incident at Kamisiyah, Rostker said that he had no answer.
The White House panel, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, said that it was trying to determine why the reports were not shared with the panel last year, when it was preparing its final report for the president.
Though the panel found that chemical weapons were probably not responsible for the ailments of gulf war veterans, it called for more research, and it criticized the Pentagon for a "superficial" investigation of chemical exposures.
"It's an important question why these two pieces of information weren't put in front of us," said Robyn Nishimi, the committee's executive director. "These are the types of documents that should have been brought specifically to our attention."
She said that the reports would not have affected the conclusions of the panel, which found "overwhelming" evidence that American troops had been exposed to chemical weapons at Kamisiyah. "But I can certainly understand how the content of these documents, and the way these documents were found, fuels speculation about a cover-up."
A CIA spokesman, Rick Oborn, said the agency provided the White House panel with detailed information from the report of Nov. 12, 1991, although perhaps not the document itself, during a briefing last spring.
"We have provided the committee and are continuing to provide them with all available information, and this particular bit of information was briefed to them on May 28," he said. "We're not trying to pick a fight with them at all."
In accepting the final report of the White House panel last
month, Clinton asked the committee to remain in business for
several more months to provide oversight to the government's
investigation of gulf war illnesses.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company