February 26, 1997 New York Newsday
By Patrick J. Sloyan. WASHINGTON BUREAU
Washington - The Central Intelligence Agency told the White House that U.S. troops had destroyed munitions containing nerve gas in Iraq five months before the Clinton administration made the information public to ailing veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, according to new Pentagon records made public yesterday.
A newly released CIA document and an interim Pentagon report on U.S. Army operations at an Iraqi ammunition complex at Khamisiyah in southern Iraq also showed that senior Army and Pentagon officials knew details that were withheld from the public and Congress.
Until now administration officials have insisted that the possible exposure of U.S. troops to clouds of nerve gas at Khamisiyah did not become clear until a CIA breakthrough in March, 1996. Three months later, the Pentagon formally disclosed that at least 20,800 Americans in frontline combat units may have been exposed to low levels of the poison after U.S. Army engineers destroyed an estimated 2,160 rockets filled with sarin nerve agent.
But yesterday's report by assistant defense secretary Bernard Rostker presented a different picture.
"On 26 January, 1996, the CIA briefed the National Security Council (NSC) staff that U.S. troops probably blew up chemical weapons at Khamisiyah," the interim Pentagon report said.
Administration officials say the CIA briefed Sandy Berger and his deputy, Robert Bell, on new classified information compiled by military and intelligence investigators. At the time, Berger was deputy national security adviser to President Bill Clinton. Berger has since succeeded Anthony Lake to the top National Security Council post. But it was unclear if Berger and Bell had briefed Clinton. The issue was a potentially controversial one for Clinton, who was embarking on his re-election campaign.
White House officials had no immediate comment on the new Pentagon report, but officials for Persian Gulf veterans groups were quick to criticize Clinton. "These revelations are very disturbing," said Paul Sullivan, spokesman for a coalition of two dozen grass-roots gulf veterans groups in the United States and Britain. "In delaying this information, the White House also delayed research and treatment for veterans who are ill. The administration had a legal and moral obligation to make this information public, particularly in light of the large number of gulf vets who are sick."
The Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department estimate that 78,000 men and women who served in the gulf share a variety of ailments known as the Gulf War syndrome. Many veterans suspect that chemical munitions destroyed on the battlefield contributed to their illnesses.
The briefing for the White House staff was revealed in a chronology prepared for Rostker by CIA executive director Nora Slatkin. On Sept. 6, 1995, the CIA identified Khamisiyah as one of three sites where chemical munition releases could have occurred, the Slatkin report said. "Khamisiyah raised special concern because its southerly location put it closest to U.S. troops," the CIA official said. On Sept. 13, the CIA asked the Defense Department to find U.S. troops who had been near the 25-square-mile ammunition site.
"DOD searched its unit locator and indicated that some units were in the area," the report said. "Concerns began to grow."
In December, 1995, CIA analysts held another meeting on Khamisiyah. A month later, the report said, the CIA briefed Clinton's National Security Council staff.