WASHINGTON -- The CIA said Wednesday that it was being unfairly blamed for an incident in which thousands of U.S. troops may have been exposed to nerve gas shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
At a congressional hearing, the official, Robert D. Walpole, said that the "the record is clear" and that the CIA "provided multiple warnings to our military forces in the field" about the possibility that chemical arms were stored in the vicinity of a Iraqi ammunition depot that was blown up by U.S. soldiers in March 1991.
The CIA has been widely criticized because it did not, however, pass on evidence it had before the war that chemical arms had been stored in that particular depot in the '80s. The depot, near the southern Iraqi village of Kamisiyah, was later determined to have contained tons of nerve gas and other chemical weapons.
Walpole, the CIA's senior investigator on the issue, testified that "warnings were given before demolition activities were conducted."
His testimony reflected growing concern among senior CIA officials that the agency has been unfairly singled out for criticism over the incident, and that military commanders also bear responsibility for the demolition.
Walpole conceded that before the war, the agency failed to include Kamisiyah on a list of possible chemical-warfare sites, even though there was evidence that chemical arms had been stored there as early as 1984.
But he pointed to several newly declassified intelligence reports showing that during and shortly after the war, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency provided military commanders with warnings that Iraqi chemical weapons had been stored in the vicinity of the dump.
One report shows that on Feb. 23, 1991, nine days before the demolition, the CIA provided the U.S. Central Command with map coordinates for a possible chemical storage area that was, in fact, the Kamisiyah depot. The depot was not identified by name, however.
At the joint hearing Wednesday of two House subcommittees, lawmakers also heard from an Army general who oversaw the demolition of the depot in 1991 and says that he is suffering from some of the symptoms that have come to be known collectively as Gulf War Syndrome.
The officer, Maj. Gen. Robert B. Flowers, said that he learned only last year of the possibility that he and his troops may have been exposed to nerve gas and that he was surprised to discover that there had been specific intelligence information during the war that chemical weapons had been stored at Kamisiyah.
"If there were reports that should have been sent to us, yes, I am disappointed that we didn't know there was a greater potential for chemical weapons," said Flowers, who was a colonel during the war. "I really had no indication from anything I'd seen that there were chemical weapons at Kamisiyah."
Declassified intelligence reports show that the CIA and military commanders knew that Iraqi chemical weapons might have been stored in unmarked shells, which would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to determine quickly which Iraqi depots contained chemical arms. But Flowers said the information was never passed down to the soldiers who actually carried out the demolition at Kamisiyah.
Had they known of the intelligence about Kamisiyah and about the unmarked shells, Flowers said, his soldiers would have been more careful.
Flowers said that since the war he had suffered sleep apnea, a serious sleep disturbance that has been reported among gulf war veterans, and other health problems. "I don't know if they are gulf war related or related to other places that I've been, or to my age," said Flowers, 49. "I also went to Somalia and Bosnia, so you never know if it was related."
There is no proof that chemical weapons are responsible for any of the health problems reported by thousands of gulf war veterans. Scientists are divided on the question of whether exposure to very low levels of nerve gas can lead to chronic health problems.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that it had tried in recent months to survey almost 20,000 troops who were within a radius of about 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, from Kamisiyah at the time of the demolition.
Of the 6,000 who responded, only about 300, or 5 percent, complained of health problems. There were no reports of serious health problems among the soldiers at the time of the explosions.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company