In February, a day after press reports raised questions regarding the CIA's handling of information about Iraqi chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf War, the spy agency issued a terse reaction seeking to correct the record and defend its behavior.
On Wednesday, six weeks later, it had to correct the record again, and it apologized to Gulf War veterans who may have been exposed to poison gas as a result of the agency's failings.
The backtracking over what the CIA knew was the result in part of what government sources described as a tug of war within the agency over materials regarding the CIA's intelligence about the presence of chemical weapons at an Iraqi ammunition depot at Khamisiyah.
While a full picture is not yet available, a knowledgeable official said acting CIA Director George J. Tenet and CIA executive director Nora Slatkin felt "sandbagged" when they were told in recent months that -- contrary to earlier agency statements -- documents existed showing the CIA had information about chemical weapons at Khamisiyah before their destruction by the U.S. Army in March 1991.
The internal confusion was first evident on Feb. 26, when the CIA released a brief statement responding to news reports that a classified CIA cable showed the agency had information there were chemical weapons at Khamisiyah two weeks before the American forces blew up the depot.
The reports were damaging to the agency for two reasons. First, they contradicted the CIA's long-standing assertions about how early it knew about the poison gas. Also, had the CIA told the Pentagon more forcefully what it knew, then the troops might have known beforehand about the chemical weapons' presence.
The CIA responded by issuing a "fact sheet" beginning, "Recent press reports suggesting that CIA provided [the Defense Department] with intelligence identifying [the depot] Khamisiyah in February 1991 as a suspect [chemical weapons] storage area are inaccurate."
CIA officials said the Pentagon official who had brought the cable to the public's attention had distorted what it said by suggesting the cable had pinpointed Khamisiyah rather than merely identifying a broad area around the depot.
On Wednesday, however, the CIA acknowledged that the cable did show that Khamisiyah had been identified, by unmistakable geographic coordinates.
Robert D. Walpole, head of the CIA's new 50-person task force empowered to unearth information buried at the CIA despite nearly a year of high-profile digging by the Pentagon and a presidential commission, on Wednesday identified the problem in part as a lack of cooperation within the agency.
"We have to have better sharing of sensitive and yet vital information," Walpole said at another point. "I'm talking about sharing internally as well as sharing externally."
The inability of top CIA officials to collect and declassify all the relevant documents pertaining to the possible exposure of U.S. troops to chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf War so frustrated Tenet that he set up the task force on Feb. 27 to thoroughly review the CIA documents and to make sure the same mistakes did not recur.
"More had to be done," CIA spokesman Michael Mansfield said. "It became clear to Mr. Tenet that this issue needed more resources."
Top CIA officials were concerned that their requests to declassify information were being rejected by CIA staff responsible for declassification.
"The leadership [of the CIA] was concerned about where this cable came from and what else was out there," said a government source who asked not to be named because the issue is so sensitive.
There is no evidence that any troops were exposed to poison gas, or that any of the myriad illnesses known as Gulf War Syndrome were caused by the chemical weapons in question. But Khamisiyah is the one instance where the government has said U.S. troops might have been exposed to chemical weapons in the region.
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