The Pentagon disclosed yesterday that the CIA had warned the Army of the possible presence of chemical weapons at an ammunition depot in southern Iraq in 1991 days before U.S. troops blew up the arsenal and were possibly exposed to poison gas.
The Army's 18th Airborne Corps received the information from the CIA on Feb. 26 as U.S. troops were headed to the area to seize it from Iraqi forces. The corps passed the news to two of its three divisions, but not to the one that demolished the bunkers at Khamisiyah on March 4 and 10.
The revelation that the CIA warned then that there might be chemical weapons at Khamisiyah contradicts the steadfast position of the Defense Department and CIA since questions were first raised by veterans groups in 1993 about possible poison gas exposure during the Persian Gulf War. Until now, the Pentagon and CIA said they learned of the presence of chemical arms there first in an inconclusive report from U.N. inspectors in November 1991 and then conclusively after a United Nations inspection of the site last year.
Bernard Rostker, head of the Pentagon's investigation of its own handling of the matter, had no explanation for why it was only now that the CIA information, contained in a Pentagon report released yesterday, was being made public.
In an interview, Rostker said that when a draft of the report issued yesterday was circulated last week at the CIA, "the CIA said we think we have some further information" related to Khamisiyah. He declined to say what the information was except to say it was held "at some level of security."
Rostker said the Pentagon had "raised the same question" about why the CIA had not earlier shared the information about what it had told the Army about Khamisiyah. "I'm satisfied we're up against the firewall and you'll have to deal with the CIA."
CIA spokeswoman Carolyn Osborn said yesterday that the agency had identified Khamisiyah "early on" as "one of several suspected sites" but had "no definitive proof" when it alerted the Army in February 1991.
Although the troops that eventually destroyed the chemical munitions did not receive a forewarning, previous Washington Post interviews with the company commanders in charge of the operation indicate they took the necessary precautions anyway against possible chemical exposure.
The report released yesterday indicates that on Feb. 26 the 18th Airborne Corps passed information from the CIA of "possible chemicals on Objective Gold"—the codename for the Khamisiyah site—to the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division, both of whom were sweeping into the area. Within a week they had secured the area and left. In came the 82nd Airborne Division, which had been given the mission to destroy armaments in the area.
The Pentagon has said an estimated 20,000 troops may have been exposed to poison gas released when troops from the 307th and 37th engineer battalions, part of the 82nd, destroyed hundreds of bunkers in a huge ammunition depot. Only one, bunker 73, contained nerve gas rockets. On March 10, a noncommissioned officer from the Headquarters & Headquarters Company also destroyed stacks of nerve gas-filled rockets in a nearby pit.
Although the Pentagon began informing troops in the summer of possible exposure, there is no medical data indicating that veterans suffering from a set of symptoms dubbed "Gulf War syndrome" became ill from chemical agents in Iraq. But the Pentagon's handling of the Khamisiyah information has seriously damaged its credibility.
Pentagon and CIA officials have pointed out that on the days of the Khamisiyah explosions no soldier reported becoming sick and that there is still no firm evidence—unequivocal chemical alarms for example—of a chemical release on those dates. One reason many Army officials dismissed the possibility of exposure during or just after the war is that no soldiers reported being sick then or had symptoms that could be traced to chemical exposure.
Yesterday's revelations drew a flurry of condemnations from veterans groups and their advocates on Capitol Hill. "The DOD and CIA withheld this information from the U.S. Congress . . . and are now citing national security," said James Tuite III, a independent investigator on the issue. "There is nothing more vital to national security than the lives and health of U.S. citizens."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company