WASHINGTON -- Gen. Colin Powell said on Thursday that he and other senior military commanders never received warnings from the CIA about the presence of chemical weapons in areas of southern Iraq where American troops blew up Iraqi ammunition depots shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
"If I was still in office, I would be raping and pillaging throughout the intelligence and operational community to get to the bottom of this," the retired general said in testimony to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "Frankly, the events of the last few days are somewhat outrageous with respect to who knew what when."
Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war, was referring to the disclosure by the CIA last week that it had detailed intelligence before and during the war to suggest that chemical weapons might be stored at the Kamisiyah ammunition depot in southern Iraq.
The vast depot was blown up by American soldiers shortly after the war, potentially exposing thousands of troops to low levels of nerve gas.
The CIA has acknowledged that the intelligence was not passed on to the Pentagon, although it has insisted that the U.S. Central Command, the element of the Defense Department that oversaw the American-led allied force in the gulf, was warned in some detail.
Despite the agency's assertion, Powell said he knew of no senior commander who received the warnings, either at the Pentagon or in the Persian Gulf. He said that "none of us" had "any reason to believe that the blowing up of these bunkers was exposing our troops to a hazard for which they were not prepared."
"I think there is obviously a failure here in that there were messages and information with respect to Kamisiyah that certainly should have been passed, and passed not just at routine intelligence levels but at the highest command and supervisory levels at the Pentagon," he said.
"In the course of those destructions, I never received any reports or suggestions that there were known locations, there were known stockpiles of any chemical weapons either in bunkers or pits or in any way, fashion or form," he continued. "I just never received any such information."
His comments appeared to heighten the fingerpointing between the CIA and the military over responsibility for the possible chemical release at Kamisiyah, an event that was acknowledged by the Pentagon only last June after years of denials that there was evidence to suggest American troops had been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons.
The CIA had no formal response to Powell's comments, although an agency official said that "our record is clear on this" and that "while this information didn't go to the Pentagon, it did go to Central Command."
Central Command was led during the war by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who has testified previously that he had no intelligence information during the war to raise any concern about the Kamisiyah depot.
Although treated gingerly by senators who clearly understood Powell's star power and his poll numbers, he was placed on the defensive at times by some of the questioning at Thursday's hearing.
"I reject any suggestion that somehow we were indifferent to the needs of our troops," he said, insising that the Defense Department had made "every effort to give our troops the best that American technology and all of our research and development had provided and developed over the last 40 years" in protection from chemical weapons.
Powell said ailing veterans who believe that their health problems are the result of their service in the gulf war should be given the benefit of the doubt.
"I do not know if those illnesses are the result of the service in the gulf or not, but I think we have to keep that as an operating hypothesis until we find out otherwise," he said. "I think compensation is certainly appropriate."
But he said he was still not convinced that troops had been exposed to chemical weapons at Kamisiyah, despite the mounting evidence that a cloud of nerve gas was released from the depot.
"I think it is still unclear whether there was a release of chemical agent as a result of the destruction of those bunkers," he said. "I don't know and have no way of knowing whether or not those explosions resulted in a release of chemical weapons that could have presented a danger to our troops in the region."
There is still no proof that any American soldiers were made ill from exposure to chemical weapons that may have been released at Kamisiyah -- or anywhere else in the gulf, for that matter. There were no immediate reports of illness at the time of the demolition, and scientists are divided on whether exposure to extremely low levels of nerve gas can lead to chronic health problems.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company