April 11, 1997

Intelligence Incompetence

It was an admission of breathtaking incompetence from the nation's top spy organization. On Wednesday the Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged that it had received information more than a decade ago, some of it quite solid, indicating that chemical weapons were being stored at an Iraqi depot later destroyed by American soldiers who were unaware of the dangers they faced. The tangle of errors and misjudgments that led the agency to ignore or downplay the evidence further erodes the C.I.A.'s reputation for professional expertise -- and raises the troubling question of whether the agency has been trying for some time to keep these miscues hidden from the public.

The saga as laid out by Robert Walpole, the official in charge of the C.I.A.'s investigation of possible chemical exposure to American servicemen during the Persian Gulf war, started in 1984. Intelligence information indicated that a vehicle normally associated with tactical chemical defense was at the storage depot, known as Kamisiyah. However, the vehicle's significance was missed because the analysts reviewing the information were not chemical-weapons specialists. This was a vivid demonstration of the dangers of compartmentalizing information that should have received broader review.

Even stronger evidence emerged in 1986 when analysts obtained a translated copy of an Iraqi production plan that mentioned thousands of mustard-gas weapons stored at the site. A C.I.A. assessment that same year concluded that chemical weapons were indeed being stored there. But shortly thereafter the C.I.A. dropped Kamisiyah from its list of chemical-weapons facilities in Iraq. The reason was that agency analysts had focused so intently on a new generation of "S-shaped bunkers" for storing chemical weapons in Iraq that they erroneously concluded the absence of such bunkers at Kamisiyah meant the absence of chemical weapons there. This blinkered approach, which drove all further analysis within the cloistered C.I.A., was aptly called "tunnel vision" by Mr. Walpole.

In February 1991, in the middle of the gulf war, information provided by someone in the Iranian Air Force or defense industry gave the precise geographic coordinates of a presumed chemical weapons site. The C.I.A. actually alerted American military leaders that chemical weapons might be stored there. The coordinates turn out to be Kamisiyah's. But shortly thereafter, a C.I.A. analyst confused the location with a different depot and the agency told the military it could not identify a chemical facility at the suspect site.

Two weeks later, unaware of the dangers, American troops blew up the depot, possibly exposing thousands of American troops in the vicinity to toxic nerve agents.

Even after the war, the C.I.A., whose energies were then focused on finding any hidden weapons of mass destruction still in Saddam Hussein's arsenal, remained oblivious to possible troop exposures. Iraqi claims that allied troops had destroyed chemical weapons at Kamisiyah were discounted as more lying by Iraqi leaders. A 1992 paper by an intelligence analyst suggesting that American troops might have unwittingly destroyed chemical weapons apparently languished in the files, with no action taken. Only in the past two years, after troops started attributing illnesses to service in the gulf war, did the C.I.A. make a more vigorous effort to ferret out what it knew. Even so, this week's revelations contradict previous agency statements that it had released all relevant data on Kamisiyah and had not realized before the depot was destroyed that chemical weapons were stored there.

The shocking failure to identify Kamisiyah as a chemical-weapons site stems from more than "tunnel vision." In its mea culpa this week, the agency also blamed confusion caused by the use of multiple data bases and multiple names for the depot, a failure to share sensitive information with everyone who needed to know it, and a failure to analyze data going back far enough into the 1980's. With those deep-rooted problems, skeptics might wonder how much reliance to put on agency estimates across the board.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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