President Clinton's letter gives an investigatory panel 60 days to come up with answers on whether the Army responded properly to a 1991 CIA report saying Gulf War troops had probably been exposed to sarin gas
February 26, 1997
1.21 p.m. (1821 GMT)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Clinton today ordered an investigation into a report that Gulf War Army officers were warned that an Iraqi ammunition dump might contain chemical weapons before U.S. soldiers blew it up.
In a letter sent to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, Clinton gave the panel 60 days to determine:
--Whether there is definitive evidence that chemical weapons existed and U.S. troops were exposed to poison gas.
--What action was taken by the Army to respond to the warning, which came from the CIA.
The letter, which the panel was receiving later today, describes Clinton as alarmed by the possibility that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical weapons, said a senior White House official who described the note to The Associated Press.
In its latest report on the controversy, the Pentagon acknowledged Tuesday that senior Army officers in the Gulf were warned by the CIA that an Iraqi weapons storage site at Kamisiyah might contain chemical weapons. The officers, however, did not alert Army engineers who blew up the site.
The report drew fire from Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., both of whom have been critical of the Pentagon's handling of unexplained illnesses among Gulf War veterans.
"You don't just have the issue of these troops being subjected to dangerous chemicals, but also having them subjected to these dangerous chemicals at a time when the Department of Defense knew better, and didn't tell the units going in to destroy them," said Specter, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Rockefeller, was joined Specter at a news conference, urged Defense Secretary William Cohen to "personally take charge of this investigation."
"These revelations also again suggest that it is way past time for heads to roll at the Department of Defense," Rockefeller said in a statement.
The report, released Tuesday at the Pentagon, draws from material contained in a still-classified document, according to the Pentagon's senior investigator into Gulf War matters, Bernard Rostker. He has asked the CIA to declassify the memo, but the request has been denied because it would disclose "sources and methods" on how the information was obtained, Rostker said at a Pentagon briefing.
Rostker called the briefing to release his latest report into the March 1991 destruction of Kamisiyah by members of the 37th Engineering Battalion. Last June, the Pentagon announced that it had only recently learned that U.S. troops may have been exposed to chemical weapons during the destruction of the site.
However, the new report makes clear that information existed even before the war was concluded on Feb. 28, 1991, that the Army suspected chemical weapons were at Kamisiyah.
"We now know positively that the CIA informed CENTCOM (the Central Command) on Feb. 23, 1991, that there were chemicals at Kamisiyah," Rockefeller said. "The CIA has known since 1991 and totally failed to publicly come forward until late last year; the CIA is every bit as implicated as the DOD."
"It is my judgment a cover up of major proportions, and will lead to very serious consequential actions," Rockefeller added.
Rostker said he does not believe that any cover-up occurred, saying only that his report highlights "missed opportunities" to pass on information or to investigate what happened in the years after the war.
"There's no question that there were leads that were not followed," he said. He argued "people (were) trying to do their job as best they could."
The report does not clarify whether or not troops actually were exposed to sarin nerve gas, Rostker said, nor does it answer all questions about what happened, let alone why so many veterans are sick.
"It still remains in many ways an enigma," Rostker said. "There are parts of the story that still don't make sense."
Rostker's report notes that at the opening of the Gulf War, the U.S. Central Command did not classify Kamisiyah as a chemical weapons storage site. "However, by late February 1991, the XVIII (ABN) G-3 (operations officer) indicated that Kamisiyah was suspected of being a chemical weapons storage site," the report states.
The first troops to reach Kamisiyah were members of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, and they received information about "possible chemicals" at Kamisiyah on Feb. 26. The 24th moved on to cut off Republican Guard troops retreating to Basra, and members of the 82nd Airborne moved in.
"There is no evidence to date that the 82nd Div (ABN) received the warning from the XVIII Corps (ABN) of possible chemicals, " the report stated. The 37th Engineers were members of the 82nd, and they participated in the destruction of the weapons cache.
Only last year did Pentagon officials acknowledge that more than 20,000 troops may have been exposed to sarin, a highly toxic nerve gas. Rostker told reporters that number "has to be viewed as a minimal number."
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