THE LATEST admissions relating to U.S. troops' exposure to chemical weapons in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 have taken us to an entirely new place. It now is clear that, with intelligence available to the government since at least 1986, the exposure could and should have been avoided. It is clear that the CIA as well as the Defense Department has been complicit in a stonewall, if not a coverup. And it is clear that it is no longer good enough for administration officials to say -- as acting CIA Director George J. Tenet did this week -- that their performance "should have been better" and expect that to wipe the slate clean.
Thousands of gulf war veterans believe that their service in the Persian Gulf region made them sick, with symptoms ranging from debilitating fatigue to joint pain to skin rashes and more. Many suspect that these unexplained ailments may result from exposure to nerve gas, which was known to be in the Iraqi inventory.
For five years, Pentagon officials at every level insisted that no such exposure could have taken place. Then, last June, they acknowledged that U.S. troops, destroying Iraqi munitions after the war had ended, unwittingly blew up weapons containing sarin nerve gas at a depot known as Khamisiyah. As many as 400 troops may have been exposed, the Defense Department said at first; then it said, no, maybe it was 1,100 -- or 5,000, or 20,000 or more.
Now the CIA has joined in the crow-eating. CIA officials had agreed that no nerve-gas exposure could have taken place; when news of Khamisiyah leaked out, they insisted that they had no knowledge that chemical weapons were stored there. It turns out they had credible and specific knowledge. Some of it was never passed on, some was relayed without sufficient emphasis. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who has worked hard to pierce the administration stonewall, is correct when he says that U.S. troops were badly served by both the CIA, "which produced sloppy, unreliable and sometimes contradictory intelligence," and the Defense Department, "which even when confronted with intelligence reports warning of chemical weapons did nothing about it."
The latest revelations raise disturbing questions. Why did CIA information not reach the troops before they blew up the Khamisiyah depot? Why, during the past six years of veterans' and congressional inquiries, did the CIA fail to uncover this rich lode of documentary evidence? And how, given this dismal record, can veterans be sure that Khamisiyah is a unique case?
Yes, the CIA "should have done better." But that's not enough. Specific people committed errors and communicated untruths -- what the CIA, in its latest report, calls "imprecise" information -- and specific people should be held accountable. Further inquiry may well show, in the end, that the nerve gas released at Khamisiyah did not cause any illnesses, and that the "gulf war syndrome" is in fact a host of disparate ailments caused by stress and other factors. But the government will have a hard time now persuading any veteran to accept its word on that.
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